The life and death of the Massachuset

The mural “Savin Hill 500 Years Ago” – painted in 1999 by James Hobin with assistance from Joe McKendry, and student artists from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester, including Lauren Clark, Shane Hassey, Chau Nguyen, Halan Tran, and Rose Morgan – remains mounted on the side of McKenna’s Café, thanks to the stewardship of the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund for Public Art in Boston.

Following is the first in a series of excerpts from the recently published book by Mr. Quill – “When Last the Glorious Light: Lay of the Massachuset” – a story centered on the fate of the Native American tribe called the Massachuset, from which the state took its name.

A few months after they landed at Plymouth in 1620, the Pilgrims signed a peace treaty in March 1621 with people they called the Pokanoket whose chieftain they called Massasoit. Although the treaty would hold for over a generation, reference to the tribe’s name would change from Pokanoket to Wampanoag—which it was in the first place—and Massasoit’s name, we now know, was more a title than a given name.

For that matter, the Pilgrims weren’t called by that name either. For over two centuries they were referred to as the “Old Comers.”

Six months after signing the first treaty, the Pilgrims signed a second one in September 1621 with nine chieftains or sachems from several tribes or sub-tribes, but the most important additional tribe beside the Pokanoket was the one just north of them, their ally—the Massachuset.

The natives signed these treaties because they were intimidated by the powerful firearms the newcomers carried, and they had only recently been weakened in numbers by a mysterious and deadly sickness that had nearly annihilated them.

Just prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth—which they initially called New Plymouth—a great pestilence or plague descended upon the natives along the east coast of New England from 1616 to 1619. The disease was believed to be Hepatitis A, brought in the hold or hull of wooden ships manned by fishermen, tradesmen and adventurers from France and England. Whole villages were wiped out. As a result, the Wampanoag, Massachuset, and Pawtucket farther north of them were nearly wiped out. Thus weakened, these tribes and others made peace readily with the newcomers who carried explosive firearms, weapons against which the natives initially could only fruitlessly contend. The two treaties were upheld by this generation of natives and settlers, with some exceptions, until 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out among the second and third generations. In 1636-37, for instance, a war broke out between new settler combatants and the Pequot tribe in Connecticut, but that tribe hadn’t signed either treaty.

The story of the tribe called the Massachuset focuses on four prominent chiefs, known as sachems:

CHICKATAUBUT, considered the grandest leader of the tribe in oral and written histories, came foremost. Little is known about previous leaders of this tribe prior to the coming of Europeans to the New World.

The despoliation of his mother’s grave by early Pilgrim settlers—they dug it up and stole some mementoes—made his blood boil and thereafter gave him a certain caution when dealing with these bearded and short-statured strangers. He didn’t like them much, but as a practical man, he knew he must treat with them because they held powerful firearms which initially his people didn’t have. His resentment came to the fore in a skirmish that took place in 1623—three years after the Pilgrims’ arrival—in a place today called Weymouth, Massachusetts, but known to the natives as Wessagusset, one of the tribe’s campsites. Thereafter, he embraced peaceful terms with the colonists till his death in 1633.

OBBATINEWAT was Chickataubut’s sub-sachem at Shawmut, re-named Boston by the Puritans who settled there in 1630, some ten years after the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Obbatinewat is believed to have been Chickataubut’s surrogate at the Wessagusset skirmish in 1623, where several Massachuset warriors were killed by order of the Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and where the Grand Sachem Chickataubut may have been wounded.

CUTSHAMEKIN, Chickataubut’s irascible brother, helped start the 1637 Pequot War by killing and scalping a Pequot—a troubled man who later became the first Ruler of 100 at the missionary Reverend John Eliot’s first Christianized “Praying Town” at Natick in the 1650s, against the wishes of Eliot and the Magistrates but by vote of the natives themselves.

WAMPATUCK was Cutshamekin’s nephew and son of Chickataubut, known also as Josias, Josiah and Josias Chickataubut. Once a Ruler of 100 at Ponkapoag in today’s Canton, Massachusetts, he became an apostate to Christianity. In the 1669 battle against the Mohawk, after this Massachuset Sachem of the Blood had used several names including his father’s prestigious name, some historians wrote that it was Chickataubut who led and lost the battle. But that Grand Sachem had died of a smallpox epidemic some 36 years before in November 1633. In fact, it was Wampatuck, not Chickataubut, who led and lost the 1669 battle, and his life.

The tribe’s tragedy began its fatal drumbeat by the prevailing pestilence brought to the New World by French and English settlers who were immune to these deadly diseases brought over from Europe. The second devastating death toll came during King Philip’s War (1675-76) when most of the remaining Massachuset were incarcerated on wintery windswept Deer Island in Boston Harbor, where over half of their numbers died from frostbite and starvation. A similar fate awaited another group of innocent women, children and old men from the same tribe who had been herded onto bleak Clark’s Island in Plymouth Harbor.

As noted with Massasoit’s name and with the confusion over Wampatuck’s, misnomers are rife in the telling of early Native American history to the extent that they have left some historians and readers misinformed. This was an era shortly after the passing of the masterful William Shakespeare (1564-1616), when the impact of a word had more clout than its correctness (he spelled his own name variously).

Going along with the distain for correct spelling, one town clerk showed his contempt for getting the names of natives right by spelling one of their names four different ways on a quit-claim deed that transferred land from tribesmen to the settlers.

Pokanoket, first mistakenly called a tribe, was a place at Mount Hope, Rhode Island, essentially the area of Bristol, Barrington and Warren (this last the natives also called Sowams). The area was the center of power of the Wampanoag tribe. Nevertheless, up to King Philip’s War, they will be referred here as Pokanoket, because that’s what the early chroniclers called them; at the war’s beginning, and thenceforth, they will be called Wampanoag. Their leader Massasoit was called by his natives Ousamequin, Usamequin, Woosamequin, Asumequin, and so forth, perhaps various English spellings.

Other misnomers: INDIAN (as we know, Columbus didn’t land in India in 1492); and REDSKIN (they are tawny-skinned, light brown).

Years ago, a linguistics professor at Yale University, J. Hammond Trumbull, explained the spelling, or rather misspelling, of the word “Massachusetts” as we use it today for the once powerful tribe for whom the Commonwealth was named—the Massachuset: People of the Blue Hills. He noted (see Appendix A) that it meant “at or about the great hills” (i.e. the Blue Hills), where the tribe in winter hunted deer and bear.

He noted that the word “Massachuset” included the native tribe’s plural sign and that no second “t” was necessary. The early English simply added an extra “t” plus an “s” as plural. In their own language, they were “Massachuseuck.”

Separate incidents, skirmishes and wars about the 17th Century’s Colonial Period have included activities of individual Massachuset natives in numerous history books and articles, but as far as this writer could discover, no full-length book has been written about the tribe, its history, customs and legends, until now.

This book lays no claim to be an academic historian’s definitive work on the tribe that called itself the Massachuseuck. It is, however, a storyteller’s telling of the highlights he has spotted that tell this people’s tale, that sings their song as it were, their lament, and gives call to their joyous chant now, and only now, that their tale has been told, that gives drumbeat to this lamentable lay at long last – the Lay of the Massachuset.

The author Ed Quill is a former archivist at Boston City Hall and onetime chief librarian at The Boston Globe where he also served as a City Hall reporter and editor of its Ask the Globe column.

“When Last the Glorious Light: Lay of the Massachuset,” copyright © 2018 Ed Quill, by Silver Lake Press, Inc.