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.


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.

Desecrating Indian Graves

( – promoted by navajo)

When the Pilgrims arrived in North America in 1620 they found a land which had already been depopulated by European diseases and which contained many fresh graves. One of their first acts upon landing was to rob an Indian grave. In this act they were following the grave robbing traditions of the Spanish who had arrived in North America before them and they were setting the stage for the Americans who would follow them.  

In one instance the Pilgrims came upon the fresh grave of the mother of Massachusett leader Chickataubut. They opened the grave and stole from it two bearskins which had been interred with the corpse. This did not engender friendly relations with the Massachusett who viewed their actions as a form of sacrilege.

In another instance, the Pilgrims found a place that looked like a grave which was covered with wooden boards. The Pilgrims dug down into the grave 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 bones were a knife, a needle, and some metal items. The grave appeared to be that of a blond European sailor, shipwrecked or abandoned on the Massachusetts coast who had then lived as an Indian. He had perhaps fathered an Indian child, and had been buried in an Indian grave.

The Pilgrims also stumbled into a Nauset graveyard where they found baskets of corn which had been left as gifts for the deceased. As the hungry 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.

Indians were often offended by the grave robbing of the English colonists. While Europeans viewed grave robbing, or least grave robbing that involved European dead, as offensive, they seemed to have little concern regarding the robbing of Indian graves. In 1654, three English colonists robbed the grave of the sister of Narragansett sachem (chief) Pessicus. The Narragansett sachem, along with 80 warriors, tracked the robbers to Warwick where they met with Roger Williams. Williams convinced them to bring charges against the leader of the robbers in an English or Dutch court. However, the case was eventually dismissed when the Narragensett failed to show up in court. The Narragensett did not understand the workings of the European court system and their need to appear.

Like the English, the Americans did not feel that it should be a crime to rob an Indian grave. When nine Americans opened and robbed the grave of the daughter of Narragensett sachem Ninigret in 1859, three Narragensett men brought suit against them. A large number of grave goods were taken from the grave and distributed among Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the Rhode Island Historical Society, and private collectors. Even as these men were being arraigned and questioned, other graves at Indian Burial Hill were being opened and looted. While written accounts indicated that the men were acquitted, the judicial records show that the charges were never prosecuted.

The United States government actively promoted and encouraged the robbing of Indian graves. In 1865, the U.S. Surgeon General issued orders to all military medical officers to collect specimens for the Army Medical Museum. The assistant surgeon general explained the reason for collecting skulls: “The chief purpose in forming this collection is to aid the progress of anthropological science by obtaining measurements of a large number of skulls of aboriginal races of North America.” In response, army officers were soon systematically robbing graves on Indian reservations so that the bones, or at least the skulls, could be shipped to the newly founded Army Medical Museum. One medical officer reported: “I secured the head in the night of the day he was buried.”

Another order to obtain Indian skulls for the Army Medical Museum was issued by the Army Surgeon General in 1868. Under this order, over 4,000 Indian heads were taken from corpses at battle grounds, prisoner of war camps, hospitals, and Indian graves. Any grave goods found with the skulls were donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many private collectors sought to obtain the skulls of famous Indian chiefs. In 1886, the grave of Nez Perce Chief Joseph (the elder, the father of Chief Joseph who was involved in the 1877 Nez Perce War) was opened and his skull was taken. The skull was later exhibited in a dentist’s office in Baker, Oregon.

The grave robbers also sought the goods which were buried with the Indian dead. In 1903, the grave of Columbia chief Moses was robbed by non-Indians who took his gold watch, his medal from Washington, D.C., and his beadwork. As the grave robbers fled from the grave, they dropped his pipe. Some boys later found it, smoked it, and became ill.

In 1911, Americans were systematically looting Palouse graves in Washington state for curios which they then sold in Eastern markets. Chief Big Sunday led a delegation to Walla Walla where they appealed to a judge to stop the vandalism. The judge ruled against the chief and the grave robbing continued. For many Americans, Indian graves were simply one more resource, like gold and timber, which should be made available for them to harvest.

In 1918, members of the Skull and Bones Society of Yale University robbed the grave of Apache leader Geronimo. His skull and femur have been incorporated into their rituals ever since this time. In 2009, the descendents of Apache leader Geronimo filed suit against Yale University asking for the return of Geronimo’s remains. The suit was filed on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death by his great-great grandson Harlyn Geronimo. As of this writing, the case has not been heard.

In many communities and families in the U.S., the looting of Indian graves has been, and continues to be, an honored avocation and profession. Indian artifacts are often seen as a type of natural resource. The looters often see nothing wrong with scattering Indian bones as they dig through the graves so that they can get artifacts for personal display or to sell to other collectors. Laws regarding Indian graves often apply only to those graves located on federal lands. As late as 1987, a Kentucky landowner was paid $10,000 for the right to loot 650 Indian graves located on the property.

The United States took action in 1906 to stop some of the grave robbing: the Antiquities Act made it a criminal offense to appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy historic or prehistoric ruins or objects of antiquity located on federal lands. The Act was crafted with no input from American Indians. While the actions of grave robbers have been illegal for more than a century, the courts and law enforcement agencies often fail to see any harm in their actions. Actions brought against grave robbers have often been dismissed by the courts, and the few that have been convicted have been given light sentences. One analysis of the convictions under the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act shows that most people convicted of looting Indian graves are given probation, and, when sentenced to prison, the sentence is usually less than one year.

In New Mexico in 1992, an Anglo charged under the Archaeological Resources and Protection Act pled guilty to looting Navajo graves. He was given four years probation and a $5,000 fine. During his career as a grave robber, the man admitted to uncovering many graves and throwing the skeletons to the winds while searching for ancient artifacts to sell to “art” collectors.

In Utah in 1997, a judge reduced the sentence of a man convicted of plundering an Anasazi burial ground and leaving an infant’s bones strewn about the site. The sentence, given to a man described as a “third generation pothunter”, was originally considered the most severe sentence ever given a pothunter. The judge reduced the sentence from 78 months to 63 months by disallowing the use of the “vulnerable victim” sentencing provision. Originally, the disinterred bones of the infant had been considered a “vulnerable victim.”

The looting of graves, however, continues. In 1999, 80% of the graves in a traditional Snoqualmie burial ground in Washington were looted by professional grave robbers using a backhoe. In 2001, the water levels of the Missouri River fell and exposed many Indian burials. With the low water, the number of people looting the graves for Indian artifacts increased dramatically. Many of the exposed graves were supposed to have been removed by the Army Corps of Engineers prior to the damming of the river. Indian people have often complained about the lax attitude of the Corps regarding Indian graves.

As a result of a federal undercover investigation in 2009, 26 people were arrested in Utah for the theft of American Indian antiquities. The U.S. Attorney for Utah, Brett Tolman said:

“The public needs to understand that looting artifacts, many considered sacred by Native Americans, from public and tribal lands is simply not going to be tolerated. It is clear that there is a continued need for education on the serious nature of these crimes.”

Under the law, the defendants could face up to 10 years in prison. The judge, however, ignored sentencing guidelines, and simply gave the first two defendants probation. This sends a message that this is not considered a serious crime.  

How I Learned to Savor Thanksgiving

What follows is a heavily edited version of my last year’s Diary on Thanksgiving.

I forced myself to watch the History Channel’s Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower last weekend. I don’t feel as if I totally wasted my time. Including performances and interviews of some Wampanoags, descendants of the indigenes who saw the Puritans make landfall 387 years ago, made the program a good deal more palatable than it might have been.

I would have preferred a bit more about how one reason the Pilgrims were “persecuted” in England and Holland was because of their efforts to get everyone to comply with their own crabbed view of religion. Something they also did here in America. Not dissimilar from what some modern day others would like to do now. But what an improvement the program was over past efforts.

For the past few years, my wife – who supervises the largest English as a Second Language program in the United States – and I have had numerous conversations with Los Angelenos of various ethnic and religious backgrounds about the turkey they’ll be eating three days from now. Doesn’t matter if they’re originally from Senegal or Guatemala, Belarus or Vietnam, Scotland or China, it’s the same story with all of them: turkey has to be on the table.

Not that it’ll be a traditional turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and yams and stuffing. Trimmings can range from Libyan tajeen to a cold Vietnamese egg soup whose name I’ve forgotten. And everybody’s bird seems to be done just a little differently. Two years ago, I got to taste Thai turkey, which is definitely not for mild palates.

I don’t buy the “melting pot” theory of American history, nor am I a sappy kind of guy. On the other hand, since I had my Thanksgiving “conversion,” I’ve found something distinctly appealing, yes, even uplifting, about this widespread integration of cultures through the medium of food and family get-together.

I love conversation, I love food and I love celebrations. This year, as last, we’ll be celebrating with friends at the Santa Clara Pueblo home of a college friend. A few years ago, I wouldn’t’ve done this.

Because, when I was a child, we never celebrated Thanksgiving. My grandfather forbade it. A white man’s holiday based on white men’s lies, he said. His take on the holiday was no distortion. But his opposition to commemoration was doubly disappointing for me. I was born on Thanksgiving. Actually, November 28. But, that year, 1946, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th, and ever since, it’s been my designated birthday, whatever the actual date.

While other kids, including other kids with Indian roots, celebrated Thanksgiving with all kinds of food, our house might as well have been shrouded in crepe. Based on what made it to our table, I think he may even have told my grandmother to cook less than usual. Nobody grumbled. My grandfather was an honest, principled man, but quick-tempered, and although he rejected almost every other teaching in the Bible, he believed fully in the bit that sparing the rod would spoil the child. We were not spoiled.

We left the South and my grandfather when I was 10. I had half a dozen guests at my first-ever birthday party – on Thanksgiving Day – when I was 12. I was ecstatic. Thereafter, until my senior year in high school, I celebrated Thanksgiving and my birthday with a party. Cake and turkey. It was then, 44 years ago, that I began reading in earnest about America’s historical treatment of indigenous people, including my ancestors.

That year, November 28 again fell on Thanksgiving. But I didn’t celebrate. No party. And that’s the way it was for the next 29 years, during which I reiterated my grandfather’s warning. He had not been mistaken about the holiday being founded on the fruits of mass murder instead of some friendly, integrated get-together.

The Wampanoags who arrived on what many of us were taught in school was the “first” Thanksgiving, were not invited to the feast with the Plymouth Pilgrims in 1621 after having rescuing them from certain starvation. Massasoit and about 90 of his men just showed up. What followed was three days of eating and entertainment, much of which included large quantities of beer. The tension was surely palpable. In the sole firsthand, contemporaneous account we have, nobody called it “thanksgiving.” Not long afterward, in an act of raw treachery that was precursor to a thousand others over the years, Captain Myles Standish, military commander of Plymouth colony – determined to make a pre-emptive strike against a non-existent military threat – strode into a Wampanoag village with his men on the pretext of trading. He left with the severed head of Wituwamat, which he stuck on a wooden spike at Plymouth.

The real first Thanksgiving was declared in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, he of the famous “city upon a hill” speech. That celebration capped off the Mystic, Connecticut, massacre of 400-700 Pequots, southern neighbors of the Wampanoags, remnants of a tribe already deeply wounded by epidemics of smallpox and measles. Survivors were executed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. Proclaimed Winthrop, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

The descendants of Massasoit’s Wampanoags who had sat down in 1621 were treated to their own slaughter during King Philip’s War 54 years later. After decades of being pushed off their old lands, the Wampanoag were led in resistance by “King Philip,” known among his own people as Metacom. When the year of fighting was over, his wife and son were captured and sold into slavery in Bermuda. Metacom was decapitated and his head publicly displayed for more than 20 years. Once again, survivors were executed or sold into slavery, with a bounty of 20 shillings offered for every Indian scalp and 40 shillings for any captive able-bodied enough for enslavement.

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed:

“…It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions:

The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour…”

That slaughter of “heathens” and the round-up of survivors which followed allowed more European immigrants to squat on what had once been Indian land. It was a theme that kept being repeated for the next 220 years right across America. My own people – Seminoles, an amalgam of Creeks, Apalachees, runaway slaves and “renegade” whites – eventually fought three wars, and kept a few slivers of their traditional lands, although most were force-marched to “Indian Territory,” where their descendants still live today.

Every year, I ranted about these brutal injustices, about the hypocrisy of Thanksgiving, and the fate of the people who suddenly were in the way. And then, 13 years ago, I let it go. Not that I changed my mind about the atrocities that had occurred or the lies that had been told about them. Not that I become enamored with the foolish iconography of Thanksgiving, including elementary school displays of construction paper Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands. Not that I did not and do not fully understand the feelings of those who cannot bring themselves past their rage at this celebration which has been given a full platter of historical up-is-downism.

But I got tired of missing out on the celebration and the food … and I missed having a birthday party. And I realized, finally, that I also had missed the point that this holiday can be a healer, a remembrance of our roots but with our eyes on the present and the future. So, this year, as in the past few, I’ll be together with some of my best friends, white, red and black. As we have for several Thanksgivings, we’ll tell the children (and grandchildren) the true story of Thanksgiving.

And we’ll give thanks that we live in a country where remembering the past need not shackle us to it.

Happy Thanksgiving! Pass the genocide gravy.

( – promoted by navajo)

Crossposted from Left Toon Lane, Bilerico Project & My Left Wing

click to enlarge

The early settlers of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts were particularly grateful to Squanto, the Native American and former British slave who taught them how to both catch eel and grow corn and also served as their native interpreter. Without Squanto’s assistance, the settlers might not have survived in the New World.

The Plymouth settlers (who came to be called “Pilgrims”) set apart a holiday immediately after their first harvest in 1621. They held an autumn celebration of food, feasting, and praising God. The Governor of Plymouth invited Grand Sachem Massasoit and the Wampanoag people to join them in the feast. The settlers fed and entertained the Native Americans for three days, at which point some of the Native Americans went into the forest, killed 5 deer, and gave them to the Governor as a gift.

And we just kept thanking them…

The Indian Removal Act, part of a U.S. government policy known as Indian Removal, was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830.

The Removal Act was strongly supported in the South, where states were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the “Five Civilized Tribes”. In particular, Georgia, the largest state at that time, was involved in a contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee nation. President Jackson, who supported Indian removal primarily for reasons of national security, hoped removal would resolve the Georgia crisis. While Indian removal was, in theory, supposed to be voluntary, in practice great pressure was put on American Indian leaders to sign removal treaties. Most observers, whether they were in favor of the Indian removal policy or not, realized that the passage of the act meant the inevitable removal of most Indians from the states. Some Native American leaders who had previously resisted removal now began to reconsider their positions, especially after Jackson’s landslide reelection in 1832.

Most white Americans favored the passage of the Indian Removal Act and it passed after bitter debate in Congress.

The treaties enacted under the provisions of the Removal Act paved the way for the reluctant-and often forcible-emigration of tens of thousands of American Indians to the West. The first removal treaty signed after the Removal Act was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830, in which Choctaws in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the West. The Treaty of New Echota (signed in 1835) resulted in the removal of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Note 1: Thanks for the invite to post, I deeply appreciate it.

Note 2: My cartoons are always designed to invoke conversation and move people to act. It is not my intent to inflame.

Note 3: Town Called Dobson will be on hiatus until Monday, November 26th.