Life of the Indigenous Massachusett at Ponkapoag Plantation

Massachusett Tribal LifeIt is important to realize that the Indigenous bands of Massachusett along with the rest of the native population, took their names from the place where they dwelled and not the opposite. The people who dwelled at Neponset (the Neponsets) and forced to move to Ponkapoag, were now called Ponkapoags. The Massachusett Sagamores remained Massachusett Sagamores/Sac’hems and continued their rule over all of the Massachusett Territories. Although the move to Ponkapoag happened under the rule of Kutshamikin, Wampatuck (Josias Chickataubut), son of Chickataubut took up his rule when he came of age. Wampatuck, though raised to observe the religion of the Puritans abandoned the religion as an adult and returned to the indigenous way of life. There is much written of both of these Sagamores and their dealings with the British before and after the move to Ponkapoag. They were not confined to Ponkapoag Plantation, but moved freely about their territories visiting and staying with different bands of the Massachusett and sadly, still warring with tribes’ hostile to the Massachusett.

John Elliot’s reason for wanting to establish Ponkapoag and other “Praying Towns” was to separate the indigenous populations converted to Christianity from their unconverted “savage” counterparts. In return, the populations living in these towns were to receive protection from the increasingly intolerant, violent English Settlers and from attacks by hostile tribes to the west and the north of the Massachusett Territory. Even so, on several occasions throughout the years, the Ponkapoag People were forced to erect protective stockade fencing around their town. Ponkapoag was located in an area the English considered at that time to be the Frontier. The Ponkapoag People came to respect John Elliot because he supplied them with many of the things required for them to live in a new way (Elliot received monies from religious societies in England that were funding his work of converting the N.E. “Indians”). The things he provided included tools for gardening, livestock and cloth for women’s clothes. Small family gardens were kept instead of the vast Massachusett Fields. The people at Ponkapoag were required to follow English (Puritan) law and customs. They were expected to adopt conservative Puritan dress, grooming (short hair for the men, long for the women) and lifestyle. They were required follow the strict moral code of the Bible as interpreted by the Puritans.                                                                                                                                                                                                      The Puritans taught that God required modesty and shame of his worshipers and therefore the Ponkapoag People needed to make separate sleeping rooms within their wetus (homes) for individual family members. They were losing their way of life, fast. Another of the Puritans’ religious teachings among the Ponkapoags was that all the problems and illnesses they suffered were the result of not pleasing their new Christian God and for punishment for their sins.

The women of Ponkapoag were encouraged to learn to weave cloth for their clothing as Puritan women did and to abandon their animal skins, furs and grasses. By the end of the century they would have had to abandon their traditional dress of skins and fur because the English had hunted animals for skins and fur to near extinction. Ponkapoag women wove baskets (decorated with depictions of flowers and animals), house and sleeping mats and brooms all made from grasses and vegetation they gathered from local woods and fields. They sold many of their baskets and brooms to the English, gaining money and respect from the English for their enterprising ways. The men of Ponkapoag were expected to become cultivators of the earth and to practice husbandry. This was a drastic change and role reversal for the men of this community who had just recently been the hunters and protectors of their people. So, began the assimilation of the Massachusett People. The men could still hunt and fish in rivers and ponds at Ponkapoag, in the beginning, but things were changing fast. In 1667, just ten years after the selectmen of Dorchester had “granted” the six thousand acres for the Ponkapoag Plantation, Josias (Wampatuck) Chickataubut requested a deed for the six thousand acres at Ponkapoag. He requested this even though the land at Ponkapoag had never been deeded over to the English. Wompatuck must have realized by then that the only thing the English honored concerning land ownership were deeds. (It is interesting to note that at this time the men assuming authority at Dorchester had themselves received no deed for Dorchester from Wampatuck or any other Massachusett Sac’hem/Sagamore.) A committee from Dorchester came to Ponkapoag, reviewed and renewed the boundaries. They then returned safely to Dorchester along with their friend Ahauton. (more about him later)

 Reference: Daniel Huntoon , The New Grant


The First Internment

Shortly after Josias Wampatuck requested a deed for Ponkapoag it was suspected that some residents of Ponkapoag were attacking the English. The “Indians” of Ponkapoag were warned not to go more than a mile from their village without being accompanied by Englishmen. Although there was no evidence of any conspiracy against the English, it was deemed advisable by the committee at Dorchester to place all the men at Ponkapoag under the command of Quarter Master Thomas Swift of Milton. They were held prisoner on Long Island in Boston Harbor and later imprisoned at Brush Hill in Milton. There they were required to keep some small fields of corn (traditionally the work of women). They were held prisoners and deeply humiliated for many years. The men were visited every fortnight by Reverend Elliot and Major Gookin.                                                                                         Meanwhile the women and children at Ponkapoag were left unprotected and unprovided for by their men. This led to the women becoming dependent on the English and one another for their survival. After several years, the men were ordered back to Ponkapoag where they were required to answer a roll call every morning.

 Reference: Major Daniel Gookin, A Historical Account of the Doings and Sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England, years, 1675,76,7


The Second Internment

The second internment included all of those living at Ponkapoag. It was during what is known as the King Philips War in the year 1675 that the English removed the people at Ponkapoag and delivered them to Deer Island. The Ponkapoag had erected stockade fencing and turned their town at Ponkapoag into a virtual fort in an effort to protect themselves against marauding bands of Philips Warriors and to live apart from those participating in the war against the English. None the less, following orders, a Captain Brattle first tried to remove the people of Ponkapoag to a Dorchester neck of land but the local English inhabitants refused to admit them “so near them”. They were questioned and sent back to their town. It was done “more to satisfy the clamors of the people than any offence committed”. Soon thereafter on October 26th two hundred people of Ponkapoag’s sister town of Natick were removed by boat to Deer Island. Not long afterward the entire population of Ponkapoag brought to Deer Island increased the number of Indigenous Massachusett to five hundred on Deer Island.

Wrote Major Daniel Gookin (an eye witness) “The enmity, jealousy and clamors of some people against them put the magistracy upon a kind of necessity to send them all to the Island; and though it was a great suffering to the Indians to live there yet God brought forth this good by it. First, their preservation from the fury of the (English) people, secondly, the humbling and bettering of the Indians by this sore affliction”. Goookin also wrote that they “lived on clams and shellfish dug at low tide”. That “the Island was bleak and cold, their wigwams poor and mean, their clothes few and thin.” He wrote that “they had a little corn which was fetched from their plantations and conveyed to them little by little” and that “a boatman was appointed to look after them”. By February of this same year some (of the English) brought before the general court a petition requesting that the “Indians” being held at Deer Island be destroyed or shipped out of the country. Others called to mind a treaty with the Massachusett made thirty years before. After reviewing the treaty, and being convinced the “Indians” had done nothing, finally in the spring of 1676 the people of Ponkapoag were removed from the Island and brought to Milton where the sick who were many were cared for by Rev. Eliot and Major Gookin. They were returned to Ponkapoag minus those who had died, later in the year of 1676. 

Reference: Major Daniel Gookin, An Historical Account of the Doings and Sufferings of The Christian Indians in New England, years, 1675,76,77