The powerful fear of “The Other”

Because Thanksgiving is also recognized by some Native Americans as a “Day of Mourning,” I thought today would be a good day to include an essay I wrote in 2019 regarding early Europeans’ relationship with the natives they found when they came to North America beginning in the 15th century, and how the fear of “the other” has been used to justify immoral and discriminatory behavior throughout American history.

Long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, fear of “the other” has been used as a justification for isolating and exploiting people who differ from the dominant culture. Differences in race, language, religion, cultural traditions, economic status, and other categories have been used to create separation and fear and provide the impetus for aggression and conflict. The interactions between the early English settlers of New England and the native Indian tribes, as well as interactions between the colonists themselves, provide numerous examples of this use of fear of “the other” in early American life.

Wayne Franklin describes the travels of a Taino native who Christopher Columbus encountered in what is now the Bahamas, and who took the name Diego Colòn after being baptized in Europe. He was one of “seven Natives whom Columbus seized and took to Spain,”[1] in other words, he didn’t have much choice in the matter. Columbus’s motivations were more commercial in nature as opposed to religious, but as a “superior” European he wasted little time in claiming land in the name of his royal benefactors and kidnapping people to take back home.

This behavior of European explorers was repeated throughout the Americas in the 16th century, and the early English colonies in New England were no exception. While the early months of the Plymouth colony were hardly an example of great European strength, as the colonists died by the dozens of disease and starvation, they didn’t lose faith that God was watching over their efforts. The intervention of the Wampanoag tribe[2] helped get the colonists back on their feet, and there seemed to be hope for cooperation between these two very different groups, especially after Massasoit signed treaties with the colonists, granting them the land around the former native village of Patuxet[3] and agreeing to support each other in conflicts with other native tribes.

This early understanding between the Plymouth Colony Puritans and the Wampanoag was short-lived, however. As more English settlers arrived in Massachusetts in the mid-1600s, the personal connection between Massasoit and successive English leaders became more remote, making it easier to treat the natives as outsiders in their own land. Even natives who had made a conversion to Christianity and had taken on many of the appearances of English culture, were quickly labeled threats to the colonies when “King Philip’s War” began. Despite the efforts of John Easton and others to mediate a compromise between the colonists and the natives, the demand for more resources, especially land, was too strong for reason to succeed, and fear of “the other” became a major motivating factor to convince colonists that the Indians needed to be dealt with.

Even natives who had made a conversion to Christianity and had taken on many of the appearances of English culture, were quickly labeled threats to the colonies when “King Philip’s War” began.

As the conflict grew through the end of 1675 and into 1676, over half of the towns in New England were attacked by Indians. Mary Rowlandson was kidnapped by Wampanoag raiders in February, 1676[4], and her account is interesting not only as an insight into her religious beliefs (and doubts), but also for her description of the behavior of the Indians who held her. While some people likely read her words with sympathy for her situation, being held against her will by a group of savages (a not unreasonable reading, of course), it’s also apparent that the Wampanoag were well aware of the use of fear of “the other.” Rowlandson describes the terror of the Indian raid quite graphically:

There was one who was chopped into the head with a hatchet, and stripped naked, and yet was crawling up and down. It is a solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out….[5]

In raiding the colonists’ towns in this manner, the Indians surely expected to create the maximum amount of uncertainty and fear in the colonist population, hoping to frighten them into at the least concessions, and ideally away from America entirely. In this way, encouraging the colonists’ fear of “the other,” and what “the other” might truly be capable of, served their own ends.

As mentioned previously, Columbus and other early explorers were less motivated by religion than the potential for economic success. For the Puritan settlers, however, their reasons for enduring the hardships they faced in leaving England for the American wilderness were almost entirely religious in nature: freedom to worship as they desired, rejecting what they saw as heretical beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. The native tribes of New England provided a stark version of “the other” for many Puritan colonists (though it should be noted that King Philip’s War wasn’t strictly between white settlers and Indians; the Mohegans and Pequots fought on the side of the New England Confederation for their own political and economic reasons). The certainty (or perhaps, “purity”) of their beliefs led to conflicts within their own congregations as well. Dissenters, such as Anne Hutchinson, were questioned and tried at church courts, found guilty, and were excommunicated from the church and banished from the community.[6] Such treatment of anyone who strayed from the teachings and policies of the community’s leaders reinforced the idea that only those who conformed could be truly righteous, maintaining a level of fear of becoming “the other” that promoted a cohesive society.

John Winthrop’s sermon to his fellow pioneers aboard the Arbella in 1630 included the following words:

Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability, rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary means.[7]

The promise of “help… beyond our ability” must have been of some consolation to these people, about to set sail across a dangerous ocean for an unknown future in an equally dangerous land. To know that others in the community would be there to help in times of need would have been very reassuring. That charity, however, was only recommended by Winthrop to “our Christian brother.”[8] In other words, non-Christians – which in the Puritan Separatist society included anyone who wasn’t specifically part of their sect – need not apply. The fear of becoming “the other” in this case was used to good measure to keep people in line.

Winthrop’s confidence that his group of 700 people would somehow be remembered at all, much less as a “city upon a hill,” is remarkable. The confidence that his beliefs afforded him was incredibly strong. Somehow, against all odds, the Plymouth colony did survive, and, combined with the other New England colonies, even thrived. So we do remember who they were and what they did, and we continue to quote from his sermon as John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and other American leaders have for generations. Being the “city upon a hill” means that others see your triumphs, but they also see your shortcomings, and America has its share of both.

Much later, in the early 1800s, Americans’ fear of “the other” had been reinforced by law, and African slavery had become a significant source of wealth throughout the southern United States. William Apess’s observations in his address “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” distills the frustration of being part of “the other” in a country that claimed to be a champion of individual rights and liberty:

I know that many say that they are willing, perhaps the majority of the people, that [Indians] should enjoy our rights and privileges as they do. If so, I would ask, Why are not we protected in our persons and property within the Union? Is it not because there reigns in the breast of many who are leaders a most unrighteous, unbecoming, and impure black principle, and as corrupt and unholy as it can be?[9]

Fear of “the other” is still a significant motivator in American society. It’s far from unique, of course. We inherited it from our ancestors: Europeans, Asians, Africans, and native Americans.  Prejudice, racism, economic inequity, wars, and genocide are all a result of one dominant group using a fear of “the other” to justify terrible actions, sometimes in the name of God and sometimes in the name of mammon. 


[1] Franklin, p. 3.

[2] Grimberg, 4:25 into the film.

[3] Grimberg, 31:30 into the film.

[4] New-style date.

[5] Rowlandson, p. 129.

[6] Winthrop: John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson, p. 3.

[7] Winthrop: A Model of Christian Charity, p. 93.

[8] I’m not suggesting that Winthrop intended to imply the exclusion of women in his use of this phrase here, as this would have been a normal way of addressing the community in Winthrop’s day; though there certainly was an overarching sense of sexism inherent in their lives.

[9] Apess, p. 501.


American Experience: “We Shall Remain: Part I – After the Mayflower”. By Sharon Grimberg. Dir. Chris Eyre. WGBH Educational Foundation. 2009. Streaming video. <>.

American Passages: “Utopian Promise”. By Kristian Berg. Dir. Brett Wood. Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2002. Streaming video. <>.

Apess, William. “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Robert S. Levine and Arnold Krupat. Shorter 8th. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 2 vols. 499-504.

Christopher Columbus – Exploration. n.d. 14 9 2019. <>.

Easton, John. “A Relation of the Indian War.” American Voices, American Lives. Ed. Wayne Franklin. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 60-70.

Franklin, Wayne. “Beginnings to 1700.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. Shorter 8th. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 2 vols. 3-19.

Hanson, Elizabeth. “God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty.” American Voices, American Lives. Ed. Wayne Franklin. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 149-160.

Mather, Cotton. “John Winthrop: First Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.” 2001. The Puritans’ Home School Curriculum. Ed. J. Parnell McCarter. Electronic document. September 2019. <>.

Rowlandson, Mary. “From A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Wayne Franklin, Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. Shorter 8th. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 2 vols. 127-143.

Winthrop Reading at the Ronald Reagan National Memorial Service. Perf. Sandra Day O’Connor. C-SPAN. 2004. Streaming video. <>.

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Wayne Franklin, Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. Shorter 8th. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 2 vols. 91-102.

—. John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson. n.d. Microsoft Word document.

—. Winthrop’s Journal: History of New England, 1630-1649. Ed. James Kendall Hosmer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908. Online book. <>.