Massachusetts Prior to 1620

It is not uncommon to encounter the assumption that the history of Massachusetts began with arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. However, Indians had lived in the area for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims. Furthermore, the Indians of Massachusetts had had contact with Europeans prior to 1620.

Possible Contacts

While the seventeenth century marks the beginning of the European invasion in Massachusetts, there are some possible interactions between Europeans and Indians prior to this. Many historians consider these earlier contacts to be unverified and dismiss these accounts. However, it should be noted that there was a time when some historians were skeptical about Viking settlements in North America, but current archaeological findings show that Viking contact was fairly frequent. There are archaeologically verified settlements in Newfoundland and archaeologist Birgitta Wallace, in her report in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga writes:

“From L’Anse aux Meadows, expeditions were launched to explore areas farther away. We have proof that they went south to warmer, more hospitable areas where butternuts grew on large trees and grapes grew wild, for the archaeological evidence is unequivocal.”

In 1002, a Viking group under the leadership of Thorvald, the brother of Leif Eriksson, named present-day Cape Cod Kiarlanes (Keel-Cape) because it looks like the keel of a ship. The group then arrived at a heavily wooded promontory. Here they found three Indian canoes camouflaged with brush. There was a conflict in which eight Indians were killed and Thorvald was wounded. His wound proved to be fatal and he was buried at a place which the Vikings call Krossanes (Cape of the Cross). Writer Leo Bonfanti, in his book Biographies and Legends of the New England Indians, reports:

“Since there are so many promontories, both large and small, along the New England coast, ‘Krossanes’ could be any one of them, for its exact location has never been determined.”

Early Contacts

In 1602, the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold landed at Cape Cod and traded with the Wampanoag. He reported that the Indians were in good health: they were free of epidemic diseases and they had good nutrition. When he returned to England he promoted the establishment of British colonies in the area.

The following year the English under the leadership of Martin Pring, built a palisaded trading camp at Cape Cod in Wampanoag territory. While the English entertained the Wampanoag with small gifts and guitar music, they also stole a large birchbark canoe. As a result, the relations between the English and the Indians deteriorated. The English fired their muskets and loosed mastiffs at Wampanoag warriors before abandoning the trading camp.

Pring reported that the Indians had gardens which were larger than an acre in size. He also described the large strawberries. His crew loaded sassafras to be sold in Europe as a high-priced medical panacea.

The theft of the canoe suggested to the Indians that the English were perhaps not honorable people and that their greed for material possessions was perhaps greater than the hospitality which they offered.

In 1605, French explorers led by Samuel de Champlain explored the Massachusetts coast. the explorers meet Indians in large dugout canoes, some of which carry 40 men.

Just north of the present-day city of Plymouth, the explorers were met by the Massachusett under the leadership of Honabetha. On the shore, Champlain admired the abundant crops of corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and Jerusalem artichokes which were being raised by the Indians. The Massachusett, on the other hand, were eager to obtain the French metal cooking pots and one sailor was killed for his pot.

In 1606, French explorers attempted to impress the Wampanoag in the village of Monomoy with their guns and swords. The French also erected a large cross as a symbol of their religious superiority. The Wampanoag response was to kill four of the landing party, tear down the cross, and jeer at the retreating French.

In 1611, English sea captains captured six Indians, including the Capawake sachem Epinow, at Martha’s Vineyard. Epinow was taken to England where he learned English language and culture. The English described him as “cunning” and “artful.”

In 1614, the English returned with Capawake sachem Epinow who was supposed to act as their guide and interpreter. Epinow, however, escaped from the ship by jumping into the water and swimming toward some Indian canoes. The Indians in the canoes fired a volley of arrows at the ship to aid his escape.

English Captain Thomas Hunt captured 26 Wampanoag, including a young man known as Squanto. The Indians were taken to Spain and sold as slaves. However, Squanto escaped and found his way to England where he learned to speak English.

Five years later, Squanto returned from England with Captain Thomas Dermer. He searched for his Wampanoag relatives and found that they had died in an epidemic.

Disease

Perhaps the greatest impact of the arrival of Europeans in Massachusetts came from the diseases which they brought with them. The diseases brought to this continent by the Europeans included bubonic plague, chicken pox, pneumonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. The native population lacked immunity to viruses and germs that had evolved in Europe. Consequently, Indians succumbed in large numbers.

In 1614, a series of three epidemics began to sweep through the Indian villages in Massachusetts. At least ten of the 40 Wampanoag villages had to be abandoned because there were no survivors. Wampanoag population decreased from 12,000 to 5,000. The Massachusett were nearly exterminated. Between 1616 and 1619, it is estimated that at least three fourths of the Indian population in Massachusetts died from European epidemic diseases. Some authorities estimate the death toll at 90%.

It is not known what the actual disease was that caused this epidemic. Various writers have suggested bubonic plague, smallpox, and hepatitis A. There is strong evidence supporting all of these theories.

The Pilgrims would later look upon these epidemics as evidence of God’s grace and His intention for them to occupy this country.

The Pilgrims

When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they encountered few living people but saw evidence of many Indian graves. In some instances, the Pilgrims opened the graves and stole the grave goods which they contained. In one instance, the Pilgrims steal two bearskins from the fresh grave of the mother of Massachusett leader Chickataubut.

In finding a place that looked like a grave covered with wooden boards, the Pilgrims dug and found several layers of household goods and personal possessions. They also found two bundles. In the smaller bundle they found the bones of a young child wrapped in beads and accompanied by a small bow. In the larger bundle they found the bones of a man. The man’s skull still had fine yellow hair and with the bone were a knife, a needle, and some metal items. Historian William Cronon, in his book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, reports:

“A blond European sailor, shipwrecked or abandoned on the Massachusetts coast, had lived as an Indian, had perhaps fathered an Indian child, and had been buried in an Indian grave.”

In another instance, the Pilgrims stumbled into a Nauset graveyard where they found baskets of corn which had been left as gifts for the deceased. As the Pilgrims were gathering this bounty for themselves, they were interrupted by a group of angry Nauset warriors. The Pilgrims retreated back to the Mayflower empty-handed.

Natick, A Christian Indian Village in Massachusetts

The English colonists in Massachusetts were sometimes conflicted with regard to Indians. Many colonists, viewing the New World as a wilderness, felt that Indians impeded civilization and like other wild animals, such as wolves and coyotes, should be exterminated. There were also a few who viewed Indians as potential souls to be harvested in the name of their religion. With regard to religion, historians Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn, in their book Indian Wars, report:  “A few pious remarks were made about introducing the Indian to Christianity, but there was little real missionary zeal.” The royal charters always mentioned the obligation to bring Christianity to the “savages.”

For the English Protestants, conversion to Christianity required more than a simple baptism and a profession of faith. To be Christian required living in an English-style house, wearing English-style clothes, speaking English—in other words, becoming English. The English-speaking Christian missionaries felt that the Indian gender roles must be changed to fit the colonial norms. They were offended by the fact that Indian women did the farming, were in control of their own sexuality, and had freedoms which English women could only dream about.

English policies toward Indians were based on segregation. Initially, the rationale for this segregation was based on religion: the English were Christian and the Indians were heathens. As some Indians converted to Christianity, however, the rationale for segregation became less valid. Historian Frances Jennings, in his book The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire, reports:  “Race, identified by skin color, became a more satisfactory means of making essential distinctions.”

The English colonial policy of segregation and the Protestant concept of conversion requiring complete assimilation came together in a plan that called for Christian Indians to have their own separate, English-style towns. In 1651, Puritan missionary John Eliot received from the British Crown 2,000 acres of land so that Christian Indians could build an English-style town. The site straddled the Charles River 18 miles upriver from Boston.

John Elliot, who was sometimes called Apostle to the Indians, believed that Indians were descendents of the Jews who had been led to America by Satan. Indian salvation, according to Elliot, required them to embrace the moral philosophy and practices of the Puritans.

Waban, the leader of the Massachusett village of Nonantum, made the request for the new village. Waban’s reluctant embracing of Christianity was based on two primary factors: (1) he was afraid that the English would kill him if he didn’t pretend to embrace their religion, and (2) they provided him with good food.

The new town called Natick, whose name means “the place of seeking,” is a sacred place and well-suited for vision quests and dances. Unknown to the Christian missionaries, the new Christian town was strategically placed within traditional sacred geography.

The physical layout included an English-style meetinghouse, fort, and arched footbridge across the river. While lots for houses were laid out for nuclear families, most of the Indians erected traditional wigwams rather than English clapboard houses.

The Christian Indians, who came from several different tribes, adopted English-style clothing and English hairstyles as a way of demonstrating to the English that they were walking the Christian path of righteousness. The Indians adopted a legal code based on a biblical prototype which outlawed many traditional practices, including premarital sex, long hair, and cracking lice between the teeth. Penalties for breaking the rules included fines and flogging.

In 1660, Puritan missionary John Eliot claimed that 100 of his Natick converts were now literate. Elliot translated the Bible and other works into the Massachusett language and had these distributed among his converts.

In 1675, many English colonists felt that all Indians were involved in King Philip’s War even though many groups, particularly the praying villages such as Natick, had declared their neutrality. The English colony confined all “friendly” Indians to a few of the eastern praying towns and the colonists confiscated the crops and tools in the praying towns of Wamesit, Hassanamisset, Magunkaquag, and Chabanakongkomun. The Indians were confined to the village limits on penalty of death.

The colonists, however, continued to accuse the Christian Indians of supporting King Philip (whose Indian name was Metacom).The Natick were forced from their homes and interred on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. The Punkapoag were also sent to Deer Island.

The setting is generally described as a “windswept bit of rock” with little fuel and little shelter from the cold sea wind. Historian Daniel Mandell, in his book Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts, notes:  “Despite English hostility and abuse, Indian men on the island clamored to help in the war against Metacom, showing their deep loyalty to the Christian colony, an older dislike of the Wampanoags, or perhaps a strong desire to escape the conditions of the island.”  About 100 men enlisted in the colonial army as scouts.

In 1677, the General Court ordered that all Indians be settled in four praying towns: Natick, Punkapoag, Hassanamesit, and Wamesit. The Indians in these towns were prohibited from entertaining “stranger” Indians and the Court ordered that a list of all inhabitants of the praying towns be made annually. When leaving the towns, the Indians were required to have a magistrate’s certificate proving their loyalty. When approached by an English person, the Indians were to lay their guns on the ground until the English had examined their papers.

In 1680, an English farmer bought 50 acres from two Indians living in the Christian Indian village of Natick. The sale was without the consent of the town council and in violation of colonial law. The Englishman then altered the deed to 500 acres. The village then sued, won, and recovered 400 acres. In other words, the farmer who bought 50 acres fraudulently wound up with 100 acres.

In 1682, a group of Nipmuc under the leadership of Black James left Natick and traveled southwest where they resettled at Chabanakongkomun.

In 1690, the General Court ordered all Indians in the Bay Colony to go to Natick or Punkapoag. The order was in response to the war between the English and French and the French Indian allies, and the fear that it would be difficult to discern between friends and foes.

In 1690, Natick minister Daniel Takawampait replaced John Elliot as minister to his people. At this time Indian leaders, including ministers, had to be approved and supervised by colonial officials appointed by Massachusetts Bay Colony magistrates. All laws and ordinances enacted in Indian communities also had to be approved by colonial authorities.

In 1698, the English town of Dedham stole 1,400 acres from the bordering Christian Indian town of Natick. The stolen land included orchards and corn fields.

In 1707, the Christian Indian community of Natick began holding the annual election of town officers, following the pattern of its English neighbors.

In 1715, the New England Company asked the Natick to sell them the apparently abandoned praying town of Magunkaquog. The Company proposed to rent out the land to English settlers and share the rent money with the Natick families. The Natick, however, were still growing crops in the area and had deep emotional feelings about the area. Magunkaquog means the “place of the giant trees” in reference to the great trees – oak and chestnut – which were found in abundance in the area.

After initially rejecting the offer, the Natick agreed to the deal. After signing the deed, one of the signatories, Isaac Nehemiah, commited suicide by hanging himself with his belt.

In 1719, the Natick created a proprietorship – a corporate entity to govern land allotments. The 20 proprietors – 19 men and one woman – were the heads of long established families. The proprietorship provided secure land titles and boundaries under colonial law which was seen as useful in meeting outside pressures. According to historian Daniel Mandell:  “But the Natick proprietorship undermined the native community by severing landholding from the town polity and bringing the native community into a closer orbit to the province’s legal and economic systems.”

In 1738, the Natick complained that a mill dam on the Charles River was preventing them from taking fish. There was no response to their complaint.

In 1759, Natick warriors returned home from the French and Indian War bringing with them the contagious illness which had been killing the soldiers. In the space of three months, 20 people died.

By 1785, most of the Indians had drifted away from Natick, its lands having been sold off to non-Indians to cover debts.

Redskins

In 1722, Samuel Shuttle, the governor of Massachusetts, declared total war on the Abenaki. Part of the concern of the English colonists was the presence of Jesuits among the Abenaki. The colonial Puritans were vehemently anti-Catholic and particularly anti-Jesuit. Father Sebastian Rasles had strongly encouraged the Abenaki to defend their lands and themselves against the English colonists.

The English colonists viewed North America as a vast wilderness, ignoring the fact that the park-like environment they encountered was, in fact, carefully managed by Native Americans. They viewed the Indians as savage nomads, ignoring the fact that Native agriculture had fed them; ignoring the fact that Indian people lived in permanent villages and raised a variety of crops. The English felt that it was their God-given duty to “tame” the wilderness by exterminating all animals they didn’t like and for this reason they encouraged the killing of coyotes, wolves, and, of course, Indians.

To encourage the killing of these “wild” and “dangerous” animals, the colonial government established a bounty system. To get paid the bounty, hunters had to provide proof of the kill: for this they submitted coyote skins, wolf skins, and red skins (usually the scalps or heads of the Indians they had killed). Some colonists earned their livings through bounties.

In January 1725, Captain John Lovewell organized a militia group to hunt Indians. With the bounty set at £100, Lovewell and his militia members saw killing Indians for the bounty as a way to get rich. In his book The Forgotten America, Cormac O’Brien describes Lovewell’s decision to hunt Indians this way: “A farmer with little to do in the winter but fight off boredom, he decided to raise a company of volunteers, go off into the woods, and cash in on the government’s offer of scalp money.”

The group set out to attack the Abenaki village of Pigwacket (near present-day Fryeburg, Maine), but they changed plans when they came across the tracks of an Indian party heading south. They followed the tracks and came across and Indian camp.

At about 2:00 AM on February 20, the sixty-two English bounty-hunters formed a semi-circle around the sleeping camp. Lovewell fired first and the others followed. One surviving Abenaki man jumped up and began to run and the English set their attack dogs on him. The English stormed the camp, clubbing to death any who had survived the volley of bullets and then scalping all of them. They then took the Abenaki guns (which were of French manufacture and considered quite valuable) and other souvenirs.

When the militia arrived in Boston, they proudly displayed ten scalps which they hoisted on poles for all to see. They were greeted as heroes. They were paid £1,000 by the General Court and they sold their booty for another £70. At this time, this was a lot of money.

Having found bounty hunting for “red skins,” Lovewell decided to raise yet another militia and to enrich himself even further. By spring, Lovewell had signed up 46 men for another bounty expedition hunting Indians for profit and fun. Among those who joined the expedition was Jonathan Fry, a twenty-year-old graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. Fry was to be the group’s chaplain, seeking God’s help in their slaughter of Indians.

Once again, the initial target was the Abenaki village of Pigwacket which was believed to be friendly to the hated Catholic Jesuits. They set out in April, in good weather. On Sunday, May 9, just a short distance from an Indian village, Fry called the men together for a prayer service. The service, however, was interrupted by a gunshot. The English rushed to the shore of a pond where they saw a lone Indian hunting ducks.

Lovewell told his men to leave their blankets and gear so that they could move in quickly to kill the Indian. They quickly surprised the hunter who was carrying some dead ducks and two muskets. The hunter fired one of the muskets, which had been loaded with shot for duck hunting, and wounded two of the English militia. Fry and another man returned fire, killing the hunter. Fry, the group’s chaplain, then scalped him so that he could claim the bounty.

While the English were busy killing and scalping the Abenaki duck hunter, a party of Abenaki under the leadership of Paugus, a Mohawk who had become an Abenaki war leader, were in canoes. When they heard the gunfire, they put ashore and happened to find the English camp. They concealed themselves and waited for the English to return.

The English returned to their camp, basking in the victory over the lone hunter. As they became aware of the fact that their blankets and gear were missing, the Abenaki opened fire. As the battle raged, the surviving English took refuge on a small peninsula on the pond. From here their accurate rifle fire could hold off the Abenaki.

Among those killed in the battle were the English leader Lovewell, the Abenaki leader Paugus, and the Abenaki spiritual leader Wahwah. Twenty of the English bounty hunters survived.

The Battle of Saco Pond, as it was later called, became glorified in American history and literature. In 1820, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The Battle of Lovewell’s Pond” and in 1824, the Reverend Thomas Cogswell wrote “Song of Lovewell’s Fight.” In the histories and in the literature glorifying the battle, however, the initial cause—hunting Indians for their bounty—was generally omitted.

Massachusetts, 1700 to 1725

During the first quarter of the eighteenth century-1700 to 1725-the English colonies in Massachusetts sought to strengthen their dominance of the Indian nations of the regions. They expanded into Indian lands, assumed that English law was superior to Indian law, and resorted to the use of military action when necessary.  

In 1700, Mashpee leader Simon Popmonit complained to the General Court about the fraudulent labor practices of their English neighbors. The English would make small loans to the Indians or threaten them with lawsuits and as a result the Indians would be bound to the English settlers for debts. The Court agreed to have two justices of the peace approve all future indentures and empowered them to act on complaints against existing contracts.

In 1701, Massachusetts set aside the Fall River Reservation for the Wampanoag.

In 1702, Magnalia Christi Americana written by Cotton Mather presented the origin story of the Puritans in New England. Contrasting the English Protestant approach to Indian land with that of the Spanish Catholics, Mather wrote that the English

“would not own so much as one foot of land in the country, without a fair purchase and consent from the natives that laid claim unto it.”

Mather did not make any mention of the infectious diseases which killed several thousand New England Indians and reduced their populations.

In 1703, the bounty on Indian scalps in Massachusetts was now £12. In Northampton, Massachusetts, the Reverend Solomon Stoddard urged his parishioners in 1703 to use dogs to “hunt Indians as if they were bears” and he told his congregation that Indians “act like wolves and are to be dealt with like wolves.”

In 1703, the Gay Head produced a 1681 document showing that the sachem Mittark and his counselors had been promised that the land would remain theirs. When questioned about the document, Hossueit admitted that it was written down after Mittark’s death and the court declared it to be a forgery and to uphold the deed for the Gay Head land to the Governor of New York. The document was a valid oral agreement which had been later written down, a common practice among Native Americans at this time.  

In 1703, the Indians of the Billingsgate community moved to Potawaumacut.

In 1703, the English colonists in Massachusetts passed legislation which imposed a 9:00 PM curfew on Indians and black slaves in English towns.

French soldiers together with Abenaki and Mohawk warriors attacked Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704, killing 50 of the colonists and abducting 100 more. The English responded to the raid by attacking Indian villages in the interior. The French-allied Indians also attacked the English at Haverhill in Massachusetts, Oyster River and Dover in New Hampshire, and York in Maine.

In 1704, the Pocasset petitioned the governor of Massachusetts to grant them a plot of land. Benjamin Church was appointed as the tribe’s Indian guardian. Their new reservation was divided into two parcels on opposite sides of the Watuppa Ponds. The Indians who settled on this land were Indians who had supported the English in earlier wars against other Indian groups.

In 1705, the General Court sent to all Indian villages a book of laws which was written in both English and Massachusett to ensure that all natives understood the new regime. At this time, the Indian communities had a moderate amount of local self-government. In some instances there were Indian magistrates who were empowered to prosecute minor infractions on the part of Indians.

In 1705, the General Court debated a bill which would provide extraordinary penalties against the marriage of Europeans with blacks or Indians. Not all favored the bill and the reference to Indians was removed.

In 1707, the Christian Indian community of Natick began holding the annual election of town officers like its English neighbors.

In 1707, John Williams published his book The Redeemed Captive which was an account of his capture at Deerfield in 1704. His story of salvation from heathenism (Indian) and Catholicism (French) made the book a bestseller.  

Also in 1707, the Pocasset petitioned the General Court to have their land holdings consolidated into a single property so they could have a common place for public worship and a school.

That same year, the Wampanoag Fall River Reservation was divided into individual lots.

In 1709, the 160-acre Fall River Reservation is established for the Pocasset who sided with the English during King Philip’s War. The tribe exchanged their two parcels of land on the Watuppa Ponds for land owned by their guardian, Benjamin Church, in the Freetown area. The deed conveying the land to the Indians specified that it was always to be used as a plantation and settlement for the Indians and noted that many of them had been of service to the English in past wars. The Pocasset were to pay one-quarter of good venison to the governor on the winter solstice.

The Pocasset who moved to the Fall River Reservation were distinct from the other Pocasset in the area in their support for the English colonists. Some historians feel that they made this move because they probably needed protection from the other Pocasett.

In 1710, the Mashpee complained that the English town of Barnstable was claiming part of their lands. The General Court sent a committee to review the boundaries but was unable to resolve the issue.

In 1711, the Gay Head Reservation was established on Martha’s Vineyard. The New England Company decided that the Indians should pay for a part of the costs of the reservation and over the objection of the Gay Head, 600 acres were leased to an English settler. The better lands were leased to English colonists at low rates which brought in little income for the Indians.

In 1714, the Monomoy sold their land. Tribal members moved to Potawaumacut and to Sahquatucket.

In 1715, the New England Company asked the Natick to sell them the apparently abandoned praying town of Magunkaquog. The Company proposed to rent out the land to English settlers and share the rent money with the Natick families. The Natick, however, were still growing crops in the area and had deep emotional feelings about the area. Magunkaquog means the “place of the giant trees” in reference to the great trees – oak and chestnut – which were found in abundance in the area. After initially rejecting the offer, the Natick agreed to the deal. After signing the deed, one of the signatories, Isaac Nehemiah, commited suicide by hanging himself with his belt.

In 1716, the Nantucket complained to the General Court about the injustice and oppression which they suffered from their English neighbors. They asked that the island be placed in another county so that their legal conflicts with the English could be heard elsewhere. The Court responded by having two judges on the mainland hear their disputes.

In 1718, the Nantucket complained that the English settlers were forcing them off of their land and taking their resources. They charged that the English did not pay them for the full value of their labor, that they had pulled down Indian houses, that they had plowed Indian land, and that they had taken Indian horses and cattle. The General Court took no action and accepted the settlers’ explanation that this had happened only when Indians built on English land.

In 1718, the legislature passed a law which required that contracts with Indians have the approval of two local justices of the peace. The law sought to prevent Indians being forced into servitude when English settlers forced them into unreasonable debts. These actions were often preceded by the consumption of alcohol so that the Indians were drunk when they signed the contracts.

In 1719, the Natick created a proprietorship – a corporate entity to govern land allotments. The 20 proprietors – 19 men and one woman – were the heads of long established families. The proprietorship provided secure land titles and boundaries under colonial laws which were seen as useful in meeting outside pressures. On the other hand, the corporate entity moved the Indians from traditional concepts of land ownership to more European concepts.

In 1722, the bounty on Indian scalps in Massachusetts was now £100.

Massachusetts governor Samuel Shuttle declared war on the Abenaki in 1722. This war was called Drummer’s War, Grey Lock’s War, Lovewell’s War, or Father Rasles’ War. Part of the concern of the English colonists was the presence of Jesuits among the Abenaki. The colonial Puritans were anti-Catholic and particularly anti-Jesuit. Jesuit Father Sebastian Rasles strongly encouraged the Abenaki to defend their lands and themselves against the English colonists.

Grey Lock, a Woronoco living in the village of Missisquoi, led Abenaki raids against the English settlements in Northfield and Rutland, Massachusetts in 1723. Colonial cavalry and scouts were unable to find the raiders.

In 1724 Massachusetts built Fort Drummer in response to Grey Lock’s raids. In spite of the Fort, Grey Lock struck again. The raid was successful even though the colonists had advance notice that the Indians were coming. Massachusetts sent out a force to find Grey Lock, but he eluded them and continued raiding deep into Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts colonial army attacked the Norridgewock (an Eastern Abenaki group). Father Rasles (also spelled Rale), was killed and his corpse was mutilated.

In 1724, an English force of 87 men under the leadership of John Lovell attacked a small Indian camp, killing ten people. They scalped the dead and then returned home to collect the bounties. With this success and envisioning easy money, Lovell embarked on a campaign to acquire more Indian scalps. This time, however, the English were ambushed and Lovell killed.

That same year land was granted for English settlement along the Housatonic River. The Indians were paid 460 pounds, three barrels of cider, and 30 quarts of rum. Because of disease, the once large Indian population in the area had been decimated and only two major villages remained.

Also in 1724, the New England Company expanded the lease of Gay Head land from 600 acres to 1,000 acres. The Indians protested the new lease.

In retaliation for Grey Lock’s raids, Captain Benjamin, considered an “experienced’ Indian fighter, raised a force of 59 men and in 1725 set out to attack Grey Lock’s home town of Missisquoi. The force returned after a month without encountering any Indians, only to find that Grey Lock had followed them. Grey Lock spent the summer raiding Massachusetts settlements.

The Abenaki signed a peace treaty ending Grey Lock’s or Drummer’s War in 1726. Grey Lock returned to the village of Missisquoi, but never signed the treaty.

Dighton Rock

When the Europeans first began their invasion of what would become known as New England, they encountered people-American Indians-whose origins and existence puzzled them. They were firm in their conviction that they knew the true history of the world and that this history had been written down in their holy book. Since American Indians were not mentioned in their book, they had to come up with some explanation of their origins. Ignoring American Indian oral traditions, they simply superimposed their own creation story on them, regardless of whether it made any realistic sense of not.  

The imagined story of the American Indians frequently had two premises: (1) that Indians, like the Europeans, were recent arrivals on this continent, and (2) that Indians, who were obviously an inferior people, could not have developed any sophisticated cultural features, such as agriculture, stone work, and writing. Unfortunately, the physical evidence did not support the Europeans’ active imaginations and they had, therefore, to attempt to devise seemingly plausible explanations for this evidence.

Shortly after arriving in Massachusetts, the English colonists noticed a large rock into which had been carved numerous symbols. The rock was a forty-ton boulder in the riverbed of the Taunton River. This boulder, now known as the Dighton Rock, had been deposited in the riverbed at the end of the last ice age about 10-13,000 years ago. Composed of a gray-brown crystalline sandstone it has the form of a slanted, six-sided block. While ice age boulders are not uncommon in this region, what make this one different are the inscriptions carved on its trapezoidal face. The carved surface is inclined 70 degrees to the northwest and faced the bay.

Dighton Rock

Dighton Rock Eastman

The images on the rock feature meandering lines, round-headed anthropomorphs, turkey and animal tracks, and footprints. The images were deeply carved into the rock and carving them would have required standing in water to make them.

1830

An 1830 drawing of the carvings is shown above.

The English colonists puzzled over the mysterious symbols which had been carved in the rock. The Reverend John Danforth made a drawing of the petroglyphs in 1680. Convinced that the writing on the rock was Phoenician, he sent his drawing to the Royal Society of London to see what they thought, but the English scholars were non-committal. Danforth’s drawing is still preserved in the British Museum.

1680

Danforth’s 1680 drawing is shown above.

In 1690, the Reverend Cotton Mather, in his book The Wonderful Works of God Commemorated, wrote:

“Among the other Curiosities of New-England, one is that of a mighty Rock, on a perpendicular side whereof by a River, which at High Tide covers part of it, there are very deeply Engraved, no man alive knows How or When about half a score Lines, near Ten Foot Long, and a foot and half broad, filled with strange Characters: which would suggest as odd Thoughts about them that were here before us, as there are odd Shapes in that Elaborate Monument….”

Some seventeenth-century scholars were convinced that the markings were actually Phoenician writing. Their world view regarding Indians made it impossible to conceive of the carvings as having been done by Indians.

In 1783, Ezra Stiles, the president of Harvard University and well-known Biblical scholar, declared that the writings on Dighton Rock were the work of Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a maritime trading culture that had flourished in the Mediterranean from about 1550 BCE to 300 BCE. While they travelled routes known to the Biblical world of this time, there is little evidence that they ventured outside of the Mediterranean. They were, however, mentioned in the Bible and thus it was assumed that they must have sailed (or rowed) across the Atlantic to the Americas.

Ezra Stiles

Ezra Stiles is shown above.

Phoenician Map

A map of Phoenician trade routes is shown above. While they did venture outside of the Mediterranean, they voyaged along the African and European coast lines, never out of sight of land.

The Europeans, with familiarity with the Norse sagas, had long assumed that the Vikings-a Christian Norse group-had sailed to North America by 1000 CE. Thus, in 1837, Carl Christian Rafn proposed that the carvings on the Dighton Rock were actually Norse runes and therefore proof of their presence in North America. Rafn was a Danish historian, translator, and antiquarian. He was particularly interested in determining the location of Vinland which had been mentioned in the Norse sagas. Rafn was convinced that he saw Roman numbers and the name “Thorfinn Karlsefini” in the stone.

In 1912, Edmund B. Delabarre declared that the carvings on the Dighton Rock had been done by the Portuguese. According to Delabarre, a professor of psychology at Brown University, the inscriptions on the rock had been carved by Miguel Corte-Real, a Portuguese explorer whose 1502 expedition into the western Atlantic never returned. He claimed that the carvings include the Coat of Arms of Portugal, the name Miguel Corte-Real, and the date 1511. Delabarre also claimed to have deciphered the writing as:

“Miguel Cortereal by the will of God, here Chief of the Indians.”

In 2002, Gavin Menzies, in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered America, suggests that the carvings are evidence of Chinese exploration. While the book was a best seller, most academic scholars remained unconvinced.

I haven’t seen any reports claiming that the carvings on Dighton Rock are evidence of ancient aliens from other worlds exploring and/or colonizing North America, but I suspect that there are some advocates of this hypothesis.

The petroglyphs on Dighton Rock were made by American Indians. While there are still a few people today who will dispute this, the fact remains that Indian people left petroglyphs (carvings in rock) and pictographs (paintings on rock) throughout North America, including New England. The problem today is not whether or not they were made by American Indians, but why they were made and what the symbols mean.

Let’s start with why. In general, rock art was created by American Indians for several basic reasons: (1) it was a way of recording spiritual experiences, such as vision quests, (2) it was a way of recording historical experiences, such as battles and deaths, and (3) it was a way of marking tribal territories, pathways, and usage rights. The location of Dighton Rock makes me suspect that it was a territorial marker. However, it is possible that it was a vision quest site as we know very little about vision quests among the Algonquian people who lived in the area.

As to what the symbols mean, unless we have access to the cultures which created them it is easy to misinterpret them. The best we can say is that we don’t know what they meant to the people who carved them. Present day claims by non-Indians as to their meaning are based in non-Indian imaginations, not in the actual Indian cultures.

In 1963, the rock was removed from the river and installed in a museum in the Dighton Rock State Park. In 1980 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dighton Rock Museum

Indian Farming in Massachusetts

While the English history of the colonization of Massachusetts often characterizes the Indians as nomadic hunters with no claim to the land, it is interesting to note that the first action of the Pilgrims when they landed in 1620 was to rob an Indian grave of the corn offerings which had been left there. Corn, or maize, as most people know, is not something hunted by nomads, but is a domesticated plant. While the first English colonists survived in the beginning on plant foods raised by the Indians, they often failed to see the Indian fields, as they didn’t look like English fields.  

By the time the Europeans arrived on this continent Indian people had three major agricultural crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. Beans of many different colors and textures were used in many different ways and were added to many foods. Corn was a variety known as northern flint which had eight-rowed, multicolored ears.  As with other eastern tribes gourds, strawberries, pumpkins, watermelons, passionflower, Jerusalem artichoke, and tobacco were important crops for the Massachusetts tribes.

Corn had been originally domesticated in Mexico and had diffused to New England by about 2000 years ago. The people at this time already understood agriculture and plant domestication for they had been raising local plants for about a millennium at this time.

Fields were initially cleared by slash-and-burn methods. Fires would be placed around the bases of standing trees which would burn the bark and kill the tree. Later the dead tree would be felled, often knocking down other dead trees as it fell. The clearing was often done by large parties of men and women.

The use of fire as a land management tool involved a carefully controlled ritual process which purified the environment. In order to control the fires and make sure that they didn’t spread into the wetland, Indian people dug ditches. The burning also enriched the land and helped to balance the soil.

The size of the fields varied by region and by the size of the village. A village of 400 people, for example, might clear 350-600 acres for its farms. The fields could generally be used for eight to ten years before there would be a noticeable decline in fertility. After that time the fields would be fertilized with fish and seaweed and/or new fields would be created by burning the woods. Eventually the fields would be abandoned and allowed to go fallow for a generation or so. It was not uncommon for a village to move after 15 to 20 years in order to be closer to the new fields.

Once an area had been cleared, earth mounds or hills were constructed about four or five feet apart. Kernels of corn and beans would then be planted in the mounds. The corn stalks would later be used by the bean vines as a pole. In the spaces between the mounds, the people would plant squash, gourds, and tubers. The squash vines would trail alongside and over the mounds, protecting the roots of the corn plants and preventing weeds from establishing themselves.

Indian agriculture was not the orderly expression of human domination over nature which was found in European landscapes. The fields which had been carefully planted by the Indians looked like a wilderness to the English invaders.

Another major difference between Indian and European agriculture involved labor. First, Indian agriculture was less labor intensive. Second, the planting and harvesting was done by the women, who were considered the owners of the foods which they raised.

Hoes for preparing the ground and weeding used the shells of horseshoe crabs, clams, the scapulae from deer, or turtle shells. Small huts were often constructed in and around the fields. From these huts, children would watch the fields and scare off any birds which threatened the plants. Among some tribes, tame hawks were also used to frighten the birds away.

Planting was timed by the disappearance of the constellation Pleiades from the western horizon and harvesting began with its reappearance in the east. These astronomical observations mark the length of the frost-free season in the area.

Once harvested, the crops were stored in large pits lined with bark or mats. The pits were then covered with logs and earth. In some instances, these pits were inside the lodges.

With regard to the efficiency of Indian agriculture in Massachusetts, it is generally estimated that one Indian woman could raise anywhere from 25 to 60 bushels of corn by working an acre or two. This was enough to provide at least half of the annual caloric requirements for a family of five. When corn was combined with the other foods which they raised, women may have contributed as much as three-fourths of a family’s total subsistence needs.  

Corn was prepared in a number of ways, including making hominy of the kernels and making a stew of beans and corn called succotash. Corn meal ground in wooden mortars was boiled or baked in the shape of cakes or round balls. When people travelled, they often carried with them parched cornmeal which could be easily and quickly mixed with water to become a food known as nocake. This was the aboriginal equivalent of fast food.  

A Massachusetts Christian Indian Community

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

In Massachusetts, the Puritan approach to bringing Christianity to the Indians focused on segregation. Indians would be segregated into their own Christian villages, known as praying towns, where they would acquire both Christian faith and English culture. One of the first praying towns was Natick.  

In 1651, Puritan missionary John Eliot received 2,000 acres of land so that Christian Indians could build an English-style town. The site straddled the Charles River 18 miles upriver from Boston. Waban, the leader of the Massachusett village of Nonantum, made the request for the creation of the Christian village.  

The new town was to replicate an English cultural landscape and included an English-style meetinghouse, fort, and arched footbridge across the river. While the Indians had traditionally lived in extended family units, the lots for houses were laid out for nuclear families. In spite of the design, most of the Indians erected traditional wigwams rather than English clapboard.

The Christian Indian converts in Natick had to wear their hair in the English style which meant that the men had to have their traditional braids shorn. In order to demonstrate their ability to walk the Christian path, the Indian converts had to give up such things as body greasing and participation in traditional community ceremonies. The Natick Indians adopted a legal code based on a biblical prototype which outlawed many traditional practices, including premarital sex, long hair, and cracking lice between the teeth. In general the great personal freedom which had been enjoyed by the Indians had to be surrendered for new standards of piety that stipulated fines and flogging if they broke the rules.  

Natick, whose name means “the place of seeking,” was a sacred place and had been used for vision quests and dances. The location for this praying town was probably not chosen by the Puritans who were most likely unaware of its traditional sacredness, but rather it was chosen by the pauwaus (traditional spiritual leaders) who wanted to incorporate some of the Christian power into the Indian ways.

Waban, the Massachusetts leader who had requested the foundation of Natick, was less than enthusiastic about Christianity. However, he was afraid that the English would kill him if he didn’t pretend to embrace their religion. In addition, the English provided him with good food.

The Puritan approach to converting the Indians focused on their learning the Gospel. Thus, the missionary John Elliot translated the Bible and other religious works into the Massachusett language. He then distributed these to his converts. By 1660, Elliot claimed that 100 of his converts in Natick were literate.  

While the Indians in the praying towns were doing their best to shed their Indian-ness and to become English, the English colonists did not trust them. When King Philip’s War broke out in 1675, the praying villages declared their neutrality. The English colonists confined all of the “friendly” Indians to a few of the eastern praying towns, The colonists then confiscated the crops and tools in the praying towns of Wamesit, Hassanamisset, Magunkaquag, and Chabanakongkomun. The Indians were confined to the village limits on penalty of death.  

In spite of the pledges of neutrality and declarations of their friendly feelings toward the English, the colonists continued to accuse the Christian Indians of supporting King Philip. The residents of Okommakamesit were arrested and marched to jail in Boston. The Natick were forced from their homes and interred on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Deer Island was a windswept rock with little fuel and little shelter from the cold sea wind. In spite of the English hostility, the Christian Indians continued to declare their loyalty to the English and about 100 Indian men enlisted in the colonial army as scouts.

In 1677, the General Court ordered that all Indians be settled in four praying towns: Natick, Punkapoag, Hassanamesit, and Wamesit. The Indians in these towns were prohibited from entertaining “stranger” Indians and the Court ordered that a list of all inhabitants of the praying towns be made annually. When leaving the towns, the Indians were required to have a magistrate’s certificate proving their loyalty. When approached by an English person, the Indians were to lay their guns on the ground until the English had examined their papers.

The English obsession with private land ownership created a number of conflicts with the Indians in the praying towns. In 1680, for example, an English farmer bought 50 acres from two Indians in the Christian Indian village of Natick. The sale was without the consent of the town council and in violation of colonial law. The Englishman then altered the deed to 500 acres. The village then sued, won, and recovered 400 acres. Keep in mind, however, that the farmer only bought 50 acres originally and therefore managed to cheat the Indians out of an additional 50 acres.

In 1698, the English town of Dedham stole 1,400 acres from the bordering Christian Indian town of Natick. The stolen land included orchards and corn fields.

In 1715, the New England Company asked the Natick to sell them the apparently abandoned praying town of Magunkaquog. The Company proposed to rent out the land to English settlers and share the rent money with the Natick families. The Natick, however, were still growing crops in the area and have deep emotional feelings about the area. Magunkaquog means the “place of the giant trees” in reference to the great trees – oak and chestnut – which were found in abundance in the area.

After initially rejecting the offer, the Natick agreed to the deal. After signing the deed, one of the signatories, Isaac Nehemiah, committed suicide by hanging himself with his belt. This suicide highlighted how some Indians ‘passively’ resisted the sale of their lands to colonists. It also showed the emotional attachment that many Natick Indians still held to Magunkaquog.

In 1719, the Natick created a proprietorship – a corporate entity to govern land allotments. The 20 proprietors – 19 men and one woman – were the heads of long established families. The proprietorship provided secure land titles and boundaries under colonial law which were seen as useful in meeting outside pressures. This change in administration, however, severed landholding from the town political system. It brought the Native community closer to the form of the English legal and economic systems.

During the Revolutionary War, Christian Indian soldiers served in the Continental Army and saw service in the Battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. Following the Revolutionary War and the creation of the United States, the covenants between the Indians in the praying towns, such as Natick, and the colonists was dissolved. Natick was incorporated in 1781, thus losing its special status as an Indian town. By 1785 most of the Indians had left Natick. Many of the praying Indians in New England migrated west, hoping to find a place where they could be both Christian and Indian.  

American Indian Biography: Masasoit, Wampanoag Leader

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

During the first part of the seventeenth century, the Wampanoag Confederacy controlled a large portion of what is now New England. Wampanoag territory ranged from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod. The leader of this confederacy during the first part of the seventeenth century was Massasoit, who is generally described as the Great Sachem. His main village was located near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island.  

The Wampanoag were hit hard by the epidemics which swept through New England in 1616-1619. Prior to the epidemics it is estimated that there were 24,000 people living in Indian communities affiliated with the Wampanoag confederacy led by Massasoit. As a result of the epidemics, 75% of the population died.

With the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1621, Massasoit saw an opportunity to increase the power of the Wampanoag confederacy. By signing a treaty of mutual support and protection with the Pilgrims, Massosoit insured that there would be peaceful relations with these people, but more importantly, this alliance would give the Wampanoag better access to European trade goods. With these goods, particularly firearms, the Wampanoag were able to increase their power among the tribes in the region.

In 1621, Massasoit had two of this people-Hobomok and Squanto-teach the Pilgrims agricultural techniques. Without these lessons and without the food supplied to them by the Indians, it is doubtful that the little colony would have survived. That fall, following the harvest, Massasoit brought 60-100 Wampanoag to Plymouth for a traditional harvest feast and with this action set the pattern for a holiday which Americans would later call Thanksgiving. The Wampanoag brought with them five deer to provide venison for the feast, as well as turkey, geese, ducks, eels, shellfish, cornbread, succotash, squash, berries, wild plums, and maple sugar.

In 1621 there was a rumor that Massasoit had been captured by the Pocasset sachem Corbitant. Squanto, Hobamok, and Tokamahomon, who were living with the Pilgrims, went to Corbitant’s village where they found that the rumor was not true, but Corbitant took them captive. Hobamok managed to escape and told the English who then attacked the village, wounding several Indians and freeing Squanto and Tokamahomon. Massasoit then negotiated a peace between the English and the Pocasset.

In 1623, Massasoit became sick and was treated by English physicians. At this time, he warned the Pilgrims that some of the tribes-Narragansett, Massachuset, and some Wampanoag-were plotting against the settlers. Massasoit’s war chief, Annawan, led a series of raids against the insurgent groups.

Over the years, however, Massasoit found that his alliance with English was not beneficial to his people. With the great English hunger for land, more and more Wampanoag land was taken from them. When the Indians complained, they were punished by the English courts who viewed them as trespassers on their own homelands.

Massasoit died in 1661 and his son Alexander (Wamsutta) became the Grand Sachem briefly. Then his other son Philip (Metacom) became Grand Sachem and led the Wampanoag into the uprising against the English known as King Philip’s War.  

Massachusetts Prior to the Pilgrims

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It is not uncommon to encounter the assumption that the history of Massachusetts began with arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. However, Indians had lived in the area for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims. Furthermore, the Indians of Massachusetts had had contact with Europeans prior to 1620. In this diary I’m going to look at the European-Indian contacts in Massachusetts prior to 1620.  

Early Contacts:

In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold landed at Cape Cod and traded with the Wampanoag. He reported that the Indians were in good health: they were free of epidemic diseases and they had good nutrition. When he returned to England he promoted the establishment of British colonies in the area.

The following year the English under the leadership of Martin Pring, built a palisaded trading camp at Cape Cod in Wampanoag territory. While the English entertained the Wampanoag with small gifts and guitar music, they also stole a large birchbark canoe. As a result, the relations between the English and the Indians deteriorated. The English fired their muskets and loosed mastiffs at Wampanoag warriors before abandoning the trading camp.

The theft of the canoe suggested to the Indians that the English were perhaps not honorable people and that their greed for material possessions was perhaps greater than the hospitality which they offered.

In 1606, French explorers attempted to impress the Wampanoag in the village of Monomoy with their guns and swords. The French also erected a large cross as a symbol of their religious superiority. The Wampanoag response was to kill four of the landing party, tear down the cross, and jeer at the retreating French.

In 1611, English sea captains captured six Indians, including the Capawake sachem Epinow, at Martha’s Vineyard. Epinow was taken to England where he learned English language and culture. The English described him as “cunning” and “artful.”

In 1614, the English returned with Capawake sachem Epinow who was supposed to act as their guide and interpreter. Epinow, however, escaped from the ship by jumping into the water and swimming toward some Indian canoes. The Indians in the canoes fired a volley of arrows at the ship to aid his escape.  

English Captain Thomas Hunt captured 26 Wampanoag, including a young man known as Squanto. The Indians were taken to Spain and sold as slaves. However, Squanto escaped and found his way to England where he learned to speak English.

Five years later, Squanto returned from England with Captain Thomas Dermer. He searched for his Wampanoag relatives and found that they had died in an epidemic.

Disease:

Perhaps the greatest impact of the arrival of Europeans in Massachusetts came from the diseases which they brought with them. The diseases brought to this continent by the Europeans included bubonic plague, chicken pox, pneumonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. The native population lacked immunity to viruses and germs that had evolved in Europe. Consequently, Indians succumbed in large numbers.

In 1614, a series of three epidemics began to sweep through the Indian villages in Massachusetts. At least ten of the 40 Wampanoag villages had to be abandoned because there were no survivors. Wampanoag population decreased from 12,000 to 5,000. Between 1616 and 1619, it is estimated that at least three fourths of the Indian population in Massachusetts died from European epidemic diseases. Some authorities estimate the death toll at 90%.

The Pilgrims would later look upon these epidemics as evidence of God’s grace and His intention for them to occupy this country.

The Pilgrims:

When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they encountered few living people but saw evidence of many Indian graves. In some instances the Pilgrims opened the graves and stole the grave goods which they contained. In finding a place that looked like a grave covered with wooden boards, the Pilgrims dug and found several layers of household goods and personal possessions. They also found two bundles. In the smaller bundle they found the bones of a young child wrapped in beads and accompanied by a small bow. In the larger bundle they found the bones of a man. The man’s skull still had fine yellow hair and with the bone were a knife, a needle, and some metal items. A European, perhaps a shipwrecked or abandoned sailor, had lived as an Indian, perhaps fathered a child, and had been given an Indian burial.