One 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.
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.