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Tribal Territories Southern New England.png
Location of the Massachusett and related peoples of southern New England.
Total population
Total population ~150
80 Ponkapoag Massachusett (2011)[3]
50 Natick Massachusett-Nipmuc (2013)[4]
Regions with significant populations
 United States: Massachusetts
English, formerly Massachusett language.
Christianity, traditionally Algonquian traditional religion.
Related ethnic groups
Nipmuc, Wampanoag, Narraganasett, Mohegan, Pequot, Pocomtuc, Montaukett and other Algonquian peoples

The Massachusett are a Native American people and ethnic group in the United States Commonwealth of Massachusetts, mostly inhabiting their traditional homeland which covers much of present-day Greater Boston. The people take their name from the Algonquian, which is a tribal term meaning “At the Great Hill” - referring to the Blue Hills overlooking Boston Harbor from the south - which was a ceremonial and sacred area for the people of the region.

As some of the first people to make contact with the European explorers and English colonists, the Massachusett and other coastal peoples were severely decimated from an outbreak of leptospirosis circa 1619, which had mortality rates as high as 90% in these areas. This was followed by devastating impacts of virgin soil epidemics such as smallpox, influenza, scarlet fever and others to which the indigenous people lacked natural immunity. Their territories, on the more fertile and flat coastlines, with access to coastal resources, were mostly taken over by English colonists, as the Massachusett were too few in number to put up any effective resistance.

Under the missionary John Eliot, the majority of the Massachusett were converted to Christianity and settled in 'Praying towns' established where the converted Native Americans were expected to submit to the colonial laws, accept some elements of English culture and forced to abandon their traditional religion, but were allowed to use their language. Through intermediaries, Eliot learned the language and even published a translation of the Bible. The language, related to other Eastern Algonquian languages but more specifically, the regional languages of southern New England, would slowly fade, ceasing to serve as the primary language of the Massachusett communities by the 1750s, and the language was likely extinct by the early years of the nineteenth century. The Massachusett language was shared with several other peoples in the region, and the Wampanoag preserved their dialect of the language until the death of its last speaker sometime in the 1890s.

The last of their common lands were sold in the early nineteenth century, loosening the community and social bonds that held the Massachusett families together, and most of the Massachusett were forced to settle amongst their English neighbors, but mainly settled the poorer sections of towns where they were segregated with Black Americans, recent immigrants and other Native Americans. The Massachusett mainly assimilated and integrated into the surrounding communities.

Two groups of Massachusett have received state recognition after the creation of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs. The Ponkapoag Massachusett, descendants of the Praying Indians of Ponkapoag, centered around what is now Canton, Massachusetts, and the Natick Massachusett-Nipmuc. As the Natick were formed from a substantial input of Nipmuc families, and maintained close connection with the Nipmuc communities, the Natick Massachusett-Nipmuc are recognized as a tribe of Nipmuc, via their involvement with the Nipmuc Nation.



View of Little Blue Hill from atop Great Blue Hill. The original name Massachusett, 'Big Hill Place,' was adopted by the local Native American people for themselves and their language and later adopted by the English settlers for the colony, and later U.S. State, of Massachusetts.

The Massachusett referred to themselves as Massachusee /məhsatʃəwiːsiː/ in the singular and Massachuseuk (Muhsachuweeseeak) /məhsatʃəwiːsiːak/. The discrepancy between the colonial spelling and the modern spelling used by speakers of the revived Wampanoag dialect is in part due to the colonial spelling based on a dialect that allowed syncopation, although the diminutive suffix -ees (-ees) /iːs/ was often shortened to just -s (-s) /s/ in many dialects and in rapid speech. The form Massachusee (Muhsachuweesee) was also used as a word modifier to indicate relation to either the Massachusett people or language. For example, the English referred to the Massachusett-language translation of the Psalter as the Massachusett Psalter whilst the Massachusett referred to the text as the Massachusee Psalter.

'Massachusett' is literally the name of the homeland of the Massachuseuk but also the source of Massachusee. The place referred to is either the original name for Great Blue Hill, which overlooks Boston Harbor and much of the shoreline of Massachusetts Bay, or the region around the hill. Great Blue Hill was a sacred site to the local peoples, where shamans gathered for certain ceremonies and meetings of regional leaders were held. The breakdown of the name is listed in the table below:

Name derivation
Colonial spelling miss-[5] wadchu[6] -ees -et[7]
Wôpanâak-dialect modern spelling (muhs-)[8] (wachuw)[9] (-ees) (-ut)[7]
Pronunciation /məhs/ /watʃəw/ /iːs/ /ət/
Meaning 'great' or 'big' 'mountain' diminutive suffix locative suffix
Massachusett, (Muhsachuweesut) or dialectal *(Muhsachuwsut)

Due to the influence of the English colonists, the Massachuseeak also came to refer to themselves as Massachusett especially in later colonial sources, but it is rare in the writings of the Indians themselves. Native peoples also came to refer to themselves as Indian, which was rendered as either Indianak (Indianak) or Indiansog (Indiansak) in the plural. The Massachusett translation of the term 'Praying Indian' was Peantamwae Indian (puyôhtamwôee Indian) /pəjãhtamwãiː/.[10][11]


Early French explorations in the region refer to the coastal people of southern New England as the Almouchiquois or Armouchiquois, likely a Gallicized version of some unknown northern Algonquian language, like a pejorative referring to the 'Dog people.'[12] In later sources, the French refer to the people of New England in general as Loups, the 'Wolf people.'[13]

The English explorers and the early settlers generally referred to the local peoples as 'Indians,' in part because they were unsure of the political boundaries between tribes, and later, when they realized that all the peoples of coastal Massachusetts shared the same language and similar culture.[14] The English adopted the term Massachuset or Massachusett for the people, with a superfluous 's,' the name was later applied to the colony itself, with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was later merged with the Plymouth Colony in 1692 into the Province of Massachusetts, the predecessor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prior to independence from Great Britain. The earliest English colonial records reveal several quite variant spellings such as 'Masichewsetta,' 'Masstachusit,' 'Masathulets,' 'Masatusets,' 'Massachussett,' etc. The English name and pronunciation was likely influenced by 'Moswetuset,' as in Moswetuset Hummock in Quincy, Massachusetts. The name refers to the 'Great Small Wigwam,' likely referring to the shape of the hummock like a small wetu and the fact it was often the home of the local sachem, but was also an important meeting place for regional leaders. The name is etymologically similar to 'Massachusett' except the '-achu' element that signifies 'mountain' is replaced by wetu (weetyuw) /wiːtʲəw/.[15]

As the Indians were Christianized and settled into the 'Praying towns,' the inhabitants came to be known as 'Praying Indians.' The amalgamation of various tribes and peoples and settlements weakened ethnic identities as the new communities came to identify more with the community. For example, the Neponset tribe of what is now the area around Quincy were converted and settled into the Praying town of Ponkapoag, in what is now Canton, where they were joined by a handful of members of local Massachusett tribes, and came to be known as the Praying Indians of Ponkapoag. The Praying towns originally established by Massachusett peoples, such as Natick and Ponkapoag, were collectively still referred to the Massachusett people.[14]


Neponset River in Dorchester. Waterfalls and rapids were gathering places for the Massachusett, as they caught fish during their spawning runs that were dried and smoked such as salmon, trout, alewife, herring and eels.

The Massachusett referred to their territory as Wompanohkeit[16][17] (Wôpanahkeeut)[18][19] /wãpanahkiːət/, 'the eastern land' or the 'dawn land.' As the term was used in reference to the eastern location in respect to the tribes of the interior to the west, the term was has cognates. For example, the various Abenakian peoples referred to their confederacy as Wabanaki from Wôbanakiak, cognate to the Wompanohkeit. The term should not be confused with the understanding of Wompanohkeit (Wôpanahkeeut) as used by the Wampanoag, who speak a dialect of the Massachusett language. To the Massachusett, Wompanohkeit for their people, or Nutohkemminnit[17] (Nutahkeemunut)[17][19] /nətahkiːmənət/, 'place of our land,' was specifically the region of Massachusett, in the view of the Great Hill. This corresponds to what is now covered by the City of Boston, Greater Boston, eastern MetroWest, the southern North Shore, the South Shore and the Boston Harbor Islands.

North Congregational Church, Middleborough, Mass. Titicut Praying Indians James Thomas, Stephen David and Job Ahanton donated land for the parish in 1746.

Major watersheds associated with Massachusett settlement, from north to south, include the Mystic, Charles, Neponset, Weymouth Fore and North rivers up to the fall line. To the north of the Mystic River were the Pawtucket people, speakers of a Massachusett dialect but in close political relations with the Abenakian Pennacook people. To the south of what is now Pembroke and Bridgwater, the Massachusett came into contact with northern tribes of the Wampanoag, which like the Pawtucket, were also speakers of a Massachusett dialect. To the west of the fall line was the home of the Nipmuc tribes. The Nipmuc were a related people, but spoke a mutually intelligible but distinct language from the Massachusett. The majority of the Massachusett people today continue to inhabit their traditional homeland of Greater Boston, with particular concentrations in the communities of Stoughton, Canton, Mansfield, Framingham and Bridgewater.[20]

Due to the disruption of King Philip's War, distant Massachusett ancestry is likely in some of the 'Mohawk' (Black Indians) of St. David's Island, Bermuda, the Stockbridge-Munsee (Muhheakanneuw-Munsíiw) and Brothertown (Eeyawquittoowauconnuck) of Wisconsin, the Abenaki (Alnôbak) of northern New England and Québec, the Schaghticoke of western Connecticut and in other extant tribal groups in New England.[21]

Natick and Ponkapoag in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Titicut and Mattakeesett in the Plymouth Colony were established as official Praying towns for the Massachusett people. In addition to these communities, the Massachusetts Bay Colony recognized the communities of Cowate, Magaehnak and Pequimmid as Praying Indian districts, but it is uncertain if they were to be developed into Praying towns or were just recognized as satellite communities of Praying Indians. Due to the upheaval of King Philip's War and loss of land, by the early nineteenth century, only Natick and Ponkapoag were in Massachusett hands. All current members of the Massachusett tribes descend from the Indians of either one of these two communities.[20]

Massachusett settlements[20]

Traditional divisions and organization[edit]

Little is known about the tribal divisions of the Massachusett, but several groups are recorded in the early colonial sources, but most are only known by the name of their sachem. These divisions were recorded in the early sources are only known by the names of their leaders.[20]

  • Chickatawbut, sachem of most of the lands south of the Charles River all the way to Ponkapoag. His son, Wompatuck, would assume sachemship over the Mattakeeset tribe near Pembroke.
  • Nanepashemet, sachem of the Pawtucket peoples north of the Charles River. The Pawtucket were Massachusett bands that through kinship and the weakening of the Massachusett, came under the influence of the Pennacook Confederacy controlled by the Pennacook along the Merrimack in what is now central and southern New Hampshire. The nominal control of Pawtucket territory after was split between his widow Squaw Sachem of Mistick and his three sons:
    • Wonohaquaham, also known as Sagamore John, ruled over the area around Winnisimmet and Saugus.
    • Montowampate, also known as Sagamore James, ruled over Massebequash to the shores of Lynn.
    • Wenepoykin, also known as Sagamore George, Winnepurkett and George Rumney Marsh, ruled over the islands of Boston Harbor and what is now Winthrop. He became the primary leader of the Pawtucket after the death of his brothers to the smallpox epidemic of 1633.
  • Manatahqua, also known as Black William, ruled over Nahant and Swampscott. He was killed in 1631 in retaliation for the death of William Bagnall, though he had no connection to Bagnall nor was he present in Maine during Bagnall's murder.
  • Cato, also known as Goodman, ruled over the area of Musketaquid, somewhere near Concord and Sudbury. Cato sold most his lands to English settlers in 1649. Sometimes listed as Nipmuc.
  • Nahaton, around the area of Natick and Sherborn. Descendants of Nahaton joined Ponkapoag and became a prominent family there, although many used variants of the name such as Ahawton, Nahanton, Ahanton, Ahaughton or Hahaton.
  • Cutshamekin, leader of the Neponset tribe around Mattapan, Squantum and Monatiquot. Cutshamekin led his people to settle in the Praying town of Ponkapoag, but angered his people by selling the tribal lands along the shore to the colonists. Brother of Chickatawbut and uncle to Wompatuck.


A depiction from 1919 of Eliot preaching to the Indians. Eliot played a primary role in developing the written language and introducing the Indians to Christianity and literacy, preserving the language but destroying aspects of traditional culture.

The Massachusett language is a member of the Algic language family in its extensive Algonquian division which includes all the Algic languages except two very distantly related languages of northern California. Within Algonquian, Massachusett is in the Southern New England Algonquian (SNEA) sub-branch of the Eastern Algonquian branch of Algonquian languages. The SNEA languages are so closely related, they can be considered dialects of one another and differ mainly in treatment of Proto-Algonquian retroflexes of *θ which yielded /n/ in Massachusett, /l/ in Nipmuc, /j/ in Narragansett and /r/ in Quiripi, leaving Massachusett classified as an SNEA n-dialect in this scheme. The closest relatives of the Massachusett language are the other SNEA languages, and more distantly with other Algonquian languages.[22]

The language was shared between several peoples. This included the Massachusett, whose traditional territory includes what is now Boston and immediate environs and the South Shore, hugging Massachusetts Bay extending west to the fall line; the Pawtucket of southernmost Maine, coastal New Hampshire, the North Shore and the lower Merrimack River watershed; the Wampanoag, covering all of southeastern Massachusetts, especially Cape Cod and the Islands and northeastern southeastern Rhode Island; the Nauset, possibly a Wampanoag group, of Cape Cod from points east of the Bass River and the Coweset of northern Rhode Island. Narragansett is sometimes considered a dialect, but as it was a y-dialect, it is generally treated distinctly by linguists.[23]

The index and first page of Genesis from Eliot's translation of the Bible into the Natick speech of Massachusett in 1663, the Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God.

The language was most notably used by John Eliot in the first Bible printed in the Americas. Eliot had learned the language through a series of Indian interpreters and translators, mostly at Natick, and devised an orthography based on English conventions of the time. Eliot would later teach Indians to read and write using hand-written catechisms that were copied. Funding was granted for the Indian mission, allowing Eliot to publish several translations, ultimately leading up to the Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, which literally translates as 'The Whole Holy His-Bible God,' which was completed in 1663. Beginning in 1651 and lasting until 1747, almost thirty translations and other teaching aids were produced in the Massachusett language and distributed to the Indians of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies. A school was established in Natick, where Indian men were trained in reading and writing and Christian theology and would later serve as clerks, ministers, deacons, administrators, interpreters and constables of the newly created 'Praying towns' established by Eliot. As the Indians became literate, they taught others to read and write, thus spreading its use. Just before the outbreak of Metacomet's Rebellion, one-third of Indians were literate in only twenty years after Eliot taught the first Indians.[24] The specific use of the speech of Natick led to dialect leveling, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, most of the Massachusett-speaking peoples, as well as some communities of Nipmuc and Pennacook, began to speak the Massachusett dialect of Natick, with many of the learned men in their communities students of Natick or from Natick itself. The names of the Massachusett literate are named in colonial sources, such as William Ahaton and Aaron Pomham, who served as preachers in Ponkapoag; John Neesnummin of Natick, who helped both Eliot and the Mayhew family in translating works for the Indian audience; John Simons of Titicut and James Speen, a Natick Indian who later became preacher to the Nipmuc Indians of Pakachoag (now Auburn, Massachusetts).[25]

The use of the language began to fade in the Massachusett communities in the 1750s, with the last speaker likely dying sometime after 1798. The Wampanoag dialect continued to be spoken as the primary language of the Wampanoag until the 1770s, but the last speakers died sometime in the late nineteenth century on Martha's Vineyard, but rememberers of the language persisted into the 1920s. Under the leadership of Jessie Little Doe Baird, who started the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, the Wampanoag dialect is now spoken as a second language in the Herring Pond, Assonet, Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes that participate, producing the first speakers of the language in over a century and using a simplified, consistent orthography.[26] The contemporary Massachusett tribes do not participate, and have no speakers, but continue to use the colonial orthography and colonial translations as sacred texts.[27]

Late Woodland Period-Contact Period Culture[edit]



The Massachusett, like other New England Algonquian peoples, adopted the Three Sisters method of intercropping that was introduced to the region via Mexico around 1000 BC, but it was not until around 200 AD that varieties of weachimineash (weechumuneash) /wiːtʃəmənᵊaʃ/, maize (US, 'corn'), were developed that were suitable to the short growing season and cold climate of New England. Indian women mounded piles of earth and vegetation, planting the maize on top. When the cornstalks were sturdy enough, beans were planted to trail up the cornstalks and fertilize the soil with their association with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and various askꝏtasquash (ashk8tasqash) /aʃkuːtaskʷaʃ/, a collective term for various pumpkins, squash and gourds, were planted at the base to shade the crops and prevent weeds.[28]

Agriculture had developed earlier in the region, with the arrival of the Three Sisters eventually displacing earlier crops of the Eastern Agricultural Complex such as goosefoot, marsh elder, erect knotweed, little barley, maygrass and local varieties of beans and askꝏtasquash, although many of these plants were still collected from the wild, and in the case of sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke, remained in limited cultivation.[29]


Agriculture never replaced the traditional gathering activities. Massachusett women were tasked venturing out into the marshes, woods, meadows and rocky coasts to gather various plants that supplemented the diet and, during years of crop failure, was a necessity for survival. Plants were generally divided into their intended uses, such as seeds, oily seeds and nuts, tubers, greens, fruits and saps.[30][31][32]


Seeds were gathered and used as grain, either shelled and boiled into soups and stews, or ground into flour to make bread or to be used as a thickening agent.

Oily seeds and nuts[edit]

Oily nuts and seeds were ground and boiled to extract the oil, which was used to make soups and stews more hardy in winter, as a preservative or to make lotions and salves for medical and cosmetic uses.

Root vegetables[edit]

Starchy tubers, rhizomes, underground stems and bulbs were valued for the energy they provided, and if starchy enough, could also be dried and ground into a flour.


Leaves, shoots, tendrils and buds were generally gathered in spring, when the first growth was not fibrous or at stages when the plant was least toxic and could be made edible with preparation. Although not a plant, as a coastal people, seaweed could be dried or boiled in soups for flavoring.

  • Amaranthus sp., generally used for seeds, but leaves are edible at all stages.
  • Atriplex cristata, 'orache'
  • Caltha palustris, 'marsh marigold,' leaves edible before flowering but only after extensive boiling.
  • Chenopodium sp., chenopods, used for seeds but leaves are edible at all stages.
  • Clintonia borealis, 'yellow bead-lily', young leaves are edible.
  • Fiddlehead-stage of various ferns, edible after boiling and changes of water.
  • Ligusticum scothicum, 'Scots lovage,' young leaves and stems are edible.
  • Nyphaea odorata, 'water-lily,' young stems and leaves, otherwise too fibrous.
  • Palmaria palmata, 'red dulce,' edible type of red algae.
  • Phytolacca americana, 'pokeweed' or 'skokeweed,' very poisonous. Only very young leaves are edible after boiling and extensive changes of water.
  • Rubus idaeus, 'red raspberry,' leaves edible after drying.
  • Symplocarpus foetidus, 'skunk cabbage,' young, unfurled leaves edible after drying and boiling.
  • Tilia americana, basswood, leaves and flowers are edible.
  • Typha latifolia, 'cattail,' young shoots and inner pith of stems, otherwise too fibrous.
  • Ulva compressa, 'sea lettuce,' edible type of green algae.
Fruits and berries[edit]

Sweet fruits of all kind ripened in the summer and fall. They were eaten fresh, baked into breads to sweeten them for special occasions or were dried and used to flavor water for drinking. The seeds and pits of many fruit are also edible and were ground into flour.

Saps and syrups[edit]

The Algonquian people of New England instructed the English colonists in how to tap syrup. The slightly warmer climate and the sandier soils of the coast prevented the abundance of the various local maple and boxwood trees that were tapped for their sap and where available, greatly limited their production. Nectar-filled blossoms or various fruits could be boiled with water, thickened until it formed a syrup that could be used to sweeten drinks, make instant teas or preserve foods over the winter.

Hunting, trapping, fishing and shellfish collection[edit]

As the Massachusett inhabited a coastal area with numerous river estuaries, lakes and ponds, fish was an important protein source. Fish were caught using baited hooks carved from soft stones and bone, cast from shore or from canoes. Deep-sea fish were caught using weighted lines, or could be attracted to the surface where they could be netted with pummee (pumee) /pəmiː/, 'grease,' but specifically the residue of oily fish that were boiled to extract oil, in a process akin to chumming.[52][53] 'To go wigwassing' was a term adopted into colonial New England English for night fishing using torches to attract eel, squid and herring to the surface, from Massachusett weequash (weeqahsum)[54] /wiːkwɑːhsəm/.[55] The most important event was the annual spawning run of river herring, salmon, sea-run trout, lampreys and eels, attracting people from across the region to waterfalls and rapids or the mouths or rivers. Elaborate fish-weirs, such as the Boylston Street Fishweir, were constructed to channel the fish in rivers, or trap them with the outgoing tide, where they could be easily netted, speared or simply gathered in baskets. Marine mammals were also hunted. Seals were captured when they came to rest on coast, whilst large whales were hunted with teams of Indians in canoes or when they occasionally stranded on shore.[56]

Men hunted various game and waterfowl with bow and arrow, spear alone or spear with atlatl or were caught in spring traps. Smaller animals were caught by hand, nets and smaller traps. Deer was an important animal for its ample furs and meat, and deer drives, with groups of men scaring deer out of the woods towards hunters waiting in ambush. In winter, snowshoes and dogs aided the hunt. To increase deer numbers, sections of forest were cleared by fire to increase grassy meadows where the fed.[57] No part of the animal was wasted, with the skins processed into furs and leathers for blankets, clothing and shoes; feathers, bone beads and quills were used to make jewelry and decorate personal items; fats rendered into greases and oils for nutrition, cosmetics or medical salves; snakeskin was fashioned into belts; porcupine quills and small bones were used for sewing and the sinews were chewed into bowstrings and cordage.[58] With the exception of bears, valued for their large fat stores, the Indians avoided hunting large predators and birds of prey due to their religious customs.[59]

Shellfish harvesting was another activity of Massachusett women, picking them off rocks at low tide or digging them up from the sand. Shellfish were a major part of the diet, and the New England tradition of the clambake was inherited from the local peoples. Large clam shells were used as spoons, scrapers, bowls or fashioned into hoes for farming, but they could also be carved into small beads used for wampum.[60]



Contacts with Europeans (ca. 1570–1621)[edit]

Depiction of an Almouchiquois woman and man by Champlain. Almouchiquois was the French term for the Massachusett-speaking peoples of southern New England. Samuel de Champlain explored the region in 1605, making landfall on islands in Boston Harbor and what are now the towns of Weymouth and Cohasset in Massachusett territory.

Little is known about the Massachusett people prior to European exploration of the region. It is known that the fertile lands and plentiful shellfish supported a large population, and the Massachusett chiefs were able to hold sway over a loose confederacy of peoples that included the Pawtucket, Nipmuc, most of the tribes of the Pioneer Valley and at various times, some Wampanoag tribes.[100]

Due to the direction of the currents and Cape Cod jutting far out to sea, the Massachusett were spared many encounters with passing European explorers and fishermen that began to explore the region in the late sixteenth century. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain sailed south from New France, bringing an Algonquin guide and his Almouchiquois wife, said to be from the region and able to speak the local language. Champlain stopped to visit and trade at several villages on the islands of Boston of Harbor, as well as anchored for a period of time off Shawmut to conduct trade with Indians from their canoes.[101] John Smith, like Champlain before him, visited the villages on the Boston Harbor Islands and anchored offshore at several locations to trade with Indians from their canoes, but was also known to have made landfall where he met the local leaders of Wessagusett and Conohasset. Smith mapped the region, giving it the name 'New England' as a call for English colonization of the area.[102]

Human habitation began in the region as early as 17,000 years BP, during the retreat of the glaciers during the last Ice Age. These stone argillite knives uncovered near Ponkapoag date to 4960 years BP, during the transition to the Late Archaic Stage.

It is unknown if the Massachusett, like the Wampanoag and Nauset, were subject to the blackbirding ships and English fishermen, but it is likely. Samoset, a visiting Abenaki chief from what is now Maine, was able to converse with the Pilgrims due to contacts with English fishermen that came ashore to dry their catch, whilst Squanto and Epenow had picked up English from their time in servitude after abduction on the blackbirding raids of Thomas Hunt before plotting their escapes.[103]

Circa 1617, an outbreak of leptospirosis, probably introduced by rats from European ships that contaminated the local water supply, struck the densely populated coastal areas—such as the homeland of the Massachusett—with mortality rates as high as 90%.[104] The loss of population and the ability to muster defenses shifted the balance of power in the region, opening the Massachusett and neighboring coastal peoples from attacks and raids by traditional enemies such as the Mohawk (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka of the Hudson River Valley and the Tarratines, a colonial term for the Mi'kmaq (Lnu'k) of Maine and Atlantic Canada as well as regional rivals such as the Pequot and Narragansett. The Pawtucket people, essentially Massachusett people of the lower Merrimack River and Cape Ann were subjugated and split off, forced into political relations with the powerful Pennacook people upriver in central New Hampshire.[105]

Early Colonial Period[edit]

A man covered in the scars and lesions of a severe smallpox infection. Many Indians died from smallpox and other diseases brought to the Americas by the Europeans as they had no resistance to them. Those that survived were often physically scarred, blinded or greatly weakened and thus easily succumbed to other diseases.

The Massachusett were introduced to the Pilgrims as early as 1621, when Chickatawbut, sachem of the Massachusett, was introduced to Myles Standish by Squanto. The Massachusett, unlike the Wampanoag under Massasoit, were fearful of the incursions of settlers and began stirring the other tribes in rebellion. Although relations between the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag were good, some of the Pilgrims and a handful of new settlers established the Wessagusset Colony in what is now Weymouth, Massachusetts, in the territory of the Massachusett. Relations soured as the Massachusett were already fearful of incursions into their territory and the Wessagussett settlers were ill-prepared for life in New England, thus resorting to stealing from the local Massachusett. The Massachusett were weakened, and the warrior Pecksuot was his men were killed along with a handful of settlers.[106]

The English began to arrive in large numbers, with twenty thousand arriving between 1620 and 1640 in what was known as the Great Migration. As a result of natural increase and the arrival of incoming English Puritans fleeing the religious persecutions in England more than doubled the population. The Europeans brought with them pathogens to which the local Indians had no immunity, thus ravaging as virgin soil epidemics. A particularly virulent outbreak of smallpox lay waste to coastal communities, still recovering from the plague of 1619, as well as the interior tribes in 1634, practically ending any resistance to English settlement. Further outbreaks of smallpox, influenza, scarlet fever, mumps and measles would strike again in 1648 and 1666, but although not as devastating, would continue to inflict heavy tolls well into the nineteenth century. With little to no resistance from dying Indians, the English believed that God Himself had cleared the land for their arrival. By the 1630s, the Indians of New England were already a minority in their own lands.[107] Final resistance of the Massachusett came with the end of the Pequot War in 1638. The colonists had defeated the Pequot in a bloody defeat, with events such as the brutual Mystic Massacre demonstrating the military superiority and the merciless style of the English.[108]

Depiction of English Puritans in New England. By the 1630s, the English were the majority in New England as a result of migration, natural increase, and several outbreaks that greatly reduced the Native population.

The Massachusett sachems awarded many deeds of land to the English settlers, since the English served to rebuff attacks from other tribes. In most cases, it was because the land had already been alienated by English settlement, often because the locals had already died off from disease. The sachems began selling land at a price, often with stipulations allowing the Indians to collect, gather, fish or forage, but these arrangements were seldom honored by the English. The English also did not understand the Indian concept of leasing land from the sachem, and instead thought of their arrangements as permanent land sales. As a result of the rapid loss of land, the Massachusett and other local tribes sent their leaders to Boston for the 1644 Acts of Submission, bringing the Indians under the control of the colonial government and subject to its laws and Christian missionary attempts. By the time of the submission, the Massachusett, a coastal people, had lost access to the sea and their shellfish collection sites.[109]

The presence of the English was detrimental in several other ways. The English demand for furs as a trade item had extirpated the beaver from coastal New England, forcing the Massachusett deeper into enemy territory to procure beaver pelts, thus leading to retaliatory attacks from the Mahican, armed by the Dutch, and the Abenaki and Tarratine, armed by the French, whereas the English banned the sales of firearms to the local tribes, rendering them defenseless. The use of wampum by the Natives, mainly as a record keeper, sacred or ceremonial gift and at times exchanged for goods was erroneously thought of as currency. As the English were able to mass-produce beads of glass with iron drills, the value of wampum deflated. As the Indians became increasingly dependent on trade items of the English, this led to debts. Alcoholism ran rampant as it was previously unknown to the Indians, but proved a scourge, tearing families apart. Some English even resorted to getting Indians drunk so as to run up credit or so that they would be fined and forced to cede their land, which led to the ban of sales of hard cider and other spirits to the Indians.[110]

Praying towns and praying Indians (1651–1675)[edit]

The Eliot Church in south Natick. The church was built in 1828 where the Indian Church once stood.

John Eliot's success with learning the language with the aid of Indian interpreters, such John Sassamon, led him to attempt to preach to the Neponset tribe, led by Cutshamekin, son of Chickatawbut, in 1646 but was rebuffed. A year later, with better language skills and understanding of Native culture, Eliot succeeded in converting the Nonantum tribe led by Waban. Eliot began to petition the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to set aside designated lands for the Indians, to prevent future conflicts over land, ensure a space for the Indians and to give the Indians a place separate from the colonists and their unconverted brethren. Natick was officially set aside in 1651, with construction of a school to teach literacy and religion and train new Indian missionaries and a church begun shortly thereafter. Cutshamekin later accepted the mission, and land was granted at Ponkapoag in what is now Canton, Massachusetts, in 1654.[111] The Plymouth Colony established similar communities of Praying towns, with Mattakeeset, in what is now Pembroke, and Titicut, in what is now Middleborough and parts of Bridgewater, set aside for the Massachusett people. In addition, there were the unofficial Praying Indian districts of Cowate, Magaehnak and Pequimmid, but these communities were never raised to official Praying towns. Twelve additional Praying towns were established in Nipmuc and Pawtucket territory in a defensive ring around the coastal settlements of the English.[20]

Historical marker standing on the northern boundary of what was once the Praying town of Ponkapoag, now contained in the town of Canton, Massachusetts.

Life in the Praying towns was an interesting blend of English and Indian culture. The Praying Indians had to adopt the Puritan Christianity of their English neighbors, as well as English assimilatory rules such as patriarchy, as the Massachusett were traditionally a matrilineal society where woman were not restrained, as well as English ideas of decency. The Praying Indians also had to submit to English laws and adopted the administrative practices of the English town in their governance. Otherwise, the daily affairs of administration and the Indian churches was conducted in the Massachusett language. Some of the Praying Indians adopted English-style homes, animal husbandry and clothing. However, the Indians were called to church by traditional drumming and not church bells, many of the Praying Indians continued to live a traditional lifestyle and live in the wetu and retained other aspects of traditional culture not in conflict with the tenets of Praying town life and English law.

The success of the Praying towns was in large part due to the traumatic experiences of European arrival. Devastating epidemics that nearly wiped the people out could not be cured with traditional healing practices and spiritual rituals nor were the spirits of the land powerful enough to keep out the European invaders. The promise of guaranteed land recognized by the invaders as untouchable to the onslaught of English colonists was also very promising.[112] The Native Americans viewed English land sales as lease agreements, as rights to land were granted by permission of the local sachem to use until it was no longer needed. Indian land was sometimes just stolen by encroachment, squatting or allowing hungry cattle loose on their planting fields and ruining it. Laws were passed allowing all "unimproved" land to be open to English settlement, opening hunting areas, coastal shellfish collection sites to eventual settlement.[110] With the Praying towns granted official title to their land, the converts were able to continue some aspects of their cultural practices and subsistence patterns and removed some of the major threats to their land base. The Praying Indians, however, often earned the ire of the traditionalist Indians for submitting to the English whereas the English questioned the loyalty of the Praying Indians to the colonial government and the sincerity of their conversions. In many ways, the grouping of Indians into land bases where they could be civilized of the Praying towns was a predecessor to the Indian reservations that exist today.[113]

King Philip's War (1675–1676)[edit]

[[File:Soldiers in King Philip's war; being a critical account of that war, with a concise history of the Indian wars of New England from 1620-1677, official lists of the soldiers of Massachusetts colony (14740588836).jpg|thumb|right|Threats to local culture, loss of land, forced acceptance of English rule and culture and abuses of the English led many Praying Indians to take arms against the English, though the vast majority remained neutral and many served to protect the settlers.]]

The truce that had existed between the English settlers of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies and the local Native peoples was tested. The submission of the local chiefs to the respective colonial governments and adoption of Christianity allowed the Indians to seek redress in the English court system and removed one of the prejudices against them. The Praying Indians of Natick were brought to court several times by the English settlers of Dedham that claimed some of the land, but with Eliot's assistance, most of these attempts failed. Most of the time, however, the Indians failed, as some of the Indian interpreters and chiefs ceded lands to curry favor from the English to maintain special privileges, such as the Nipmuc John Wampas, who betrayed the Nipmuc and Massachusett people by selling land to the settlers to which he had no claim, but these sales were upheld in later court challenges. The Pawtucket sachem Wenepoykin, son of Nanepashemet and Squaw Sachem of Mistick, through kinship and family ties laid claim to much of Massachusett territory, and tried several times to petition the courts for lands lost in the turbulence of the 1633 epidemic that took both of his brothers to no avail, with most cases simply dismissed.[114]

The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a series of harsh measures that earned the ire of the Native peoples. All Indians, Christian and traditional religionists, were forced to observe the Christian Sabbath and were restricted from a wide range of activities, such as hunting, fishing and farming or entering the English towns, and heavy fines were imposed on those caught practicing the shamanic rights or consulting traditional spiritual leaders or healers. Alcohol, firearms and many luxury goods were banned. By this time, the Indians had already integrated into the economic system of the English, but were dealt a heavy blow as laws were passed restricting trade to appointed colonial agents, which gave the colonial government a monopoly on trade with the English and made the Indian farmers less competitive as they were not allowed direct access to English markets. New laws allowed open settlement to any 'unimproved' lands, essentially anything that was not fenced in or with crops grown on it, threatening the wooded areas and meadows cleared by fire that were used for hunting and cultivation areas that were allowed to fallow.[110]

Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Construction of the wastewater treatment plant angered many local Native peoples for disturbing the remains of all those that died during forcible internment during King Philip's War due to lack of provisions, exposure and starvation.

Waban, leader of the Natick Praying Indians, had long warned the Massachusetts Bay Colony that the Nipmuc in the interior were growing impatient with the loss of their lands and that other tribal leaders were likely agitating for resistance, putting the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies on high alert. Tensions reached a boiling point for Metacomet, also known as Philip, a son of Massasoit. Metacomet's brother, Wamsutta, was arrested and died in custody, likely murdered, for selling land to Roger Williams even though these lands and the Wampanoag tribe that sold the lands were not under the jurisdiction of the Plymouth Colony. As rumors began to fly regarding Metacomet's plans, he ordered the death of his English-language interpreter, John Sassamon, who had earlier assisted Eliot, leading to a court trial in which several of Metacomet's men were charged and hanged for the murder. Metacomet fled soon after, enlisting the aid of other tribes, such as the Nipmuc, Narragansett, Pawtucket, and drawing away some of the Praying Indians. Even notable leaders that had worked with the English, such as Willlymachin, or Black James, sachem of the Praying town of Chaubanakongkomun (Chaubunagungamaug), and Wenepoykin, supported Metacomet's cause.

The Praying Indians mostly stayed neutral, and surrendered their weapons and accepted restrictions to their movements. The Praying Indians endured attacks by their kinsfolk that supported Metacomet. Just before the winter of 1675, colonial militia rounded up the Praying Indians forcibly interned them on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Similarly, the Mattakeeset were marched to Clark's Island. With little food and clothing, many of the Indians perished from starvation, exposure and disease. Many of the Praying Indians were recruited to serve as scouts, guides and to fill the ranks of the colonial militia, with a regiment recruited by Daniel Gookin sent to face Metacomet's warriors at Swansea, but it is known that other Massachusett aided the colonial militias in Lancaster, Brookfield and Mount Hope battles of the war. Despite early victories, Metacomet was weakened by lack of resources and the help of the Praying Indians to the English. Metacomet was later shot by a Wampanoag Praying Indian, John Alderman, who was serving in the regiment of Benjamin Church, ending the war.[115]

Late Colonial Period (1676-1776)[edit]

Aftermath of the War (1676-1681)[edit]

Three Abenaki women weaving baskets in Odanak, Quebec. Most of the Odanak, although Western Abenaki speaking, were historically an amalgam of several Abenakian tribes with a significant part of their ancestry from the refugees of King Philip's War fleeing southern New England.

The war proved very disruptive to Indian life in New England. The warriors that supported Metacomet were executed in public displays, and like Metacomet's head, were kept on posts outside most major English settlements. Those that were not executed, were gathered and sent to the slave markets in Bermuda where most would be forced to work on the sugar plantations, although some of the luckier ones, particularly women and children, were forced into servitude locally in English homes. The Praying Indian survivors of internment, any Indians lucky enough to have been pardoned and any survivors regrouped at Natick, where they divided up amongst their old tribal groupings and pressed for a return to their lands. By 1681, the Indians were allowed to return to their respective homes, but continued to face harassment, retaliatory attacks, local killings and abuse to their lands and property by their English neighbors.

Many Indians fled the region, most seeking refuge with the Abenaki in the north or the Mahican to the west, away from English settlement. Those that remained often joined kinsfolk in other tribes and people, leading to considerable internal migration as well. The Wampanoag, such as Mashpee and Aquinnah, were able to hold onto a substantial land base and had better relations with their English neighbors as well as were closer to the whaling ports where Indian men could find employment. It is known that Nohtooksaet and Mankutquet led their own groups of Massachusett to Martha's Vineyard and were eventually absorbed into neighboring Wampanoag tribes of the island.[116]

Return to Reservations[edit]

Wekepeke Brook in Sterling, Mass., once settled as the Praying town of Waushakum. The Nashaway Nipmuc that inhabited the area sold their lands in 1701, a few staying behind, but most leaving to seek their relatives in Canada or New York or joining Natick. Natick would attract and absorb numerous Nipmuc from the smaller Indian enclaves.

The Indians were allowed to return to their lands after the war. The Indian mission was considered a failure, and the Praying Indians and their Praying towns came to simply be referred to as 'Indians' and their lands as 'reserves' or later, 'reservations.' This was in part because of lack of support of the Indian mission, deemed a failure in the wake of the war. In 1692, Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies merged into the Province of Massachusetts, in part to secure better response to the attacks of the Indians and tighter hold of the English Crown. The English colonists, not eager to see a return of their Indian neighbors, harassed the returning Indians, attacked and murdered and vandalized Indian property or resorted to other means. Natick absorbed many of the surrounding tribes, thus keeping the population balanced despite the large numbers of Indians that continued to leave, seeking their relatives amongst the Abenaki or tribes to the west.

Okommakamesit was sold by the colonial authorities in 1685, as the English courts upheld forged deeds of questionable and sales, forcing most of the Nipmuc and Pawtucket of the community to settle in Natick. Most of the leaders of the Pawtucket sold or deeded off their lands and regrouped in Wamesit, but after experiencing harassment from the local English, most sold their land and joined Wonalancet and the Pennacook, but Wenepoykin joined his nephew in Natick. Similarly, the Nipmuc of Magunkaquog were forced away from their community when the last of their lands were sold in 1714 and armed men prevented their return. Disease, outmigration and loss of land shrunk many of the former Indian communities below carrying capacity, and most young people often left for Natick to seek land, spouses and employment.[117] Most of the young Nipmuc had left Nashoba for Natick for these reasons, leaving behind only an aged woman named Sarah Doublet, or Wunnehhew, as resident at her death in 1736.[118]

The autonomy of the Indians was eroded by the dismantling of their lands. Natick was able to retain its traditional leadership, with the Natick elite serving the administrative roles of the community and holding the positions of the Indian church with daily affairs conducted in the Massachusett language. This continued until 1721, when record keeping switched to English and Oliver Peabody, a monolingual English speaker, was appointed the minister of the Indian church. Peabody used his position to encourage the Indians to sell land, in part so as to have English company in the Indian enclave. By the 1750s, Natick had ceased to be an Indian town, as it was more a messy patchwork of Indian common lands and English property in between, and the town's governance and church had switched to English and was dominated by English interests, although a few Indians continued to serve the church.[119] In 1743, the Praying Indians of Titicut donated and sold most of their lands, residing on individual allotments for the handful of Indians that remained. Within a decade, they could no longer support their own church, but despite donating the land and funds for the parish church they shared with their English neighbors, they were forced to sit in segregated pews in the cold upper rows reserved for Black Americans and Indians.[120]

A painting of Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American Revolution. Attucks was believed to have maternal ties to Massachusett-Nipmuc peoples of Framingham and an African father. Numerous Massachusett people served in the various battles of the French and Indian Wars as well as the American Revolutionary War.
Guardianship of the Indians[edit]

Instead of being absorbed into the general affairs of the now English town, the colony appointed a commissioner to oversee the Natick in 1743, but commissioners were later appointed for all the extant tribes in the colony. Originally, the commissioner was charged to manage the timber resources, as most of the forests of New England had been felled to make way for farm and pasture, making the timber on Indian lands a valuable commodity. Very quickly, the guardian of Natick came to control the exchange of land, once the domain of the sachems, and any funds set up by the sale of Indian products, but mainly land. As the guardians assumed more power and were rarely supervised, many instances of questionable land sales by the guardians and embezzlement of funds have been recorded. The appointment of the guardians reduced the Indians to colonial wards, as they were no longer able to directly address the courts, vote in town elections and removed the power of the Indian chiefs.[121][122]

Loss of land continued. As forest lands were lost, the Indians could no longer resort to seasonal movements on their land or eke out a living, forcing many into poverty. Land was their only commodity, and was often sold by the guardians to pay for treatments for the sick, care of orphans and debts incurred by Indians, but Indians were also the victims of unfair credit schemes that often forced the land out of their hands. Ponkapoag went from 1,000 acres (404.69 hectares) to only 411 acres (166.33 hectares) in 1757 in part to pay the medical care of its rapidly aging population. In 1763, a damaging winter and the eleven children that became orphans when their father Samuel Mohoo passed led to land being sold in 1769, 1773 and 1776, leaving a small fraction in Indian hands.[123] Without land to farm or forage, Indians were forced to seek employment and settle in the de facto segregated sections of cities. Although no longer bound to the traditional cycle of the seasons, Indians often were restricted to menial and dangerous professions by racial prejudice. Men were often conscripted to work on vessels of whaling, merchant and fishing vessels in the growing whaling cities such as New Bedford or the docks of Boston, or worked in construction or as laborers, which often drew them away from their families for months at a time. Women peddled traditional baskets and herbal medicines, and alongside children, worked as domestics in English homes.[124]

The French and Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War[edit]

The French in Canada and their Abenaki allies, many of whom refugees of King Philip's War and seeking revenge against the English, raided settlements of the Massachusetts Colony. The English colonists enlisted the help of the men of the Indian communities to fight in engagements such as King William's War (1689–1699), Queen Anne's War (1704–1713), Dummer's War (1722–1724), King George's War (1744–1748), Father Le Loutre's War (1749–1755) and the French and Indian War (1754–1760). As many of the Abenaki allies were New England Indians they had absorbed, some battles pitted kin against kin. Many fought with distinction as guides, interpreters and scouts in units such as Gorham's Rangers, such as Abraham Speen, John Babysuck and Jonathan Womsquam, all of whom had ties to Natick's old families.[125]

Many Native Americans also died in service of the American Revolutionary War. (1775–1783).[126] Massachusett veterans of the Revolution include Joseph Paugenitt, Jonas Obscow, Alexander Quapish of Natick and George, Asa and Wiliam Robinson; Quok Mattrick and John Isaacs of Ponkapoag. A memorial to the Natick Massachusett veterans of the American Revolutionary War was erected in the South Natick.[127][128]

American Independence (1776) to present[edit]

Post-independence and nineteenth century[edit]

Memorial to the Praying Indian veterans of Natick that served in the American Revolutionary War.

The official transition from the Colony of Massachusetts to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which officially joined the new republic of the United States of America, did not improve the lot of the Indians in the new state. With the exception of the regime change, most of the policies and laws concerning the Indians of the colonial period were adopted unaltered. The Indians became wards of the Commonwealth, as the guardian system remained intact. By the end of the Federal Period, the common lands of the Massachusett people were sold off, with a small number of Indians able to buy or were granted lots of land, but most were evicted and forced to eke out an existence in greater society, but were still restricted the right to vote and guardians continued to control payments to the tribes from the final land sales and annuities set up for the old and infirm.[129]


Thomas F. Bancroft (1821-1903). A member of the Ponkapoag tribe, Bancroft served in the Massachusetts Fifth Cavalry—a Black regiment—in the Civil War. Like many Indians in the nineteenth century, Bancroft was recorded variably as 'Mulatto,' 'Colored' and 'Indian' in the 1850, 1860 and 1880 U.S. censuses, respectively.[130]

By the end of the eighteenth century, Indian men seemed to have disappeared. In a letter written to the General Court sometime after the American Revolutionary War, the Natick women write '... almost all that were able did go into the Service of the United States and either died in the service or soon after their return home. We are their widows, there being not one male left now that was then of age to go to war.'[131] If not lost to battle, most Indian men could only find work in dangerous professions such as crewmen on whaling ships out at sea or were contracted as laborers, bringing them far from the dwindling remains of their communities and also taking numerous Indian lives.[124]

A staggering gender imbalance was the result, with Indian females outnumbering Indian males. Intermarriage, which had begun as a slow trickle, greatly accelerated by the end of the eighteenth century. Many Indian women took Black slaves as their partners. Slavery was not abolished in Massachusetts until 1781. Although African slave labor did not reach the level in the south, the New England elite often acquired a few slaves to work as servants and laborers, but few women were imported to New England, thus suffering an inverse gender imbalance. As Indian women were often employed as domestics in English households, it increased this type of interaction. As the status of the children were inherited from the mother, the children of such unions were born free, and as long as they maintained social ties with other Indians, were accepted into the community, especially in the traditional matrilineal and matrilocal culture of the Massachusett and other Native peoples. Intermarriage with White men was not as common, as the English did not suffer a gender imbalance and anti-miscegenation laws prevented them, but nevertheless, these rates spiked too, often with pariahs and those of lesser means.[132]

The presence of so many non-Indian spouses was generally not a threat to Indian land and traditions as although they may have been accepted as kin, they were not recognized as Indians and were thus barred from participating in communal affairs and the tribal guardians carefully maintained the distinction between Indian and non-Indian. Tensions arose as Indian men remained were threatened by intrusion of outsiders into their lands and competition for spouses, and several letters of complaint regarding their number and influence over their wives were written to the guardians.[124]

In the eyes of White neighbors, the mixed-race offspring were no longer considered Indian. This was mainly in part because of the 'one-drop rule' which made a person designated Black if there was any known or visible African ancestry. The descendants of the English settlers, likely influenced by notions of the 'noble savage' idealized in works such as The Last of the Mohicans and depictions of the newly subjugated and unmixed peoples of the Western Frontier, often believed that the 'real' Indians were gone and that the bi- or tri-racial descendant 'mongrel Indians' no longer had claim to legitimacy because of miscegenation and two centuries of assimilation.[124] Indians disappear from the record, by the time of the first Federal Census in 1790, the Massachusett and other local peoples are instead listed as 'Black,' 'Mulatto' or 'Colored' in census records, based on guesses of the census taker to the amount of assumed African ancestry.[133]

End of the reservations[edit]

A bog on lands once part of the Praying town of Ponkapoag. Loss of land prevented the Indians from supplementing their diet with foraged foods, such as wild cranberries, cowberries and black huckleberries from bogs, that were part of the traditional cuisine. The Ponkapoag Reservation was whittled away until the Indians were evicted and the lands sold by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1827.

The last communal lands of Ponkapoag were sold in 1827. A small plot was not sold until 1840, but the Ponkapoag had already been restricted from its use. The last lands of Natick were sold in 1828 in part to raise funds for the care of the oldest and ill members of the tribe. The loss of land did not remove the restrictions of the guardians.[134] Still under guardianship, the Massachusett could not vote or participate in local elections and still required the guardians to address the courts.[135]

The end of the reservations put a final death knell on physical communities where Indians could return after their seasonal and contract jobs were over and could seek land. Many Indians dispersed, settling in the African-American neighborhoods of Boston and other cities or joining other remnant Indian communities. A small handful of Ponkapoag Indians had become proprietors, forming a small hamlet of Indian families on Indian Lane that would last until the early twentieth century. Instead of community, Indian identity and structure was rooted in family relations. For instance, Rebecca Davis, who had lived in Boston her entire adult life, continued to return to Indian Lane to visit family members and friends to stock up on jams, corn and other foodstuffs every autumn until she reached her seventies. Others tried their luck at the few remaining Indian lands, such as the outflow of the Natick Pegan family to Chaubunagungamaug.[136]

Censuses and Indian Enfranchisement[edit]

The Massachusett people were still wards of the state under guardians who handled what funds were left from previous land sales. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts ordered reports on the condition of the Indians, mainly for the purposes of keeping track of the expenses and check up on the guardians, who more or less operated autonomously with little oversight from the General Court. The first was Denny Report of 1848, which was a very preliminary look. The report only found four Ponkapoag and made no effort to determine the number of Natick. A year later, a more detailed report was released, which came to be known as the Briggs Report of 1849, which records 10 Ponkapoag but again does not list any Natick. The most detailed, and last, of the reports conducted by John Milton Earle was started in 1859 and published in 1861, includes even more information, such as surnames, location and profession. Even Earle, who provides the most detailed information, lamented '... the temptations to a race naturally inclined to a roving and unsettled life, are too great to be resisted ... they frequently remove from place to place, keeping up no correspondence or communication with those they have left; till at last their place of residence ceases to be known to their friends, and all trace of them is lost.' He goes on to state that tracing them was difficult due to the 'humble social position and obscure station in life, known only to a few directly about them ... [and are] frequently not recognized as Indians, by the people among whom they dwell.' Earle was also aware that his research was not an exhaustive list, as 'This lack of reliable statistics prevents the making of any comparison of the present number with what it has been at former periods so as to show whether the tribe is increasing or diminishing.'[137]

His Excellency, Governor George N. Briggs. Bird, Griswold and Weeks, the three commissioners tasked with reporting on the Indians in 1849 presented their preliminary findings to Briggs later that year, that report is now known to historians as the Briggs Report.

None of the reports offer any insight into the small remnant groups of the Mahican of The Berkshires or the Pocomtuc and Nipmuc-related peoples of the Pioneer Valley. The Earle Report was the first report, however, that provided any information regarding the Natick Indians or the Pembroke Indians (Matakeesett or in the Earle Report, 'Mamatakeeset'). The Earle Report also mentions another Indian group known as the Tumpum that also lived in the vicinity. As Pembroke was more or less on the frontier of two closely related peoples that often intermarried, it is uncertain if the Tumpum can be considered a Massachusett group, but descendants of the Tumpum have mostly intermarried into and have descendants in contemporary Wampanoag communities. The three reports due more or less point out the difficulties of Indian life, as they were not considered citizens of the United States, were alienated from their lands, mostly lived in poverty due to lack of land and lack of suitable employment due to prejudice and racism, were not recognized as Indian because of their racial mixture and still had guardians that managed what little financial benefits they had, either as annuities paid by the state for the eldest and sick members of the tribe, or interest accrued from the tribal fund, funded from the sale of the last of the reservation lands. The reports also highlight the general marginalization of Indians, the fracturing of Indian communities and the higher mortality rate compared to the general population. A good number of the Indians had already assimilated into the surrounding communities, attending the same churches, schools and participating in larger society. The Earle report does list employment, showing most of the Massachusett with known employment were either laborers, mariners, barbers, caterers or farmers.[138]

The growth of the Abolitionist movement in the northern United States was especially prevalent in the then Republican dominated government. Boston was a hotbed, attracting notable abolitionist leaders to set up offices and raise funds for their cause, as well as attracting numerous speakers on a growing political circuit, many of whom were either from Massachusetts or stayed for extended periods, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Maria W. Stewart, Frederick Douglass, William Cooper Nell, Susan B. Anthony and Robert Gould Shaw.[139] The Indians more or less became an embarrassment to the abolitionist cause, as a small minority of colored people, with varying degrees of African heritage, were denied citizenship and the right to vote as wards of the state. Furthermore, many Indians participated in the Civil War, enlisting in Black regiments. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and more re-assuring signs of a Union victory, Massachusetts passed the Massachusetts Enfranchisement Act in 1869. The Act extended these rights, but also 'detribalized' the Indians, similar to effects of the Dawes Act of 1887 at the federal level. This ended the guardianship of the Indians, and any remaining funds were disbursed to Indians recorded on the Earle Report or their known descendants and removed any remaining legal prohibitions against the sale of Indian lands. The Indians of the Commonwealth were no longer under its patronage and few steps were taken to care for the Indians, although a handful of the Natick and Ponkapoag continued to receive state benefits because of old age, illness and lack of kin.[140]

Massachusetts 'Indian Censuses' Natick Indians Natick Surnames Ponkapoag Indians Ponkapoag Surnames Mattakeesett Indians Mattakeesett Surnames
1848, Denney Report[141] - - 4 - - -
1849, Briggs Report[142] - - 10 - - -
1861, Earle Report[143] 12 Blodget, Pease, Jepherson 117 Bancroft, Black, Burr, Burrill, Croud, Davis, Elisha, Foster, Hall, Hunt, Jackson, Lewis, Manuel, Mooney, Myers, Roby, Smith, Stemburg, Talbot, Thomas, Toney, Williams 25 Hyatt, Joel, Prince

Post-Enfranchisement, twentieth century and present[edit]

In the 105 years between the Massachusetts Enfranchisement Act of 1869 and the creation of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs by legislative act in 1974, records on the Massachusett people are very few. Local obituaries refer to numerous 'last' of the Indians. Mary Burr, who passed in 1852 before enfranchisement, has the epithet 'last of the Punkapog' on her tombstone. Other Ponkapoag Indians also received the title, such as Daniel Crowd, who moved to Milton in the late 1860s, remembered as he was one of the last pure-blooded or mostly pure-blooded Ponkapoag.[144] In 1875, a reunion of the descendants of John Eliot proclaimed the death of the 'Last of the Natick,' most likely referring to Patience Blodgett.[145] In 1900, another Ponkapoag, Lemuel Burr, is referred to as the last, however, the article in a Cambridge newspaper at the time referred to his mother and aunt as the last of the tribe, and mentions his son, Lemuel D. Burr but goes on to claim that the deceased Burr was the last of his race.[146] Perhaps one of the last to receive this distinct honor was Jeanette Rose Beauty Bancroft Crowd (née Burrell) who passed in 1928, great-great grandmother of the current sachem of the Ponkapoag, Gill Solomon.[147]

By the twentieth century, attitudes towards Native Americans changed. The end of Manifest Destiny meant the Indians were no longer enemies of the expanding American frontier, but instead, integral and unique parts of the local landscape that were being lost. A spike in anthropological, linguistic and cultural evaluation began. Renowned Iroquoian and Algonquian culture expert Frank Speck made several trips to New England in the 1920s, collecting information on language, history, folklore and meeting with Indians, even paying respects to Mary Chapelle (née Crowd), who steadfastly proclaimed Indian identity and preserved some of the last traditional knowledge of the tribe. Speck, as well as anthropologist/linguist Gladys Tantaquidgeon, were even able to compile small word lists in the Massachusett language—albeit its Wampanoag dialect—by rememberers in the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes, respectively. Some Indians began publicly confessing Indian identity with the adoption of Plains Indian clothing and powwows, as these were the most well-known symbols of Indian culture, and began participating in pan-Indian cultural meetings and associations, aiming to pool their knowledge and re-establish ties with other Indians.[148]

Other Massachusett people quietly lived their lives. Alfred Crowd III of the Ponkapoag tribe served in World War II as did Paul Hasgell of Natick, who descends from the Thomas family that served in the Civil War, the latter having tried to get the army to list him as 'Indian' to avoid the Jim Crow policies still rampant in the U.S. Army at the time. Most participated in wider society, maintaining Indian heritage down the family lines.[149][150] Things began to change with the creation of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs. By the 1980s, most of the descendants of Indians listed on the Earle Report regrouped, seeking out and re-establishing relationships with distant relatives and creating tribal governments and received state recognition. Although not entitled to the state-to-state relationships of federally recognized tribes, the Massachusett are able to market their products as Native American made and receive a limited number of benefits from the state, such as tuition waivers for Native American students.

Contemporary tribes[edit]

Ponkapoag Massachusett[edit]

Descendants of the Neponset tribe, who later became the Praying Indians of Ponkapoag, have state recognition as the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag under the current leadership of Sachem Gil Nanepashmequin ('Feather on the moon') Solomon.[151] The members of the tribe continue to live in the Massachusett homelands along the Neponset River watershed and Boston and environs just to the south of the city.

In the 2010 US census, 85 individuals claimed Ponkapoag ancestry.[3] Membership in the tribe is restricted to the descendants of the 117 individuals of the Bancroft, Burr, Philbrick, Croud, Robbins, Davis, Black, Elisha, Hunt, Mooney, Moore, Myers, Roby, Smith, Stemberg, Hall, Jackson, Lewis, Manuel, Talbot, Thomas, Toney, Williams and Foster families recorded in the 1861 Earle Report as having connection with the former reservation.[152]

Natick Massachusett-Nipmuc[edit]

Contemporary Natick celebrate the first wedding of Natick Praying Indians celebrated inside the South Natick Church, on the grounds of the original Indian Church, in over 340 years.

Descendants of the Praying Indians of Natick have regrouped again, although the tribe has sometimes confusingly also used the name Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag, despite its membership not including descendants of the Praying Indians of Ponkapoag. The inclusion might be a reference to the location of many of the tribe's current members in Stoughton, Massachusetts, where much of the land was originally part of Ponkapoag territory. Other members lie scattered in the Greater Boston area, particularly to the south and southwest of the city.

According to the current Sunksquaw ('female sachem') Rosita Caring Hands Naticksqw Andrews, in 2011 there were a little more than 50 members.[4] Membership in the tribe is restricted to direct descendants from the twelve individuals of the Blodget, Jepherson, Pease, and Pegan families listed in the 1861 Earle Report as having connection with the former reservation at Natick.[153] Many Nipmuc can trace their ancestry back to Natick ancestors, and many Natick have both Massachusett and Nipmuc ancestry. As a result of these close links, the tribe has state recognition, albeit via their links as honorary members of Nipmuc Nation.[154] Nipmuc Nation is the representative body for descendants of the Praying town of Hassanamessit, also known as the Grafton Indians or Hassanamisco Nipmuc, but includes in its membership many descendants of the Praying Indians of Chaubunagungamaug.[155]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Colonial spelling.
  2. ^ Modern WLRP spelling.
  3. ^ a b 'American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes in the United States and Puerto Rico: 2010.' (2013). (2010 Census CPH-T-6). Table 1. American Indian and Alaska Native Population by Tribe for the United States: 2010. The Ponkapoag are erroneously listed as Wampanoag in the census.
  4. ^ a b Bob Reinert (2011-11-17). "Natick observes American Indian Heritage Month". USAG-Natick Public Affairs. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
  5. ^ Trumbull, J. H. (1903). pp. 58, 270.
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  8. ^ Hicks. N. (2006). p. 20. From muhs-, 'great' but also appearing as (mâs-) due to influence from wachu,
  9. ^ Fermino, J. L. D. (2000). Introduction to the wampanoag grammar. (Master's thesis). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. p. 25.
  10. ^ Mather, C. (1700). Wussukwhonk En Christianeue asuh peantamwae Indianog . . . An Epistle to the Christian Indians, etc. Boston, MA: Ye (The) Young Alan's Monitor.
  11. ^ Hicks, N. (2006). pp. 53, 79.
  12. ^ du Ponceau, P. S. (1822). 'Notes and Observations' in reprint of John Eliot's 1666 Indian Grammar Begun. p. vi.
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External links[edit]