Who Were the Agawam Indians, Really?

The following article is written by Mary Ellen Lepionka of Gloucester. Image above is from the Ipswich Riverwalk Mural by Alan Pearsall

It’s hard for people to change their stories—so embedded in deep time and official canon, so wedded to civic pride, expensive sometimes to modify—even when there is good reason to do so, such as a better explanation or a closer truth. I hope it will be possible nevertheless to change public knowledge about the Native Americans who lived here and that getting closer to the truth will be worth it.

Stories about the history of Ipswich report incorrectly that Masconomet was a chief or sachem of the Agawam tribe and ruled a sovereign territory called Wonnesquamsauke, which the English anglicized as Agawam. But this is not so.

Alan Pearsall’s portrayal on the Ipswich Riverwalk mural of the Agawam camp along the Ipswich River, which became the site of Ipswich

First, Masconomet or Masconomo was a Pawtucket. His given Pawtucket name was Quonopkonat, and he later received the honorific name Masquenomoit (pronounced mask wen o moy it) from the Nipmuc, to whom he was related by marriage. This is the name Samuel English, who was literate, wrote in reference to his grandfather. The honorific, meaning something like “He who vanquished a black bear”, is spelled in many ways and was corrupted in English to Masconomet or Masconomo.

Second, Masconomet was not the chief of a tribe. He was a sagamore or sagamon—not the same thing as a sachem (pronounced saw kum) or chief. He was the hereditary leader of a band of co-residing Pawtucket families related through patrilineal descent—not the same thing as a tribe. Prior to English colonization the Pawtucket were never organized as a tribe, although their closest relations, the Pennacook of New Hampshire, may have been. Thus, before the English applied European political concepts to the Native Americans they encountered, “Agawam” was never the name of any tribe.

Masconomet, from the Riverwalk Mural painted by Alan Pearsall
Masconomet, from the Riverwalk Mural painted by Alan Pearsall

Third, Masconomet and his people did not occupy a sovereign territory. Their main village was Wamesit (pronounced Wah me sit) in Lowell, and until the last 500 years or so they migrated seasonally between Wamesit and villages on the Essex County coast from Newburyport to Salem. Those villages included Agawam, which was indeed their name for their village and its river and not an anglicization. Its correct translation is Aga (“Beyond” or “Other side of”) + wam (“The marsh”). Old accounts and maps contain diverse spellings of the name, which was misattributed to the people and a territory rather than just the village along with its river and planting areas (for prior to European contact the Pawtucket were farmers as well as hunters, fishers, and gatherers).

The other principal Pawtucket villages included Kwaskwaikikwen on the north (written as Quascacunquen or Wessacucon, later Newbury) and Nahumkeak (written as Naumkeag, later Salem-Beverly) on the south. Quascacunquen means “Best (or perfect) place for planting (corn)” and does not in any way refer to a waterfall on the Parker River as local histories all claim. Naumkeag means “Where there are eels” or “At the eel fishery” or “Place of eel abundance” and does not mean “fishing place” or refer to “quiet waters” (although eels do prefer them).

Other villages were located on the Annisquam River and Chebacco Lake, chebacco meaning “the area in between” (the Agawam and Annisquam rivers). All the villages were fortified against Tarrantine (Mi’Kmaq) attack by sea, and Masconomet routinely visited (and was visited by) these villages from his seat at Agawam. Masconomet’s principal residence was probably Sagamore Hill between Argilla Road and Labor in Vain Creek, overlooking Fox Creek and the southwestern flank of Hog Island, the attested site of a native plantation. Masconomet’s principal fort was on Castle Island though there probably were watch towers on all nearby hills. He offered land to John Winthrop Jr. (necessitating his move to Hog Island), with the goal of enlisting the English in Pawtucket defense.)

The mistranslation of the few remaining native place names we have in eastern Essex County stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of who “the Agawam Indians” really were. They were not Massachuset or Narraganset and did not speak a dialect of either language. They were Pawtucket whose ancestors came from northern New England, and they spoke a dialect of Western Abenaki. There is documentary evidence that they could communicate with the Nipmuc but needed interpreters to talk to other speakers of Massachuset, including the Wampanoags, or else made recourse to the patois they used in trade. Both Pawtucket and Nipmuc, which early French linguists referred to as Loup A and Loup B, are regarded as extinct languages. Present-day language revival programs have given us enough Abenaki to attempt new translations, however, and this is what I’ve tried to do.

Sagamore Passachonaway “Son of the Bear” was a spiritual leader and the last great Eastern chief of the local Indians. Thousands of Indians attended his funeral in the White Mountains. Image from the Ipswich Riverwalk mural by Alan Pearsall

Here is what I have so far (using traditional spellings):

  • Agawam: “Beyond the marsh” (as viewed from Newbury on the north)
  • Annisquam: “End of the marsh” (as viewed from Agawam on the north)
  • Wamesit: “Room for all” (the marsh goers)
  • Pennacook: “Where there are groundnuts” (referring to a tuber used as a staple food)
  • Quascacunquen: “Best place for planting” (corn)
  • Chebacco: “Area in between” (the Ipswich and Annisquam rivers)
  • Naumkeag: “Where there are eels” (referring to the Bass River in Beverly)
  • Winniahdin: “In the vicinity of the heights” (referring to the west bank of the Annisquam River between the Cut and Little River, below “The Heights” and Thomson Mountain)
  • Agamenticus: “Beyond the mountain rising from the small tidal river” (referring to West Gloucester beyond Mt. Ann, as viewed from Chebacco on the north)
  • Wingaersheek (an English—not Dutch—corruption of Wingawecheek): “Where there are sea whelk” (the shell used to make wampum). Wingawecheek most likely was the name of a village in West Gloucester on Atlantic Ave., behind the beach by that name and opposite the Jones River Saltmarsh; it was not the Indian name for Cape Ann as misunderstood by early settlers and repeated ever since in local histories.

References and sources of information

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8 replies »

  1. this is great! i’d like to know more about the Indians who settled in Agawam feeding hills near ‘still brook’ ‘brook with no name’.

    • Agawam MA is 120 miles from the Agawam that became Ipswich, but I think the word “Agawam” may have had the same meaning to both groups. I have many interpretations of the word Agawam as “The fishing station”, “Ground overflowed by water”, and “Pleasant place between the waters”

      • Agawam really means “other side of the marsh”. Geographically, it is the area from Great Neck to the end of Castle Neck in Ipswich, the site of the village by that name. Agawam as the name of a territory stretching from the Merrimack to Salem was an English invention. The other translations are erroneous, put forth by early 19th century linguists and carried over through sheer force of repetition. Aga means other side and wam(ph) means marsh (land overflowed by water). The English loved to think that “pleasantness” was a relevant concept in Native placenames, but nothing could be farther from the truth. All placenames claiming to be “pleasant” are false. They named their villages for their locations and the subsistence resources to be found there.

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