Featured imageSamoset, visiting Wampanoag chief Massasoit, entered the settlement at Plymouth on March 16, 1621 and greeted the colonists in English.

by Mary Ellen Lepionka

The idea of private property was alien to Native Americans, but the practice of private ownership apparently was not a feature of colonial life either. A common misconception is that English settlers of the 16th and 17th centuries expected and preferred to own land privately. However, although they wanted all land to be accounted for and bounded, the colonists preferred to hold it in common for the common weal (or common wealth and well being) of the community.1 Massachusetts Bay Colony becoming the “Commonwealth of Massachusetts” reflects this economic tradition. For the first hundred years, settlers’ land was “owned” not by settlers but by the investors in or sponsors of plantations—including local governments, the colonial government, merchant princes, royal houses, or the Crown. It was “occupied” by freemen, commoners, tenant farmers, indentured servants, slaves, and Native Americans.2

Native Americans would have identified with the early colonial tradition of making woodlands, pastures, shorefronts, pathways, waterways, and plantations common lands, used in common regardless of who “owned” them. The allocation of land for family resource exploitation could be as much a source of dispute among the Indians as among the colonists. Colonial formulae for allocating agricultural land to individuals typically resulted in each head of household (including widows) holding parcels of six types of land: a house lot, a plot for tilled crops, a pasture, meadowland for hay production, marshland for thatch, and a woodlot.3 These allotments were not contiguous but were scattered throughout a settlement, with complex rights of way enabling families to get to and from all their holdings. Exceptions were contiguous areas for tillage, which were fenced in common as a “plantation” and contiguous areas for grazing cattle, the Common, pasturage to which everyone’s animals initially had equal access.4

On Cape Ann and elsewhere on coastal Essex County, because of the generally poor soil, the colonists converted most upland areas to pasturage rather than attempt to farm them. In a practice called stinting, pasturage was classified in terms of quality, the type of animal suited to it, and the maximum number of animals it would support.5 At first, for example, all of East Gloucester and the Commons (including Greater Dogtown) were almost exclusively devoted to raising cattle.6 In all the settlements, different animals were allocated to different areas, such that milk cows often were kept nearest to the town centers, with other cattle, oxen, horses, sheep, goats, and swine pastured on the fringes.

Typically, a paid herdsman gathered all the milk cows and led them to and from the best grass each day. Many communities, including Ipswich and Gloucester, also designated a “pound man”—someone responsible for gathering, “impounding”, and protecting stray animals until they could be returned to their owners. Gloucester’s Ten Pound Island was given that name as a “pound” for sheep rams (the island could seasonally sustain a maximum of ten animals) to control their breeding. Animals also needed to be protected from wolves and mountain lions (called “catamounts” by the colonists), which abounded in Essex County, attracted in part by the colonial practice of planting fish in cornrows. Bounties on wolves were paid to both colonists and Native Americans. In 1645, for example, Gloucester declared, “a bounty of 10 shillings on wolves will be paid equally to Indians and Englishmen”. In 1661 wolves and mountain lions were still being trapped for 50 shillings each.7

Milk Island, Rockport

Small coastal and riverine islands were convenient for segregating animals by species or sex. Hog Islands exist all along the coast from Maine to Virginia, including Rowley’s Hog Island and present-day Choate Island in Ipswich, aka Hog Island. Ram, Cow, Sheep, and Goat Islands also appear everywhere on New England maps. Milk Island off Pebble Beach in Rockport got its name from its use as a cow pasture during colonial times, and there was also a Cow Island in the Annisquam River. Animals were made to swim to pasturage at low tide, were ferried or poled over in barges or dugouts, or driven across artificial causeways to river islands, including causeways that originated as Native constructions.8 Today’s entrance to Rocky Neck, for example, and causeways across the Little River, Jones River, and Essex River marshes are Native in origin.

In Massachusetts Bay Colony, rules for allocating land and controlling animals were early concerns in the General Court and Courts of Assistants records. Masconomet (Masquenominet) and others complained of hogs in their clam flats as well as cattle in their corn, and some of the earliest laws address these complaints. In a 1640 ruling, for example, hogs were to be ringed or yoked and confined to protect both crops and shellfish beds:

“It is ordered by this Court, and by the Authoritie therof; that every Township within this Jurisdiction shall henceforth have power, and are hereby required from time to time to make Orders for preventing all harms by swine in corn, meadow, pastures and gardens; as also to impose penalties according to their best discretion: and to appoint one of their Inhabitants by Warrant under the hands of the Select-men, or the Constable where no Select-men are, to levie all such Fines and Penalties by them in that case imposed (if the Town neglect it). And where Towns border each upon other, whose Orders may be various, satisfaction shall be made according to the Orders of that Town where the damage is done. But if the swine be sufficiently ringed and yoaked, as the Orders of the Town to which they belong doeth require, then where no fence is, or that it be insufficient through which the swine come to trespasse, the Owner of the land or fence shall bear all damages.”9

In 1648 the General Court also mandated that fences be built to keep colonists’ cattle from destroying the Indians’ cornfields:

“It is ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof, that in all places, the English and such others as co-inhabit within our Jurisidiction shall keep their cattle from destroying the Indians corn, in any ground where they have right to plant; and if any of their corn be destroyed for want of fencing, or herding; the town shall make satisfaction, and shall have power among themselves to lay the charge where the occasion of the damage did arise. Provided that the Indians shall make proof that the cattle of such a town, farm, or person did the damage. And for encouragement of the Indians toward the fencing in their corn fields, such towns, farms or persons, whose cattle may annoy them that way, shall direct, assist and help them in felling of trees, ryving, and sharpening of rayls, & holing of posts: allowing one English-man to three or more Indians. And shall also draw the fencing into place for them, and allow one man a day or two toward the setting up the same, and either lend or sell them tools to finish it. Provided that such Indians, to whom the Countrie, or any town hath given, or shall give ground to plant upon, or that shall purchase ground of the English shall fence such their corn fields or ground at their own charge as the English doe or should doe; and if any Indians refuse to fence their corn ground (being tendred help as aforesaid) in the presence and hearing of any Magistrate or selected Townsmen being met together they shall keep off all cattle or lose one half of their damages. And it is also ordered that if any harm be done at any time by the Indians unto the English in their cattle; the Governour or Deputie Governour with two of the Assistants or any three Magistrates or any County Court may order satisfaction according to law and justice.”10

It may be inferred from the wording of this court order that Native Americans could lawfully be landowners as well as occupiers. An earlier statute declares as much:

“It is Declared and Ordered by this Court and the Authority thereof: That what Lands any of the Indians in this Jurisdiction have possessed or improved, by subduing the same, they have just right unto, according to that in Gen. 1.28 & Chap. 9.1 & Psal. 115,16….

That Indians will be brought to Civility and will live with the English in Civility and Order, [and] That such Indians shall have allotments among the English according to the custom of the English in like case.

Further it is ordered, that if upon good experience, there shall be a competent number of Indians brought on to Civility, so as to be Capable of a Township, upon their request to the General Court, they shall have grant of land undisposed of for a Plantation as the English have.

And further it is Ordered by this Court, that if any Plantation or Person of the English shall offer injuriously to put any Indians off their Planting Grounds, or Fishing-places, upon their complaint and proof thereof, they shall have relief in any of the Courts of Justice among the English as the English have.”11

The decree goes on to say that all other land grants will be made only under the authority of the General Court and “at the invitation of the Indians”. But there was also a lot of ambivalence about dealing with the Indians at that time. In other decrees of the 1630s and 1640s the Court attempted to corner the market on the Indian fur trade; license truck houses (trading posts); ban the sale of alcohol, firearms, fishing vessels, and horses to Indians; and require religious education for them while prohibiting any expression of pagan worship (on pain of the stocks or whipping post).12

Seven Nipmuc landowners in Hassanemesit (Grafton) were given proprietors’ shares

Records show that Native Americans of Essex County received justice in English courts—witness, for example, how in 1700 Masquenominet’s grandchildren sued Gloucester in court for back rent, and won—but more often Indians were prosecuted as defendants. The road to Civility was heavily mined. Yet, prior to King Philip’s War of 1675, many Native Americans—how many we will never know—received land grants and fenced their farms, often under given or assumed English names, making local assimilation difficult to trace. Even after that time Native Americans were able to become landowners. In 1728, for example, seven Nipmuc landowners in Hassanemesit (Grafton) were given proprietors’ shares to establish a reservation that still exists there today.13 In Salem and Natick in the mid-1700s Native Americans with the surnames Trask and Wiser, respectively, paid property taxes.14

Thus, the English at first attempted to integrate native people into their (assumed to be superior) way of life and to apply English law equally to everyone “brought into Civility”. “Civilized” Indians could own land and get free assistance in fencing their farms and learning animal husbandry. And any English who interfered with their rights could be prosecuted and justice obtained under English law. One can’t help but wonder what we would be like today as a nation if those early intentions had been carried out and the orders enforced. Avarice and opportunism ruled on both sides, though. The price of Civility—catastrophic loss of culture—proved too high. And then all Indians lost their rights when some went to war. European discovery of the Western Hemisphere and its riches had scaled and could not be undone. But even when colonists were still few enough in number to have been driven away completely, what happened only would have been postponed. History is nothing if not patient, its causes rolling, waiting for impacts.


1. The concept of common weal is set forth in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which states, “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen [covenants] with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.”

2. In the 17th Century, economic and political changes changed English lords from a medieval system, dependent on royal land grants and a peasantry tied to the land, into absentee landlords in a capitalist system—independent of royalty but largely dependent on free labor in the form of tenant farmers. This dynamic, in which the concept of ownership becomes complicated, is succinctly explained in Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution (2002): 650-651. In New England, the development of commonwealths and joint proprietorships run by occupiers of the land is a reflection of these changes.

3. For a perspective on the allocation of types of parcels, see Gloucester Records [1642-1874]: Assorted town records such as records of deeds (1701-1914), See especially the Records of land grants, division bounds, thatch lots, herbage lots and wood lots, and highway. This is on microfilm at the Sawyer Free Library and also at the Massachusetts Archives in Boston (A 632).

4. The concept and development of plantations and commons is described in Howard Russell’s 1976 book, A long, deep furrow: Three centuries of farming in New England.

5. Find an excellent explanation of stinting as an English common land allocation practice and its impact on wealth in a 2010 article by Winchester and Straughton in Agricultural History Review 58 (1): 30– 48 .

6. See Cronon 1983 book for details on colonial land use patterns in New England in which uplands were devoted to raising cattle. See also Kevin McBride, “Transformation by Degree: Eighteenth Century Native American and Colonial Land Use” (2002-2003), in Cross Paths 5 (4). The colonial practice of drowning fringe forests to enlarge freshwater marshes is described in a 2011 U. S. Environmental Protection Agency paper published in Geology (May 2): Settlers Likely Responsible for Wetlands Growth.

7. Gloucester Timeline (Ray 2000): 16; 159-160.

8. See the Gloucester Archives, Town Records 1642-1714 and Town Records 1694-1792, as well as Babson, for details on the geographic segregation of domestic animals on offshore and river islands in Gloucester. The existence of Native-built causeways is evident from Samuel de Champlain’s maps of coastal Native settlements.

9. Mass. Bay Colony General Court Records 1:49.

10. The 1648 laws are also in the General Court Records. See also Virginia Anderson’s article, “King Philip’s Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England”, in The William and Mary Quarterly 51:4, 601-624.

11. The statutes declaring that Indians can have equality with English settlers are in the Mass. Bay Colony General Laws, Chapters 1.28 and 9.1.

12. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Part 1 (1656-1658) (Nathaniel Shurtleff, 1864), and Part 2 (1661-1674): 289. The rights of Indians are also recorded by Rev. William Hubbard of Ipswich (1621-1704) in his “A General History of New England” (Boston 1848).

13. Thomas Doughton, Notes on the Nipmuc Indian Reservation at Hassanamesit or Hassanamisco and the Nipmuc People of Hassanamesit,
later Grafton, Massachusetts. In Hassanamesit or “Place of the Small Stones” (1997). See also the Hassanamisco Indian Museum in Grafton.

14. Wiser Family Research (Ron Wiser, 2000). See also Ellen Knight’s 2006 article in Wiser Newsletter 11 (2) at Nanepashemet.pdf. Early records of the Trask family of Salem are in the Essex Institute Historical Collections 1: 193, 2: 15, 3: 234-235, 3: 266, 5: 192, 6:130, 8: 24, and 12: 121.

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