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Native Indians of Massachusetts



First Americans [1]

The remote ancestors of the Indian tribes in Massachusetts were a hunting and fishing people without agriculture. They had learned to fashion several varieties of stone implements, but did not use either tobacco, pottery, or axes. These early people were probably related to the Beothuk red Indians of Newfoundland, and burial places belonging to their culture have been unearthed at Marblehead and near Fresh Pond in Cambridge. Excavations at Grassy Island in Berkley on the Taunton River indicate the presence of an ancient village, established by the depth of the salt peat overlay as being at least one thousand years old.

The Indians encountered by the first Europeans in Massachusetts belonged to the Algonquin linguistic stock, and occupied the large area ranging from the Maritime Provinces of Canada to the Gulf of Florida and as far west as the Mississippi. The old Algonquins of Massachusetts came from the west, gradually pushing the pre-Algonquin inhabitants to the coast, where they were finally assimilated or wiped out. Favorite camping places were the areas near the falls of the larger rivers, which were later picked by the white men as sites for dams and factories.

Roger Williams has preserved the legend that a crow brought a grain of corn in one ear and a bean in the other from the field of the great god Kauntantouwit in the southwest. This fable assumes historical importance in view of the fact that it was precisely the old Algonquins, coming from the west and south, who introduced agriculture. They also brought with them the art of pottery-making, although its forms were restricted to tobacco pipes and cooking vessels. Many of the vessels had pointed bases, made to be supported by hearthstones and not suspended over the fire. Ornamentation consisted largely of lines and dots arranged in zones or other patterns, one of the most persistent of which was a zigzag design commonly found in pottery from the mound groups of the Ohio region.

Like their white successors, the earliest Massachusetts Indians got much of their food from the sea. Some of the tribes made desultory visits to the salt water; others lived permanently near the shore. Clams, quahogs, scallops, and oysters formed an important addition to their food supply, and the shells heaped up in the course of many years have aided in preserving fragments of their pottery and the more perishable implements used in their rude arts. An invasion of the Iroquois separated the old Algonquin and later Algonquin cultures. Shell beads belong almost invariably to the later Algonquin period. Pottery vessels shaped in globular form for suspension over the fire and terra cotta pipes of the later Algonquins show Iroquois influence. The purple quahog shell wampum and the white wampum were borrowed from the Dutch of Long Island. The occasional presence in early Indian graves of porcelain and glass beads and of copper and brass ornaments emphasizes the fact that early contact of Europeans with Massachusetts Indians did not begin at Plymouth. In the year 1578, for example, no fewer than four hundred European vessels were engaged in whaling and fishing along the New England coast, and most of these traded with the Indians. The "Skeleton in Armor" found at Fall River in 1831 wore a brass breastplate about fourteen inches long, and around his lower torso was a belt of brass tubes closed together lengthwise. The fact that similar tubes arranged in like manner had been found in Denmark made Longfellow believe that the grave was that of a Norseman, and in this belief he wrote his poem. Later examination showed that the skeleton was that of an Indian not antedating 1650, and as no Indian could have manufactured brass, the armor was probably hammered from a brass kettle received in trade. On Dighton Rock, a sandstone boulder, eleven feet high, on Assonet Neck in Berkley, appear pecked incisions of questionable origin, some apparently alphabetical and some pictorial. Certain authorities have read among them a Latin record of a visit of the Portuguese Miguel Cortereal some years after he and his ship disappeared from history on the rocky coast of Newfoundland in 1502, supporting their case by recalling a local Indian legend that strange men in a wooden house came up the river and fought with the natives.

However vague pre-Colonial history of the Indians must remain, we know that during the early Colonial period seven tribes inhabited Massachusetts: the Massachusetts, the Wampanoags, the Nausets, the Pennacooks, the Nipmucks, the Pocumtucs, and the Mohicans.

The Massachusetts dominated the territory enclosed in a circle drawn through Boston and Charlestown harbors, Maiden, Nantucket, Hingham, Weymouth, Braintree, and Dorchester. Before the arrival of the first settlers the Massachusetts had reached the height of their importance. The plague of 1616-17 wrecked their power, and by 1631 they numbered only about five hundred. Ultimately they were gathered into the villages of the Christianized or Praying Indians almost the last act of a tragic drama.

The Wampanoags held sovereignty over the whole tract from Cape Cod to Massachusetts Bay, with some control over the petty tribes of the interior.

The Nausets, a friendly tribe who accepted the white man as a brother, occupied Cape Cod and the adjacent islands under the dominion of the Wampanoags. Most of them became Christianized before King Philip's War. Nauset Light at Truro commemorates these gentle red men.

The Pennacooks, allied with the quarrelsome Abanaki of Maine who continually raided the lands of the Massachusetts, originally inhabited northern Massachusetts. At the close of King Philip's War in 1676 the remnant of the Pennacooks migrated to Canada.

The Nipmucks roamed the eastern interior of Massachusetts from Boston on the east to Bennington, Vermont, on the west. Concord, New Hampshire, on the north, and Connecticut and Rhode Island on the south bounded their territory, which centered in Worcester County. The Pocumtucs, whose chief village was near the present town of Deerfield, dominated all the Indians of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts. Like the Massachusetts, the Mohicans, popularly memorialized in Cooper's novel, were decimated by the plague of 1616-17. This tribe had originally ranged from New York into the upper portions of the Housatonic Valley. In 1664 their Council moved its fire from Albany to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. From Stockbridge some of the Mohicans migrated to the Susquehanna River, but the remnants of this picturesque people were gathered into a mission at Stockbridge a forlorn hope for perpetuation.

All these Indians were typical long-headed Algonquins, with smooth skins, swarthy complexions, black hair and eyes, and high foreheads. They had broad shoulders and brawny arms, but lean bellies, flat knees, and small hands and feet. Their skins were redder and less coppery than those of their western relations.

The men wore in winter a costume later adopted by white hunters leggings, dressed buckskin shirts, breech clouts and moccasins, and sometimes fur caps. In summer the breech clouts and moccasins formed a complete costume. Women wore leggings and long gowns. Garments were decorated with fringes and sometimes painted with simple designs. Both sexes painted their faces. Tattooing was confined to the cheeks, upon which totemic figures were permanently placed by the insertion of black pigment beneath the surface of the skin. The men plucked their beards, and hair was dressed in various styles according to the sex, age, and station of the individual.

The primary weapon was the wooden bow strung with moose sinew, and wooden arrows tipped with stone or bone and carried in quivers of otter skin. In warfare the usual offensive weapon was the tomahawk, with bark shields serving to some extent for defense.

Communities were built on hunting and agriculture. The members of the tribes or communities were the recognized proprietors of certain hunting, fishing, and agricultural lands, held as a rule in common. The winter villages were usually situated in warm, thickly wooded valleys near a lake or river. The early spring was spent on the fishing grounds, and when the planting season arrived the tribe moved to its summer fields. Each family had its garden of corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, artichokes, and tobacco, cultivated with hoes of stone, wood, or clam shells and fertilized by herring and shad. Wild berries, roots, and nuts furnished other sources of food, supplemented by fish and by the meat of the larger mammals preserved by cutting in strips and smoke-drying. The Indians divided themselves very strictly into three social classes: those of royal blood, including the sachems, shamans, elders of the council, and subordinate chiefs; commoners or freemen with rights to the tribal lands; and "outsiders" of alien blood, usually captives, with no tribal rights. Descent was commonly reckoned through the female line, and the office of head chief or sachem was hereditary. If tribes were large and important they might be governed by several under-chiefs, and each tribe had a council of elders of noble blood. The shamans or pow-wows possessed great influence. They were partly seers, partly wizards, and partly physicians. When, as occasionally happened, the offices of sachem and shaman were combined, the person vested with this dual authority held tremendous power.

Polygamy was fairly common, and divorce was approved and frequent, the right being exercised as freely by women as by men. Justice was a simple matter. If any tribesman was wronged, all related to him were bound to see that proper restitution was made. Murder was avenged or suitably punished by the kinsmen of the victim.

The Algonquins believed that Manitou, a supernatural power, was inherent in all things. An evil power personified as Mattand was feared and placated. Elaborate communal ceremonies celebrated the harvest, and rituals concerned with sun, rainfall, and a plenitude of game were performed religiously. In all these ceremonies, as in secular matters, smoking had definite significance.

On a day in March, 1621, a flurry was created among the citizens of Plymouth when a strange Indian suddenly appeared, quite alone, in the middle of Leyden Street. He caused even greater excitement when, with an air of grave friendliness, he spoke two words in English: "Welcome, Englishmen!" The stranger was Saihoset, a member of one of Massachusetts" first families come to offer aid to these white aliens. He had learned a few words of English from casual fishermen at Monhegan, and he spoke them with unconscious drama, unaware that they spelled the doom of his race.

When the Pilgrims first arrived in the new country, they settled on lands belonging to Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, whose favorite residence was at Pokanoket (Mount Hope, Bristol, Rhode Island), a spot which was to witness the death not only of his son Philip but of the hopes of his race. On April 1, 1621, on Strawberry Hill, Plymouth, Massasoit in solemn council ratified the first treaty between Indian and white man. The treaty, effected by the good offices of Samoset, was faithfully supported by Massasoit, and lasted the fifty-four years of his lifetime.

Massasoit was never converted to Christianity, but without his generous help the settlement of Massachusetts would have been infinitely more difficult and perhaps impossible.

Another Indian who gave the Pilgrims much practical aid in their adjustment to the conditions of life in a wild country among savage peoples was Squanto, who served as an interpreter. He was one of five Indians carried to London in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth. In 1614 he was brought back to Cape Cod by John Smith, but in the same year he again visited England this time with Captain Thomas Dernier. Returning to America in 1619, he fell in with the Pilgrims at Plymouth. He is supposed to have been the only Indian to escape the Patuxet (Plymouth) plague.

Not all tribes, of course, were friendly to the first settlers. Before the arrival of the Pilgrims the savage Pequot (destroyer) Indians had fought their way through from the west and settled in what is now eastern Connecticut. In 1636 Boston joined the towns of Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor in a concerted attack against the Pequots with the aid of the Mohicans. The remnants of the tribe were sold to the Bermudans, who purchased no bargain, as the Indians proved to be "sullen and treacherous." They were poor laborers in the fields, but as whalers and sailors they developed considerable skill and daring.

One of the most determined foes of the white settlers was King Philip, who believed that the continued encroachment of the white men must end in the extermination of the red men, and that the colonists were consciously working toward this end. The gradual extension of the colonists for two generations brought about a condition in which Indian and white land claims conflicted. Roger Williams had once in a letter to Governor Bradford hotly protested the validity of the land titles of the colonists. "Why lay such stress," he demanded, "upon your patent from King James? Tis but idle parchment. James has no more right to give away or sell Massasoit's lands and cut and carve his country than Massasoit has to sell King James' kingdom or to send Indians to colonize Warwickshire." In addition, the colonists had gained presumption with power, and insisted on administering justice to everybody. To the Indians this not only seemed an unwarrantable interference with their rights, but also made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to obtain fair hearings in the English courts.

Along with his belief that the Indian must drive out the intruder or be exterminated, Philip had perhaps a personal reason for his hatred of the whites a belief that his brother Wamsutta had been murdered. At all events, he prepared for war secretly and with intelligence. Shortly before the outbreak of hostilities in 1675 the Governor of Massachusetts sent an ambassador to Philip asking him to pledge peace. Philip returned a proud but not undiplomatic reply: "Your governor is but a subject of King Charles of England. I shall not treat with a subject. I shall treat of peace only with the King, my brother. When he comes, I am ready." Philip undoubtedly intended a simultaneous movement of all the tribes on the North Atlantic seaboard against the white men. An unexpected event, however, precipitated war a year sooner than he had intended and destroyed his plans: the treachery of Sassamon.

The latter, one of Philip's tribe, had been converted to Christianity, had lived at Harvard College for a short time, and was a school teacher in the Praying Town of Natick. He became Philip's secretary, and it was he who imparted news of Philip's plans to the Governor at Plymouth. Philip learned of the treachery, and Sassamon's body was found in Assawompsett Pond in Middleborough. The implication was obvious, and the English authorities promptly apprehended three of Philip's tribesmen and brought them to trial.

In order to give a semblance of fairness to the trial, six Indians were included on the jury. The concurrence of the six in a verdict of guilty could reasonably be counted on. But the court took no chances. Before the six Indians were empaneled, a legal jury of twelve good (white) men and true had been drawn. In case of a "bolt" by the Indians, a legal conviction was still assured. The Indians were executed in June, 1675, creating the overt act which forced Philip's hand. Before this event no hostilities had been undertaken by Philip or his warriors against the whites: now he immediately attacked Swansea.

Town after town fell before him. While the English forces were marching in one direction, the Indians were burning and laying waste in another. The Narragansetts had not yet heartily engaged in the campaign, though there is no doubt that they stood pledged to it. In order to secure their strong support, Philip went to their country. This tactical necessity, forced upon him by the precipitation of war, turned out to be fatal. In December an army of fifteen hundred English concentrated upon this region where Philip was known to be. The whole Narragansett Nation was trapped in an immense swamp at South Kingston, Rhode Island, and Philip was overwhelmingly defeated.

This was the turning-point of the war. When success in Massachusetts no longer attended Philip's cause, his southern allies began to desert him. He was driven from place to place, losing more and more of his warriors. His wife and son were captured and sold into slavery; his heart and courage were broken. He took shelter at last in his ancient seat at Pokanoket, but even here there was no longer any refuge. He was driven out and slain by one of his own men, in vengeance, according to the English report, for the life of a brother who had been shot by Philip.

A few miles south of Kingston, a stone shaft by the railroad track marks the grave of the Narragansett Nation. The barrel of the gun with which Philip was killed is now in Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth, and its lock is in the keeping of the Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston. With the death of King Philip the power of the tribes of southern New England was completely destroyed. The war dragged on for two years more, until 1678. After Philip's rout, however, there was never any doubt as to its outcome. During its course the Wampanoags and their lesser allies, as well as the Narragansetts, were all but wiped out. The few survivors fled northward or westward beyond the Hudson. The extermination of the red men was not accomplished without dreadful casualties among the English. One in every ten of the five thousand Englishmen of military age in the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies is estimated to have been killed or captured. It was forty years before the devastated frontiers were reoccupied.

Not only among the Indians were there idealists who, like Samoset and Massasoit, believed that there could be brotherhood between red men and white. Such idealists existed also among the colonists. One of the most active of these was John Eliot, the "Apostle to the Indians." Eliot was a sincere evangelist and a man of tremendous industry. He mastered the Algonquin language and translated the Bible into this tongue so that his converts might read it for themselves. He believed that before the Indians could be converted they must first be civilized, and in that belief the famous Praying Towns were conceived.

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People, American Guide Series, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1937.




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