Lowell is best known for its role in the Industrial Revolution, but the first English settlers arrived at the confluence of the Merrimack and the Concord Rivers in the mid-1600s. They found the area fully inhabited by indigenous people who had lived here for centuries. In the following essay, Jim Peters shares with us the earliest history of Lowell:
I am fascinated by our Native American history in Lowell. Few of us know that Lowell had a thriving population before any settlers from Europe ever set foot in the land that would become famous for its Caucasian accomplishments. It is said that the last American of native descent left Lowell in 1826, the year it became a town. I always remembered that because of its poignancy.
The Merrimack River was a major force to the Native Americans. In Paul Hudon’s book on the river, he states that the word “Merrimack” was actually Anglicized from the words Merroh Awke, which became what we call the river today. Merroh Awke was Pawtucket for “The Strong Place,” a very fitting name for a very powerful mountain river. When the Native Americans lived here, there was abundant fish and game, enough to feed large civilizations. I read, but have not been able to verify, that the area now known as Belvidere was actually a large Native American city of up to thirty thousand residents. Now, since it has been awhile since I read that, it might have been thirteen thousand. Either way, it was a significant number.
In Pawtucketville, next to a baseball field, is a megalith. A megalith in like a monolith except that it consists of separate stones that do not touch one another. At least, that is what I have been told by persons far more intelligent than myself. This megalith consists of four stones, directly lying (and I took a compass to verify this) north, south, east, and west. Which Native American nations put these stones in that spot is lost to ancient legends, I would think, but they do point in those directions and were probably not a random act. It was important to the Pawtucket nation, and the Penacook confederacy, which was a loosely organized government set up to protect members of five nations, that the southwest become delineated because it was believed that the souls of the dead traveled in that direction. Census figures in the current day show that that direction is still a favorite of many souls in the state of Massachusetts.
There was a royalty in the various Pentucket nations. The Chief who was baptized by John Eliot, Passaconaway, was actually a god. It was said that in the privacy of his own home, and they did not live or move about in tepees, he could become a flame of fire. A great many myths surfaced around him because of his baptism in the Anglican Church, but in fact, he later rejected that church and went back to his basic belief system. That is a point that is either not well known, or is not well-substantiated. I found it in a book on the Merrimack tribes written in 1862. Passaconaway had two sons, who were Chiefs in their own right. One was in charge of the eastern part of the territory around the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, and one was on the west bank. The nations that I have identified as being in the Pentucket confederacy included the Nashobah, the Souhegan, the Pawtucket, the Wamesit, the Pentucket, and the Agawam nations.
There is a great deal to write about Passaconaway but not in this overview. Suffice it to say that he was a great man, a great ruler, and a very physically adept swimmer. It was the task of young men in each tribe to fish for the day’s dinner. It was said the Passaconaway always filled up a canoe with fish for which he had to dive and catch by hand. But the fish were plentiful and near what is now Vesper Country Club, there are two rows of rocks that are believed to have been fish intercepters. Diving from those rocks and catching the trapped fish was a skill that was highly touted and valued in that society. Of course, there was abundant game.
Every year, the Pawtucket nation would move north to the northern lakes in New Hampshire for the summer, and return every winter to the southern tip of Vesper Island, which has had a great many names since its discovery. Famed explorer, John Smith, of Pocahantas fame, is said to be the first Englishman to see the settlement on that island.
The Merrimack did not always empty in Newburyport or points north of Boston. In the ice age, it became a huge glacier that recarved its route and no longer emptied near where Boston is today. Founders of the Middlesex Canal would probably be bemoaning that turn of events. After all, they had to reroute the river’s path to get the water and the goods to flow from New Hampshire to Boston.
The Penacook nations believed in power, and the Merrimack was powerful. Stories and tales were passed down from generation to generation, and many tales were lost. Power, then, was the gift of the Merrimack. First was the Native American power of sheer numbers. Second, was the power of the river’s thirty foot drop that caused it to become the first industrial city site in the United States. That drop dictated that the river would remain “the strong place,” in American industrial lore. Finally, as Paul Hudon stated in his book, there is the great appreciation of the river today, culminating in our use of the river for recreation, observation, boating, and even swimming again.
I intend to write articles on the Native Americans with the goal of expanding the National Park to include a display on Native American nations. Please notice that I seldomly use the word, “tribes” because that was an attempt by the English settlers to dehumanize the civilizations that they found here. Passaconaway is of special interest to me, because he was a god, he gave that up, and went back to it later in life. Material for this article was found in the archives of the Memorial Library, now referred to as the Pollard Memorial Library, and the Mogan Center. I would especially like to thank Martha Mayo for her wise counsel during my efforts to find out information on the river.