“The Trials of Being a Native American in Northern Massachusetts” by Jim Peters

Frequent contributor Jim Peters sent this post as a follow-up to his earlier essay on the “Native American History of Lowell.”

As a child, television taught me that the Native American, the “Indian,” was savage and without Christian scruples. We have since learned that those with the Christian scruples were often the savages. Blankets were given to the Indians that had been tainted with the pus of Smallpox, ravaging entire tribes and reducing their numbers greatly. “Scalps” were French in origin. The practice was determined to be the best way to verify that you had indeed killed the savage. The Native Americans just copied the European American.

There was money in scalps. Captain John Lovewell of Dunstable removed the scalps of ten Native Americans and sold them to the Crown for one hundred pounds each. That was 1,000.00 pounds in English currency, a fortune for the day. A Supreme Being seemed to play into the mix as the year 1663 was disturbed by many earthquakes. “The mounting hostility of the Indians,” kept the area from enjoying the relative peace and tranquility of many of the other areas that surrounded it. Rivers became important, and the town of Concord was formed directly around the river that bears its name.

The Concord people, the European Americans, found it difficult to explore much beyond the reaches of their Garrison Houses. A Garrison House was built like a fort, and was of a design that provided some protection from bands of Native Americans who tormented the Europeans. Garrisons were usually built in an enclosure, giving them the appearance of a fort.

One man, living in a garrison in Pawtucketville, or what would become Pawtucketville, was Thomas Whittier who lived peaceably among the Native Americans, in this case the Pawtuckets, of that area, His was the only European American home to be allowed by the Native Americans in that area for decades. It was torn down in the 1930’s. He is best remembered, not as a peace-maker, but as an ancestor of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Whittier was the exception. “Yet even the Concord and Nashua men dared not go about unarmed nor dwell at any very great distance from a garrison house.” the author says in his 1862 writings on the Native American nations in the Lowell area. It was said that Whittier was very friendly with the “Indians” and never harmed.

Vesper Island was first seen by the French Canadians who traveled down this far south. The first Englishman to see it was famed adventurer John Smith of Pocahantas fame. He noted it in his diary, which was usually rewritten by traveling companions.

The most impressive book available was called the “Memories of the Indians and Pioneers of the Region of Lowell, Massachusetts (1862).” In it, the author cites many peculiarities of the Native Americans. For instance, they held lengthy meetings to offset problems. These meetings were cordial, the author says, and productive. Most Native Americans of this region carried bags of wampum, whatever was considered to be of value in the day, and traded for goods and services. In fact, at Hadley Field in the Highlands, five Native American nations bartered daily, usually in the early morning hours. These nations included the Nashobah, the Souhegan, the Pawtuckets, the Wamesits and the Pentuckets. Each nation had a leader and there was a sort of monarchial tendency in setting up the royal line.

As I stated in my earlier report, Native Americans who lived a good life and died with dignity were believed to, in death, travel to the southwest. That belief could very well be the reason for the placement of stones at the Megalith in Pawtucketville. We will never know for certain, it is just a theory.

5 Responses to “The Trials of Being a Native American in Northern Massachusetts” by Jim Peters

  1. PaulM says:

    JIm, there’s very good information about the relations between settlers and natives here in some of the family genealogies written by founding families in surrounding towns that pre-date Lowell—families like the Varnums of Dracut.

  2. Paul Maher Jr says:

    The good people at UMass Lowell, when they broke ground at North Campus to build Olney Hall disturbed potentially sacred ground; lots of sacred artifacts were scurried out of there and into private collections before the state archaeologist teams could ever make any kind of meaningful assessment of what it was that lie there. These were beads, pottery, points, polished pendants of animals, sturgeon bone necklaces etc. The same goes for the university power plant and, for that matter, the whole stretch of Pawtucket Boulevard. To go further back in history, when the beloved founding members of this town constructed their mills up and down the banks of the river, they too disturbed potentially valuable artifacts and evidence of aboroginal habitation. The late, great Professor Jay Pendergast had a handle on UMass Lowell’s usurping of this land, he had a collection laid out under glass at the South Campus library that he was about to begin doing research on. The son of Olney, his first name escapes me right now, but he lived in Dunstable and he had an enviable collection of these very same artifacts from various hot spots in Lowell including those that were bulldozed up where the building named after his father stands. Alas, Pendergast died, Olney died and whatever there was has gone back into hiding.

  3. Martha says:

    There are several Native American women living in Lowell in the mid-19th century that proved quite remarkable.

    #1 – During the 1830s and 1840s, Betsey Guppy Chamberlain (1797–1886), a mixed-race writer of English and Algonkian heritage, labored in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, where she penned colorful stories and sketches for two workers’ magazines—the ‘Lowell Offering’ and ‘The New England Offering.’ A courageous and pioneering author, Chamberlain wrote the earliest known Native American fiction and published some of the earliest prose to challenge the persecution of Native people and affirm their dignity and worth.

    The life and works of this remarkable and multi-faceted woman are now recovered from obscurity in this volume, which collects for the first time thirty-four of Chamberlain’s richly varied contributions. Organized in three thematic sections (Native Tales and Dream Visions; “The Unprivileged Sex”: Women’s Concerns; and Village Sketches), the captivating writings range from humorous autobiographical sketches of New England life to protest pieces that raise consciousness about the treatment of Native people, excessive mill hours and poor working conditions, and the oppression of women. Drawn from Euro-American and Native oral literary traditions, Chamberlain’s fiction and other prose shed new light on nineteenth-century American working women and illuminate the multicultural roots of New England writing.

  4. Martha says:

    There are several Native American women living in Lowell in the mid-19th century that proved quite remarkable.

    #2 Amanda Colburn was a descendant of Edward Colburn who came from England in 1635. He lived in Ipswich for some years. In 1668 he moved to what is now Dracut, MA as the first settler on the north of the Merrimack River. Amanda’s grandfather, Uriah, was born in Dracut, MA, but moved to Rumney, NH and then Wentworth, NH where he farmed for many years.

    Amanda’s mother was Betsy Smart and her grandfather was Jeremiah Smart of Rumney, NH who was a Native American. In 1850, Jeremiah was among those owning the most real estate in Wentworth, NH. Jeremiah’s wife was Relief Haines, of English heritage. Amanda was born in Wentworth, NH in June 1847. Amanda and two of her sisters came to Lowell, MA to work in the textile mills sometime after the Civil War. In Lowell, Amanda she met Meldon Stephen Giles and married in June 1869.

    Meldon Giles was born in October 1840 in Acton, MA parents Israel Haynes Giles and Lucy Haynes Giles. Sometime later his family moved to Westford, MA. Meldon’s name is on the door of the Acton, MA library as veteran of Civil War. He and Amanda had two children; Nellie, born in 1870 and Clarence, born in 1871. Meldon co-invented the ‘Store Rail Account Systems’. His partner stayed in the US and Meldon worked as the international salesman.

    Amanda, Meldon, and their children spent 25 years in England, 1888-1912. She sometimes did international travel with Meldon. They returned to Lowell, MA in 1912 and she passed away in 1913.