The Massachusett Then

We are Still Here – A Survivors’ Story by The Massachusett

Before the arrival of European Traders or the English settlers to the coasts of Massachusetts, The Confederation of Indigenous Massachusett lived and thrived in the now State of Massachusetts for years beyond counting. Indigenous Massachusett Villages spanned from Salem to Cape Cod along the coast, and inland as far west as Worcester. The Massachusett People, led by their Sac’hems, hunted, fished, worked the quarries and created their tools. They planted vast fields of corn, squash and beans, harvested, stored, celebrated, practiced their religion, built their homes, raised their families and enjoyed prosperity. One of the Massachusett Tribes was the Neponset and their Sac’hem was Chickataubut, Principal Chief of the Massachusett when the English came into his territory to settle. Sac’hem Chickataubut had many residences throughout his territory. His principal seat was at Passanageset. He buried his Mother there. This suggests that this was his mother’s village and perhaps the birthplace of Chickataubut.

Long before 1620, European Traders traveled throughout New England trading goods with the indigenous tribes of New England. With them they brought diseases that were deadly to the indigenous people who had no immunity to these new diseases. Plagues traveled throughout the region devastating the tribes and dramatically reducing their numbers. The Massachusett Tribes and villages were greatly affected. Their defenses against rival tribes were reduced.

Beginning with the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 by the grace of King Charles of England and his claiming of “New England, America and everything in it,”* the Indigenous Massachusett were officially a targeted people. Having already suffered through devastating plagues (through contacts with foreign traders and invaders) that had drastically reduced their numbers, the order from King Charles was “to reduce or convert to submission the indigenous people of New England.”*

The Massachusetts Bay Colony stood dead in the center of the territory of the Neponset Band of the Indigenous Massachusett People led by their Sac’hem, Chickataubut. Some of the Masssachusett summer camps were close by to Boston, Quincy, and Hingham Harbors including Passanagesett and Moswetusett Hummuck. They have come to be called Sac’hem Seats. Inland, the Neponset Territory included what is now called the Blue Hills, but in the time before now was called Massawachuset (the place of many great hills) and from where the Massachusett People took their name.

Although Chickataubut traveled to Plymouth as early as 1621 to treaty with the newcomers and offer areas of his territory for their camp, he expected tribute from them, just as he would from any group settling in his territory. Some of the earliest disputes between the settlers and the Massachusett arose as a result of the settlers mistaking their tributes to the Sac’hems to be sales of the land.

Along with the pilgrims at Plymouth, Chickataubut also had to deal with the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had settled in the midst of Chickataubut’s Neponset Territory and who were mandated to “reduce or convert to submission” his people. Chickataubut was not to be converted to submission. He controlled a territory rich in resources, from plentiful whaling /fishing waters and hunting grounds, which produced meat and skins, to large and fertile fields of corn, beans, and squash, which, along with the fish and meat that fed his people in summer, were dried and stored for winter use. The Neponset Quarries produced materials for tool making for use and trade. Chickataubut did not form treaties or agreements that would lead to his ultimate inability to deal effectively with the English from a place of power.

Massachusett Tribal life was matriarchal. Women of the tribe trapped small game, gathered shellfish, wild grains, greens, and herbs for food and medicine. The women of the tribe owned and tended the planting fields. The children were employed to keep the birds away from the planted fields. The women also built and owned the wetus (summer huts) and winter long houses that the tribal members lived in. The women were also the potters and basket weavers, wood gatherers, and fire keepers. Women took an active role in decision making, along with the men and elders within the tribe. Men of the tribe were responsible for mining, whaling, fishing, hunting, and for protecting the tribe and its territory against encroachment by other indigenous tribes.

The quarries within the Massachusett Territory supplied stone, quartz, minerals for tools, weapons, cellars, ceremony, etc. These were also valuable trade items. All the valuable resources under Chichataubut’s control did not go unnoticed by rival tribes and raids on the Massachusett fields and resources had to be defended. Chickataubut was often challenged by other tribes from the north and west seeking to take over this valuable territory. These attempts were not successful, but because of the reduced numbers of men of the tribe, defending the territory took up much valuable time, energy, and the lives of fewer men who would ordinarily be hunting, mining, whaling, and fishing.

Already weakened from former plagues, the village at Passanageset was struck with still another plague (probably smallpox). Chickataubut moved quickly with the uninfected (not even stopping to bury the dead) over to Moswetusett Hummock seeking to save them from certain death. Chickataubut lived with his people at Moswetusett Hummock until 1633 where he was finally struck down by small pox. Knowing the English dictate to reduce or convert to submission Chickataubut and his people and knowing Chickataubut to be a great political influence who was unwilling to submit, we, the descendants of Chickataubut’s Neponset Band, believe that the smallpox infection at Passanageset and Moswetusett was intentionally produced by the English through the trade of infected blankets. The English knew that the Indigenous People valued them greatly, so it would be an efficient way of infecting the tribe.

We don’t know how many, if any, remained or returned to Moswetusett Hummock after Chickataubut’s death. We know Wampatuck (later known as Josiah Chickataubut), Chickataubut’s son, was in line to succeed him and that Kitchamakin, Chickataubut’s brother, brought Wompatuck back to Neponset with him as he was still a boy. Kitchamakin was “appointed” (by whom we don’t know) to govern as Sac’hem during the minority of Wompatuck. Before Chickataubut’s Death in 1633, he had reserved Ponkapoag, a part of the Neponset territory, for his people. Ponkapoag was an area of the Blue Hills extending into and including areas now known as Canton, Stoughton, parts of Randolph, and the territory extending west and south of this area. His son and grandson honored this territory and never gave Ponkapoag over to the English. And that is why we, The Massachusett, are still here.

Many of Chickataubut’s tribe at Neponset joined others living at Ponkapoag after his death. They lived with Kitchamakin and then Wampatuck as their Sac’hem and then his son. They did not live unmolested by the English or competing tribes. The English encroached upon even these set aside lands, and by 1657 the English had reduced this area to 6,000 acres and under the direction of The Reverend John Elliot, proclaimed Ponkapoag a praying town. Not all of the residents of Ponkapoag were Christianized, however, and many from the time of Chickataubut continued with their traditional way of life. Wampatuck, and in turn his son, continued in the traditional ways. There were many Massachusett who never did forsake their traditional ways and never failed to pass them on to the next generation.

We are The Massachusett, descendants of Chickataubut’s Band of Massachusett at Neponset. This is how against all odds we have survived as a people.
Ritual Dance, drum, rattle, song, and rites of passage all enable the present day Massachusett Tribe to transfer the knowledge of our Ancestors to succeeding generations.

We have an oral tradition of storytelling, just as our ancestors did, that passes on the Massachusett World View of how the world works, our relationship with all of nature, and why things are the way they are.

There are ways of perceiving and doing things in our community that trace back thousands of years.
There are Medicine Ways thousands of years old that we still practice today.
We thank our ancestors for keeping the traditions, for their foresight, and the gifts they left to us. Tabutne.

*The Charter of Massachusetts Bay 1629; American Colonist’s Library- Primary Source Documents

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