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This article is about the Native American tribe. For the U.S. state, see Massachusetts.
Total population
Enrolled members:
Regions with significant populations
 United States Massachusetts
English, formerly Massachusett language
Related ethnic groups
Pequot and Patuxet

The Massachusett is a tribe of Native Americans who historically lived in areas surrounding Massachusetts Bay in what is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in particular present-day Greater Boston. Tribal members spoke the Massachusett language, part of the Algonquian family. The present-day U.S state Massachusetts is named after the tribe.

Alternate forms of the name are Moswetuset, as in the Moswetuset Hummock where Myles Standish and Squanto first met Chief Chickatawbut in 1621,[1] and Massachusit, as in the Massachusit Fields where Captain Richard Wollaston brought the first settlers of Quincy in 1624.[2] Massachusett translates from Algonquian as "The people who live near the great hill", while Moswetuset translates to "The hill shaped like an arrowhead". The former is thought to refer to the Blue Hills located south of Boston, while the latter refers to the Moswetuset Hummock.

As one of the first groups of indigenous American peoples to encounter English colonists, the Massachusett had a rapid decline in population in the 17th and 18th centuries due to new infectious diseases. Descendants continue to inhabit the Greater Boston area but it is not a federally recognized tribe.

Roots in pre-history[edit]

The Massachusett people are most likely descendants of prehistoric Paleo-Indians who lived in eastern North America at the end of the last glaciation 30,000-15,000 years before present (BP). Archeological evidence (spear points, midden mounds) uncovered in Boston indicate habitation in that area between 6,500 and 8,000 years BP. Fishing structures, such as the Boylston Street Fishweir, dating to 5,200 years BP, have been discovered since the late 20th century in what is now Boston's Back Bay neighborhood. A recreation of a fish weir is erected annually on Boston Common in May. These early people lived by seasonal migrations, alternating between inland hunting grounds and winter homes in the fall and winter, to coastal fishing and foraging sites in the late spring and summer.

Historical period[edit]

Contact with European colonists[edit]

The Massachusett and other Algonquian tribal groups were almost destroyed by a European-carried plague between 1617 and 1619; an estimated 90 percent of the coastal populations died. The remaining population was scattered following colonization of the area by English settlers. The tribes were further decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1633.[3] The death of two Massachusett military leaders during an altercation with Captain Miles Standish of Plymouth Colony in 1623 caused the Massachusett to avoid further contact.[4]

Colonial records show that during the early 17th century, the Massachuset fished the shores and farmed the lands, migrating from longhouses on the coast to wigwam settlements inland for farming. The tribes were introduced to John Eliot, who converted some of them to Christianity, created a written alphabet, and in 1663 published the first Bible in North America - in the native Massachusett language (Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God).[5] The tribe was confined by English law to settlement in what were called praying villages (after the converts).

In 1675 tribal member John Sassamon, the first Native American to attend Harvard University, was retained by the Pokanoket sachem King Philip to record his will. Sassamon took advantage of Philip's illiteracy to name himself heir to Philip's lands.[6] After the treachery was discovered, Sassamon died under mysterious circumstances. The subsequent murder trial was a catalyst in the King Philip's War, a conflict in which the Massachusett entered an uneasy alliance with the colonists against the Pequot.[7]

Crispus Attucks, the first casualty during the Boston Massacre at the start of the American Revolutionary War, was majority-minority, jof Massachusett descent through his mother and African through his father.[8]

After 1869[edit]

In 1869 Massachusetts passed the Indian Enfranchisment Act. They granted the Massachusett citizenship in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with the right to vote but "terminated" their status as a sovereign nation. This did not conform to the Constitution, as only the federal government could make such decisions in relation to tribal governments.

The praying communities established at Canton (originally Ponkapoag), Natick, and Brockton continued to have communities of people who identified as Massachusett.[9] The tombstone of a noted member of the Natick Ponkapoag community said she was the last of her tribe when she died in 1852 at age 101,[10] but this may have referred to a woman known to be of solely indigenous heritage.[citation needed] European Americans in New England confused appearance and race with cultural identity; they sometimes assumed mixed-race people would no longer identify as Massachusett or Ponkapoag, but communities kept their culture.[citation needed]

21st century[edit]

Descendants of the Praying Indians from Natick have organized as Praying Indian Tribes of Natick and Ponkapoag,[11] currently under the leadership of Rosita Andrews or Caring Hands from Stoughton, Massachusetts, who received her title of chief from her mother. The Praying Indian members live within a radius of 20 miles around Stoughton.[12] According to Caring Hands, in 2011 there were about 50 members of Natick Praying Indians.[13] On 11 August 2012, members of the tribe celebrated a public service in Eliot Church, South Natick, the site of the original church of the Praying Indian town of Natick, for the first time in nearly 300 years.[14]

Other descendants of Massachusett (Neponsett, Ponkapoag) identifying as Native American have organized as the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Discover Quincy: Attractions
  2. ^ Pepe, William J.; Elaine A. Pepe (2008). Quincy Postcard History Series. Arcadia Publishing. p. 127. 
  3. ^ Bragdon, Kathleen (Autumn 1996). "Gender as a Social Category in Native Southern New England". Ethnohistory 43 (4): 579. 
  4. ^ Philbrick (2006) pp 154-155
  5. ^ A Short History of Boston by Robert J. Allison, p.14
  6. ^ Asher, Robert (2005). Murder on Trial: 1620-2002. 
  7. ^ Brian Wright O'Connor (8 September 2010). "Praying Indian history preserved by tribal chief". Bay State Banner. Retrieved 14 December 2013. 
  8. ^ "Massachuset History". First Nations/First Peoples issues. Jordan S. Dill. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  9. ^ a b "The Massachuset People (at Ponkapoag)HOME PAGE". Ponkapoag Tribal Council. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  10. ^ Canton Massachusetts Historical Society "Canton Historical Society". Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  11. ^ "Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag (official web site)". Retrieved 2013-11-06. 
  12. ^ Allan Jung (2007-02-07). "Family a chief concern for Praying Indians leader - Caring Hands, chief of the Praying Indians". Metrowest Daily News. Retrieved 2013-11-06. 
  13. ^ Bob Reinert (2011-11-17). "Natick observes American Indian Heritage Month". USAG-Natick Public Affairs. Retrieved 2013-11-06. 
  14. ^ "Native American tribe worships in first public service in 300 years". Anna-Claire Bevan. 2012-08-16. Retrieved 2013-11-06. 

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