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.

 

Imagined Encounters II: On the Trail

One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place. As I’m shaping a novel, I do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book. This passage imagines the experience of Wowaus (James Printer) as he accompanies other Nipmucs through their territory in the late winter of 1676, fleeing the English soldiers. (See Chapter Eleven in Flight of the Sparrow for Mary Rowlandson’s perspective on these events.)

He is hungry; they are all hungry. There are only scraps to eat; no one has had time to hunt, and they can carry only some of the few winter stores that are left. He knows this hunger well; it is familiar to him, familiar to all Nipmuc. That is the way of things – the great cycles of the seasons bring warmth and plenty and then famine and cold. He has learned – they have all learned – how to endure.

But the English are soft. They do not live according to the seasons but spend their days building up stores of grain for the winter. This is a way the Hassanamesit try to follow, a way that Mr. Eliot and his friend Mr. Gookin praise them for, but Wowaus and others worry that it will make them soft like the English.

Even as they walk, he feels his body grow hard like the trunk of a walnut tree that has lost its summer leaves and stands fast against the wind and snow. He helps to carry some of the old ones, who have become yet more feeble because of hunger. A grandmother rides on his back up a long hill through thick trees. At last they come to the Bacquag which is a tumble of ice and white water. He had hoped that it would be frozen, but should have known better. The past three days have been warm enough to melt snow and the river is often in a rage, even in winter.

He, along with other men, fells trees for rafts. There are hundreds who must be carried to the far side of the river, and their time is short. Though he knows Monoco has sent a party of warriors to cover their tracks, it is no assurance that the English will not stumble upon them by accident. He works in a fury, stopping only to drink from the icy river. The cold is a good thing, he knows. It fortifies him, makes him strong. He realizes as he sinks his hatchet deep into the trunk of a small maple, that he is very much enjoying being a Nipmuc again.

It takes them two days to ferry everyone over. The women build wigwams on the far shore and they rest warm for three days and nights. On the second morning, as he walks about the makeshift village he sees the captive woman sitting outside a wigwam, wrapped in a blanket, knitting stockings. Her eyes are red, as if she has been crying or is ill, and there is a bright bruise on her cheek – a slap mark. She has apparently raised the ire of Weetamoo. He smiles. She is a woman of spirit, perhaps too much spirit for her own good. He wonders what she has done.

He watches her from the far side of a wigwam; he sees her sense that she is being watched, sees her head come up and her eyes skitter over the people nearby, but she does not see him, he is certain.

He considers approaching her and decides not to. There is something very sweet in watching over her this way. As if he is like one of Mr. Eliot’s guardian spirits.
A gray dog comes up to him and sniffs his heel. He wonders when they will start eating the dogs. Food is very scarce. The day before, he watched his uncle butcher a horse taken from the English, the same horse he had arranged for the red haired captive to ride. It would be a starving winter, thanks to this war with the English.

The sun drops into the trough of trees on the far side of the ridge and he leaves his watch for another day. The captive Mary sits outside the wigwam, knitting and knitting.

On the fifth morning, just after dawn, the warriors fire the wigwams and flee north. For hours the air is thick with smoke and from the ridges, Wowaus can see flames licking up into the trees. By mid-day, scouts report that the English army has reached the Bacquag and it has stopped them, at least for a time. Apparently they cannot decide how best to cross. Monoco directs his warriors to take the people down out of the hills to a swamp.

Swamps have always been a place of safety; all tribes retreat to them when threatened. The boggy ground is dangerous, and it’s difficult to track people in the thick vines and thickets that run along the ground and reach out to grab a man’s leg or ankle.

They travel as quickly as possible but the trail is narrow and steep and there are hundreds of people, all weary and weak from lack of food. As they descend into a valley the trees open up to reveal a landscape of abandoned English fields. The yellow spikes of old corn stalks poke through the snow. They halt and Monoco sends scouts out over the fields and into the woods beyond. They soon return with the report that there are no English in the area.

The women fan out across the fields to glean what corn and wheat has been left from a long-ago harvest. Wowaus sees the red haired captive pick up a broken ear of corn and drop it into her pocket. She looks around, furtively, then – miraculously – finds another. He sees how tempted she is to eat it on the spot, but something stays her. She has an uncommon resolve for a woman. Later, he sees a young woman steal one of the ears and watches Mary’s outraged accusation. He knows she will not get it back. The young woman is as hungry as Mary, and has two children to feed as well. The other women gather around the captive, mocking her and laughing.

That night there is an expansive joy in camp, as the stewpots are augmented with grain and maize. For the first time since the Medfield attack, Wowaus feels satisfied after eating. He walks through camp, stopping to talk with friends. He does not acknowledge, even to himself, that part of his reason for walking is to locate the red haired captive. Yet when he comes on her, sitting with Weetamoo’s family by a cook fire, he feels a rush of excitement, a small thrill that begins deep in his belly and rises like sap up through his abdomen and chest.

Mary’s face is smeared red with grease and blood from the half-cooked piece of horse liver she is eating. She holds it, dripping, in both hands and tears at it with her teeth. Blood runs from the sides of her mouth and falls onto her apron. She is entirely absorbed in eating, and does not realize he’s watching. If it were not for her copper hair and the paleness of her skin, she could pass as a Nipmuc. He wonders if she realizes how quickly she has become an Indian.

He is certain she does not. The news would no doubt distress her. It has not escaped his notice that the English fear becoming an Indian even more than they fear being killed by one.

He walks on. He is aware of cold bubbles of happiness rising through his chest. He is glad she is becoming an Indian. She will make a good wife; she is strong and resilient and clever.

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.

Imagined Encounters I: Entering the Experience

One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place.  As I’m shaping a novel, I usually do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book.  Here’s a sample, describing the experience of a young Nipmuc boy when he first encounters John Eliot, the 17th century Puritan missionary to the Indians.  This boy will grow up to become James Printer, who became a printer’s apprentice in Boston and helped Eliot translate and print his “Indian Bible.”

I was five when I first saw a coat man.  It was summer and my family had traveled east, following the fish and deer.  My mother built her wetu near a river and planted corn in the flat field behind.  There were other wetus, filled with aunts and cousins.  The camp was laid out in a circle, like a great hoop, protecting all the people.  In the center of the circle was a smaller circle of big stones the men placed there.

I thought the coat men very odd.  They covered their bodies covered in stiff black material, though it was summer when the sun made the earth warm and people did not wear skins.  The village dogs thought them odd, too; they swarmed them in excited circles, barking.

There were two coat men.  My cousin told me they were English, a word that I had never heard, an empty word that had no meaning inside it.

I soon learned that the coat men had other names – Ell-ye-yot and Goo-kin  – and I found comfort in this, even though they were also empty words that had no meaning I could fathom.  But they were proof that these two English were not alone in the world, that they had kin and friends somewhere.

The coat men gave gifts to my father: two knives, a blanket and a string of wampum.  I noticed that Eliot and Gookin were both shorter than my father and brothers.  The one called Eliot had hair the color of a muskrat pelt, not only on his head, but beneath his nose and chin.  He did not dress his hair, but let it fall untended in waves that reminded me of water after a storm.  The other man was younger and sadder.  All afternoon my father and my oldest brother sat with them under a big chestnut tree outside the circle of wetus.

I sat with my mother and helped her shell beans.  I asked her about the men.  They did not look friendly or happy in their strange black clothes.  My mother stroked my hair, which rose in black spikes at the crown.  “Do not worry, Anequsemes, my little chipmunk.  They live far away by the sea.  They are not our enemies.”

I did not ask how she knew.  My mother was wise and understood many things.  She had seen the sea once when she journeyed with her people – the Qunnipieuck – to a  feast hosted by the Pocasset sachem, Corbitant.  She had told me about the short, crooked pine trees of the forest in that place.  She had described the shore of brown sand and the pink and white shells she had collected there.  She explained how the sea was a great lake, a lake so large no one could see the other shore.  It had its own spirit, Paumpagussit.  I tried to imagine the sea but could not.

When I tired of shelling beans, I played with the dog, then wandered up the hill and lay in the grass near the talking men.  I listened to the strange words of the coat men and whispered them to myself.  They were sharp, spiky words.  They sat on my tongue like porcupine quills.  I whispered them slowly and carefully so that they would not cut my lips.

Eliot and Gookin talked with my father and brother late into the afternoon and even though it was not the people’s custom to eat together, all the men gathered around the stewpot and ate as one.  I watched them use pieces of baked noohkik to scoop the lumpy paste from the pot.  Once Eliot looked at me and smiled.   That night everyone slept in the wetu; I curled like a young rabbit against my mother’s back.

On the second day, Eliot began to tell tales of heroes and spirits.  He gathered all the people who would listen and I sat all afternoon with the other children, carving the figures of two small deer into a stick as I listened.  Eliot did not know many words of Nipmuc but made himself understood by signs and the words of the Massachuset and Wampangoag peoples.  He told of Jesus, a strong ahtuskou who lived many years ago in a distant land.  This ahtuskou would come, he said, and the people must be ready for him when he did.  He talked of Keihtan and a god named Jehovah and he said there was only one spirit, not many as we had been told.

The elders listened politely but I saw that most of them did not like the stories because their own were better.

Eliot and Gookin left on the third day and life went back to normal except the people did not stop talking about the two strangers.  The powauws dreamed of snakes and hawks and smoked many pipes of tobacco to cleanse the air.

But it was too late.  The strangers had infected the people.  Sokanonaske, Tuckapewillin’s wife, saw a white porcupine when she was hoeing squash, and Konkontusenump encountered a fire spirit when he walked at night by the river.  The people gathered around the fire and told their own stories to strengthen their hearts.  But they knew the strangers would return.