Map of Indigenous peoples of New England

Politics of the Archives Redux: Indigenous History of Indigenous Peoples of Essex County, Massachusetts

This essay is about attributions of ethnic identity in the Indigenous history of Essex County, Massachusetts. Debates about the “politics of the archives” have tended to focus on the role of historical documents and institutional power in knowledge production. Those debates have now expanded to issues relating to ethnohistory, ethnic identity, and cultural memory as agencies of empowerment in the rewriting of history. Those agencies can lead to significantly different outcomes for thinking about and interpreting the present as well as the past. Outcomes may range from greater legitimacy and inclusiveness to cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. These same basic issues are being addressed in other contexts as well, for example in Germany and Palestine (Pell 2015, Brandt and Glajar 2017). Organizational efforts such as “Contested Histories in Public Spaces” (International Bar Association, 2008) address controversies over statues, memorials, street names and other representations of disputed historical legacies in public spaces. “The Politics of Archives and the Practices of Memory” (Conference, Brown University, March 3-4, 2017) asked:

What does it mean for the colonized, the disenfranchised, and the displaced to produce narratives through archival and memorial practices? How are archives and memories produced, assembled, and mobilized in settler colonial contexts? In what ways are archives and memories sites of struggle and appropriation, and looting? How can we theorize archives and memory from perspectives critical of state-centric political configurations and conventional concepts of sovereignty?

Important to note here is that ethnocentric and polity-centric historiographies cut both ways. That is, tribal histories reclaimed through oral traditions, myths, genealogies, comparatively recent lived experience, and revisionist fervor are just as subjective and objective, true and untrue, accurate and inaccurate as histories based on colonial accounts and state documents. It is a mistake to assume—even in this era of social justice—that Indigenous voices should automatically be chosen over non-Indigenous scholarship in the production and interpretation of knowledge about the past, and vice versa. Indigenous and “Western” ways of knowing history are qualitatively different, but both ways are needed. What is needed further is not competition for “the truth” but open engagement, inclusion, and collaboration on history to get as close as possible to what is true in all ways of knowing—a history that lives on its own, one that everyone can hear.

Throughout New England and the Northeast, Indigenous histories suffer significantly from 500 years of conflict, forced Christianization, involuntary relocation, and diaspora for survival, in which displaced people came to live in unrelated or distantly related Indigenous communities. They assimilated there, syncretizing and sometimes substituting their oral traditions, and even their languages, religions, and kinship systems, with that of their hosts. Within two generations, for example, people from patrilineal bands interned with matrifocal tribes came to believe, and may today insist, that for time immemorial they have always been members of matrilineal clans. This is a globally recurring phenomenon in the history of our whole species, and in this sense, no-one’s history can ever really be “true”—either subjectively or objectively. But histories can be honest and respectful to the extent that we humans can know anything. We especially should seek to raise the voices of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves.

Complicating the problem of historical reconstruction in Essex County is the fact that it has no surviving Indigenous groups identifying as descendants of the people who lived here prior to 1700. Who should speak for them? Who should keep their cultural remains and protect their ceremonial landscapes? Who can claim their homelands? In Massachusetts, the state and the United States of America officially recognize only surviving groups of Wampanoag people with homelands on the south shore and the islands. Their ancestors had little to do with the people whose traditional homelands were in Essex County. They even spoke different languages. In 1676 most Indigenous people still residing in Essex County either remained neutral or sided with the English against the Wampanoags, and in the 1700s sided with the French and Abenaki against the English. As the only federally recognized Indigenous people here, however, present-day Wampanoags can use their singular power—for better or for worse—to extend hegemony over the interests and territories of unorganized groups identifying as Indigenous, non-recognized Indigenous communities, and peoples of the past who lack any present-day representation. In the opinion of one Indigenous leader, archaeologist, and historian:

“…[T]here are fundamental wrongs to the very notion that one tribe from one place can or should speak for another people in another place. We do not accept that Swedes should speak for Italians, nor do we tolerate that Christians should over-speak Jews when it comes to matters Jewish, yet we hypocritically go all-in for “any Injun will do” when speaking on matters Native, and any federal tribe is the authority for all Natives between them and the next federal tribe. More than 70 percent of Native Americans do not live on a reservation, and more than 60 percent of Native Americans are not enrolled in a recognized tribe.” (Personal communication October 8, 2019)

Certainly, surviving federally recognized Indigenous groups have a moral responsibility to other Indigenous peoples in their region, past and present, as well as to each other. However, any land acknowledgements in Essex County Massachusetts must, in fairness, out of respect for those who are no longer here, identify that land as Pawtucket homeland. I base this judgement on two grounds, from both worlds: Indigenous values, and twelve years of research on the Indigenous history of Essex County. Following is a synopsis (with an inclusive bibliography in a separate document) of what I, as a non-Indigenous anthropologist and historian, have learned:

Indigenous people who occupied Essex County Massachusetts between 1300 and 1700 were patrilineal Western-Abenaki speaking Pennacook bands that had expanded south from the lower Merrimack Valley of New Hampshire. Their migration coincided with the onset of the Little Ice Age, which would have made gathering, horticulture, and maize agriculture more difficult at higher latitudes in the Northeast. Previous to this expansion, coastal Essex County was occupied by Maritime Woodland people who migrated into New England from the Great Lakes region and Ottawa Valley. They became part of the culture of the Gulf of Maine that included Eastern-Abenaki speakers of the Canadian Maritimes. Prior to that, coastal Essex County was occupied by Maritime Archaic peoples from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Between around 1590 and 1635 the northern Eastern-Abenaki speakers, including Mi’Kmaq of Nova Scotia, Maliseet (Wolastquey) and Passamoquoddy (Pestomuhkati) of the Canadian Maritimes, and Penobscot (Panawahpskek) of northern Maine raided the coastal farms to their south for corn and blood vengeance, reaching as far as Nantucket. They were known collectively as the Tarrantines, from the French, with whom they were heavily engaged in the fur trade.

The Massachusetts Bay Company missionaries and government agents referred to the Pennacook bands in Essex County as the Pawtucket or the Wamesit, in reference to settlement areas on the Merrimack River at Pawtucket Falls in Lawrence and at the junction of the Concord River at Lowell, respectively. The colonists living in Essex County referred to them as the Agawam Indians or the Naumkeag Indians in reference to their principal villages on the Castle Neck River in Ipswich and on Wenham Lake in Beverly, respectively. Agawam and Naumkeag were not territories, nor sovereign in the Western sense of the word, but the names of villages. People in northern Middlesex County called them the Pawtuckeog. Several early accounts observe that the people of Essex County were different in language and culture from Indigenous peoples in Boston Bay and southern Massachusetts.

The Pawtucket were organized as bands, not tribes or nations, and we don’t know what they called themselves—probably “the people”, “the real people”, or “the people here”. An ethnographer of the Pennacook suggested Ninnuock—”the people here”. The Pawtucket held homelands in common and bands paid tribute to larger or more powerful bands. Through marriage and trade they established alliances among themselves and with the Pennacook, Abenaki, and other neighboring groups, including Nipmuc and Massachuset. They also joined larger confederacies for defense and warfare, and all Eastern Algonquians were part of a far-flung trading network and traveled freely up and down the coast between Montauk, Long Island and Casco Bay. The boundaries of homelands and the constituencies of alliances and confederations were fluid and constantly changed.

At the time of European contact the Essex County Pawtucket were members of Nanepashemet’s Pawtucket Confederacy and that of his widow and sons for a time after Nanepashemet was killed by Tarrantines in 1619. Nanepashemet had residences in southern Essex and Middlesex counties and summered in Marblehead. By 1640, suffering population loss from the smallpox epidemic of 1633 along with loss of land, the Pawtucket of Essex County and other bands, including those administered by Nanepashemet’s widow, joined Passaconaway’s (Pappisseconewa’s) powerful New Hampshire Pennacook Confederacy. Nanepashemet’s identity has been claimed variously as Pawtucket, Nipmuc, Naumkeag (Nahumkeak), and/or Abenaki, and more recently as Massachuset and/or Wampanoag. He was born in southern Essex County of unknown parentage and his wife seems to have been from a Massachuset band on the Charles River.

The sagamore (sogmoh) of the Essex County Pawtucket at the time of English settlement was Masconomet (Masquenominet), who had residences at Agawam Village on the Castle Neck River in Ipswich, Choate Island in Essex Bay, and on the Essex River where it drains Chebacco Lake. In deeds of 1637 and 1638 Masconomet sold Greater Agawam (from the Merrimack to Salem Sound, which became Essex County), to John Winthrop Jr. Ten years earlier, as the New England Company was establishing Salem Village in Beverly following the failure of the Dorchester Company’s settlement on Cape Ann, Masconomet had already given or sold Pawtucket lands around Naumkeag (Beverly, Peabody, Danvers, and Middleton) to John Endicott. Throughout Essex County, Endicott also bought Indigenous copper and graphite mines, bog iron sites in anticipation of the first ironworks, and land around waterfalls to power the Mass. Bay Colony’s first mills. In 1628 Endicott moved the seat of government to present-day Salem, and in 1630, Governor John Winthrop moved it from Salem to Dorchester. Areas that became Salem and Boston were the only Indigenous lands on the coastal watershed of Massachusetts to be appropriated by the English rather than ceded by or bought from Indigenous people.

In 1644, in the Salem courthouse before Governor John Winthrop and Rev. Richard Mather, in exchange for equal rights and equal protection under English law, five leaders of the Pennacook, Pawtucket, Nipmuc, Nashua, and Massachuset signed an oath of loyalty to the English. They agreed to become Christians, observe the Sabbath, refrain from certain behaviors frowned upon by the Puritans, and to remain neutral in any future conflict between colonists and Indigenous people. Signers included Masconomet, (Pawtucket) Cutchamakin of Neponset (kinsman of Passaconaway), Josias Chickatawbut of Nonantum (Massachuset), Nashacowam of Nashua NH (Pennacook), Wassamagin of Wachuset (Nipmuc), and Nanepashemet’s widow (titular administrator with her sole surviving son of the remains of Nanepashemet’s Pawtucket Confederation).

Court records and policy statements show that over the next 20 years the Pawtucket of Essex County did for the most part receive equal protection and equal justice under English law. During that time some assimilated into colonial life, became land owners, fenced their farms, raised livestock, intermarried, attended church, and paid taxes. Massachusetts colonists east of the Connecticut River did not have a policy or accepted practice of stealing Indigenous land. The General Court and later King Charles II (after restoration of the English monarchy following the English Civil War) insisted that “Indian” land could be acquired only after authorization by the Court or the Crown, only with the consent of the “Indians”, and only if justly paid for. There were, of course, cases of underhanded practices, but for this window of time at least, the courts defended Indigenous interests against the underhanded.

Masconomet died in 1658 and the administration of Pawtucket homelands in Essex and northern Middlesex counties transferred to others, divided three ways among surviving descendants and in-laws of Masconomet, surviving descendants and in-laws of Nanepashemet, and surviving descendants and in-laws of Passaconaway. Later quitclaim deeds from the 1680s through 1701, most archived in the Salem Registry of Deeds, clearly specify which descendants deeded which towns. Masconomet’s grandchildren signed over northern Essex County towns, Passaconaway’s signed over northern Middlesex and northern Worcester County towns, and Nanepashemet’s deeded Salem, Swampscott, Marblehead, and Lynn in southern Essex County and towns in southern Middlesex County.

At the outbreak of King Philip’s War in 1675 (the Wampanoag war against the English), most Pawtucket in “Agawam” (coastal Essex County from Beverly north) crossed the Merrimack in a flotilla of canoes into northern New England to avoid the conflict. During King Philip’s War, Pawtucket strove to remain neutral and even served the English against the Wampanoag, acting as scouts and spies. They were trusted to keep their guns. Some Pennacook and Nipmuc, however, and other signers of the oath of 1644, went to war. People returned to their homelands wherever and whenever it was safe to do so, but in the aftermath of King Philip’s War, neutrality became impossible as displaced families of enemy warriors sought refuge in neutral villages, and colonists increasingly did not distinguish between friend and foe. After King Philip’s War, captive Pennacook and other surviving warriors were executed or shipped to slave plantations in Bermuda and Barbados (where survivors of the Pequot War had been sent), where they mixed with African slaves. Women and children were distributed among and consigned to the towns, where they could be legally taken into service against their will, and Indigenous groups were otherwise confined to reservations.

The 1680s and 1690s were traumatic for everyone, with the restoration of the English monarchy following the English Civil War, Charles II’s revoking of the Mass. Bay Colony’s charter, the rise of religious dissent and challenges to Puritanism, the beginning of the disastrous French and Indian wars, English persecution of Quakers, and the Salem witchcraft trials—in which Indigenous people were viewed as Satanic for their traditional practice of sorcery, and the Anglo-Abenaki Maritime wars in the Gulf of Maine. Diasporas of Indigenous people tragically increased in scope during the eighteenth century as the English gradually adopted an open policy of eradication. Between 1688 and 1760 Massachusetts periodically authorized bounty commissions and paid bounties on the scalps of Indigenous men, women, and children, preying in particular on Pennacook, Pequawket (Pigwacket), and other Abenaki bands on the northern frontier.

By 1686 Pawtucket villages in Essex County were abandoned. Some families moved to reservations, or Praying Indian Villages, that had been established on the frontiers to protect Christian converts, for example Wamesit at Lowell and Hassanamesit in Grafton, Worcester County. However, that protection did not last. In the 1690s, Pawtucket at Wamesit who survived colonists’ attacks fled through the White Mountains to Abenaki communities and French Catholic missions on the St. Lawrence. They sided with the French against the English in the European wars that followed. Today some of their descendants are at Odanak in St. Francis Quebec. Others fled to other Abenaki communities in the north, north to the Missisquoi on Lake Champlain in Vermont, west to Mahican reservations at Stockbridge or Schaghticoke, to Kahnawake or Akwesasne “Mohawks” in upstate New York, or to former enemies in Maine, such as the Penobscot (Panawahpskek) at Indian Island.

After around 1700 some Pennacook and Pawtucket warriors joined resistance movements, including the Wabanaki resistance movement in the north, which harassed English vessels and fishing stations in the Gulf of Maine throughout the eighteenth century, and the Wampanoag resistance movement in the south. Some Pawtucket integrated into Abenaki, Massachuset, and Wampanoag communities at that time, for example in Bangor, Natick, and Mashpee, respectively. Nanepashemet’s youngest son and daughter (Wenepoykin/George and Yawata) died at Natick. Inter-ethnic and inter-tribal families joined in the past through marriage, trade, military alliance, and enslavement became even more inter-ethnic in the century following King Philip’s War. During that time a few Pawtucket families holding on to their land were tolerated in northern Essex County towns, and their names appear in early town histories. One by one, however, these families lost their farms as they fell into debt to colonial trading posts. They lacked access to enough land and resources to support themselves independently of colonial goods and services. Many towns ended up with one or two Indigenous families living among them, forced into poverty, whom they supported as charity cases, with the last ones moving away by the end of the eighteenth century.

Thus, the true heirs of “Greater Agawam” are descendants of Masquenominet/Masconomet; (John Indian); of Robin of Ipswich, who warned English squatters of a pending Tarrantine attack in 1631; of Great Tom of Indian Hill in West Newbury, who indentured himself and his wife and children to three Newbury families (William Gerish, Abraham Toppan, and Anthony Somerby); of Pumpasanoway (Old Will or William Indian, a relative of Passaconaway) of Crane Pond in Newbury and sites in Haverhill and Dracut; of Peckanaminet (Ned, aka Acocket) and his brother Humphrey, of Ipswich, as well as Robert (otherwise unknown) living in “The Hamlet” (South Hamilton); and of Emma Jane Mitchell Safford (daughter of Zervia Gould Mitchell) of Ipswich. These are the only names I’ve found that have survived in northern Essex County historical accounts, but in the 2010 Census, close to 3,000 individuals in Essex County self-identified as Native American. Some of them are no doubt descendants of the Pennacook-Pawtucket who lived there, as all or most of the lineages described above would have living descendants today.

In conclusion, prior to 1700, although they shared basic cultural features of all the Eastern Algonquians, Indigenous people of Essex County were not Wampanoag, not Massachuset, and not Nipmuc and would not have identified themselves as such. Any claims to the contrary, including Indigenous claims, may perhaps be understood as adaptation to defects in the governmental criteria for recognizing Indigenous groups, or to politics of the archives–history revised to expand tribal identity, bolster government recognition, qualify for entitlements, and/or reclaim land. There are many examples of federally recognized tribes practicing hegemony over non-recognized groups and their homelands. Surely surviving Indigenous groups with corporate identity and official recognition must act as stewards of the cultural heritage and sacred landscapes of groups that did not survive or have not been recognized. The protection of burials, repatriation of grave goods and sacred objects, and conservation of ceremonial stone landscapes are especially important (Blancke and Slow Turtle 2006).

After 1700 cultural distinctions among Indigenous peoples in Massachusetts broke down as colonial governments failed to recognize them and as different groups were dislocated and thrown together, contributing in succeeding generations to the stereotype of “Indians” in New England and the rest of the Northeast as belonging to a single monolithic culture (fixed and immortalized today at Plimoth Plantation and in third-grade classrooms). Today, the self-identified Indigenous groups closest to the historical Pawtucket of Essex County are descendants of the Massachuset of Neponset—the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag—and the Cowasuck-Pennacook Band of Abenaki People. Whoever speaks for the people of the past, any land acknowledgement in Essex County Massachusetts must, in fairness and out of respect for the people who are not here to speak for themselves, identify that land as Pawtucket homeland.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian anthropologist wrote (1997), “Historical narratives are premised on previous understandings, which are themselves premised on the distribution of archival power.” That power shifted from colonial to modern perspectives and then to post-modern scholarship. As it shifts now to Indigenous tradition keepers and federally recognized tribes, how will those narratives change? And will Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars be able to work together to mend the different understandings to retell Indigenous history as it was really lived?

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