At 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.