Living descendants of the Agawam Indians

Living Descendants of the Native Americans of Agawam

by M. E. Lepionka 3/6/17

Mary Ellen is a publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with a Master’s degree in anthropology from Boston University and post-graduate work at the University of British Columbia. In 2008 she retired to research the prehistory of Cape Ann and the Native Americans who lived here and to document artifacts from Cape Ann held in public and private collections. She is a member of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society.


The final resting place of Masconomet, the last Sagamore of Agawam, is on Sagamore Hill in Hamilton. Geographically, Agawam was the area from Great Neck to the end of Castle Neck in Ipswich, the site of the village by that name. Agawam really means “other side of the marsh.” They named their villages for their locations and the subsistence resources to be found there. Use of the name Agawam for the territory stretching from the Merrimack to Salem was an English invention.

Masconomet’s Grave on Sagamore Hill in Hamilton MA.

Masconomet, Nanepashemet, Passaconaway, and many other Pawtucket and Pennacook have living descendants. Descendants with the surnames Tyler, English, and Wiser, for example, are living on Cape Cod and the Islands today and elsewhere in New England. In the 1890’s some Pawtucket families were living with Narragansett around Wareham. In the 1830’s Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act resulted in the forced migration of Indians to areas west of the Mississippi River. Pawtucket interned with Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, and Mahican families at the Stockbridge, Brotherton, and Schaghticoke reservations were forced to move to the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin, which still exists. Pawtucket interned with Mohawk have living descendants on the Iroquois reservations in upstate New York and Canada.

Abernaki
An Abernaki

During the 17th century there were two major Pawtucket-Pennacook diasporas. One was in 1695 from the Praying Indian Village of Wamesit (Lowell), where Pawtucket had gathered from all over and which was under attack by colonists. They escaped through the White Mountains to St. Francis, Quebec. Some descendants of those Pawtucket are living with the Abenaki today at Odanak and Becancour on the St. Lawrence. Another was in 1676 during King Philip’s War (Metacomet’s Wampanoag War), when many Pawtucket in Essex and Middlesex counties, unable to secure neutrality, escaped en masse by canoe, crossing the Merrimack into New Hampshire and Maine. Some joined the Wabanaki or Wampanoag resistance movements, and others sought refuge with former allies or with former traditional enemies. Some descendants of those Pawtucket are living in Abenaki, Pequaket, Penobscot, and Micmac communities today in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Nova Scotia.

An image from the Ipswich Riverwalk mural depicts the Sagamore Masconomet selling the rights to Agawam to John Winthrop Jr., who led the settlement of Ipswich.

Many descendants of Pawtucket-Pennacook do not know who they are, because their ancestors either assimilated or went into hiding and concealed their identifies. In the early colonial period some Native families in Newbury, Ipswich, Essex, Salem, and many other coastal towns indentured themselves to English families, took English surnames, practiced Christianity, worked on English plantations, apprenticed in English workshops, and went to sea on English vessels. Those assimilating successfully were no longer living as Indians.

Abernaki
Abernaki

During and after King Philip’s War, however, survivors identifiable as Indians were thrown together in internment camps and many were shipped to Bermuda and Barbados as slaves. Descendants of Pennacook Indians and Africans shipwrecked en route to slave plantations are living on St. David’s Island today, for example.

Then, between 1700 and 1750, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony offered bounties on Indian scalps — men, women, and children — in an off-and-on campaign of state-sponsored genocide, knowledge of which has largely been suppressed. As in any holocaust, survival depended either on escape and self-exile or invisibility. In this way many Pawtucket-Pennacook and other Native people gave up their homes and possessions, religion, language, culture, knowledge and skills, communities, gene pools, and identities as Native Americans.

Members of a Quebec tribe
Members of a Quebec tribe. *Photos are Pawtucket-Pennacook/Abenaki at Odanak, near St. Francis, Quebec, circa 1900, and some living descendants there today.

Today some descendants of Native Americans of the Northeast are working to reclaim or reinvent their remixed Native heritage today. Theirs is a story of survival, adaptation, and resilience in the face of 400 years of persecution and catastrophic change.

Quebec tribe

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