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Residential area of ​​the Massachusett and neighboring tribes around 1600, as well as historical places (red)

The Massachusett were a group of now extinct Indian tribes whose former residential area was in the east of the US state of Massachusetts . They belonged to a multitude of individual tribes in southern New England who, with a few exceptions, shared the same cultural pattern. All spoke the Massachusett language , an Algonquian language , and ate corn, beans, and squash from their gardens and fields, supplemented by land, sea, and wild plants. The village was at the center of a very similar social, political and religious way of life.


The name Massachuset was apparently first used by John Smith in his reports in 1616 and seems to mean on the great hill , probably a reference to the Blue Hills near Milton on southwest Massachusetts Bay . The English plural Massachusetts has been used consistently since the 17th century, with a small variant in the spelling to denote the Indians who inhabited the land around the Bay and on the islands in it. The Narraganset name was Massachuseuck .


All of the native people of southern New England spoke one of the five Eastern Algonquian languages:

Some reports from the 17th century confirm that these languages ​​were understood by the respective speakers. On the coast this was particularly true of those Indians who had some experience with other languages ​​and dialects.

residential area

At the beginning of European settlement, the Massachusett people seem to have concentrated around the mouth of the Neponset on the south side of Massachusetts Bay. To the south, the Massachusetts land touched the Wampanoag residential area along a changing border roughly following the line between what is now Marshfield and Brockton . The border with the Penacook in the north was near the Charles River.

Groups of the Massachusett

Local groups included:

  • Nashaway ( Nashua or Weshacumam - "river with a pebbled bottom"), lived on the upper reaches of the Nashua River in northern Worcester County , near the modern cities of Leominster , Lancaster , Sterling and others in the vicinity of Mount Wachusett , their main settlement was Waushacum (today: Sterling); their territory was bounded downstream by the Nashua River (to the north) by the powerful Pennacook Confederation , to the east by tribes related to the Massachusett, to the south by other Nipmuck groups, and to the west by the Connecticut River and the Pocomtuc Confederation , Although today mostly viewed as a large group (or Sachemtum) of the Nipmuck (Nipmuc) , but politically mostly part of the Penacook and / or the Massachusett Confederation, later they joined the Western Abenaki and thus the Wabanaki Confederation )
  • Naumkeag ( Naimkeak , Namaoskeag , Namaske , their main village Naumkeag ("fish reason", from namaas - "fish" and ki - "place", "reason"), was near Salem at the mouth of the Naumkeag River to the Mystic River in Northeast Massachusetts, originally a powerful Sachemtum of the Massachusett, they later joined the Penacook Confederation to later join the Wabanaki Confederation as part of the Western Abenaki)
  • Neponset (originally lived along the Neponset River of the same name, later they were settled in the prayer town of Punkapaog)
  • Nonantum
  • Penacook , Pawtucket
  • Punkapaog ( Ponkapoag , Punkapaug or Punkapog - "shallow pond" or "a spring did bubbles from red soil", was in 1657 as second Praying Indian (ger .: praying town ) - Natick in 1651 - in the Western Blue Hills in eastern Massachusetts 'erected near Stoughton , originally just the name of a winter camp of the Neponset, a tribe of the Massachusett who lived in the summer at the mouth of the Neponset River , this was then referred to as Punkapaog , today part of the urban area of ​​Canton, Massachusetts)
  • Wessagusset



The Massachusett, like most other New England tribes, moved in the cycle of the seasons to their main sources of food in the forest, in the fields, in the marshland and in the water.

Archaeological and ethnohistorical sources provide ample evidence of the large numbers of land mammals, ranging in size from black bears to gray squirrels. Archaeological finds in a Mohegan dig site in Connecticut indicate, however, that deer provided nearly 90 percent of the meat requirement. Deer hunting seems to have been the main occupation of men in autumn and early winter.

In the period before contact with Europeans, whales did not appear to have been systematically hunted in southern New England, but they were washed up on the beach quite often, and large groups from nearby villages slaughtered the stranded animals. In the later years, East Long Island Indians became widely known as skilled whalers. In eastern Massachusetts, the Indians stalked seals that slept on the rocks by the coast in warm weather, and seal fat was very popular.

Waterfowl were hunted with a bow and arrow or caught in nets. Cormorants were taken from their roosts on rocks off the coast at night. Bones from larger birds, such as swans, Canada geese, grouse, and turkeys, were found in trash pits on the 17th-century Fort Shantok site. Fish were caught with lines with bony fish hooks, with nets, on weirs built over the river and with spears from a canoe. Sturgeons seem to have been particularly popular. The spring migration of spawning fish upriver provided an opportunity for large, low-cost catches. Certain places on the river where the fish could be caught as easily as possible were popular storage areas. Fish caught in abundance were dried on scaffolding in the sun or over a smoking fire and consumed at other times of the year.

Lobsters were collected by women from the Massachusett and were dried and smoked as food for the winter. Shellfish, especially oysters and hard- and soft-shelled clams, were an important source of food.

Wild plants varied between the season and location. Roots were primarily used for winter nutrition. Throughout the summer there were strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and finally grapes. In autumn, walnuts, chestnuts and acorns were collected, peeled, dried and stored until consumption. All of these fruits could be ground for consumption in soups and stews, and acorns were boiled to make a tasty dish.


Typical Algonquin planting in southern New England

Starting with Giovanni da Verrazzano, there are relatively complete descriptions of Indian gardening. The early explorers were all impressed by the extent of the cultivated fields that lined the coast in many places between the Saco River and Cape Cod .

Mainly corn , kidney beans, squash (pumpkin) , Jerusalem artichoke and tobacco were grown . Larger groups of men and women prepared the land for planting. The trees were cut three feet above the ground, the branches and trunks burned, and the seeds planted between the stumps, which were eventually cleared. Champlain describes the planting of a field on the banks of the Saco in July 1605:

After digging up the ground with hardwood spade tools, the shells of horseshoe crabs were used to pile small mounds about 3 feet apart, each with 3 or 4 kernels of corn and an equal number of beans.

Small fish were placed in every corn hill as fertilizer , a practice that could have come from Europe. The fields were necessarily left fallow to increase fertility and burned before they were replanted. Clamshell hoes were used for weeding in Massachusetts .

Planting, tilling and harvesting was usually done by women, although old men or young men helped out out of affection for their wives. The only exception was tobacco, which was mainly grown by men. The dried corn was placed in woven sacks or baskets and buried in large holes or trenches to be consumed during the fall and winter. The English settlers hated these deep, mat-covered holes in the ground. They called this facility Indian barns and didn't like it because their grazing cattle often fell through the mats.

Settlement pattern

A village usually consisted of a row of houses facing each other. The residents used the resources of a limited area, for example a section of a river or the coast. Summer was the time of greatest mobility, when families were scattered across the country. During his summer trips in 1605 and 1606, Samuel de Champlain noticed many detached houses, each surrounded by as much land as the residents needed for gardening. In Rhode Island , the Indians sometimes worked fields a mile or more apart, and when the work was done in one field, they moved to house in the next. Summer was also the time for short trips to special collection points. The people of Nemasket, in southeastern Massachusetts, hiked 15 miles (15 miles) to the coast of Plymouth to catch lobsters at every spring tide.

After the harvest, the Massachusett made their longest hike of the year, from the summer fields to the deep forest where they spent the winter. In October 1606, French explorers in southern Cape Cod watched the locals dismantle their homes and send women and children into the woods with all their supplies.

The population seems to have lived more concentrated in winter, but even in early winter families were often away from the village and lived in hunting camps until the deep snow came. The schools of fish in spring were the opportunity for several villages to come together and for games and celebrations together. The houses were abandoned after a resident died. One reason for relocating an entire village sometimes seems to have been the lack of local firewood.

Trade and wampum

In addition to the goods from their own local environment, the Massachusett procured valuable products from other areas through a trading network that connected different places within the region with one another and with tribes in adjacent areas. This trade network existed long before contact with the Europeans, but it was undoubtedly influenced quickly and significantly by the introduction of European trade goods.

The European-Indian trade began early in the 17th century. Many of the early explorers of southeastern New England noticed copper earrings, bracelets, pendants, and breastplates. The copper could have come from European visitors too, but it is more likely that it came from Maine and Nova Scotia Indians, who first obtained the precious metal from European fishermen and fur traders and then brought it south on the well-functioning coastal trade route.

A preferred trade item of the natives was wampum , consisting of cylindrical pearls that were made from the spine of the snail shell (Venus buccinum) for the white variant, while the pearls for the darker one were made from the purple part of the quahog shell (Venus Mercenaria) Variant were manufactured. Wampum was made by the Indians of Long Islands and the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Islands, especially Shinnecock, Pequot and Narragansett, while snail clams were no longer found in large quantities north of Cape Cod. These pearls made their way northeast along the trade route to Nova Scotia and their value grew even more than the distance to the place of production.

Before metal tools existed, shells were ground into the correct shape on stone disks and drilled through with stone drills. Soon after contact with Europeans, the Indians used iron drills and began to produce large quantities of this item for trade with the Dutch and English, who in turn used it in the trade in skins for Indians in the interior and in the north. Tools, scraps of manufacture and half-finished beads were found in abundance at the Corchaug , Mohegan and Narraganset residences in the 17th century. Wampum became a real barter and was probably an important means of getting the Indians of South New England into the European money economy.

Social organization

The village was the basic socio-political unit led by a sachem . Early European observers characterized the Native American political system as monarchical , but descriptions of specific events clearly indicate that the sachem had very limited power and that its influence was largely exerted by persuasion and generosity. Important decisions were always made after consultation with the great men of the village, who must have more or less formally complied with advice from the sachem.

A number of sources from the 17th century give the impression that the authority of a Massachusett sachem over land and people was patrilineal. William Wood reported specifically on the rules of royal succession in 1634:

“With their kings it is customary to inherit, the son always taking over the kingdom after the death of his father. If there is no son, the queen follows; if there is no queen, the next comes of royal blood; if someone else comes he will be seen as an unlawful intruder, and if his proper promotion does not prove him better, they will soon remove him from office. "

There is no evidence of an inheritance pattern that applies to all tribes in South New England. For example, there were squaw sachems in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 17th century . They were not simply the widows of a sachem, but rather women who were entitled to leadership roles because of their parentage. Women inherited land rights, and their names appear on deeds in which that land was transferred to the English colonists.

Uncas Genealogy , a unique document dating from 1679 designed by the Mohegan sachem in support of its claim to land in eastern Connecticut, traces both matrilineal and patrilineal ancestry back to sachems of the Pequot, Narraganset, and Long Island Indians, and should Provide evidence of inheritance claims for each line.

Marriages seem to have been concluded only within class boundaries. In the case of families of the executive class, at least, they were sometimes polygamous , possibly because the chiefs needed the services of their wives in entertaining visitors and performing other managerial tasks, as well as through the desire to forge ties with the chief lineages of the neighbors. A bride price was paid, which often consisted of wampum.

Political organization

Above the village level, alliances between the villages played an important role. Descriptions of the social units in eastern Massachusetts generally speak only of individual villages or loose village groupings. For example, Champlain calls all Indians from the Saco River to Cape Cod Almouchiquois after his visits in 1605 and 1606 . He names individual local leaders, but never large regional groups.

Most of the descriptions date from the aftermath of the terrible epidemics of 1616 to 1619 that nearly wiped out the native population from southwest Maine to Cape Cod, leaving a vastly different situation as a result. These sources describe much stricter, hierarchically structured political units that inhabited much larger areas.

It should also not be forgotten that it was advantageous for any European colonial administration to emphasize, and if possible even to increase, the power and territorial limits of certain Indian leaders from whom they had received contractual rights and land documents.


17th century

The Massachusett were certainly among the Almouchiquois groups mentioned by Champlain during the French exploration of the southern New England coast in 1605. After the French came the Dutch. John Smith also visited the land of the Massachusetts, which is the paradise of all regions . He appears to have viewed the Wampanoag and most of the groups south of the Pawtucket as part of the Massachusett. The epidemics from 1617 to 1619 hit the Massachusett just as badly as their northern neighbors. Many villages were completely extinct, and the subsequent depopulation and disorganization undoubtedly prevented serious resistance to the incipient European colonization.

English colonists began to establish a settlement in Wessagusset late in 1622 , but in the middle of winter Europeans suffered severe famine and tensions arose after repeated food thefts . The local Sachem Obtakiest allegedly organized a plot to drive all English out of southeastern New England. The plan, however, was betrayed to the Plymouth colonists, who sent a small force to Wessagusset, where they killed some leaders and wounded others, including Obtakiest. This was apparently the first and only armed conflict between the Massachusett and the colonists.

When the first Puritans settled in Boston in 1629, they only encountered about 500 Massachusett in this area, many of whom died in the next smallpox epidemic in 1633, including Obtakiest's successor, Sachem Chicabaut . His successor, Cutchamakin, was an active ally of the colony and often served them as a messenger and interpreter.

Title page of the Elliot Bible

John Eliot , a Puritan minister in Roxbury , endeavored to teach the Massachusetts tribes of his Christian faith. This work soon led to a remarkable proselytizing project, the so-called prayer cities among the Massachusetts Indians. It also became a milestone in the history of American printing and Indian education according to European criteria. John Eliot's translation of the Holy Scriptures in 1663 was the first Bible to be printed in North America in the Massachusetts language.

Around 1650, many of the surviving Massachusett gathered in prayer cities and were at least superficially Christianized. Few of them participated in King Philip's War , but they were persecuted and often suffered from the anti-Indian hysteria of the time.

In southern New England, mixed marriages of Indians with blacks or whites were quite common at this time, but the resulting racially mixed communities had strong ties to their Indian origins and were generally viewed by other groups as Indians. Most of these Indian groups were simply referred to by the names of the places where they lived.

18th to 20th century

The years from 1700 to 1900 were marked by slow and painful acculturation and brought about changes in the economic, cultural and religious life of the Massachusetts. Agriculture in the style of the English settlers was rejected by them for a long time. Instead, a lot of reserve land was leased to white farmers and the Indians lived on the money they received for it. They also had income from the sale of timber from their lands, although occasional clear-cuts reduced the value of the land. Hunting on a large scale was no longer possible; some groups made their living by fishing and making sugar.

The manufacture and sale of handicrafts such as scrubbing brushes, baskets and brooms was an additional source of income for many reserve Indians. On the other hand, jobs were hard to come by and Native Americans and blacks often only had unskilled jobs at the lowest wages. Even so, Rhode Island Indians made names for themselves as wall builders, a craft they were known for as late as the 20th century, and some raised sheep for the local wool industry. Much has been reported of Native American involvement in the American Revolution and Civil War , but although their valor and good offices were recognized, their generally low civil status remained unchanged.

The change in the material culture was clear: wigwams were abandoned for houses in the English style. English clothing and housewares were easy to find and the shift to the English way of life, which began in the 17th century, was practically completed in the 19th century. In the intervening two centuries, the native languages ​​almost completely disappeared. English was learned in schools and at work, and by the early 20th century only a few elderly people remembered a small number of Native American words.

Another factor contributing to acculturation, and in some cases loss of identity, among the Indian groups of southern New England was population decline. Illness was the leading cause of mortality, and contemporary accounts often highlight the devastating effects of drinking. There was also the death of many men who served in the colonial regiments against the French and later in the war of independence against the English. As a result, many Indian women married white or black men.

Although not many Indians could be found on the reservations, the descendants of the New England Indians were far from extinction in 1975. In 1960 a census gives the number of coastal Algonquians at 4,165 people.

Various precedents in the mid-1970s hold out rulings to redefine the status of New England Indians' land ownership. They are also said to receive compensation for past land losses and official recognition from the state government.


By 1614, the population of the Massachusett was estimated to be 3,000 members who lived in 20 villages around Boston Bay. In 1620 there were only 800 survivors after the devastating epidemics, and in 1630 the Puritans numbered fewer than 500 tribesmen. After 1800, no organized Massachusett were known. Today, however, there are some descendants from the prayer city of Punkapog who live near Canton , Mattapan and Mansfield .

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d e Bruce G. Trigger (Ed.): Handbook of North American Indians , Vol. 15. Chapter: Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Early Period , pp. 160 ff.
  2. Bruce G. Trigger (Ed.): Handbook of North American Indians , Vol. 15. Chapter: Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Early Period , pp. 170 f.
  3. Bruce G. Trigger (Ed.): Handbook of North American Indians , Vol. 15. Chapter: Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Late Period , pp. 177 ff.


Web links

See also

This article is based on the article Massachusett ( memento of July 1, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) from the free encyclopedia Indianer Wiki ( memento of March 18, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) and is under Creative Commons by-sa 3.0 . A list of the authors was available in the Indian Wiki ( Memento from July 1, 2007 in the Internet Archive ).