Lowell200: Wamesit and Pawtucket

The Massachusetts legislature by Special Laws Chapter 112 of 1825, considered and enacted “An Act to Incorporate the Town of Lowell” to be effective March 1, 1826. In recognition of Lowell’s approaching bicentennial, today I begin a series of blog posts called Lowell200. Over the coming months, I hope to do several of these posts each week as a prelude to our community’s 200th birthday.

Here’s the first installment:

Wamesit and Pawtucket

The city of Lowell sits atop two Native American villages. The first was Wamesit which straddled the Concord River where it flows into the Merrimack with 1,500 acres on the west bank (encompassing today’s downtown, Acre and Lower Highlands) and 1,000 acres on the east bank (covering most of Belvidere). The second village was Pawtucket which was on the north bank of the Merrimack at Pawtucket Falls. Of the two, Wamesit was larger although the population of Pawtucket swelled each spring to coincide with fish swimming upstream.

By the time Lowell received its town charter in 1826, both Wamesit and Pawtucket were no longer active settlements, yet they and their inhabitants are the necessary starting point in the founding of Lowell story. Equity requires us to expressly acknowledge the Native Americans as the original inhabitants of this land. Furthermore, unique aspects of the displacement of the Native Americans from this region by the English in the late 17th century played an important role in the establishment in the textile mills a century and a half later.

The Native Americans of this region have fascinated local historians. Lowell’s most prodigious chronicler of the 19th century, Charles Cowley, wrote an entire book on the topic. More recently, the late Jay Pendergast published two books on the subject.

But University of Massachusetts Lowell history professor Christoph Strobel in his 2020 book, Native Americans of New England, cautioned readers about accepting in their entirety earlier stories of local Native Americans. Strobel cites several reasons for this. The Native Americans did not write their stories. Instead, their culture was one of oral traditions. Consequently, much of the Native American’s own history has been lost over time. The written accounts that do survive were composed by English writers who had their own motives and biases. The English accounts should be consulted, but always with the caveat that the narrators are imperfect.

Archeology can be a useful tool for learning about those who came before us but in the case of the local Native Americans, that method of discovery is often unavailable. Unsurprisingly, the Native Americans of this region inhabited the places best suited by geography for settlement. The same features attracted the early English and then subsequent American developers. As a result, Native American artifacts that might be discovered through archeological digs were long ago displaced by two centuries of construction on top of former Native American villages, depriving us of knowledge we could have uncovered had such sites been undisturbed.

Notwithstanding the obstacles to deeper knowledge, we know that thousands of Native Americans lived in this vicinity. Their tribal affiliation is unclear despite Cowley’s granular identification. Most likely, the inhabitants of this part of the Merrimack Valley were Penacooks who spoke Algonquin. They were farmers who supplemented their food supply by hunting, fishing, and foraging. This meant that substantial areas had been cleared of trees and were used to grow crops such as corn, squash, and beans.

That’s how things stood when the first Europeans arrived at the start of the 17th century.