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.



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.