Massachusetts Indians

Archives Of Aboriginal Knowledge Plate15
Figure 2 is a Balista – Plate15

When the English landed in Massachusetts, in 1620, there were some twenty tribes of Indians in the present area of New England, speaking cognate dialects. They were hunters and fishermen, in the lowest state of barbarism, and though they never had been, apparently, densely populous, the tribes had then; recently suffered much, from a general epidemic. In their manners and customs, forest-arts and traditions, and in their language, they did not differ in their ethnological type. They made use, in their wars, of the balista, which is shown in Plate 15, Figure 2. This antique instrument is represented several times, agreeably to Chingwauk’s interpretation, on the Dighton Rock.

The Rev. Cotton Mather, in the quaint language of the times, describes the Massachusetts Indians as follows:

“Know, then, that these doleful creatures are the veriest ruins of mankind which are to be found anywhere upon the face of the earth. No such estates are to be expected among them as have been the baits which the pretended converters in other countries have snapped at. One might see among them what an hard master the devil is, to the most devoted of his vassals. These abject creatures live in a country full of mines; we have already made entrance upon our iron; and in the very surface of the ground among us, there lies copper enough to supply all this world; besides other mines hereafter to be exposed. But our shiftless Indians were never owners of so much as a knife, till we came among them. Their name for an Englishman was a knife-man; stone was used instead of metal for their tools; and for their coins, they have only little beads with holes in them to string them upon a bracelet, whereof some are white; and of these there go six for a penny. Some are black, or blue; and of these, go three for a penny. This wampum, as they call it, is made of the shellfish, which lies upon the seacoast continually.

“They live in a country where we now have all the conveniences of human life. But, as for them, their housing is nothing but a few mats tied about poles fastened in the earth, where a good fire is their bedclothes in the coldest seasons. Their clothing is but a skin of a beast, covering their hind-parts, their foreparts having but a little apron where nature calls for secrecy. Their diet has not a greater dainty than their nokehick, that is, a spoonful of their parched meal, with a spoonful of water, which will strengthen them to travel a day together; except we should mention the flesh of deers, bears, moose, raccoons, and the like, which they have when they can catch them; as also a little fish, which, if they would preserve, ’twas by drying, not by salting, for they had not a grain of salt in the world, I think, till we bestowed it on them. Their physic is, excepting a few odd specifics, which some of them encounter certain cases with, nothing hardly, but an hot-house, or a powow. Their hothouse is a little cave, about eight feet over, where, after they have terribly heated it, a crew of them go sit and sweat and smoke for an hour together, and then immediately run into some very cold adjacent brook, without the least mischief to them. ‘Tis this way they recover themselves from some diseases. But, in most of their dangerous distempers, tis a powow that must be sent for; that is, a priest, who has more familiarity with Satan than his neighbors. This conjurer comes and roars, and howls, and uses magical ceremonies over the sick man, and will be well paid for it, when he has done; if this don’t effect the cure, the man s time is come, and there s an end.

“They live in a country full of the best ship-timber under heaven, but never saw a ship till some came from Europe hither; and then they were scared out of their wits to see the monster come sailing in, and spitting fire, with a mighty noise, out of her floating side. They cross the water in canoes made, sometimes, of trees, which they burn and hew till they have hollowed them; and sometimes of barks, which they stitch into a light sort of a vessel, to be easily carried over land; if they over-set, it is but a little paddling like a dog, and they are soon where they were.

“Their way of living is infinitely barbarous; the men are most abominably slothful, making their poor squaws or wives to plant, and dress, and barn, and beat their corn, and build their wigwams for them; which, perhaps, may be the reason of their extraordinary ease in child-birth. In the mean time, their chief employment, when they’l condescend unto any, is that of hunting; wherein they’l go out some scores, if not hundreds of them, in a company, driving all before them.

“They’l continue in a place till they have burnt up all the wood thereabouts, and then they pluck up stakes to follow the wood which they cannot fetch home unto themselves; hence, when they inquire about the English, Why come they hither? they have, themselves, very learnedly determined the case, It was because we wanted firing. No arts are understood among them, unless just so far as to maintain their brutish conversation, which is little more than is to be found among the very beavers upon our streams.

“Their division of time is by sleeps, and moons, and winters; and, by lodging abroad, they have somewhat observed the motions of the stars; among which it has been surprising unto me to find, that they have always called Charles Wain by the name of Paukunnawaw, or The Bear, which is the name whereby Europeans also have distinguished it. Moreover, they have little, if any, traditions among them worthy of our notice; and reading and writing is altogether unknown to them, though there is a rock or two in the country that has unaccountable characters engraved upon it. 1 All the religion they have amounts unto thus much; they believe that there are many gods, who made and own the several nations of the world; of which a certain great god, in the south-west regions of heaven, bears the greatest figure. They believe that every remarkable creature has a peculiar god within it, or about it; there is with them a sun-god, or a moon-god, and the like; and they cannot conceive but that the fire must be a kind of god, inasmuch as a spark of it will soon produce very strange effects. They believe that when any good or ill happens to them, there is the favor or the anger of a god expressed in it; and hence, as in a time of calamity they keep a dance, or a day of extravagant ridiculous devotions to their god, so in a time of prosperity they likewise have a feast, wherein they also make presents one unto another. Finally, they believe that their chief god, Kamantowit, made a man and woman of a stone; which, upon dislike, he broke to pieces, and made another man and woman of a tree, which were the fountains of all mankind; and that we all have in us immortal souls, which, if we were godly, shall go to a splendid entertainment with Kamantowit, but, otherwise, must wander about in a restless horror for ever. But if you say to them anything of a resurrection, they will reply upon you, I shall never believe it! And, when they have any weighty undertaking before them, tis an usual thing for them to have their assemblies, wherein, after the usage of some diabolical rites, a devil appears unto them, to inform them and advise them about their circumstances; and sometimes there are odd events of their making these applications to the devil: for instance, tis particularly affirmed that the Indians, in their wars with us, finding a sore inconvenience by our dogs, which would make a sad yelling if, in the night, they scented the approaches of them, they sacrificed a dog to the devil; after which no English dog would bark at an Indian for divers months ensuing. This was the miserable people which our Eliot propounded unto himself the saving of.” (Life of Eliot.)

Eliot, who has been justly styled the Apostle of the Indians, came from England in 1631; and although charged with the duties of a pastor, and taking a prominent part in the ecclesiastical government of the New England churches, he turned his attention, at the same time, very strongly to the conversion of the tribes. To this end he engaged native teachers, and learned the Indian language. In this he made great proficiency, and soon began to preach to them in their vernacular. Colaborers joined him; and by their efforts, native evangelists were raised up, under whose labors, superintended by Mr. Eliot, Indian churches were established at various points. Fifteen hundred souls were under religious instruction on Martha s Vineyard alone.

In 1661, Eliot published a translation of the entire Scriptures in their language called to this day Eliot’s Bible. This work, which evinces vast labor and research, is seen to be a well-characterized dialect of the Algonquin. A vocabulary of it, extracted from this translation, is exhibited herewith. Many English terms for nouns and verbs are employed, with the usual Indian inflections. The words God and Jehovah, appear as synonyms of Manito, the Indian term for Deity. He found, it appears, no term for the verb to love, and introduced the word womon as an equivalent, adding the ordinary Indian suffixes and inflexions, for person, number, and tense.

This translation of the Bible into the language constitutes an era in American philology. It preceded, it is believed, any missionary effort of equal magnitude, in the way of translation, in India or any other part of the world; and it must for ever remain as a monument of New England zeal, and active labor in the conversion of the native tribes. The term Massachusetts language is applied to the various cognate and closely affiliated dialects of the tribes who formerly inhabited it. It constitutes a peculiar type of the Algonquin, which was spread widely along the Atlantic, and in the West.

It is interesting to observe the fate of this people, who were the object of so much benevolent care, after the passage of an epoch of little less than two centuries. The great blow to the permanent success of this work was struck by the infuriated and general war, which broke out under the indomitable sachem called Metacom, better known as King Philip, who drew all but the Christian communities and the Mohegans into his scheme. Even these were often suspected. The cruelties which were com mitted during this war, produced the most bitter hatred and distrust between the parties. The whole race of Indians was suspected, and from the painful events of this unwise war, on the part of the natives, we must date the suspicious and unkind feelings which were so long prevalent, and which yet tincture the American mind.

In 1849 the legislature of Massachusetts directed inquiries to be made respecting them. From the report made on this occasion, there were found to be remnants of twelve tribes or local clans, who are living respectively at Chippequddic, Christian-town, Gay Head, Fall River, Marshpee, Herring Pond, Hassanamisco, Punkapog, Natic, Dudley, Grafton, and Yarmouth. Their number is estimated at 847, only about seven or eight of which are of pure blood; the remainder being a mixture of Indian and African. A plan for their improvement was exhibited. This plan embraces the following features:

  1. The enactment of a uniform system of laws, to apply to every tribe in the State, in the spirit of modern philanthropy.
  2. The merging of all, except those at Marshpee, Herring Pond, and Martha s Vineyard, into one community.
  3. Granting to every one who wishes it, the privileges of citizenship, involving the liability to taxation.
  4. The appointment of an Indian commissioner for their super vision and improvement.

Hard, indeed, it may seem to the proud spirit of Indian independence, which has so long showed itself in the lives of a Pontiac, a Buekanjahela, Tecumseh, Blackwarrior, and Red Jacket, if the means for their preservation must be deemed dependent, as we see in this movement, upon the corruption of their blood!


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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  1. See the Inscription of the Dighton Rock.[]

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