Dismantling Hassanamesit

3One of the most important “praying Indian” towns established by John Eliot was Hassanamesit, a Nipmuc village located in central Massachusetts.  Approved by the English authorities in 1654, it was a large square of land, four miles wide and four miles long and served as a buffer between the colonists and aggressive and powerful native tribes to the west and south.  Eliot chose the village as a focus for his missionary efforts west of Natick and it was one of only two praying towns that reported building a church in which converted Nipmucs could worship.

Eliot regarded Hassanamesit as a showcase village, and wrote enthusiastically about its adoption of English farming practices and future potential.  His aide, Daniel Gookin, reported that the village “produceth plenty of corn, grain and fruit; for there are several good orchards in the place . . . Their way of living is by husbandry and keeping cattle and swine . . .”

But Hassanamesit’s location made it a prime target for both native and English raiders, and in September, 1675, as the hostilities of King Philip’s War escalated, much of the village was destroyed by English troops.  Two months later, two hundred Christian natives who had gathered there to harvest what crops were left, were surprised by Philip’s warriors.  The warriors presented a choice: join them or be left vulnerable to English raiders, who would enslave or incarcerate them on Deer Island. The harvesters made the obvious decision – to go with the warriors.

Hassanamesit was empty.

King Philip’s War devastated the native population.  By November of 1676, when the remaining Nipmucs were counted so each could be assigned to English “supervisors,” there were only 42 men and 150 women and children left.  The Hassanamesit people were grouped with the Natick residents, where they were “continually inspected” and restricted from going outside the borders of the town.  Hassanamesit still existed on paper, but it was not occupied by natives for the next twenty years.

Instead, the Massachusetts Bay colonists partitioned the “empty” land for settlement, even though the Hassanamesit men still retained their claim to the village.  In 1682 a deed was executed, selling large portions of Nipmuc land to the English.  It was signed by 22 Nipmuc representatives, but only two were names associated with Hassanamesit.  Though some Nipmuc protested the sale as an illegal transfer, the English began to build farms in the former praying town.

It was not until the mid-1690s that the native people were allowed to leave their “plantation of confinement.”   Only five of the original families returned to Hassanamesit.  Among them was the remarkable Nipmuc, James Printer.

 

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Letter at the Bridge

Indians Attacking a Garrison House

Indians Attacking a Garrison House

At dawn on February 21, 1676, some three hundred native warriors under the leadership of the Nashaway Nipmuc sachem Monoco, attacked and burned the town of Medfield in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Medfield was a”frontier town,” about twenty-miles from Boston, established to buffer the more populous towns on the coast from the “Indian-infested wilderness.” According to contemporary sources, the natives had infiltrated the town at night, quietly making their way through woodlots and bushes and taking cover overnight. As the Reverend William Hubbard wrote in 1677:  “some getting under the Sides of the Barns and Fences of their Orchards … where they lay hid under that Covert, till break of Day, when they suddenly set upon sundry Houses, especially those houses where the Inhabitants were repaired to Garrisons…some were killed as they attempted to fly to their Neighbors for Shelter: some were only wounded, and some taken alive and carried Captive.”

Seventeen people were killed. One woman was killed while fleeing with her infant. The baby was left for dead, but survived. Another woman, Elizabeth Paine Adams, survived the attack but was killed that night in the minister’s home when a firearm accidently discharged from the floor below. Increase Mather found the incident instructional: “It is a sign that God is angry,” he wrote, “when he turns our weapons against ourselves.”
Forty or fifty buildings were destroyed, although all the garrison houses survived. After plundering the town, the natives withdrew, crossing bridges over the Charles River. It was on one of these bridges that a letter was posted, a letter expertly designed to terrify its English readers:

Know by this paper, that the Indians that thou hast provoked to wrath and anger, will war this twenty one years if you will; there are many Indians yet, we come three hundred at this time. You must consider the Indians lost nothing but their life; you must lose your fair houses and cattle.

Scholars believe that this remarkable letter was written by James Printer, a Hassanamesitt Nipmuc who was apprenticed to the printer Samuel Green in Cambridge. A brilliant and educated “praying Indian,” he fled his apprenticeship when hostilities broke out, and joined Metacomet’s massed forces in what is now central Massachusetts. His letter points to one of the most distinctive differences between the English and native cultures—the value placed on property. While the Indians lived semi-nomadic lives, quickly erecting shelters and discarding them when they were no longer useful, the English spent many of their resources constructing permanent buildings in which to live and house their animals, which they depended on to supply labor and food.

The letter must have sent a chill through its English readers. It signaled a resilience and determination to resist further English incursion. And—more importantly—it revealed an astute and contemptuous grasp of material English values. If the English did not know before this letter, they certainly knew after reading it that their enemy was not the primitive society of barbarians they’d assumed. It appeared their enemy had an uncanny ability to see into their souls.