Uncovering Indigenous Worlds and Histories on a Bend of a New England River before the 1650s: Problematizing Nomenclature and Settler Colonial History, Deep History, and Early Colonization Narratives

Issues with Nomenclature and Legacies of White Settler Colonial Narratives

1My examination of the indigenous histories on a bend of a New England river begins with a discussion about nomenclature and settler colonial narratives. Settler colonial narratives, in particular, had a powerful impact on US popular culture and have shaped mainstream societies’ perceptions of Native American history in the United States and beyond. What to call the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere is yet another complicated issue that has a complex history of nomenclature. Native Americans––used in academia in the States––has no indigenous roots but rather takes its cue from the name first used by the geographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 as a compliment to the seafarer Amerigo Vespucci. “Indian,” as we know, was likely coined by Christopher Columbus in 1492 who thought he had landed in the Indies, a 15th century European name for Asia. Since it is applied to the Western Hemisphere as a whole, neither term captures the diversity and complexity that existed among indigenous populations. Thus, the most common terms we use today to describe the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere result from a complicated history of colonization.

Clipping from: Wiiliam C. Sturtevant and U.S. Geological Survey. National atlas. Indian Tribes, Cultures & Languages: United States. Reston, VA.: Interior Geological Survey, 1967 (Detail). Retrieved from the Library of Congress
2The correct name remains an equally complicated issue when we focus on the Native peoples of the Merrimack Valley. Some early English colonists in the 1620s and 1630s called the communities to the north and west of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies “Aberginians” (Wood 82–114). Some academics argue that this term might originate from the word “Aborigine” while others suggest it comes from the word “Abenaki” (Steward-Smith 14). To complicate matters further, the colonial records as well as popular and academic writings refer to a variety of indigenous peoples—such as the Pawtucket, the Nashawy, the Amoskeag, the Wachusett, the Agawam, and the Pentucket—who lived in the Merrimack River Valley system in the 17th century. The name “Pawtucket,” several writers maintain, might have come from a Native American town located in the greater Lowell area and is often used as a term to describe the peoples in the lower Merrimack River Valley region. Furthermore, scholars generally refer to the conglomerate of Native American groups living in the Merrimack River Valley and its tributaries in New Hampshire, northeastern Massachusetts, and southern Maine—as the Pennacook (Stewart-Smith 14). Pennacook is also the name most Native Americans with roots in the region today self-identify with.

3The origins of the term Pennacook, as so much of the history of indigenous nomenclature, are obscure. The amateur archaeologist Mary Proctor wrote that the term allegedly derived from the Massachusetts Indian language and combined the words pennayi (crooked) and tegw (river). Another writer has argued that the name stems from the Abenaki word “penakuk” and maintained that this means “at the bootom of the hill” (Proctor 3). Pennacook was also the name of a Native American town located in today’s Concord, New Hampshire. The political organization, territorial reach, and ethnic make-up of the Pennacook before the 1650s are also poorly understood given the limited evidence. Several scholars assume that the Pennacook, similar to other indigenous peoples in New England, were a “flexible multi-village alliance” (Salwen 168). This might, at least in part, explain the assortment of names in the historic record for the indigenous peoples of the Merrimack River Valley. Communities often acted independently of each other and pursued varying goals and interests. Alliance systems experienced internal tensions and divisions and were thus fluid conglomerations in which communities and individuals often pursued divergent strategies and interests (Salwen 168–70). Many of the names above are organizing principles for indigenous communities used by academics and 17th century European observers. But how much had the situation of indigenous people in the Merrimack River changed by the 17th century? While we have a few available sources on the Pennacook that provide us with a limited glimpse into the 17th century, there are virtually no materials from the pre-contact period. One wonders how much the political, cultural, and social landscape changed due to the impact of European colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries.

4Our understanding of the Native American past is also shaped by how the history of colonialization has been told. Mainstream New England and American culture have created powerful narratives and presentations of the Native American past and life on the “New England frontier.” Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, New English writers produced numerous local histories that reinforced these versions of the past and advocated a white settler colonial view. “Settler-colonialism,” the late Patrick Wolfe reminds us, is a “structure” which uses racial hierarchies, dispossession, expulsion, subjugation, exclusionary concepts, legal theories, and other strategies to claim the lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Settler colonialism turned indigenous people into “others” who faced dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and subjugation and experienced a demographic disaster as result of colonization, disease, violence, and genocide (Wolfe 7).

5Many of these writings perpetuated the “evil,” “wild,” and “noble savage” literary archetypes and reflected the racial stereotypes that mainstream colonial English and mainstream US society held about Native Americans at that time. Representative of this literary genre, one author of a history of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, believed that such books needed “but a brief account of the Indian inhabitants” as there was not much history to tell. This writer described indigenous peoples as “polytheists and polygamists, untruthful and fond of gambling.” Trite and stereotypical description were the centerpiece of such narratives which described Native Americans as “hospitable and fond of extravagant dancing and reveling,” “grateful for kindness of all animal,” and that “their government possessed some noble traits.” Conveniently, such authors maintained that indigenous peoples “can hardly be said to have had proprietary right to the land. They were nomadic, occupying certain territory as long as it afforded them a livelihood.” The local historian described Native Americans as a “wild” and “vanishing race,” which had “disappeared” and “cleared the land” for a more “advanced” and “deserving” Anglo American “civilization” (Waters ch. 1).

6The accounts of such early white settler colonial historians are filled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations. In the Merrimack River Valley region, Native Americans were not “nomadic,” and, at the time of contact with Europeans, indigenous peoples had long cleared wide swaths of land for agriculture as well as village and town sites, and farming (work performed by women) played a central role in the region’s indigenous peoples’ subsistence. Due to the absence of domesticated animals, a central feature in European farming, indigenous peoples in the Eastern Woodlands had to rely on the hunt as their main source to procure meat. But this did not result in a “roaming of the forests” by “hunters,” as the early white settler colonial narratives suggested. Indigenous peoples developed sophisticated methods to manage their forests and to make the woods more productive for the hunt. By burning away the underbrush and undergrowth of the forests, for instance, Native Americans opened up the New England woods. Due to such methods of forest management, the sylvan landscape became more appealing to deer and other animals as they could more easily find plants to graze on. Moreover, hunters could also pursue their prey more effectively as the undergrowth did not impede their view and arrows. Thus, just as Europeans worked their pasture lands to feed their domestic animals, Native Americans manipulated their environment to maximize and optimize their access to meat through “forest efficiency” (Day 329–46). It is important to underscore, though, that the historic inaccuracies and misinterpretations produced by local amateur historians served an important purpose. White settler colonial narratives provided accounts that justified the dispossession of indigenous lands and legitimized colonization.

7How could New English colonists and later white New Englanders come to terms with the brutal violence and murder, the enslavement, the dispossession, removal, and marginalization of the region’s indigenous population? They created settler colonial narratives of the “vanished” Indian. In the minds of white New Englanders, at the time, Native Americans had simply disappeared from New England, even while indigenous peoples continued to have a presence across the region. Thomas Doughton has called this type of narrative and the processes of forgetting the “disappearance model” (Doughton 207–30). Jean O’Brien has called this process “firsting” and “lasting,” arguing that local histories—by writing Native Americans out of existence in New England—performed a crucial role in forming American popular culture and imagination (O’Brien xii–xiii).

8Discussions about the nomenclature of indigenous peoples as well as the white settler colonial narratives have shaped the popular perceptions and understandings of the Native American past. They continue to have a powerful impact on US popular culture and influence how many in mainstream American society imagine New England’s past. The continuities of the legacies of white settler colonialism can be aptly observed in the town motto of Chelmsford: “Let the children guard, what the sires have won.”

Buried and Destroyed: A Deep History of the Merrimack Valley

9The history of the Merrimack Valley reaches back millions of years, and the Native American presence in the region goes back at least ten thousand years. This section examines how researchers reconstruct this past. Some archaeologists and historians refer to the period before 1492 as “pre-history” (Kehoe), a term insinuating that there was no history before the coming of Europeans. The application of a term such as “early history” would certainly be more elegant and avoid the stigma of “pre-history.” Yet, early history is an imprecise and confusing classification since US historians often refer to “Early American History” as the period that used to be more commonly described as “Colonial American History.” Some archeologists have coined the term “Deep History,” a scholarly organizing principle that seeks to capture the importance of historic developments that occurred in the “long ages” before the “modern” period (Strobel, Native Americans 10–11). This term provides a possibly less confusing organizing principle to understand the worlds and histories of the indigenous peoples of the region before 1492. It is a past that reaches back for millennia and, as Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail remind us, played a role in shaping the world’s geography, environment, human history, and our understanding of the present (Shryock and Smail ix–xii).

10Deep history also provides an insightful word play in the context of Native American studies. It refers to the history that is buried and needs to be uncovered by archeologists. In the Merrimack River Valley and New England, as the discussion below will make clear, much of this archeological record, or buried history, has been destroyed in the last few centuries. In the context of the history of the Native peoples of New England, deep history is also an insightful term for an additional reason. As we have discussed above, the presence of Native Americans in much of mainstream New England’s memory is buried deep in the conscience of the dominant society. Thus, New Englanders often forget or ignore the memory of this past, and thus, much of the region’s deep history has been buried and destroyed in more than one way (Strobel, Native Americans 11).

11It is important to underscore that the recovery and the use of archeological evidence is a controversial issue among indigenous peoples, many of whom favor the repatriation of Native American cultural items found in digs, stored in museums, and private collections. There are important ethical and methodological questions that emerge from the archeological pursuit to uncover the “buried” Native American past. The issue of who owns this past is complex—not only in New England and the United States, but around the world (Strobel, Native Americans 11–12).

12Complicating the reconstruction of the area’s deep history even more, little archeological work has been done on the Merrimack River Valley, a fact that further limits our insights. A thin and preliminary study published in the early 1930s is still the only comprehensive work on this subject. It surveyed several Native American settlement sites in the Merrimack River Valley region and provides a glimpse into the area’s deep history. Still, this survey suggests that there is rich evidence of a presence of indigenous communities throughout the long pre-colonial past of the region and confirms the existence of at least 80 to 90 Native American community sites. Many of these places were found right in the same locals as towns and cities like Lowell, Manchester, Lawrence, and Haverhill. Other sites were found in areas that have the region’s most productive farm fields. Such evidence indicates that Native Americans knew the best settlement places and the most productive agricultural lands (Moorehead).

13It is important to underscore that the development of New England colonial farming and the 19th century industrial economy of the Merrimack River Valley had a long and destructive impact on the archeological record of a region. Moreover, it is a challenging place for researchers to work in due to the destructiveness of the acidic soils. Over the centuries, New English plows and the construction of cities—with factories and urban and suburban infrastructures on top of Native American settlements—had a destructive impact on evidence that could have provided insights into Native lifeways before European colonization began to transform the lives of indigenous peoples by the 16th and the 17th centuries (Strobel, Native Americans 13).

14While the destruction of the pre-colonial archeological record certainly does not make the job of reconstructing the Native American past easier, there are various other factors that complicate this task further. Even a complete archeological record can only provide limited insights into the past. While the field of archaeology, especially in its modern form, uses “scientific methodology,” it is important to point out that, like historians or anthropologists, archeologists constantly reinterpret the record. These reinterpretations might elucidate our understanding of the Native American past, but they also provide insights into the paradigm shifts and intellectual debates that occur within these academic disciplines. As part of their intellectual heritage, archeology, anthropology, and history have played a role in advancing, justifying, and reinforcing colonization and the settler colonial narratives discussed above. This intellectual history is complicated even further since Native American voices from the pre-colonial past are hard to uncover. Hence, several contemporary archeologists, anthropologists, and historians consult indigenous oral traditions and informers to increase their understanding of Native American history (Kehoe).

15The deep history of the Merrimack River Valley took shape long before a human presence ever existed in the region. The region’s environment, geography, and landscape—defined by ponds, drumlins, and granite boulders—was especially shaped by the receding last Ice Age, which also helped to shape the current flow of the Merrimack. Today, this river emerges at the confluence of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers in Franklin, New Hampshire. From there it flows in a southerly direction toward Lowell and then takes a northeasterly bend flowing toward the modern city of Lawrence to finally meet the Atlantic Ocean after an over 100 miles journey in present day northeastern Massachusetts at Salisbury Beach (Pendergast 2–5).

16Oral history, archeological evidence, and 16th and 17th century European colonial records suggest that rivers played a crucial role in the lives of Native Americans. The indigenous Northeast was a network of multitudes of waterways and the Merrimack was only one among many rivers. Native Americans used rivers as a mean of transportation for trade and diplomacy, activities that likely reinforced cultural ties and relations. Political alliance systems also tended to form around river valleys. Furthermore, using complex systems of portage and pathways, Native Americans often moved beyond their own river valleys and participated in complex long distance exchange networks. Rivers also played an important role in Native American subsistence, and the Merrimack and Concord Rivers in the greater Lowell area were abundant in fish. Sites on the Merrimack River like Amoskeag Falls (today Manchester, NH) were rich seasonal fishing grounds for salmon, alewives, and shad; a history of food procurement, limited archeological evidence suggests, that reaches 8,000 years back. Sparse evidence also suggests that the Pawtucket Falls (today in Lowell, MA) were a popular fishing location in the spawning season when several fish species moved upriver to procreate, and the falls served as a natural barrier that the fish needed to cross. The abundance of fish in the spring at the falls attracted a large number of Native Americans. Oral traditions and colonial records suggest that these convergences of indigenous peoples were also accompanied by diplomatic and political exchanges. Fishing, like hunting, was a task performed by Native American men (Ferran).

17Despite the destruction of much of the archeological record, there is enough evidence that suggests a long Native American presence in the greater Lowell area in particular, and in the Merrimack River Valley in general. Many material objects and the occasional skeleton have been found by official and unofficial archeological digs. Archeological sites have also been reported during many construction projects in Lowell and beyond throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and, especially in the days before Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAPGRA) and state building regulations, the evidence was often quickly destroyed or discarded. It is also likely that many material objects ended up in private homes and have since been lost. Still, enough objects have been collected and analyzed to show that there was an active Native presence in the region that likely reaches back at least 10,000 years. From what archaeologists call the Paleo-Indian (roughly from about 13,000 to 10,000 years ago), to the Archaic Period (roughly from 10,000 to 3,000 years ago), to the Woodlands Period (roughly from about 3,000 years ago to about 1500 AD), evidence suggests that there was a continuous human presence in the region. The objects, at times in fragmentary form, include stone tools and utensils like cooking stones, mortars, pestles, celts, gouges, and plummets, stone cutting implements, soap stone containers and pottery, ornaments, and pipes. Stone weapons, such as axe and knife, shaped implements as well as projectile points, such as arrowheads and spear points of throwing spears (atlatl) have also been found all over the region. There is also archeological evidence that Native people ate fish and shell-fish from the coast as well as from the river. Shellfish and fish heaps have been found all over the Merrimack River Valley and along the coastline of this drainage system. While archaeologists debate this issue, some evidence suggests that Native peoples in New England also used fish to fertilize their fields (Strobel, Native Americans 15–16).

18While there is much we do not know given the limited evidence, we understand that by 1500, indigenous peoples in the region had developed sophisticated societies, systems of social organization, and cultural networks. They had adopted and developed advanced systems of agriculture. They practiced methods of forest management as a strategy to increase the size of animal populations and to make the procurement of meat more efficient. Moreover, Native Americans used the resources of the region’s rivers and the ocean. While not directly of continental reach, indigenous peoples in New England nonetheless participated in complex and fluid long distance exchange networks.

Before New English Settlement: Making Sense of Early Colonization

19In New England, the 16th century saw an occasional European presence while the 17th century witnessed the establishment of a growing number of European settlements, forcing indigenous peoples to reinvent themselves in order to survive. The Merrimack River Valley System and the greater Lowell area serve as a microcosm that help us understand the often complex and complicated impact early colonization had on Native peoples, but also how researchers reconstruct this story.

20Disease, several scholars argue, was the deadliest weapon in the European arsenal in their efforts to colonize the Americas. “Old World” pathogens, originating in Europe, Africa, and Asia, had a devastating impact on indigenous societies and communities. With little or no prior exposure to various African and Eurasian diseases, Native populations experienced an estimated 50 percent, and—with the exposure to European colonization over sustained periods—over 90 percent mortality rates. Initial contact in the 16th century brought European explorers, shipwreck survivors, traders, fishermen, and slave raiders to the northeastern shores of the North American continent who also introduced disease and epidemics. By the early 17th century, with the increasing presence of European colonial beachheads in the region, we also have somewhat better records documenting disease outbreak (Dobyns).

21However, several researchers who study the connections between Native Americans, European colonization, and germs, caution us not to overestimate the impact of disease on indigenous societies. One of the critiques put forth is that when historians write about the impact Afro-Eurasian germs had on the indigenous peoples in the Americas, they often seem to be talking about an isolated phenomenon and neglect to see disease as part of larger historic trends and patterns. Thus, these scholars remind us that we should not underestimate the impact that warfare, massive dispossession, poverty, and enslavement had on the demographic decline and destruction among the indigenous peoples in the Americas (Cameron, Kelton, and Swedlund).

22While these are very important considerations, the limited primary source evidence seems to suggest that in coastal southern New England and the lower Merrimack Valley, disease and colonization had a dramatic impact. In 1607–09, 1616–18, 1633–34, 1639, and 1649–50 epidemics broke out that some scholars identify as small pox. Diseases also struck in 1647 and 1659, the former—as some scholars maintain—possibly influenza, the latter diphtheria. Given the limited evidence and often confusing primary source record, it is tricky to diagnose which epidemic exactly hit at what times, and this is an area of considerable scholarly debate (Strobel, Native Americans 71–75).

23Maybe even harder to determine are the exact population numbers and mortality rates among the indigenous peoples of the Merrimack River Valley system. Estimates about the pre-colonial populace and the demographic decline that resulted from colonization vary widely. Gatherable information from primary sources is also limited. At best, they provide an incomplete glimpse and approximations into population numbers and trends in decline. The example of the Native Americans, which 17th century English records call the “Pawtucket,” helps to shed light on this issue. Scholarship and primary documents provide a few insights here. Daniel Gookin, a 17th century New English colonist and Superintendent of the Praying Indians, cites Native American informers as his source of information. He estimated that the “Pawtuckets” experienced a significant population decline in the first half of the 17th century, from 3,000 Native men “to not above 250 men” (Gookin 147–49). Thomas Dudley, a colonial magistrate and governor, estimated the adult male population of the Pawtucket at no more than 500 in 1631 (Salisbury 104). Meanwhile historian Daniel R. Mandell maintains that by the early 1630s, “[t]he natives in the region, known as the Massachusetts and Pawtucket tribes, had been devastated by the recent epidemic, and only about 200 remained” (Mandell 12).

24The issue of determining more precise numbers is further complicated by the difficulty of figuring out what the term “Pawtucket” meant to each observer. Might Thomas Dudley have referred to the groups living in the lower Merrimack, and therefore might his numbers be lower than those given by Daniel Gookin whose Native informers might have counted the Native Americans of the whole river valley drainage system? The issue of how to assess population numbers and decline is further complicated by the shifting alliances, migration, and adoption of outsiders into communities. Tribe, kin, and family were fluid systems of social organization among the Native peoples of the Merrimack River Valley and New England. Still, and while we likely will never be able to reconstruct reliable population numbers and demographic trends, one issue seems to be clear: Puritan colonization resulted in a demographic catastrophe for the indigenous peoples in the Merrimack River Valley and southern New England (Strobel, Native Americans 74).

25Epidemics and colonization seem to also have reinforced warfare and intergroup tensions in the Merrimack Valley region. Colonial records speak of deadly attacks by a group called the “Tarenteen” (likely Micmac, several scholars argue), who had gained access to guns through their trade with the French and who undertook southerly raids in the first decades of the 17th century. In addition, the Mohawk frequently raided eastward from their homelands into New England in what is today’s state of New York, attacks which further weakened the position of the Native peoples of the Merrimack River Valley (Wood 75–80). Population decline and outside pressures might have led the influential leader in the Merrimack River Valley, Passaconaway, to seek an alliance with the English in 1644. But Mohawk attacks continued for decades as the English proved to be poor allies. Limited evidence suggests that the Sagamore had come to see violent resistance against English colonization as futile.

26This position, propagated by Passaconaway and later his son Wannalancet, who succeeded his father in the 1660s as Sagamore, led a number of Pennacook to abandon these leaders for their stance toward the English. Many among them likely moved further north and joined communities that took less of a conciliatory position toward the New English colonies (Cogley 36–39). By the later decades of the 17th century, disenchanted Pennacook had the option to join a faction led by Kancamagus, a grandson of Passaconaway, who increasingly emerged as an alternative leader to his uncle Wannalancet. Kancamagus took a more confrontational position toward the English, and in the years following King Philip’s War, he emerged as the third Sagamore of the Pennacook (Calloway 264–90).

27As numerous historians have pointed out, Native peoples and Europeans in coastal New England often initiated and sustained relations through trade, and the exchange in fur played a central role here. For indigenous groups in the region, such exchanges served not only an economic purpose but, more importantly, to Native Americans this was also a strategy to conduct diplomatic relations and to seek closer political ties with neighboring peoples and strangers. Thus, reciprocity played a central role in the intergroup dynamics of indigenous peoples in the region. While the evidence is limited, it still suggests that North American animal skins played a vital role in the early modern global commodities trade. Beaver pelts especially appealed to European consumers as they provided great raw material for hats resistant to rain. Those hats were a central part of European fashion, and they featured prominently in markets from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Beaver hats also featured in the Global Atlantic slave trade, where they were popular as clothing items among African merchants and consumers (Strobel, Global Atlantic 96–99, 134–35, 144–45).

28As the work of several ethnohistorians points out, Native Americans did not just supply raw materials in the fur trade, but, in fact, processed the fur for market, work often done by Native women. Hunters traveled long distances in their pursuit of fur. These missions were often dangerous and could result in violent engagements with local Native groups on whose land the hunting parties encroached on. While the fur trade brought material benefits to Native Americans, it also reinforced and spurred indigenous warfare, often before sustained European settlement efforts took place in a region. Moreover, items obtained through trade with Europeans, as archeological evidence suggests, were widely dispersed in the indigenous long distance exchange networks of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries (Silverman ch. 3).

29English pressures on Native American communities to surrender their land base in the lower Merrimack River Valley, as in several other parts of coastal New England, was a central feature of the history of the region. These occurrences were part of the early stages of larger world-wide processes that the historian John Weaver describes as “the great land rush.” From the 17th through the 19th century, indigenous lands were appropriated by European settlers in a variety of ways (Weaver). In the lower Merrimack River Valley, land quickly became a more important commodity than fur. The desire for land was driven by a wave of English migrants who arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the decades of the mid-17th century, a population movement that historians of Puritan New England often describe as the “Great Migration.” In the 1630s, 1640s, and 1650s, English immigrants searched for new farm land, and the lands of the Native American groups located in the Merrimack River Valley system became a primary object of their desire. The movement of Puritan colonists on these lands is exemplified by the founding of such communities as Ipswich in 1634, Newbury and Concord in 1635, Andover in 1646, and Chelmsford and Billerica in the 1650s (Anderson).

30Although historians do not agree how these processes played out, the complex dynamics of land transfer, which exemplified the quickly shifting power dynamics in coastal New England that were brought on by Puritan colonization, further undermined the position of indigenous peoples. Peter Leavenworth, a student of “Penacook-Pawtucket” land transactions, argues that “European trade goods, some of which replaced traditional native implements,” became “part of the fabric of everyday native life. At first Indians considered non-essential land an acceptable variation on customary exchange.” Native leaders in the Merrimack River Valley, such as Passaconaway and Wannalancet, used “land sales to maintain their consumption levels. … This consumer activity was largely supported by traders offering liberal credit, a practice common among the English” (Leavenworth 288–89, 293).

31Several historians of Puritan New England, like Alden Vaughan, argue that through credit, deeds, and other mechanism of purchase and exchange, New English colonists obtained lands from indigenous peoples through legal means (Vaughan). This is certainly part of the story. But as other historians, such as Neal Salisbury, point out, there were also land transfers that appear questionable, even fraudulent, as they were pushed through by colonial power players at the expense of Native Americans (Salisbury 199–202). Supporting this argument, and underscoring the complexity of Euro-indigenous land transactions more generally, Allan Greer meticulously explores that land transfers in New England defy easy generalizations and were not as straightforward as some historians have suggested (Greer ch. 6). Scholars will continue to debate the mechanics and legitimacy of land transfers, a debate complicated by the bias, omissions, and non-existence of sources. In the lower Merrimack River Valley, English settlement expansion certainly took its toll on the indigenous peoples by the mid-17th century. As their land for agriculture and subsistence became more limited as a result of New English encroachments, pressures on Native Americans to surrender more of their territory increased.

New English Invasion: A Conclusion?

32“Come over and help us” proclaims a scantily dressed Native American on the 17th century seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While today the Massachusetts Indian is dressed and the word bubble is gone, this image still serves as the basis of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ state flag, which to some underscores the continuous prevalence of settler colonialism. Historically the seal serves as a window into Massachusetts’ and New England’s ambiguous relationship with the region’s indigenous peoples. It provides a glimpse into the views that the English held of Native Americans. How much the English colonists were interested in helping Native populations is a point of scholarly debate. 17th century English colonists certainly wanted to build a stable, prosperous, and secure colony, and cosmopolitans in England had imperial global ambitions. The Massachusetts Bay Seal was designed to help fundraise toward that goal, but also to justify the imperial endeavor of the colony. In the minds of Europeans in the 17th century, missionizing and converting Native Americans to Christianity was seen as the strategy to extend the benefits of their “civilization” to indigenous peoples.

33The greater Lowell area became a location for one of the missionary John Eliot’s praying towns. These 14 indigenous communities were spread out all over Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1653, the missionary successfully lobbied the colonial authorities to agree to the creation of a mission settlement which became known as Wamesit. At 2,500 acres, this was a very small Praying Town located in what is today downtown Lowell. While Massachusetts Bay Colony permitted the creation of Wamesit, it also used this opportunity to claim large portions of the region which surrounded the praying town to the south of the Merrimack River and granted these lands to English colonists from the towns of Concord and Woburn, a step that led to the founding of the towns of Chelmsford and Billerica (”Patooket Graunted Indian Graunt”).

34Native Americans in the greater Lowell area were swept up in the changes of the 17th century in southern New England, which dramatically altered their worlds and histories. These developments, which were affected in part by regional, continental, and global influences, became even more dramatic in the 1650s with the establishment of the New English towns of Chelmsford and Billerica. Native American and New English interactions hit a crisis point in the 1670s with the outbreak of King Philip’s War. In the aftermath of that conflict, the presence of sovereign Native Americans towns and villages in the greater Lowell came to an end, but the indigenous presence has not ceased in the region and continues to this day.

35Nevertheless, and despite dramatic changes, the developments that occurred before the 1650s provide special insights into the indigenous worlds and histories. An examination of nomenclature and the legacies of settler colonial, deep history, and early colonization narratives offer insightful glimpses into how writers have constructed this past and will continue to do so in the future. Such interdisciplinary readings can not only help strengthen our understandings of the complexity, diversity, and dramatic changes that impacted indigenous peoples, but also influence how we continue to imagine these processes of colonization. The way we tell this often ignored story should be of interest to historians of indigenous-European relations in New England, North America, and around the world.

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Christoph Strobel (ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3881-7270) is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of Native Americans of New England, The Global Atlantic: 1400–1900, The Testing Grounds of Modern Empire, and coauthor, with Alice Nash, of Daily Life of Native Americans from Post-Columbian through Nineteenth-Century America. He has published three books on immigration and his scholarly essays appear in various academic journals and edited collections.

Suggested Citation

Strobel, Christoph. “Uncovering Indigenous Worlds and Histories on a Bend of a New England River before the 1650s: Problematizing Nomenclature and Settler Colonial History, Deep History, and Early Colonization Narratives.” American Studies Journal 69 (2020). Web. 13 Apr. 2024. DOI 10.18422/69-01.


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