Native American History

— with Mary Ellen Lepionka —

Native American IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Archaeological and documentary evidence indicates that Native Americans have occupied Cape Ann since Paleolithic times. More recently, and at the time of European contact, people who became known as the Pawtucket lived here, first as seasonal migrants and later as permanent settlers of agricultural villages.[1] The Pawtucket were closely related to the Pennacook and other peoples of northern New England who spoke Abenaki, a dialect within the Algonquian language family.

Amanda BabsonMap drawn by Samuel de Champlain (ca.1567-1635), Les Voyages. Map originally printed in Paris, 1613. Cape Ann Museum. Gift of Tamara Greeman, 2011. [Accession #2011.34]

When Samuel de Champlain surveyed the New England coast in 1604 and 1606, he observed signs of permanent settlement, including cultivated crops and cleared land. He reported encountering “two hundred savages in this very pleasant place,” and the natives promised that “two thousand of them would come to see us” if they stayed longer in Gloucester Harbor, which he named Le Beauport.[2] Records relating to the settlement of England’s Dorchester Company two decades later describe active trade with Cape Ann Indians, some of whom had a seasonal fishing camp at Fisherman’s Field.[3] Nearby Pawtucket villages included Quascacunquen (present-day Newbury/Newburyport), Agawam (Ipswich/Rowley), Wonasquam (Gloucester/Rockport/Essex), and Naumkeag (Beverly/Salem).

Mary Ellen Lepionka, an independent scholar, has done extensive research questioning the prevailing myths that the native population had ceased to exist after a pre-1620 plague, leaving no survivors when the Dorchester Company arrived, or that they were wiped out by the first smallpox epidemic of 1633. The idea that the people of coastal New England had simply disappeared was part of an erasure narrative repeated over many generations and therefore assumed to be true.[4] Lepionka, however, has traced “the survival and resilience of the native people who lived here.”[5]

In the middle of the twentieth century, S. Foster Damon (1893–1971) and others deposited a collection of Native American artifacts at the Annisquam Historical Society. While the clay votive vessels have not been confirmed as from this area, the stone artifacts indicate that Lobster Cove, as well as the rest of Cape Ann, was a major settlement area and was occupied during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries (often referred to as the Contact Period). Gloucester’s eighteenth-century vital records mention one “Indian”: Prinn, born in 1712, who was a “servant lad to John White.” The vital records of Manchester and Essex list no Indian births for this period.[6] Some Pawtucket families assimilated into the colonial population, living as the colonists did. After 1676, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony required that all unassimilated Native Americans—other than apprentices, indentured servants, and slaves—live on reservations designated as Praying Indian Villages. These villages were designed to confine the people, convert them to Christianity, and protect them from colonists.

VotivesVotives, ca.3000-1000 Before the Present. Annisquam Historical Society.

In the early seventeenth century, Masconomet (d. 1658) deeded most of Essex County to the English settlers, but later, after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established, townships were required to repurchase their land from the Indians to legally secure their claims.[7] Masconomet’s grandchildren duly redeeded to each town the land it occupied. In 1700, for example, Samuel English relinquished all right, title and interest in the land then comprising the township of Manchester to the settlers for 3 pounds 19 shillings.[8] The nineteenth-century historian D. F. Lamson (1832–1914) observed, “The Indians in this vicinity, it would seem, were soon reduced to a condition of weakness and vassalage.”[9]

Records of observations and encounters with native people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries survive mostly in manuscript form,[10] though some have been published, such as John Dunton’s (1659–1733) letter of 1686 describing the Indian village of Wonasquam in Gloucester.[11] Local histories also preserve stories about early encounters. In 1637, John Burnham (ca.1616–1694) was one of three men from Essex drafted to join English settlers from the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies in fighting the Pequot War. Burnham told family members his stories of bloodshed in Connecticut, and Robert Crowell (ca. 1787–1855) related them in the History of Essex (1853). In the persona of Burnham, Crowell wrote: “The battle now was close and hot, the enemy seeming determined not to yield but at the loss of their lives. Out of about 600 of them, only 60 escaped. Our loss was 11 killed, and 20 wounded ... We took many of them prisoners; some of whom were kept by our men as servants, and some were sent to the West Indies, and sold to the planters. This battle finished the Pequot tribe.”[12]

We know that these English soldiers were rewarded upon their return home. David Choate (1796–1872), a prominent Essex resident, responded to an inquiry from his neighbor Mary Boyd (1827–1916) about her Burnham ancestors, one of whom was probably John Burnham (Fig. 4). The response reveals Choate’s own research into Ipswich town records. Choate did not cite the exact source of his information, but a report from 1639 corroborates his finding: the “committee for the Pequitt Soldiers” granted Burnham and the others who fought in the Pequod War between two and ten acres of land.[13]

After King Philip’s War—the 1675 Wampanoag or Metacom’s War against the English—the settlers regarded all Indians as enemies, including the Pawtucket, who had remained neutral. Many were confined to reservations or pressed into slavery at that time. In a campaign of state-sponsored genocide, the Massachusetts Bay Colony offered bounties on the scalps of Indian men, women and children.[14] The Pawtucket dispersed, some taking sanctuary with kin at Wamesit (Lowell), others crossing the Merrimack River by canoe to join allies such as the Penobscot in northern New England.

Other warriors joined the Wampanoag or Wabanaki resistance fighters to harry English fishing fleets, trading posts and towns up and down the coast for another hundred years. In 1695, after colonists attacked the Pawtucket at Wamesit in winter, the survivors escaped through the White Mountains to St. Francis, Quebec. Some of their descendants live there today on reservations at Odanak and Bécancour. From that time to the present, descendants have returned to their traditional homelands and sacred places whenever the temper of the times has permitted.

There are many reports of Algonquians visiting Cape Ann in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[15] In August 1838, for example, the local historian and antiquarian John Lee (1813–1879) reported in his diary: “25 or 30 Indians of the Penobscot tribe arrived here and encamped at Black Cove ... They are bound to Boston. There are about 60 in all ...They were at work making baskets. They are rather dirty looking but appeared healthy and happy. The men and boys shoot at cans and many go to see them, it being a curiosity to see Indians encamped here" Two years later, also in August, Lee observed a similar scene: “In the evening I and my wife went down to Norton’s neck to see some Indians which were encamped there. There were 6 wigwams, ... They were engaged making baskets. There was a great many folks there to see them.”[16] In August 1854, Francis Bennett (b. 1837), a young store clerk working in Gloucester, recorded a trip to Manchester: “I went down by the depot about 4 o’clock to see a Company or tribe of Penobscot Indians about 20 in number.”[17] The fact that an audience had assembled to see what Lee described as a “curiosity” is evidence of a larger culture of racialized spectacle in the nineteenth century.[18]

The enthusiasm for scenes of Native Americans at this time was surely voyeurism in part, but in some cases it also reflected concern for the plight of a people who had lost their lands and means of subsistence. This concern is evident in the book Conversations Principally on the Aborigines of North America (1828), inscribed as owned by John Lee’s relative “Eliz. Lee.” The author, Elizabeth Elkins Sanders (1762–1851), wrote it “to engage the sympathy of the youth of our country in favour of our Aborigines, in the hope that by being made acquainted with their character and unmerited sufferings, an interest would be excited which might rescue from utter ruin this persecuted and ill fated race.” In her introduction, Sanders unites the plight of the Native Americans with that of African Americans still enslaved in most of the United States. The lessons in Conversations proceed in a catechistic style, with the girls, Eliza, Elizabeth and Caroline, asking their mother about the history of land seizures disguised as treaties and mutual agreements. Sanders contrasts Andrew Jackson, whose 1830 Indian Removal Act forced the evacuation of all Indians to reservations west of the Mississippi, with George Washington, who “would have been a friend and protector” of the Creeks, the Muskogee Indians indigenous to the Southeast.[19] The mother’s responses touch on Native American culture and religion as well as instruction from the Bible.

Native American history has not ended. Today surviving groups join together to resurrect their languages and traditions, reestablish communities and cultures and protect their interests. Gloucester’s Jacqueline Emerton (1927–2004) was a well-known local Abenaki matriarch; her husband was Quiet Bear, who died in 1998. For years, as the leader of the Intertribal Council Tolba Menahan, Emerton organized powwows in Gloucester, and these continued after her death for a time in her honor. The last powwow was held in 2012 in Fisherman’s Field, below Tablet Rock, a sacred place to the people who lived here. In 1898, Algonquians performing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show at Fisherman’s Field explained the significance of Tablet Rock to town fathers. In all our histories, the past and present continually interact, telling the stories of our lives.


[1]. Mary Ellen Lepionka, “Algonquian Shellfish Industries on Cape Ann,” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society 78 (1) (Spring 2017), 28–39; Mary Ellen Lepionka, “Unpublished Papers on Cape Ann Prehistory,” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society 74 (2) (Fall 2013), 45–92; Mary Ellen Lepionka and Mark Carlotto, “Evidence of a Native American Solar Observatory on Sunset Hill in Gloucester, Massachusetts,” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society 76 (1) (Spring 2015), 27–42.

[2]. Samuel de Champlain, Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, 1604–1618, ed. William Lawson Grant (New York: Scribner’s, 1907), 92.

[3]. On Roger Conant and the Dorchester Company’s encounters and trading with the Pawtuckets, see John White’s Planters Plea, 1630, ed. Marshall H. Saville (Rockport, Mass.: Sandy Bay Historical Society and Museums, 1930); and “Council for New England, 1622–1623,” Folio Vol. C (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society).

[4]. For more on erasure narratives, see Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[5]. Mary Ellen Lepionka, “The Wanaskwiwam Villagers: Where Did They Go?” Enduring Gloucester, August 28, 2017,

[6]. Vital Records of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849 (Topsfield, Mass.: Topsfield Historical Society, 1917), 801. Stephanie Buck and I have checked these records as well as the vital records up to 1900 to confirm that no one identified as “Indian” or “Native American” is listed in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

[7]. For a list of such deeds in Massachusetts, see “Native American Deeds,” accessed December 31, 2017,

[8]. “The Deed of Manchester,” Native American Deeds, 1700, Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds,

[9]. D. F. Lamson, History of the Town of Manchester, Essex County, Massachusetts, 1645–1895 (Manchester, Mass.: published by the Town, 1895), 9.

[10]. Manuscripts that are not part of Unfolding Histories include Ebenezer Pool, “Pool Papers,” vol. 1, unpublished typescript, Gloucester, Mass., 1823, Cape Ann Museum; Thomas Povey, “Papers and Letters,” Egerton Mss #2395, folio 412-213, British Library, London. The Egerton manuscripts include Papers Relating to the English Colonies in America and the West Indies, 1627–1699 and contain the document “Ye Names of ye Rivers and ye Names of ye cheife Sagamores yte inhabit upon Them from the River of Quibequissue to the River of Wenesquawam [from the St. Lawrence to the Annisquam]” (n.d., circa 1602–1612).

[11]. John Dunton, Letters from New England A.D. 1686, ed. W. H. Whitmore (Boston: printed for the Prince Society by T. R. Marvin & Son, 1867), 293–295.

[12]. Robert Crowell, History of the Town of Essex, from 1634 to 1700 (Boston: C.C.P. Moody, printer, 1853), 52.

[13]. George A. Schofield, ed., The Ancient Records of the Town of Ipswich, vol. 1 (George A. Schofield, 1899), 52. Kurt A. Wilhelm did a remarkable amount of genealogical digging at the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum to establish the proximity of Boyd and Choate, as well as the likely familial relationship between Boyd and Burnham. We are greatly indebted to him.

[14]. Richard F. Burton, “Notes on Scalping,” Anthropological Review 2 (1864), 49–52; also Phips’ Bounty Proclamation:

[15]. For general overviews of this period, see Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998); Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Jenny Hale Pulsifer, “ ‘Our Sages Are Sageless’: A Letter on Massachusetts Indian Policy after King Philip’s War,” William and Mary Quarterly 58 (2) (April 2001), 431–485.

[16]. For more on John Lee, see Lamson, History of the Town of Manchester, 341.

[17]. Francis Bennett, “August 25, 1854,” MSS., Octavo Vols. B (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society).

[18]. The trope of the vanishing Native American appeared increasingly in nineteenth-century popular culture, including the play Metamora; or the Last of the Wampanoags (1830). For a description of the racialization of the spectacle in the nineteenth century, see Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017), 7–27. On the combination of nineteenth-century racialism and entertainment as it pertained to Native Americans, see “Cowboys and Aliens,” 95–116.

[19]. Elizabeth Elkins Sanders, Conversations Principally on the Aborigines of North America: Eight Lines of Verse (Salem, Mass.: W. and S. B. Ives, 1828), iv, 14, 24.


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