A Dwelling Place

Late Summer 068When the Puritans came to New England, one of their first concerns was shelter.  They planned to build wood-framed houses with thatched roofs, like the ones they’d left in England.  But there was a period of several months during which they had to find other shelter while erecting those houses. They used what they could find: tents and caves and holes dug in the ground. There is even a record of a family living in empty ship casks.  Late Summer 062They also built huts and “hovels,” modeled after peasant country dwellings in England and similar to the sod houses of the westward expansion that would take place generations later. These were sometimes described as “wigwam-shaped,” because they resembled the house forms of their Native American neighbors.

The Puritans had brought with them their house-building tools, and as soon as possible they began constructing frame houses. They trimmed tree logs into rectangular posts and beams for framing and cut grasses and reeds from the coastal marshes to make thatch.  They fashioned their house walls of wattle and daub – a woven lattice of sticks inside the frame Late Summer 067filled with a mortar made of clay and dirt.  They covered the exterior walls with clapboards – thin boards split from tree logs and nailed over the frame.

These first frame houses were small, often with only one room in which all the indoor activities took place. They ate and worked there.  They slept there on mattresses stuffed with straw, corn, or feathers, which were rolled up during the day. Sometimes there was a loft above the room used to hse interior2store food and other goods.  The floor was usually hard-packed earth. The small early windows lacked glass, and were closed with a wooden shutter.  The hearth dominated one end of the room. Large enough to step into, it’s where women spent much of their time, usually maintaining several small fires at once.  Chimneys, when present, were built of wood and clay like the rest of the house.  The interiors were smoky and dark.  And cold in the winter.

Over time, as an owner’s fortune grew, rooms were added, and a second story built.  Often a lean-to was attached to the back of the house, creating the distinctive “salt box” profile of early New England architecture. 

wetu At the time of European-Indian contact, Native American tribes in southern New England lived in settled villages and practiced agriculture.  They also hunted.  In the spring they burned the undergrowth in the woods, making travel easier and encouraging the growth of game-attracting plants.  In some places the hunting lands were so carefully managed that deer could be spotted at a distance of more than a mile.  About every ten years, when the soil was depleted, the villagers moved together to a new location.  They lived in extended family groups in domed longhouses in the winter and usually moved into single-family circular wetus (also known as wigwams) for the spring and summer.

smoke hole The men gathered saplings and stripped off the bark to form the wetu frames.  The sapling bark was then split and used to tie the frame together.  A small wetu required about forty saplings.  The wetu frame was covered with sheets of bark in winter, or with double-sided mats woven of dried reeds in summer.  A smoke hole was built into the center of the roof, situated directly over the fire pit.  Sheets of bark were arranged above the smoke hole to shelter it from rain or snow, sheets which could be adjusted as needed.

Late Summer 027 Inside, multi-purpose platforms were built that were used for everything from storage to sitting and sleeping.  At night they slept under animal skins that were used for sitting on or wearing during the day. Woven mats made of bulrushes lined the wetu interiors.  A pot of succotash almost always simmered over the central fire.

Late Summer 023In the early days of the colony, the dwellings of these two groups were remarkably similar in size and comfort.  There was at least one important difference, though. The round design of the wetus increased their energy-efficiency.  When colonists chanced to sleep in wetus in cold weather, they remarked on how remarkably warm they were compared to their own English homes.



The Law of the Land


When the Puritans migrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, they brought their English legal mindset with them.  Between 1630 and 1700, they enacted hundreds of laws, ordering people’s lives from cradle to grave.  Everything from the proper gait of horses in Boston to the wearing of lace was regulated.  As they saw it, these elaborate rules helped them create an orderly, Christian society.  Today we find many of their laws amusing for their outdated and controlling perspective.  But some are surprisingly progressive in their focus on protecting the weak and less fortunate members of their communities.  Overall, they give us a glimpse into the Puritan mind and help us better understand the society they were trying to build.

Here are just a few, with updated spellings.  (Note: the monetary fines are in British currency; “s” stands for shilling; “d” stands for pence; and £ stands for pound.)

  • No surgeon, midwife, or physician shall practice on any without consent of the person or nearest relation.
  • All persons not worth 200 £ wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or bone lace above 2 s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, may be presented by the Grand Jury and shall pay 10 s for every offence.
  • The selectmen of every town may assess those who dress above their rank, at 200 £ estate, and make them pay as those to whom their dress is suitable, except the magistrates, their wives and children, officers, civil or military, soldiers in time of service, or such as had had a high education or are sunk from a higher fortune.
  • All parents to teach their children to read, and all masters to acquaint their families with capital laws on penalty of 20 s., and to catechize them once a week.
  • A son of 16, accused by parents of rebellion and other notorious crimes, shall be put to death.
  • Fornication is to be punished by compelling marriage, fines, or as the Court sees fit.
  • Everyone to fence according to his proportion of the corn-field in common, and not to put in cattle while any corn remains.
  • Every householder has free fishing and fowling in any river, bay, etc., within the precincts of the town where they dwell, so far as the sea ebbs and flows, unless it be appropriated by the Freemen.
  •  No horse to be sold to an Indian, on penalty of 100 £.
  • Any may pass on another’s land, not trespassing on corn or meadow.
  • Whoever publishes a lie to the prejudice of the public, or any private person, pays 10 s or sits in the stocks two hours for the first offense, for the second 20 s. or whipped ten stripes, for the third 40 s. or fifteen stripes.  Every new fault increases 10 s. or five stripes.
  • Lands in the jurisdiction not improved by Indians is the property of the English.
  • None to sell the Indians a boat, skiff, or canoe, on forfeiture of 50 £.
  • No Court can punish with above forty stripes.
  • No man must correct any under him with cruelty, or be cruel to a beast.
  • No dancing in public houses, on penalty of 5 s.
  • No one to gallop a horse in Boston, on penalty of 3 s. 4 d.
  • Married persons must live together, unless the Court of Assistants approve of the cause to the contrary.
  • No work to be done on the Sabbath on penalty of 10 s, for the first offence, to be doubled for every following one.
  • To travel to a Meeting not allowed by law is a profanation of the Sabbath.
  • Witches suffer death.

A Sacred Journey

Deer IslandAt the end of October 1675, in the midst of the hostilities of King Philip’s War, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered an immediate evacuation of Christian Indians to Deer Island in Boston Harbor.  A group of men under Captain Thomas Prentice descended on Natick, the largest “praying Indian” town, rounded up all the inhabitants – men, women, and children – and gave them less than two hours to gather their possessions and prepare for the trip.  They were marched to the Charles River, about two miles from Cambridge, where three ships waited to transport them.  The Reverend John Eliot, of Roxbury, who had been responsible for converting many of them, met to console them and lead them in prayer.  On the morning of October 30th they were herded onto the boats and taken to the island.

At that time Deer Island was forested.  Uninhabited by wolves, it was used by the English as a place for grazing sheep.  Over the duration of the war at least 500 hundred – and possibly more than 3,000 – Indians, most of them converted Christians loyal to the English, were confined there that winter, without sufficient food or shelter.  Forbidden to cut the trees and with shellfish as their only local source of food, many died of starvation.  Others were kidnapped and put on slave ships headed for the Caribbean.

Next Saturday morning, October 12, 2013, a group of Native Americans will launch canoes from Deer Island and paddle across Boston Harbor and up the Charles River to Brighton, Massachusetts.  Among the paddlers there will be Nipmucs, descendants of people who were interned on the 138-acre island.  The trip will last more than five hours across wind-whipped water; it will be a cold ride, even if the weather is fine.

The Nipmucs won’t be making this trip for exercise or recreation.  They won’t be on a sightseeing excursion.  They won’t even be paddling to raise money for a cause.  Theirs is a sacred journey.  They will be reversing the passage their Ancestors took 338 years ago.  They will be carrying the spirits of their Ancestors home.