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One of the key native figures in the colonial history of New Hampshire, Passaconaway was believed to have been born between 1550 and 1570, and is said to have died in 1679. He was a powerful shaman and sachem (chief) of the Pennacook, eventually becoming bashaba (chief of chiefs) of a multi-tribal confederation that drew together for mutual protection against the Mohawk Nation. In his old age Passaconaway relinquished his positions of authority to travel among the tribes and settlers in the New Hampshire-Massachusetts-Maine area. He was revered by both Native Americans and European settlers.
His native name was "Papisse Conewa", meaning, Child of the Bear, or Son of the Bear, but white settlers anglicized the name as Passaconaway. In his later years he was sometimes referred to as St. Aspenquid.
Legend holds that Passaconaway was a giant, genius, and possessed magical powers, such as making water burn, and trees and rocks dance. According to folklore, he could make dried up leaves turn green and make living snakes out of dead snake skin. It was said that he could become invisible and create thunderstorms at will.
Even before the Pilgrims' 1620 landing on the Massachusetts coast, a European ship's captain reported seeing a huge native standing atop a coastal cliff, surmising he was probably the native often referred to as Conway. European history records that Passaconaway lived at the top of the Pawtucket Falls at what is now Lowell, Massachusetts; a marker was placed there in 1935. Local New Hampshire history says that he lived and moved seasonally among various fishing and planting spots, including the Merrimack River falls in present-day Manchester, fertile islands in the river, coastal spots along the seashore, and other places along the Merrimack such as present-day Horseshoe Pond.
Another legend indicates that Passaconaway was summoned to the Plymouth area of Massachusetts by the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, asking Passaconaway to use his supernatural powers to rid the land of the Pilgrims who were building a village on the shore. At Massasoit's village, says the folklore, Passaconaway was for the first time in his life unable to bring up a storm. After conversing with the Great Spirit, Passaconaway declared that the Great Spirit had commanded him to live the rest of his life in peace with the white-faced tribes. From this time on, Passaconaway would not allow his sons or his tribe to fight with any European settlers, and counseled peace to all his native associates.
Passaconaway was one of the first native chieftains to lease land to English settlers in New England. His second son Wonalancet eventually became sachem of the Pennacook, and his oldest son Nanamocomuck became sachem of the neighboring Wachusett. His daughter Wanunchus married Montowampate, the sagamore (chief) of the Saugus tribe north of what is now Boston (their marriage was the topic of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "The Bridal of Penacook"), and daughter Nobhow married the sachem of the Pawtucket people. Historical records show that when each of Passaconaway's two oldest sons was arrested and jailed by a local white council, the Bashaba worked out with the white governor a peaceful settlement of the false charges and a release for each of his sons. On one occasion white settlers tried to arrest Passaconaway himself, but a sudden thunderstorm arose, slowing the posse, and the native emperor[dubious ] disappeared into the forest.
Local New Hampshire history says that in 1647 a white preacher, John Elliot, attempted to speak with Passaconaway but was refused audience again and again before he was finally allowed to talk with the Bashaba. Eventually the minister was invited to live with the Pennacook people and teach the elderly sachem about Christianity. Legend says that after the preacher died suddenly from an illness, Passaconaway eventually decided to step down from his position of authority, announcing before an enormous crowd at the yearly native gathering that his son Wonalancet was now sachem of the Pennacook. After this, Passaconaway spent much of his time traveling from village to village for the Great Spirit, counseling prayer and peace to all who would open their homes to him.
In October 1665, Passaconaway's daughter, Bess, wife of Nobb How, sold the land called Augumtoocooke (present-day Dracut, Massachusetts) to Captain John Evered, for the sum of four yards of "Duffill" and one pound of tobacco. Capt. Evered in turn sold tracts of the land to European families.
Legends of Passaconaway's death say that his body was buried in a cave in the sacred native mountain Agamenticus in southern Maine, and that at least one member of his people saw his spirit carried up to the Great Spirit's earthly abode of Agiocochook (Mount Washington) atop a sled pulled by wolves and covered with hundreds of animal skins given to him by his people and his fellow sachems. There he burst into flame and was carried up to the heavens to live with the Great Spirit. (Chief Passaconaway has often been confused with St. Aspinquid.)
The Kancamagus Highway passes the former village of Passaconaway, much of which is now part of the White Mountain National Forest. The village of Passaconaway once contained a sawmill, hotel and post office, as well as several farms and homes. For a few years a logging railroad ran through the area. The short-lived Passaconaway Mountain Club was based there. The former settlement is located in the incorporated town of Albany, New Hampshire. Today the area is noted for its hiking and cross-country skiing trails. The U.S. Forest Service maintains the Passaconaway Campground and the Jigger Johnson Campground in this area, as well as the historic Russell-Colbath House and adjacent cemetery.
- History of Dracut, Massachusetts, called by the Indians Augumtoocooke and before incorporation, the wildernesse north of the Merrimac. First permanent settlement in 1669 and incorporated as a town in 1701. Silas Roger Coburn (1922)
- Beals, Charles Edward, Jr., Passaconaway in the White Mountains (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1916). The author was a summer resident of the village, and later a ranger in the White Mountain National Forest. The title of the book refers to the village, not to the Pennacook leader (who had no known connection to the White Mountains).
- WMNF official website
- Beals, Charles Edward, Jr., Passaconaway in the White Mountains (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1916)
- Carter, George Calvin, "Passaconaway: The Greatest of the New England Indians" (published transcript of 1947 speech) (Manchester, NH: Granite State Press, 1947)
- Drake, Samuel Adams, "St. Aspenquid of Agamenticus," A Book of New England Legends and Folk Lore (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884), pp. 359–362
- Lyford, James O., ed., History of Concord, Vol I (Concord, NH: The Rumford Press, 1903)
- Potter, C. E., The History of Manchester (Manchester, NH: C. E. Potter, 1856)
|Wikisource has the text of the 1900 Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography article Passaconaway.|