Sometime in March or April 1629, an English silversmith cast "2 seales in silver" for the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Company. Shortly thereafter, Samuel Sharpe, a passenger on the George, carried one of the two official stamps to the rocky shores of Massachusetts Bay. The following year, Governor John Endecott brought the other—along with the official notice of his election, stamped in wax with the seal's imprint.
On the seal, inside an oval field, stands a human figure bracketed by two pine trees, with copious foliage gathered strategically to hide the otherwise unclad midsection. The figure bears a bow in one hand, an arrow in the other. Much has been made of this stark image. Its deceptively simple design hides a world of meanings. As one scholar notes, the seal was intended "to define the colonizers and their mission," and it is undeniably true that the seal represents the Indians of Massachusetts Bay, or at least an English silversmith's version of them. Generations of undergraduates have written indignant response papers about the plea that emanates—in a banner—from the central figure's mouth ("Come Over and Help Us"). The best of them rail at the condescension and arrogance of Europeans who would assume that the Algonquian-speaking indigenous peoples of Massachusetts would have either needed or wanted such help. Further, the absurdity of calling for it in English is highlighted only by the most perceptive.
But like so many seemingly transparent issues, the 1629 seal becomes more complicated on deeper acquaintance; and like most things involving the English colonists of Massachusetts, the most pressing references—even in the unstable present of the seventeenth-century—always referred back to the certainties of the past. This was a past known through scripture, a biblical past whose resurgence in the present was both eagerly sought and breathlessly awaited. For the legend emanating from this Algonquian Indian's mouth had been spoken before. Also known as the Macedonian Plea, it would have been instantly familiar both to puritan gentlemen and English silversmiths through Acts 16:9: "And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us." The passage continues: "And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them." Translators who put together the Genevan version of the Bible (preferred by most puritans) added a cautionary footnote: "The Saints did not easily believe every vision," implying that in this exceptional case, Paul's vision was both a true and a reliable communication from God.
Paul is famous as a builder of the early church. In Acts 16, he goes into Greece with Silas and finds there a new disciple in Timothy. "As they went through the cities, they delivered them [the new believers] the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily." But Paul and Timothy soon run afoul of the local authorities, who throw them in prison and beat them with rods, freeing them only after a providential earthquake had shaken the very foundations of the jail and converted the jailer himself.
The men who designed, created, and used the first colony seal knew precisely the example it invoked. Massachusetts was designed to be a missionary enterprise, but it was also intended to build new churches—properly reformed and purified churches—"churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily." It was to bring order to the New World but always with one eye turned toward the Old World: "delivering the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles." Church builders, law givers, bringers of the Christian message; a generation of scholarship makes it plain that the aspirations of Massachusetts Bay were as much to create an ordered, lawful example for old England as they were to reach out to New England's indigenous peoples.
And yet, in all the discussion and analysis, it might be easy to miss one key fact: the fact that the Macedonian's message came to Paul in a vision, a vision which appeared in the night, sanctioned by God, and which directed him to preach Christ's message in the farthest corners, wherever those corners might be. In this way, then, the text of the seal leads us to say, with some accuracy, that the entire colonial enterprise in New England was based on a dream, and that its founders—rigorous puritans all—trumpeted these visionary origins in this first official image of their enterprise.