New England Native American Burial Customs

Three centuries and more have elapsed since the Jesuit, Père Pierre Biard, of Grenoble, prepared an account of the manners and customs of several native tribes of New France, which then included within its bounds the eastern portions of the present State of Maine, and the adjoining provinces. He wrote more particularly of the “three tribes which are on good terms of friendship with us-the Montaguets, the Souriquois, and the Eteminquois.” By these names the early French knew the three tribes now better known as the Montagnais, Micmac, and Malecite, all belonging to the great Algonquian family, and who occupied the region just mentioned. Although not always at peace with one another they undoubtedly had many customs in common, and these may have differed little from those of the neighboring tribes, all of which belonged to the same stock. And when recounting the ceremonies attending the death and burial of a member of one of these tribes he wrote: “The sick man having been appointed by the Autmoin to die … all the relations and neighbors assemble and, with the greatest possible solemnity, he delivers his funeral oration: he recites his heroic deeds, gives some directions to his family, recommends his friends: finally, says adieu. This is all there is of their wills. As to gifts, they make none at all; but, quite different from us, the survivors give some to the dying man. “A feast is prepared, all gather, evidently in the presence of the dying man, and partake of the food, and ” having banqueted they begin to express their sympathy and sorrowful Farewells, their hearts weep and bleed because their good friend is going to leave them and go away … they go on in this way until the dying man expires and then they utter horrible cries.”These continue day and night and do not cease until the supply of food has been exhausted, the food having previously been provided by the dying man, and if there are no supplies ” they only bury the dead man, and postpone the obsequies and ceremonies until another time and place, at the good pleasure of their stomachs. Meanwhile all the relatives and friends daub their faces with black, and very often paint themselves with other colors.. . To them black is a sign of grief and mourning. They bury their dead in this manner: First they swathe the body and tie it up in skins; not lengthwise, but with the knees against the stomach and the. head on the knees, as we are in our mother’s womb. Afterwards they put it in the grave, which has been made very deep, not upon the back or lying down as we do, but sitting. A posture which they like, very much, and which among them signifies reverence. For the children and the youths seat themselves thus in the presence of their fathers and of the old, whom they respect . . . When the body is placed, as it does not come up even with the ground on account of the depth of the grave, they arch the grave over with sticks, so that the earth will not fall back into it, and thus they cover up the tomb . . . If it is some illustrious personage they build a Pyramid or monument of interlacing poles; as eager in that for glory as we are in our marble and porphyry. If it is a man, they place there as a sign and emblem, his bow, arrows; and shield; if a woman, spoons, matachias, or jewels, ornaments, etc. I have nearly forgotten the most beautiful part of all; it is that they bury with the dead man all that he owns, such as his bag, his arrows, his skins and all his other articles and baggage, even his dogs if they have not been eaten. Moreover, the survivors add to these a number of other such offerings, as tokens of friendship . . . These obsequies finished, they flee from the place, and, from that time on, they hate all memory of the dead. If it happens that they are obliged to speak of him sometimes, it is under another and a new name.” Dogs were among the gifts presented to the dying man by his friends, and “they kill these dogs in order to send them on before him into the other world,” and they were eaten at the feast prepared at the time of the death, ” for they find them palatable.” This general description would probably have applied to the burial customs of the tribes occupying the greater part of the country east of the Hudson, the present New England States, and the closely flexed burials are easily explained and clearly described. The association of many objects with the remains is verified by the discoveries made by the Pilgrims when they landed on Cape Cod, early in November, 1620, and interesting indeed is their old narrative. They went ashore on the unknown coast to explore the woods and learn what they might contain.

They advanced a short distance and encountered small mounds of earth which were found to cover pits or caches filled with corn. And then they found another: “It also was covered with boords, so as we mused what it should be, and resolved to digge it up, where we found, first a Matt, and under that a fayre Bow, and there another Matt, and under that boord about three quarters long, finely carved and paynted, with three tynes, or brooches on the top, like a Crowned; also betweene the Matts we found Boules, Trayes, Dishes, and such like Trinkets: at length we came to a faire new Matt, and under that two Bundles, the one’ bigger, the other’ less, we opened the greater and found in it a great quantitie of fine and perfect red Powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man. The skull had fine yellow haire still on it, and some of the flesh unconsumed, there was bound up with it a knife, a pack-needle, and two or three old iron things. It was bound tip in a Saylers canvas Cassack, and a payre of cloth breeches. . . . We opened the less bundle likewise, and found of the same Powder in it, and the bones and head of a little childe, about the leggs, and other parts of it was bound strings, and bracelets of fine white Beads; there was also by it a little Bow, about three quarters long, and some other odd knacks; we brought sundry of the pretiest things away with us, and covered the Corps up again.” This was probably just north of Pamet River, in Truro village, where at the present day rising ground, slightly more elevated than the surrounding country, continues to be known as Corn Hill. Near the western edge of this area it becomes more level and falls away abruptly on the shore of Cape Cod Bay, rising some 20 feet above high tide and exposing bare sand with little vegetation. During the summer of 1903 a dark line was visible on the face of the bank at an average depth of about 2 feet below the present surface and it could be traced for several hundred yards along the shore. This dark stratum, several inches in thickness, proved to be an old sod line, and at three points where it was somewhat thicker than elsewhere fire beds were discovered and slight excavations revealed fragments of pottery, bits of charred bones, and ashes. This may have been the surface upon which stood the village of three centuries ago, and if so, the land upon which the Pilgrims trod has been covered by a mass of drifting sand, swept by the winds across the narrow cape. Sailing from their safe anchorage near the end of the cape, the Pilgrims, on December 6, 1620, arrived in the vicinity of Wellfeet Bay, named by them Grampus Bay, by reason of discovering “eight or ten Saluages about a dead Grampus,” and near by ” we found a great burying place, one part whereof was incompassed with a large Palazado, like a Church-yard, with yong spires foure or five yards long, set as close one by another as they could two or three foot in the ground, within it was full of graves, some bigger and some lesse, some were also paled about, & others had like an Indian house made over them, but not matted: those Graves were more sumptuous than those at Corne-hill, yet we digged none of them up . . . without the Palazado were graves also, but not so costly.” Not far away were several frames of wigwams, but the mat covers had been removed and the site had been temporarily abandoned. The two burials encountered by the Pilgrims at Corne Hill were those of Indians and lead evidently been made within a year. The “yellow haire” had been caused by the process of decay and would soon have disappeared. The objects of iron had been obtained from some Europeans who had touched upon the coast or whose vessel had been wrecked. Now, three centuries later, were these ancient burial places to be discovered it is doubtful whether any traces would remain in addition to the mass of ” perfect red Powder,” insoluble red oxide of iron (Fe²O³). All human remains, mats, bows, and other objects of a perishable nature would have turned to dust and disappeared. But any ornaments or implements of stone which might have been deposited in the pit grave would remain.

Within recent years many similar pits, with masses of the red oxide mingled with various objects of stone, have been encountered not far from the coast in Lincoln and Hancock Counties, Maine. But not a particle of bone, or even a tooth, has been discovered within the ancient pits to indicate the presence of human remains. Nevertheless they were probably once like the burials found by the Pilgrims at Corn Hill, but now all substance of a perishable nature has vanished. They were probably made by a kindred Algonquian tribe and may not be older than those occurring on Cape Cod. One of the most interesting groups of such pit graves was exposed at Bucksport, 18 miles below Bangor, on the left bank of the Penobscot; another was discovered on the west shore of Lake Alamoosook, both in Hancock County, Maine.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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