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 are Moswetuset, as in the Moswetuset Hummock where Myles Standish and Squanto first met Chief Chickatawbut in 1621, and Massachusit, as in the Massachusit Fields where Captain Richard Wollaston brought the first settlers of Quincy in 1624. 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. The Massachusett belong to the Algonquian-language family of peoples.
Roots in pre-history
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 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 a seasonally migratory existence, 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.
Contact with European colonists
The Massachusett and other Algonquian tribal groups were almost destroyed by a European-introduced plague between 1617 and 1619 and the remaining population was scattered following colonization of the area by English settlers. The tribes were further decimated by another epidemic in 1633. 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.
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 Bible in the native Massachusett language (Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God). 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. After the treachery was discovered, Sassamon died under mysterious circumstances. The subsequent murder trial was an instigator in the King Philip's War, a conflict in which the Massachusett entered an uneasy alliance with the colonists.
In 1869 Massachusetts passed the Indian Enfranchisment Act, making the Massachusett Indians citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and "terminating" their status as a sovereign nation.
The praying communities established at Canton (originally Ponkapoag), Natick, and Brockton continued to have communities of people who identified as Massachusett. 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, but this may have referred to a woman known to be of solely indigenous heritage. European Americans in New England confused appearance and race with cultural identity and sometimes assumed mixed-race people would no longer identify as Massachusett or Ponkapoag, but communities kept their culture.
Descendants of the Praying Indians from Natick have organized as Praying Indian Tribes of Natick and Ponkapoag, 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. According to Caring Hands, in 2011 there were just under 50 members of Natick Praying Indians. 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 after almost 300 years.
Other descendants of Massachusett (Neponsett, Ponkapoag) identifying as Native American have organized as the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council.
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- Canton Massachusetts Historical Society "Canton Historical Society". Retrieved 2007-03-30.
- "Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag (official web site)". Retrieved 2013-11-06.
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Massachuset.|
- Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Massachusett
- "Massachuset", The Menotomy Journal