“Stripped . . . as Bare as My Skinne”
Disease, Acculturation, and the Massachusett
Search for Order, 1600-1690
The settlement of New England is a stock story in the annals of the historian. Although updated to incorporate the roles played by Native Americans, its essential features retain a mythic timelessness. It tells us that beginning in the 1620s, English Separatists and Puritans fled the “harrying” intolerance of the Stuart kings and swarmed over the forests and rivers of a “howling wilderness” to set down homesteads. The tale digresses briefly to note that the original people of New England were shunted aside, though rising up in occasional, short-lived spasms of rage such as in Metacomet’s War (1675-76), only to be thereafter exiled from New England and expunged from the pages of its history. Yet, more significant–for the more accurate record they present– are the accounts left out of our conventional tale.
The history of the Massachusett tribe, the indigenous farmers of Massachusetts Bay’s fields and fishers of its estuaries, is one of these neglected stories. Namesakes of the emergent Bay Colony, by the mid-1640s the Massachusett were a “remnant” people, decimated by waves of pestilence carried by arriving European colonists. Gathering to the sermons of Puritan missionaries and tagged thereafter with the English sobriquet “praying Indians,” many traveled the path toward acculturation, patching selected Puritan beliefs and practices onto their traditional culture. From the 1650s on, these converts organized Praying Towns such as Natchik (Natick) and Wamesit (Lowell)–the precursors of nineteenth-century reservations. Tragically, however, events betrayed the Praying Indians. Metacomet’s War (1675-76) and the peace which followed drew their demise; despite their faithful support of Puritan forces against the Wampanoag and Nipmuk tribes in the dark days of that conflict, at war’s end the Colony confiscated their lands and circumscribed their opportunities to make a life in Puritan society.
The question that provokes the historian seeking a more complete picture is, predictably, why did these developments occur? What prompted many Massachusett people to begin acculturation, eventually creating the eclectic new culture of “Praying Indians?” And, why did their efforts fail? We can piece together answers to such questions if we examine in greater detail the history of the Massachusett and analyze their own perceptions of their experience. Delving beneath the evangelical propaganda and seventeenth-century biases of early missionary letters, reports, and related documents, we can trace the outlines of changes which forced the Massachusett to redefine their world and their identity. The story of the Massachusett which emerges is one of the resiliency of culture and the remarkable adaptability of a people facing overwhelming changes in their world.
“A Great Mortality”
Inhabiting what Captain John Smith described in 1614 as “the paradise of all those parts,” some 3,000 Massachusett occupied the islands in the Bay and many more along the coast. Smith observed “great troops of well proportioned people” who tilled the “many isles planted with corn, groves, mulberries, savage gardens, and good harbors.” Their agricultural, hunting, and fishing traditions, developed out of the Algonkian eastern woodland culture, enabled them to adapt and prosper amid the fair and bountiful conditions of the southern New England coast. Traumatic conditions decimated the Massachusett during the early decades of the seventeenth century, however. When a series of epidemics devastated the tidewater populations of southeastern Norumbega, as New England was then called, the resulting holocaust wrenched the coastal Algonkian out of all that was familiar, ordered, and meaningful to them.
Historical records chronicle four major waves of pestilence which ravaged Massachusetts Bay throughout the early seventeenth century: a “plague” or “great mortality” in 1616-19, smallpox in 1633 and then again in 1646-47, the “bloody flux” and “consumption” in 1652 and after. With no natural resistance to common European diseases carried by itinerant European fishermen and explorers and later colonists, the coastal Algonkian of the early 1600s were susceptible to measles, pneumonia, influenza, and smallpox. Many fell victim to these terrors. In some coastal villages, fully 90% of the inhabitants died, preparing the way for English settlement. Because the Massachusett held the most appealing sites for Puritan settlement–the islands of Boston Harbor, prime farmland along the Charles and Merrimac Rivers–the tribe came nearest to the human carriers of the disease, and so they suffered the greatest losses. As a result of the “great and grievous Plague,” the settlers of the great 1629 Puritan Migration would never see the Massachusett at their height, for, as Smith complained, “where I had seene 100 or 200 people, there is scarce ten to be found.”
“Stripped . . . as Bare as My Skinne”
As extraordinary events upset the daily rhythms of ordinary social interaction and chaos disrupted the workings of the Massachusetts’ essential social institutions, bonds which formerly melded this people sundered. Tattered bands and isolated individuals grew orphaned from their culture, losing their self-esteem as well as their sense of control over their environment and over their own lives. As early as the 1620s Separatist Richard Cushman observed of survivors of the epidemics, “those that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted.” In the “great sikness” that marked the age of contact, many bewailed feelings of weakness, shame, and spiritual impoverishment. Robin Speene anguished that he had been “stripped . . . as bare as my skinne” when he lost three children in a 1652 epidemic. Totherswampe “feared greatly”; Waban “[knew] little”; Nataous “loathed [him]self”; Monequasson “lack[ed] Wisdom” and “[had] nothing, nor Child, nor Wife”; Ponampam’s “heart [was] broken”; John Speene “say all [his] great follies and evils”; Nishohkou “[could] do nothing.”
Such traumatic personal experiences had cultural consequences, eroding the integrity of the Massachusetts’ core beliefs. Survivors felt the ground of their identity as a people dissolving beneath them. Confronted further with the colonists’ depiction of their race as “a forlorne and degenerate people,” survivors of the decimated Massachusett learned to accept the English view that they were “but a remnant, … for there be but few that are left alive from the Plague and Pox, which God sent into those parts . . . .” Personal havoc merged into spiritual desolation, the “remnants” feeling both loss and lost, forsaken by their divinities. Many began to reconsider their traditional interpretations of the nature of humanity and the roles of their gods.
The experience of Totherswampe was representative of the process through which the prospect of a devastated community left this remnant people alienated and disconnected. Searching for something to replace the order his culture had lost, Totherswampe found it by embracing Puritan ways. Years after, he recalled, when the English [first] did tell me of [their] God, I cared not for it, I thought it enough if . . . I had many friends that loved me, and I thought if they died I would pray to God: and afterward it so came to pass.
The Puritan message of retribution and redemption rang hollow as long as the support of “many friends that loved [them]” comforted survivors such as Totherswampe; but when “it so came to pass” that epidemics carried off scores of these loved ones, the horrible validity of Jehovah’s vengeance appeared proven, and those who “thought if they died I would pray to God” attributed superior power to the English deity. And, because European diseases seemed to discriminate between cultures, leaving the Puritan community comparatively untouched, more and more Massachusett remnants turned to the English God in their dying hours. “Divers of them, in their sickness, [asserted] that the Englishmen’s God was a good God,” the Colony’s Governor John Winthrop reported during a 1634 smallpox epidemic.
“A Great Sleepe”
Well before the Puritan mission began with the pre-invasion of dissenting Separatists in 1620 and then the Great Migration of the 1630s, at least some remnants already had begun to reconceptualize their culture through the lens of social disintegration. The Massachusett search for meaning, a struggle to make sense of interwoven personal trauma and societal breakdown, grew out of the devastating epidemics of 1616-1619. The response, a forced adaptation to a “world turned upside down,” led survivors to reinterpret tribal identity. With each new surge of disease, a subsequent cognitive shift (as anthropologists describe revolutions in broad cultural beliefs) transformed the Massachusett belief system. The remnants refashioned their folktales and myths to shore up the ruins of tribal ways while, at the same time, accounting for the devastation eroding their culture. In three significant intellectual transformations, the remnants retold their myths and, in so doing, reinterpreted their experiences.
In its earliest manifestation, the common Massachusett response to Puritan assertions of moral superiority was, expectedly, indignant. Waban recalled, “When the English taught me of God (I coming to their Houses) I would go out of their doors, and many years I knew nothing,” and his actions met with the approval of his people. His resistance reflected the remnants’ appreciation of the integrity of their own culture, in which belief and practice each reinforced the authority of the other, and supported their sense of a meaningful order.
Yet, from earliest contact, Europeans of all walks–explorers, roving fishermen and traders, and settlers–assiduously sought to impose a Western interpretation of the holocaust on the Massachusett mind. Most profoundly influential was the colonizers’ assertion that their own deity, the powerful and angry Jehovah, had come to punish their enemies. The Puritan writer Nathaniel Morton reported that the Eurocentric view took hold among the Massachusett about 1617 when a French vessel foundered on Cape Cod. Nauset warriors massacred most of the crew, he claimed, and treated the survivors “worse than slaves.” One captive struck back with his sole weapon, a threat of divine retribution, warning the tribe that God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them, and give their country to another people, that should not live like beasts as they did . . . God had many ways to destroy them that they knew not.
The French sailor’s words haunted the Massachusett during the “great mortality” of 1616-1619. In a telling incident, a Massachusett sanop (common man) told missionary John Eliot of “one night [during the outbreak when] he . . . fell into a dream, in which he did think he saw a great many men . . . and among them there arose up a man all in black, with a … book; this black man . . . told all the Indians that God was moosquantum or angry with them, and that he would kill them for their sinnes . . . .
Embellished and reinforced by the repeated warnings of Puritan and Separatist colonists, the threat of an angry English God further renewed itself in recurring epidemics. In time, disoriented, traumatized remnants traced their peril to the hand of vengeful Jehovah. These survivors were witness as dying kin and friend, in their own last tormented moments poised between shattering faith in Massachusett gods and a fleeting opportunity for reconciliation with the English deity, “in their sickness, [avowed] that the Englishmen’s God was a good God; and that, if they recovered, they would serve him.”
When yet another generation of disease stalked the tribe during the 1640s, their fractured belief system gave way to a crescive retelling of Massachusett mythology. In the emergent explanation, tribal pnieses, or sages, now set off the current apocalypse from their Edenic, enchanted origins. This second interpretation maintained the framework of the traditional world view, but introduced the concept of generational declension
into the remnants’ search for order. Thomas Mayhew, a Puritan missionary whose family settled on Nope, or Martha’s Vineyard, in 1642, recalled that during this time “the Indians having many calamities fallen upon them, they laid the cause of all their wants, sicknesses, and death upon their departing from their old heathenish ways.” Although their ancestors had been a good people, their virtuous qualities had somehow been lost. As the Massachusett informed missionary Thomas Shepard, “their forefathers did know God, but that after this, they fell into a great sleepe, and when they did awaken they quite forgot him.” Thus, Towanquatick, a Nope sachem, sketched the new paradigm’s outline, lamenting,
a long time ago they had wise men, which in a grave manner taught the people knowledge; but they are dead, and their wisdome is buried with them, and now men live … in ignorance, [and]… go without wisedome to their graves.
The myth of a “great sleepe” offered partial answer to the Massachusetts’ search for order. Yet, increasingly by the mid-1640s, some remnants were probing even beyond traditional foundations. Those more traumatized listened more closely for the voice of the English God in their suffering. For many Massachusett, a turning point came in the critical smallpox year 1646-1647, as John Eliot initiated an evangelical mission to the Bay Algonkian. He characterized them as naturally sad and melancholy (a good servant to repentance,) and therefore there is greater hope of heart-breaking, if ever God brings them effectually home, for which we should affectionately pray.
Indeed, the trauma was too much to bear for many, and Eliot was to witness much “great heart-breaking” as “the mighty power of the word” touched those “who in hearing these things about sinne and hell, and Jesus Christ, Powred out many teares and shewed much affliction.”
Massachusett remnants, curious to identify the powers of the English God, used these convocations for their own ends, querying the missionary to delineate his people’s version of the remnants’ plight. Through the imagery of a native “paradise lost,” minister and sanop probed the dimensions of commonality that seemed to bridge their respective cultures. Together, they fashioned a third version of events that addressed questions of common heritage and creatively reconciled the integration of the Puritan and Algonkian ways. Incorporating elements of Massachusett and Puritan theologies, this version emphasized the common ground which both cultures shared and became the intellectual foundation upon which the Massachusett tentatively and gradually began acculturation.
Records tell us that in the first successful meeting, in November 1646, Eliot described a Calvinist doctrine which fundamentally agreed with the remnants’ emergent mythology of declension. Roxbury’s minister explained,
English men seek God, . . . hence they come to know God; but Indians forefathers were stubborne and rebellious children, and would not heare the word, . . . and hence Indians that now are, do not know God at all: and so must continue unlesse they repent, and returne to God and pray, and teach their children what they may learne.
In this and subsequent meetings, the Algonkian posed a great many questions; Eliot’s response, a typically Puritan Scriptural exegesis, was consistent with their own nascent origin myth, their collective memory of the “great mortality,” the warnings of the French sailor, and the settlement of the English. The minister’s answers to their queries also underscored the meaning of a pestilence which only lightly touched European settlers. The remnants placed great weight on experiences such as the 1633 smallpox outbreak, when “the English came daily and ministered to them; and yet few [colonists] . . . took any infection by it.” They believed the Europeans’ resistance indicated the presence of manitou, the beneficent supernatural presence which the Massachusett believed pervaded the natural and human worlds. Eliot’s invocation of an angry God incorporated the signature of such a spiritual presence–mystical experience, divine revelation, and miraculous power. Although it is not clear that the minister fully appreciated its import, his version over time assumed a credibility that, even when unsustained by experience, added doubt to traditional Algonkian ways and supported the legitimacy of Puritan belief.
Even when contagion struck Eliot’s own Roxbury in 1647, the significance of English deaths was consistent with this version of events. As he recorded in his parish journal that year, “the hand of the Lord wast very strong among vs, by sicknesse . . . so yt the greatest pt of a towne was sicke at onc, whole familys sick young & old, scarce any escaping English or Indian.” Eliot’s explanation, that when the English deviated from Jehovah they too were punished, only served to underscore the remnants’ common humanity with the Saints, and bind the Massachusett to the English God.
The understanding of disease as supernaturally inspired and directed, held by both cultures, became the foundation upon which the remnants learned to embrace a common bond with their European neighbors. In time, many of the Massachusett came to believe that their own gods were not indifferent to the human plight. Rather, the vengeful manitou of an awakened Jehovah had proven stronger, and the Algonkian panoply had fallen away before His onslaughts.
“A Praying Town”
By 1650, leaders of the conversion movement–John and Robin Speene, Monequasson, Waban, Totherswampe, and others–sought to adopt certain English principles of order without integrating themselves fully into colonial society. Their reluctance to live near the land-hungry colonists undermined Eliot’s initial strategy to fully Anglicize them. Instead, Nonanetum’s leaders pressured the cautious Eliot, who mistrusted the capacity of a “wild people” to maintain a Calvinist order separately from his supervision, to establish a “Praying town” distant from both colonists and traditionalist tribes. Over the summer of 1650, members of the Nonanetum and Cohannet communities relocated to Natick, eighteen miles west of Boston.
During the next 25 years, Massachusett remnants and Puritan missionaries organized, and the colony’s General Court legitimized, seven Praying Towns. Emboldened by their success among the Massachusett, Eliot and a new Superintendent of the Indians, Daniel Gookin, pushed deeper into the forests to set up seven “new” towns among the Nipmuk people of central Massachusetts Bay Colony and to reach out to the Pennacook of southern New Hampshire. As described by Gookin in his propagandistic Historical Collections of the Indians in New England (1675), the Praying Towns were stages for acculturation. In such places, anomic Algonkian found other remnant peoples who experienced the distress of a “lost and forlorn people.” The Pennacook sachem, Wannalancet, typified many. He had resigned himself to the view that an English god had come to rule the Algonkian world, confiding to Eliot the time had now come for him to “enter into a new canoe.”
As amalgamations of two distinct cultures, the Praying Towns were also centers of ambivalence. In the push-pull dynamics of acculturation, most Massachusett acted primarily to flee the instability of a collapsing culture. In their search for order, few were convinced they should fully abandon the familiar and comfortable ways of their ancestors. Few believed Eliot’s sermons could replace their deep-seated traditions.
Natick and its offshoots, therefore, occupied a unique place in colonial society. Wannalancet’s “new canoe” was built of birchbark and clapboard, not entirely Algonkian, not wholly English. The Praying Towns retained the distinguishing customs of the woodland Algonkian. Some boasted a solid meetinghouse and one or several clapboard houses built after English fashion. Most residents preferred their portable reed-matted wigwam, the Western plank structures “being more chargeable to build and not so warm, and cannot be removed so easily.” A palisade of embedded tree trunks encircling each village, offering security from Mohawk raiding parties, was also an Algonkian form. On assembly days, the community gathered to the beat of the deerhide drum, since English cast-iron bells were too expensive.
Indeed, as Eliot and Gookin travelled ancient hunting trails to preach to remote Praying Towns, as they receded farther from the center of missionary influence at Natick, they saw that fewer and weaker Puritan practices marked these villages. The people of Punkapog, living just south of Boston and “advantaged by” an adjacent cedar swamp, adapted to the market relations of the colony’s capital by selling shingles and clapboards. Forty miles to the north, however, by the falls of the Merrimac, Wamesit’s Praying Indians could be neither persuaded nor cajoled to exploit their productive fishing weirs and their ample herds of horses for the colonial market.
The history of the Praying Indians established a precedent in relations between Native Americans and white settlers. If the Praying Towns were not entirely “new canoes,” their inhabitants never fully became the “red Puritans” missionaries hoped to mold. Rather, Massachusett remnants adapted to a changing world by integrating selected features of Puritan culture into the traditional framework of Algonkian belief and custom. They inched tenuously toward acculturation only after demographic calamity had readied them to establish a new order and Puritan missionaries created a common ground of belief which bridged the respective cultures. Through a Puritan construction of fundamental Algonkian themes, the missionaries established a format which served both the remnants’ search for order and their own “errand into the wilderness.” In the resilience and adaptability of Algonkian culture one sees the capacity for creating viable new cultural forms fitted to a changing world. The legacy of Algonkian culture, enabling its various tribes to fashion a fulfilling and productive way of life in the eastern woodlands, was a tradition of resilience and active response. Through their culture, the Massachusett had capacity for creating viable new cultural forms molded to a changing world.
“These Stormy Times”
1675 marked the high tide of the remnants’ efforts to reshape their culture to a new world of pestilence and Puritan colonization. That summer season promised the success of their endeavor to integrate Algonkian and Anglo-American cultural traits, culminating in the establishment of 14 Praying Towns encompassing some 1500 converts. Beneath the surface of Daniel Gookin’s confident description, however, tensions swirled. By the 1670s, opposing currents–endemic diseases, the landlust of colonial settlers and speculators, the resentment of traditionalist tribes (those further removed from European settlement and so less affected by disease)–grew stronger, leading John Eliot to describe the Praying Indians situation as “these stormy times.” Within a year, ominous changes again challenged the Massachusett, testing the resiliency of the nascent Praying Indian culture. From these threats, the people who had overcome so much would not recover. When the traditionalist sachem Metacomet led his Wampanoag warriors to lash out against the colonists’ relentless settlement of the New England frontier, opposing hatreds crushed the Praying Indians between them.
The resulting Metacomet’s War (1675-1676) was proportionately the most devastating conflict in American history, with one-third of all New England property destroyed. By the autumn, as colonists’ farms and stockades burned and frightened families streamed into Boston, popular hysteria erupted. When those displaced claimed that some Algonkian converts–particularly those from the most recently established and less acculturated Nipmuk villages–had joined the uprising, the wrath of Puritan society fell upon fell upon the Praying Indians. Outraged and terrified, influential figures such as Boston selectman and bookseller Hezekiah Usher exaggerated accounts to justify the removal, even the annihilation of the “Preying Indians.”
As rumors of assaults and atrocities swept through town, village, and hamlet, the magistrates’ exacting social control broke down. On October 26, a dilapidated Dedham building caught fire, sparking the retaliation which many colonists had been crying for. Four days later, Captain Thomas Prentiss’s militia surrounded Natick and marched its two hundred residents to an area known as the Pines, along the Charles River. At midnight, when the tide reached its height, three boats carried the “Praying people” to desolate Deer Island in Boston Harbor. The refugees were soon joined by others; by winter the number jumped to about 500, and Puritan authorities funneled more to nearby Long Island.
Miserable conditions prevailed in the internment camps on these barren, bleak, and wind-swept islands. The detainees had been allowed to take only what they could carry; they had been forced to leave behind the autumn harvest that would have seen them through the winter. Instead, they subsisted meagerly on shellfish and the scant supplies the missionaries could collect. Amidst a “condition of want and sickness,” dysentery and other illnesses swept the camps.
Despite the hardships and betrayal, the exiles tried to make the best of their ordeal and “carried themselves patiently, humbly, and piously, without murmuring or complaining against the English for their sufferings . . . .”
Their devotion to Praying Indian culture wavered, but ultimately held fast. From the beginning of the hostilities, most convert leaders had identified with the armies of Jehovah and “were greatly ambitious to give demonstration to the English of their fidelity and good affection to them and the interest of the Christian religion . . . .” Early in April and again in May 1675, Waban of Natick had warned the magistrates of the Wampanoags’ preparations for a general uprising under Metacomet. Fruitlessly, both converts and their missionary supporters proposed deploying combined Praying Indian and English forces at refortified Praying Towns as “a wall of defence” along the frontier. Even after the removal to Deer and Long Islands, Praying Indians continued to support the Puritan cause. The Speene family and others continued to serve as spies, scouts, and soldiers for Puritan forces.
By February 1676, the “godly wise”–Eliot, Gookin, and the more enlightened magistrates–began to reassert moral authority. In heated debate in the General Court, moderate deputies challenged the senseless intolerance which had rampaged throughout the colony, reminding extremist leaders that they had earlier ignored the warnings of the people they now condemned. The voices of reason worked “in some degree to abate the clamors of many men.” Military action reinforced the political reversal. That month, Major Thomas Savage publicly refused to lead the colony’s newly commissioned 600-strong army without the service of Christian Indians as scouts. Experienced frontiersmen such as Savage and Plymouth’s Benjamin Church had long argued the futility of meeting Algonkian warriors with conventional European tactics. With this support, the Governor’s Council determined to brave the expected public outcry, organizing a troop of forty Praying Indians. The platoon formed in time to see service against Metacomet’s assault on Sudbury. In July, a company of Praying Indians took part in the campaign which routed Metacomet from his lands at Pokanoket (Mount Hope, Rhode Island). They suffered serious casualties in these skirmishes and lost leaders such as the faithful Job Nesutan, an early Natick convert. Yet, with Praying Indian help, the tide turned in the spring, and Puritan forces took the offensive.
Despite the prospect of a Puritan victory by late summer, what Gookin described as the “doings and sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England” continued to take a toll on the Praying Indians. In August, as Andrew Pittimee and Thomas Speene of Natick fought alongside Puritan forces, their wives and children were murdered while collecting berries near Nonanetum. The discovery that four English soldiers had committed the crime, claiming “a law to warrant the act,” shamed the colony.
Of broader significance, the conflict between the Algonkian and colonists replicated the conditions which ensued after the epidemic holocaust of 1616-1619. Once again the Massachusett found themselves remnants of a devastated society; once again a “forlorne generation” searched for a semblance of order. Many who survived the rigors of their Deer Island internment or combat struggled to adhere to the institutions and customs they had developed since Natick’s founding. Writing in April 1684, Eliot observed: “They do diligently observe and keep the sabbath, in all the places of their publick meetings to worship God.” Yet, the Massachusett could not revive the hopeful spirit which had built Natick, Punkapog, and Okommakamesit. Others, quite likely, felt betrayed by the English and their jealous god.
In the years following the conflict, the “Praying people” shifted for themselves, bereft of all but the barest support from the Puritan community. No rituals of healing or reconciliation mended wounds engendered by mistrust. Instead, the 14 Praying Indian “Plantations” were reduced to those at Natick, Punkapog, Nashoba, Wamesit, and Hassanamesit. Obstacles which perennially hampered the Praying Town program only increased after the Wampanoag insurrection. The words which Robin Speene spoke were as true in 1690 as they were in 1647. The English God, he lamented, “stripped mee as bare as my skinne.” His sentiment would continue to ring true into the next century.
Ongoing attrition took its toll upon Natick and other Algonkian communities. The first Praying Town suffered gradual, but constant, erosion as a result. In 1678, the population was estimated at 212, up from 145 because of the consolidation of the fourteen Praying Towns into four. By 1749, the number was reduced to 166; in 1753, only 75-100 persons gathered in twenty-five families remained. In 1763, only thirty-seven Algonkian were left; the next year, eight to ten families were counted. By the eighteenth century, twenty “clear-blooded” Indians and an unknown number of mixed blood persons survived, of whom twenty-three were church members. Finally, in 1855, the town of Natick reported only one living descendant of the Massachusett Praying Indians. Puritan society, subordinating its institutional mission to the imperative of economic development and material gain, had exiled the Native American to the bleak recesses of marginality.
Acculturation. Acculturation refers to the somewhat eclectic integration of cultural traits to create a syncretistic form.
Algonkian. Ethnological term denoting Native Americans who inhabited the eastern woodlands of North America, sharing common cultural and linguistic traits. Algonkian culture encompassed the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Pennacook, and other New England tribes.
John Eliot. Arriving in Boston in 1633, he became first minister of the church at Roxbury. In late 1646, he was one of several ministers who began the Puritan mission to the Algonkian, continuing the work until his death in 1690.
Daniel Gookin. After arriving from Virginia, Gookin was appointed Superintendent over the Algonkian in Massachusetts Bay. A staunch supporter of the Praying Indian mission, he wrote Historical Collections in 1674 and Doings and Sufferings in 1675. His support during Metacomet’s War earned him the enmity of other colonists and he died in relative poverty.
Manitou. In the Massachusett dialect, manit or manitoog. The Massachusett described manitou as a supernatural entity which pervades the natural and human worlds; a miraculous and beneficent force through which shamans healed the sick and injured and performed magical feats.
Massachusett. The Massachusett were an Algonkian tribe which inhabited the area around Massachusetts Bay. The name refers to the “great hill” of the present-day Blue Hills.
Natick, or Natchik. The “place of hills” was ancestral home to the Speene family. In 1650 it was settled as the first Praying Town and in 1651 its authority was formally legitimized under town government.
Nipmuk. An Algonkian tribe inhabiting central Massachusetts Bay Colony. Eliot met with plausible success in making converts among the tribe and by 1674 reported seven Praying Towns among the tribe. Many joined with the Wampanoag during Metacomet’s War, arousing the colonists’ ire against “preying Indians.”
Nonanetum. A Massachusett village situated twelve miles west of Boston, abutting the borders of Cambridge, Watertown, and present-day Newton. It was the first site in which Eliot had success in preaching to the Massachusett, October 28, 1646.
Patuxet. Patuxet was a village of the neighboring Wampanoag tribe; this people initially suffered massive depopulation similar to the Massachusett experience, but the integrity of its tribal remained intact much longer. In 1620, Separatist colonists built Plymouth on its abandoned fields.
Praying Town. Natick, Punkapog (Milton), Hassanamesit, Okommakamesit (Marlborough), Wamesit (Lowell), Nashoba, and Magunkaquog.
Sachem or sagamore. Political leader of an Algonkian band or village. The term designated a tribal overlord, such as Cutshamekin of the Massachusett or Ousamequin of the Wampanoag. “Sagamore” identified band or village leaders.
Sanop. An Algonkian man.
Speene. A family of Massachusett people from the village of Natchick or Natick. They were instrumental in establishing the first Praying Town in 1650.
Dane Morrison is an assistant professor in the History Department of Salem State College. His book, A Praying People: Massachusetts Acculturation and the Failure of the Puritan Mission, 1600 1690 is due on bookshelves in May 1995. His article, “Can Systems Theory Explain Praying Indian Acculturation?” appears in the Proceedings of the 1993 Native American Studies Conference. He wishes to thank Nancy Schultz and members of the Faculty Writing Workshop at Salem State College for help in developing this article.