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Massachusett (Massachusett)
Muhsachuweesut/Mâsach8sut (Wôpanâak)
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)[1]
50 Natick Massachusett-Nipmuc (2013)[2]
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 indigenous name for 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 almost 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 that the indigenous people lacked natural immunity. Their territories, on the more fertile and flat coastlines, with access to coastal resources, was 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 Indians 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 Blacks, recent immigrants and other Indians; 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 people took their name from the original name for the Great Blue Hill, a sacred hill overlooking Boston and its harbor, situated on the borders of the towns of Canton and Milton. More properly, the name of the people was Massachuseuk or Massachuseeak (Muhsachuweeseeak /məhsatʃəwiːsiːak/ or dialectal Mâsach8seeak /maːsatʃuːsiːak/) as 'Massachusett', with the locative suffix, specifically refers to the Great Blue Hill and the surrounding area.

Name derivation
Colonial spelling miss-[3] wadchu[4] -ees -et[5]
Wôpanâak modern spelling (muhs-)[6] (wachuw)[7] (-ees) (-ut)[5]
Pronunciation /məhs/ /watʃəw/ /iːs/ /ət/
Meaning 'great' or 'big' 'mountain' diminutive suffix locative suffix
(Muhsachuweesut) /məhsatʃəwiːsət/, dialectal (Mâsach8sut) /maːsatʃuːsət/

The English settlers applied the term 'Massachusett' to the region, the people and the language; the earliest English colonial records reveal several quite variant spellings such as 'Masichewsetta,' 'Masstachusit,' 'Masathulets,' 'Masatusets,' 'Massachussett,' etc. The current form was likely influenced by 'Moswetuset,' sometimes used as a name for all the Massachusett people, as Moswetuset Hummock, in Quincy, Massachusetts, was an important ceremonial meeting place of the sachems of the Massachusett tribes, it likely means 'arrow-shaped hill.'[8] All the Native peoples of New England were generally referred to as 'Indians.' Through the influence of the English settlers, the people also began to adopt Massachusett to refer to the people and language as well as the self-appellation Indian to differentiate themselves from the English colonists.[9]

French sources of the early seventeenth century refer to the coastal peoples of New England as the Almouchiquois or Armouchiquois, probably from an unknown Native people of what is now Canada and likely indicating 'dog people.' Although the term extended to the coastal groups of Eastern Abenaki tribes, it specifically referred to the coastal peoples of southern New England such as the Massachusett.[10] In the late colonial period, the French generically referred to the peoples of central and southern New England as Loup, or 'Wolf people.'[11]

As the Massachusett were reduced to the handful of 'Praying town' settlements, the people were sometimes referred to as 'Praying Indians,' and referred to by the name of the settlement. For example, the Praying Indians of Natick were often just called the 'Natick tribe' or 'Natick Indians.' As the Praying towns were often formed from amalgamations of tribes, it was more common for the Indians in the late seventeenth century to emphasize their Christian religion and hybrid culture of English and Native customs, but 'Massachuset' or 'Massachusett,' as these variants are used today, refer to the people as a whole.[9]


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 traditional homeland of the Massachusett people was located in the area covered by Greater Boston, including the Boston Harbor Islands, and the interior roughly up to the fall line, where they came into contact with Nipmuc tribes, and as far south as what is now the city of Bridgewater and the town of Pembroke, Massachusetts, on the edge with territory of the Wampanoag. Villages traditionally associated with the Massachusett include the following:[12]

Massachusett settlements[12]

Titicut Street Bridge, over the Taunton River between Bridgewater and Middleborough, located in what was once the Praying town of Titicut.

Three official Praying towns were established for the Massachusett peoples, with Natick and Ponkapoag, the oldest, founded in what is the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Titicut and Mattakeeset, established in the Plymouth Colony. After the conclusion of King Phhilip's War in 1676, Mattakeeset and the smaller Praying Indian communities were lost, leaving only Natick, Ponkapoag and Titicut, the latter sold off in 1762, leaving only Natick and Ponkapoag until all the remaining Indian lands were sold in the early nineteenth century.

Praying Indian settlements

  • Official Praying towns
    • Natick
    • Ponkapoag
    • Mattakeeset
    • Titicut
  • Praying Indian districts
    • Cowate
    • Magaehnak
    • Pequimmit

Massachusett reservations by early nineteenth century[12]

  • Natick
  • Ponkapoag

The Massachusett mostly inhabit their traditional area, consisting of Boston, Massachusetts and its environs, and almost all the Massachusett people today are located less than thirty miles from the city, such as the communities of Stoughton, Canton, Mansfield, Framingham and Bridgewater. Due the population disruption and movement in the aftermath of King Philip's War, the 'Mohawk' Black Indians of St. David's Island, Bermuda, Stockbridge-Munsee (Muhheakanneuw-Munsíiw) and Brothertown peoples settled in Wisconsin due to Indian removal, the Abenaki of northern New England and Quebec and many members of neighboring peoples likely have distant Massachusett ancestry in their bloodlines.[13]


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.[14]

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 south-eastern Massachusetts, especially Cape Cod and the Islands and north-eastern south-eastern 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.[15]

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;[16] 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).[17]

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;[18] the contemporary Massachusett tribes do not participate, and have no speakers, but continue to use the colonial orthography and colonial translations as sacred texts.[19]


Contacts with Europeans (ca. 1570–1621) and English Colonial Period (1621–1776)[edit]

Contacts with Europeans and the arrival of English settlers[edit]

Depiction of the Almouchicois Indians—the French term for the Massachusett-speaking peoples of southern New England by the explorer Samuel de Champlain. Champlain visited villages on islands in Boston Harbor and anchored offshore Shawmut during his exploration in 1605.

Various European nations sailed past the shores of New England beginning in the middle of the sixteenth century; the Native Americans would occasionally make encounters with the ships sailing just off the coast, English fishermen drying their catch on shore before returning home and blackbirding ships with crews that would abduct passengers for slavery or indentured servitude. Both Squanto and Samoset were able to greet the Pilgrims in English, Squanto via abduction and forced impressment as a translator and crewman on voyages to North America, and Samoset from contacts with English fishermen on his home island off Maine.

The Massachusett received Samuel de Champlain in 1605, who had sailed south from what is now Québec Province, Canada with an Algonquin guide and his Almouchicois wife as an interpreter, as she was said to speak their language. Champlain spent a night just offshore Shawmut, trading with the men that visited the ship, and may have even went ashore a Boston Harbor island to meet the people there.[20] John Smith extensively mapped the coast and noted its suitability for English colonization and, like Champlain before him, explored the islands of Boston Harbor, cast anchor around Shawmut to conduct trade with approaching Indians and even landed ashore and met with the Massachusett leaders of Wessagusett and Quonnahasset.[21]

Engravings depicting an English Puritan man and woman. Through immigration and increase, the English settlers outnumbered the Indians by the 1630s, a decade after the founding of the first settlements in the region.

These early contacts came with a great cost, especially the introduction of pathogens to which the Native Americans lacked immunity, leading to devastating virgin soil epidemics. 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%.[22]

The high mortality rates in the densely populated coastal regions shifted power in the region, exacerbated by competing European powers and their respective sphere of influence; the Massachusett are widely believed to have been a dominant tribe in the region, with a large population, fairly fertile soils for the region and abundance of seacoast resources, the Massachusett were likely the head of a tribal confederacy that exacted tribute from neighboring peoples including the Pawtucket, Wampanoag, Nipmuc and most tribes of the Pioneer Valley.[23] As the interior tribes escaped some of the first few rounds of epidemics, the Massachusett were no longer able to fend off attacks by traditional enemies such as the Tarratines (either Abenaki or Mi'kmaq) or the Mohawk, with the Tarratines armed by the French and the Mohawk armed by the Dutch as European powers competed for access to the fur trade; the Massachusett were also unable to defend themselves against the English in the short-lived Wessagusset Colony in a skirmish in 1624, which led to the death of the local sachem Pecksuot and several others.[24]

By the 1630s, the English settlers became an overwhelming majority, not just in the portions of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies under their nominal control but in New England in general; this was in part due to several epidemics, particularly the 1633 smallpox outbreak that not only afflicted the coastal peoples, but was a widespread pestilence that struck deep into the interior. Many of the English settlers took it as a sign of divine providence that the English were chosen to settle and Christianize the land, as the epidemics of the 1630s effectively cleared the land of their presence;[25] as the Native population fell, the English population grew. This was in part due to natural increase as well as the influx of roughly 20,000 English colonists between 1620-1640, with the great majority arriving in the latter period after the major epidemics of the 1630s; the Indians quickly became a small minority in their own homeland, and increasingly came under influence and control of the English, resulting in an uneasy truce. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Native peoples were called to the General Court to sign the 1644 Act of Submission, which forced the laws of the English and officially gave permission to begin the Christian mission to the Indians in return for protection and assistance. With time, however, the Act of Submission was amended, with more repressive measures on the Indians as time progressed.[26]

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

The Eliot Church in south Natick. The church was built in 1828 on the site of the original Praying town of Natick's Indian church and meetinghouse.

The founding charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony called upon the English settlers to establish Christianity among the Native peoples present. John Eliot was the most notable, and was known as the 'Apostle to the Indians.' Eliot answered the call, learning the local language through a series of interpreters, particularly his servant Cockenoe, likely a Montaukett who spoke it as a second language, and John Sassamon, raised in indentured servitude in a White household, who agreed to assist Eliot. With the help of interpreters, Eliot attempted to reach Sachem Cutshemakin's people at Neponset in 1646, but was rebuffed. Eliot was better trained and linguistically adept later that year, and converted Sachem Waban's people at Nonantum.

Eliot petitioned the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to grant land to the Indians for the establishment of a Christian township of Indians, which occurred in 1651. Construction of the church and meetinghouse began right away, and the settlement was later joined by numerous Nipmuc people that lived just to the west of the region. Cutshemakin later submitted to Eliot and had his tribe converted, and the second Praying town, Ponkapoag (modern Canton, Massachusetts) was established in 1654 for the Neponset tribe.[27] Eventually, twelve more of these 'Indian plantations' were established, mostly in Nipmuc, Pennacook or Pawtucket areas; the inhabitants came to be known as 'Praying Indians' and the settlements as 'Praying towns.'

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.[28] 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. 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.[29]

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

The Praying Indians were forced to submit to the colonial authority, accept its laws and institutions, adopt certain English customs, conform to Puritan Christianity and were strongly pressured to keep away from Indians that refused to convert and kept more traditional lifestyles, but otherwise were semi-autonomous; the Indians were able to preserve their language, which was the language of the church thanks to Eliot's training of Indian missionaries and translation of the Bible, and drumming called the faithful to the pulpits instead of the church bell. The Praying Indians were disadvantaged because the validity of their conversions were questioned by the English, and general prejudice against Indians in general;[30] the Praying Indians were despised by traditionalists, who did not receive favors or protections from the English and disavowed them for abandoning Native ways. Adoption of English husbandry and agriculture and dependence on English goods as trade items made the Indians dependent on the English economy, but as they were restricted to remaining in the Praying towns and trade with Indians was a colonial monopoly, the Praying Indians at best eked out existence as subsistence farmers on the outskirts of English colonies, indebted to the unfair credit and inflationary schemes of English neighbors; the paternalistic civilizing and evangelizing mission behind the development of the Praying towns was adopted in the neighboring Plymouth Colony, and has many parallels with the Indian reservation as they exist today.[31]

In addition to the official Praying towns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Plymouth Colony (which was later merged into the Province of Massachusetts in 1692) established similar Praying towns for the Massachusett in their boundary, including Titicut (now Bridgewater, Massachusetts) and Mattakeesett (now Pembroke, Massachusetts). Several other establishments of Massachusett Praying Indians, although never official Praying towns, were Cowate, just outside of Natick; Magaehnak, near Sudbury, probably about Concord, Massachusetts and Pequimmit, close to Ponkapoag in what is now Stoughton, Massachusetts.[32]

King Philip's War (1675–1676) and aftermath[edit]

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 coexistence between the English settlers and the original population of Native Americans quickly turned into tension as the English flexed their political, military and cultural muscle over the local inhabitants; the Indians were weary of the increase in the population and military strength of the English. The Massachusett and other peoples had the might of the English demonstrated in their devastating reduction of the Pequot in the Pequot War of 1636–1638.[33]

The colonies began to enact stricter rules against the Indians. Traditional religious practices were outlawed, and fines were imposed upon those caught being shamans or consulting them. All Indians, Christian or not, were forced to observe the Sabbath by refraining from activity.[34] Other laws dictated which towns and which times of day the Indians were to avoid, kept the Indians dependent on the English for their goods since direct trade with the Indians was made a colonial monopoly. Sale of weapons, ships, alcohol and other valuables, intermarriage with the English and living too close to English settlements all became banned;[35] these regulations angered the Indians as it forced assimilation, submission and starved them as they were forced into the English monetary society without protections. Land was the commodity, as it was needed by the English for their ever-growing populations; the Europeans, who viewed the death of the Indians as God's plan to prepare the New World for them, led them to hold any regard or want of the Indians, despite the success of the colonies dependent on Indian aid. The question of all unimproved lands open to settlement, infuriated the Native peoples.[35]

Metacomet, whose brother was likely killed by the English, had his Massachusett interpreter to the English, John Sassamon, murdered, which led to the Plymouth Colony hanging several of his men, sparking King Philip's War. Metacomet or Philip, called a meeting of the regional tribal alliances and rose against English rule. Although many of the Praying Indians ran to support Metacomet, most remained neutral, and a good number even served as scouts, guides and interpreters for the English; the Praying Indians were attacked on both sides, by the Indians who believed they sold out the Indian rights to the land, and the English. As the war escalated, the Praying Indians were rounded up at gunpoint and forcibly interned on islands in Boston Harbor, most notably Deer Island, where they were provided little food, shelter or clothing and most perished of starvation, exposure and illness. Even the Mattakeesett, who, unlike most of the Plymouth Colony Indians that survived the fighting, suffered a similar fate on Clark's Island in 1675 for fear they might join Metacomet and his Wampanoag and pan-Indian alliance. Although the Indians that fought alongside Metacomet were successful in early campaigns, heavy losses of men and the scorched earth practices of the English forced the Indians into submission.[36]

Many of the Indians, whether or not they participated, were executed, expelled or sold into slavery in the West Indies. For a decade or more after, the Indians suffered localized massacres, retaliatory attacks or were forced off their land. After peace was restored, the Indians tried to return to their lands, only to find most of their homes destroyed or occupied by English settlers. Of the Praying towns Eliot established, Natick and Ponkapoag, and two others, were re-opened while the rest were revoked by the colonial government and the Indians barred from returning. Many of the Indians chose to flee to safety to the north or west, assimilating into the tribes that would accept them. For the Indians that remained, this was the last effort at resistance to English rule because they were now numerically disadvantaged and the post-war population was probably only half of what it was.[37]

Return to Reservations and Late Colonial Period (ca. 1681–1776)[edit]

The Indians returned to the Praying towns after the war, although these lands and other areas came simply to be known as 'reserves' or 'reservations' but support for the Indian mission slowed to a trickle, and many Indians returned to find their lands usurped or faced hostility from English neighbors. Natick's population temporarily swelled with Nipmuc from the early closures of Okommakamesit which was ceded in 1685 and Makunkokoag where the Indians were banned from settling;[38] the influx was short lived. A small trickle of Indians continued to travel northward to seek their relations among the Abenaki. Many chose to join the Wampanoag at Mashpee and Aquinnah, as they were able to retain a large land base, spoke a dialect of the same language and were close to the whaling ports where men could seek employment, and a minor sachem named Noohtooksaet was known to have led a small contingent of Massachusett to Noepe where they were adopted into the Aquinnah tribe.[39]

The rights to Indian land, separate schools and religious institutions and use of language were restricted as English neighbors gained footholds. Natick retained the Massachusett language in the church and as the language of town records until 1721, the same year that the English—and a monolingual English speaker with no familiarity to the language or its people—was appointed the minister.[40] Peabody used his position to persuade the Natick to sell some land to the English and to accept English congregants. Indians nevertheless held as the dominant faction of the town and maintained positions in the church leadership into the 1750s when Natick became an English town, with a confusing patchwork of Indian common lands, Indian homesteads, land leased to English tenants and lands in between owned outright by the English, with the language beginning to dye out in the community at this time; the reservation lands in Titicut (now Bridgewater, Massachusetts) were sold in 1743, although a few families maintained private land. By the 1750s, their population had fallen too few to support a separate church, but the new parish church built near its original site featured segregated pews, reserved for Indians and Blacks, at the back.[41] Any remnants of traditional leadership and autonomy were ended in 1743, when the provincial government appointed a guardian to restrict illegal sales of lands and serve as mediators with the courts and government. However, the guardian for Natick was initially appointed to oversee the sale of timber, which had become a rare commodity in the mostly deforested New England of the late eighteenth century, and many took advantage of lack of supervision to embezzle funds or conduct dubious land sales.[42][43]

Reduced to wards of the colony, the lack of land fragmented Indian communities and led to extreme poverty; the land base of Ponkapoag, for instance, was reduced from 1,000 acres (~404.69 hectares) to only 411 acres (~166.33 hectares) in 1757. With only their land of value, Indians were often forced to sell land to cover medical expenses, repairs to their buildings, court fees or debts. A harsh winter and the eleven orphans of Samuel Mohoo so drained the common funds, the guardian of Ponkapoag sold land in 1769, 1773 and 1776.[44] Without land to farm or forage, Indians were forced to seek employment and settle in the de facto segregated sections of cities. Many moved between temporary employment, seeking housing with relatives or finding temporary housing near employment, often near any remaining Indian family or lands. Men were sought for the growing whaling cities, where any Indian, regardless of tribe, were welcomed as crewmen, and a smaller number worked fishing and merchant vessels; when the season was over, men could work as laborers. Women traveled peddling traditional baskets and herbal medicines, or with children, worked as domestics in English homes.[45]

Many men from Natick and Ponkapoag served with distinction as guides, interpreters, scouts and soldiers in units such as Gorham's Rangers in 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). Many of the Abenaki on the side of the French were refugees from southern New England, pitting some Indians against their kin. Many Native Americans also died in service of the American Revolutionary War.[46][47]

American Independence (1776) to present[edit]

Post-independence and nineteenth century[edit]


A century more of participation in wars against the French and the huge tolls of the American Revolution had enormous impacts on the population of the Massachusett and other indigenous peoples of Massachusetts. Even in the nineteenth century, Indians still had higher mortality rates than their English—later to be called English-American—neighbors to the plagues that nearly decimated their populations at the beginning of European contact; the wars not only took a heavy toll on the men in the community, but upon their return, most succumbed to disease and worse, brought it back to their communities. The particular loss of men in the community led to a very significant gender imbalance, as the Indian communities were left with only women of all ages, old men and young children. In a letter sent to the Massachusetts General Court some time after the American Revolution, the Indians of Natick wrote, "... 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."[49] What men did remain were limited to the same professions of the previous century, particularly whaling which had grown into a true industry, but was nevertheless quite dangerous with a good number of men lost at sea and taken away from their communities for long periods of time.[45]

Intermarriage, which had begun as a trickle after the French and Indian Wars accelerated after the American Revolution. Indian women often chose Black slaves as their lovers and husbands; the reasons for intermarriage particularly between Indian women and Black men were numerous. Slavery in Massachusetts, which was not abolished until 1781, imported mainly men for work as manual laborers, and thus suffered a reciprocal gender imbalance; the children of such unions were not born into slavery, as they inherited the free status of the mother according to the laws of the time. Indian women also found themselves employment as domestics in White households, thus finding them in close contact with Black slaves. Intermarriage with White men was less frequent, due to banishment from families and anti-miscegenation laws, but nevertheless, these rates spiked to, with men often pariahs and those of lesser means.[45]

The Indians thought of the children of these unions as part of the tribe, as they inherited the status of the mother as per traditional Algonquian matrilineality, but they had to maintain kinship and social ties to other Indians and the community, and thus enabled them to claim ownership to whatever remaining common lands existed, although non-Indian spouses were effectively prevented from participating in Indian affairs or claiming ownership to Indian property, although quite a few lands were still dispossessed as a result of non-Indian spouses alienating the land. Tensions in the communities also arose, as the few Indian men were probably threatened by the intrusion of outsiders in the community. Although Indian features were still clearly present, the Indians disappear from the record on account of two fronts. Romantic notions of the 'noble savage' idealized in such works as The Last of the Mohicans led many to believe that 'real' Indians were long gone, as cultural and racial comparison led many to write off the mixed-race 'mongrel Indians' that had acculturated after two centuries of assimilation had erased their claim to legitimacy, unlike the newly subjugated indigenous peoples of the expanding western frontier;[45] the Black Indians as a result were denied Indian heritage because only pure-blooded Indians were considered Indian and any drop of African descent, because of the 'one-drop rule,' led to classification as Black.[50] By the time of the first Federal Census in 1790, and in most local censuses conducted in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or at the municipal level, Indian disappears as a category, with most known Indians labelled as 'Black,' 'Negro,' 'African,' 'Colored' or 'Mulatto' depending on the perceptions of African admixture, based on physical appearance, of the census takers.[45]

End of the reservations[edit]

The guardian of Ponkapoag sold most of the land in 1827; a small plot was not sold until 1840, but Indians had already been restricted from its use.[51] To raise funds for the aging population of Natick, the guardian sold the last land of the tribe in 1828;[52] the end of the reservations did not necessarily end the presence of Indians in the area, nor did it dissolve the role of the guardians in administering funds in the tribe.

The loss of the Indian common lands did not end Indian connection to traditional areas, but weakened Indian society from communal to familial. For instance, the Peagan family, one of the few Natick families to still have a Massachusett surname, disappear from Natick records but people with that surname show up in later reports on the Chaubunagungamaug (Dudley) Nipmuck, probably because marriage between Indians occurred and due to the close familial connections between many Dudley Nipmuck families and Natick. In Ponkapoag, Rebecca Davis had lived in Boston most of her life, but returned every late autumn to visit friends and family, presumably other Ponkapoag Indians, and stocked up on jellies and other foodstuffs well into her seventies.[53] Roughly a third of the Ponkapoag were known to reside in Canton, most having bought out or were allotted lands from the last of the reservation; the rest of the Ponkapoag had dispersed, settling in the colored sections of small cities on the outskirts of Boston or in the city itself, but like Rebecca Davis, returned to the region sporadically to pay visits to friends and family.[54]

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.'[55]

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.[56]

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.[57] 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.[58]

Massachusetts 'Indian Censuses' Natick Indians Natick Surnames Ponkapoag Indians Ponkapoag Surnames Mattakeesett Indians Mattakeesett Surnames
1848, Denney Report[59] - - 4 - - -
1849, Briggs Report[60] - - 10 - - -
1861, Earle Report[61] 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.[62] 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.[63] 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.[64] 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.[65]

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.[66]

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.[67][68] 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.[69] 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.[1] 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.[70]

Natick Massachusett-Nipmuc[edit]

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.[2] 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.[71] 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 the their links as honorary members of Nipmuc Nation.[72] 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.[73]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]