Noble Traditions, Strong In Spirit

by Carol Masiello

Every school age child in the Blackstone Valley knows the importance of Native Americans to the heritage of our locale. Children eagerly dig in their backyards hoping to find an arrowhead or a shard of pottery from the long lost Indian inhabitants. Locals tell the stories of the “old Indian” who would come to town on parade day all dressed up in his “costume” and entertain the townspeople with his dances. The natives in the area are perceived as enigmas, not the “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” “shoot em ups” of the Wild West, but a silent presence with faint shadows of their existence coming to light here and there. Their culture is assumed to be long gone, just names on restaurants and lakeshore condominiums. But just who were these earliest people and do they still exist? Will their future be as vibrant and rich as their past? Let’s take a look at these people and see their past and dream about their future.

From the first Thanksgiving to King Philip’s War, the children here in the valley are taught the basic history and legends of our original inhabitants. The earliest people of the Blackstone Valley were the Nipmucs (fresh water people) and their name comes from the rivers, streams and lakes they lived along side of. Through their care and custodianship, the valley’s “wild” beauty and fertility remained pristine and welcoming for the colonial settlers. The Nipmuc’s footpaths, worn through generations of traveling, became the major connecting routes of the colonies. The cedar swamps they revered gave the raw materials for the shingles and clapboards to build early homes. The rivers that sustained them were the backbone of the industrial revolution. Local landmarks like Nipmug Pond, Waucantuck Mill, Chocolog Pond and Quinsigamond College preserve names from their language. The Nipmuc name does not refer to a specific village or tribe, but to the natives that inhabited almost all of Central Massachusetts into Connecticut and Rhode Island. The area in the center of Worcester County through the Blackstone Valley was referred to as Nipet. Estimates place the pre-colonial settlement population between 3,000-10,000 natives living in approximately 40 villages. Archeologists refer to the “territory” of the native people as a homeland and it included living areas, meeting areas, burial sites and memory piles (piles of stone and brush that marked important events or individuals). There could have been as many as six “homelands” within the nexus of Worcester County and these would have been traditional places that the people have used for generations to meet, gather food, and plant crops.

Nipmuc culture was beautiful in its simplicity and completeness. Simple is defined as having only one thing or element, and the single belief principle of the people was the foundation of all their actions. Their belief was that all life was interdependent; no one entity could dominate the others nor could it exist apart from the rest. The beaver, the blueberry bush, the salmon and the seasons, all had equal and important roles and none should be exploited. The authority of the village was placed in a sachem (man or woman) and a council. The lack of inter-tribal conflicts allowed for this straightforward form of authority; disputes and decisions were handled within the tribe. The Nipmucs stayed within their homeland traveling from site to site with the seasons while the Blackstone River ecosystem supported their agricultural and nutritional needs. From the rivers they fished the salmon, shad, herring and alewives and on the alluvial flood plains they planted their corn by the planting moon in April. Groups of Nipmuc’s would stay together in the spring for the fish runs and then they would disperse to their own individual farms; traveling by overland trails that led to fishing, hunting, planting and quarry sites. During the winter these farmsteads were abandoned and the people would go upland for hunting. Winter survival was more of a challenge for the inland tribes because they did not have a reliable winter food source like the coastal natives. Even with the harsh realities of survival, their numbers remained fairly steady over the generations, but all this was soon to change with the introduction of the English. The overland trails that were the backbone of the Nipmuc’s existence were what the colonists followed to settle into their homeland. The Nipmuc territory was well suited to colonial agriculture and animal husbandry, and the early settlers were impressed with the overall success of the Nipmuc villages. The natives were always kind and helpful to the new people, never turning away a hungry settler or denying them a warm place to sleep or a bowl of warm food.

When the first Puritan set foot on this soil, his manifest destiny was to set a “city on the hill” and help bring the Word of God to the native. The General Court passed an act for the “propagation of the Gospel among the Indians” and in 1649 a corporation for the “promoting and propagating of the Gospel” was formed in England. Well meaning Christians donated thousand of pounds to the effort of educating and advancing the condition of the natives in Massachusetts and New York. The Apostle to the Indians, John Elliot, was a religious missionary to the natives and he worked with the government to establish a commission to operate for the benefit of the Indians. Six thousand acres was given for the establishment of Praying Villages under Elliot’s supervision, and Elliot used the funds donated in England to help establish schools in these villages. Elliot felt that by segregating the natives into Praying Villages, the Indians could formulate their own laws and culture and there would be no conflict between the colonists and the Indians over propriety of land ownership. Indians lived in English style homes, worshipped in English style churches and adopted a culture that punished adherence to the old “savage” ways. The natives were forbidden from selling any of the lands given to them by the General Court because the land, in the court’s opinion, was not theirs to sell. Elliot translated the Bible into the native tongue and found a preaching style that appealed to the heart and mind of the native. Elliot would open with prayer, then briefly preach upon the scripture and after that allow the Indians to ask questions. He was tireless in his patience with these questions for he knew the importance of his answers. In 1650 the first Praying Village in Natick was established and in 1654 Elliot petitioned the court to set aside eight square miles for the Hassanamesitt Praying Village. Hassanamisco (Hassanamesitt) in Grafton, (meaning place of small stones), was the third village built and only the second village to have a church, which was located on Keith Hill. Just prior to King Philip’s War, seven smaller, landless Praying Villages were established and some of then where Manchage (Manchaug), Waentug (Uxbridge), Pakachoog (Auburn) and Chabanakongkomun (Webster). Using respect and kindness, Elliot worked tirelessly all of his life to give the natives a fair hold in the new world being formed around them. Somewhere along the way, the government got so caught up in the conquering of the land and conflicts with the French; they lost sight of their goals of conversion and fair treatment of the natives.

While Elliot was preaching to the natives and establishing them as Christians, times were becoming contentious between the non-praying natives and the English. Valuable hunting, fishing and agricultural lands were being bought up for ridiculous amounts of money with wasteland being left for the Indians. Settlers felt that any land that was not under cultivation by the native was available for the taking. The Indians throughout the Bay Colony were uprising at the unfair treatment they were receiving from the settlers and the cloud of war was on the horizon. In the beginning of King Philip’s War, settlers took in and protected the Praying Indians. The Minister of Mendon petitioned the court to allow the town to take the Indians from the Praying Village of Hassanamisco, and such “other civil Indians that shall joyne with that company”, and they may build a “fort near and continue this winter or longer”. But as the war marched on, the English settlers in the Bay Colony were so afraid of the natives that they abandoned their Christian Indian brethren. The Praying Indians fell victim to slaughter and violence from both the Indians that fought alongside Philip and the English. In 1675 the government disbanded all praying towns and confined the Indians to the old villages and reservations, and a government appointed guardian was chosen. Large numbers of Christian Indians were restricted to Deer Isle in Boston Harbor and most of them died of starvation, disease and neglect. By the end of King Philip’s War, the number of Nipmuc’s in the area had dwindled to 4,000 and by 1680 almost all traces of their heritage disappeared. The war took a bloody toll on both English and Nipmuc, but the natives had no opportunity to re-build their lives.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony sanctioned only two Indian homelands in Worcester County, Hassanamesitt in Grafton, and Chaubungungamaug in Dudley, which is now Webster. (Hassanamesitt was a reservation in name only; no one had yet to locate there). The court had forbidden the Nipmucs from returning to the Nipet lands so James Dudley and William Stoughton were sent to investigate the Nipet homeland and settle who had proper title to the region. The Nipmucs asserted that Woampus, who sold the homeland to the English, was not a rightful sachem and had no authority to sell the lands. For twenty pounds and a coat, the General Court allowed the Nipmucs to sell 1,000 square miles of Nipet territory (most of central Worcester County) with five miles square retained for their reservation. For their efforts in securing the lands, Stoughton and Dudley get 1,000 acres of prime Nipet land apiece and by 1681 the Nipmucs are a virtually landless people. In 1698 Nipmucs began to settle the eight square miles of Hassanamesitt and establish a thriving reservation, but in 1704 the government, buckling under pressure from settlers, takes land to establish the townships of Sutton and Millbury. In 1728, the trustees again yield to pressure and sell 7,500-acres of Hassanamesitt land with the proceeds of the sale to be put in an account in a Boston bank. The money was to be used for the care and needs of the Nipmucs but during the 1800s, the money was embezzled and never returned. Under the guardianship of the government, whose job was to protect and ensure the welfare of the natives, the Grafton reservation was reduced to four acres and in 1869 the five miles square Dudley reservation was reduced to 26 acres. The Grafton four acres have the honor of never being held by the white settler, they have always been Nipmuc homeland. After years of wayward guardianship, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1869 finally granted citizenship to the Nipmucs.

What happened to the Nipmuc culture? What happened to the people who held faith with the Spirit of the land? Arrogance and ignorance prevented them from claiming the land and the heritage that was rightfully theirs. Can this people survive and prosper in the twenty-first century? Or will they remain echoes of a lost past seen only in the deep woods.