Thursday, May 16, 2019

Maynard's Native Americans

Post-apocalypse movies are a popular genre – what will people do after civilization breaks? Whatever the catalyst – atomic war, zombie viruses, aliens, the Rapture… the movies imagine what humans will do after the big, transformative event. Typically, there is starvation and death (a lot of death!), a breakdown of legalities, loss of culture from a failure to educate the next generation, a few who fight back… Now, think about how this is exactly what happened when Europeans, with European diseases, European concepts of land ownership and European weapons, arrived in the Americas.

Wherever Europeans arrived, within a generation entire cultures and populations were wiped out. The initial causes were smallpox and other diseases (plague, measles, influenza, scarlet fever, leptospirosis…) – with epidemics in 1616-19, 1631-33, 1645, 1650-52 and 1670 – capped by exclusion from traditional lands and outright war. The first spate of diseases was the worst, and was thought of by the English as divine intervention. King James I is quoted as saying “There hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague, the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory…” Pre-contact with Europeans, the Algonquin region that extended from Long Island to Maine numbered 100,000 to 150,000 people. One hundred years later it was one-tenth that.

As a result, the Puritans who made up the “Great Migration” from England, 1620-1640, found this to be ‘empty’ land that had until recent years been cleared and farmed by the native populations. This was easily returned to productive farmland – a process of combining the native crops of corn, beans and squash, with European wheat and an assortment of edible animals (cattle, hogs, sheep, goats and chickens). With crops suitable for winter storage plus domesticated animals to eat, the colonists did not have to rely so heavily on hunting, nor move to the seashore for the summer months. Instead, they owned and farmed and prayed in place.

The native populations that had lived in our area were referred to as ‘Nipmuc’ and may have numbered as many as 10,000. Nipmuc has many alternative spellings, such as Nipmug, Neetmock and Nipnet, all generally accepted as translating to “fresh water people.” The Nipmuc were not so much a tribe as a geographical area of peoples speaking an Algonquin dialect, previously either subject to or allied with strong neighboring tribes, such as the Pequot to the south, Masachuset to the east, Wampanoag to the southeast and Pocumtuc to the west. They grew corn and other crops, hunted deer and moose, and in the spring enjoyed the bounty of herring, alewives and shad swimming upriver to spawn.  

The Puritans were firm believers in Christianity and farming. In that order. Some of the native peoples who had survived the diseases converted and gathered into what were referred to as the Praying Indian Villages. One of these was Nashobah, now Littleton. What is now Maynard and part of Stow went by the name Pompositticut, said to mean “land of many hills.” There are no artifacts or known history to suggest this was a densely settled place. In contrast, Concord was originally referred to as Musketaquid for “grassy plain.” Stow, as created in 1683 had attached to it a narrow strip of land extending west beyond the Nashua River. This came about when Lancaster and Groton were created in the 1650s. A corridor of land had been left between the two for the Native Americans of Nashobah to travel west to winter hunting regions

All this accommodation crashed to an end with King Philip’s War of 1675-76. Metacom, also known as Metacomet and by the English name Philip, was a Wampanoag chief. Attempts to maintain a truce between the Wampanoag and the English colonists were frayed by colonial expansion and scattered acts of violence on both sides. In the summer of 1675, the actions of the native Americans coalesced into concerted attacks on towns across the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, New Haven and Connecticut colonies. Locally, history has it that natives met atop Pompositticut Hill to decide whether to attack Concord or Sudbury (the answer: Sudbury).    

Although the colonial militias were supplemented by volunteers from the Praying Villages, there was suspicion that Nipmuc were also collaborating with King Philip. To remove this perceived threat, many were relocated to Deer Island, in Boston Harbor, an early example of a concentration camp. Winter weather combined with inadequate housing and food led to more than half dying there. In 1676 King Philip was shot, his body drawn and quartered, his head on display in Plymouth for many years. Male prisoners of war were transported to Caribbean islands and sold as slaves. (Returning ships sometimes brought Negros from the islands to sell as slaves in New England.) Many of the native Americans who survived this catastrophe moved north or west and assimilated into other tribes.  


  1. Found this post the morning after Indigenous People’s Day 2020. Having lived in Maynard for 15 years now, it was long overdue that I learned more this important part of our area’s history. Hoping to learn more about how people lived here before the Europeans arrived. Thank you!

  2. More details will be in "Maynard Massachusetts - A Brief History" publication mid-November 2020.

  3. So important to preserve this history