THE SACHEMS OF WINCHESTER
By ELLEN KNIGHT ©

Following is a reprint of a four-part series of historical articles, from the DAILY TIMES CHRONICLE Winchester Edition, about the 17th-century sachems of Winchester. Prompted by the current controversy over the sachems logo, it seeks to correct some of the historical misinformation that has been generated through that controversy, e.g.
  • the sachems were chiefs and kings, not savages, rabbis, or the name of a tribe
  • the tribe belonged to the Massachusett nation--not Pawtuckett
  • the land now Winchester was neither stolen nor taken by force and no lives were lost over it
  • at least two generations of sachems lived in peace and friendship with the English
  • Squaw Sachem was a rare (but not unique) Indian title
  • and more
For the original text with photographic illustrations, see THE DAILY TIMES CHRONICLE of Dec. 20-24. Copies are available at the Times office at 1 Arrow Drive, Woburn (933-3700), or may be seen at the Winchester Public Library.

PART 1 NANEPASHEMET

Once upon a time in the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, there was an idea, held by some natives and by some colonists, that the native and European cultures could live together, side by side, and amicably share the American land.

For a short time, it actually worked out that way, though ultimately it failed. But it was in this belief that many sachems, including the Squaw Sachem of Winchester, deeded land to the Europeans.

It is to the sachems of the Massachusetts Bay that Winchester owes its beginning as a colonized community and subsequent town. As suggested in School Committee meetings, a study of the sachems and their people is an educational opportunity.

Sachem or sagamore

The sachems were the leaders, the chiefs, the kings and queens. According to Captain John Smith, who explored New England in 1614, the Massachusett tribes called their kings "sachems" while the Penobscots (of Maine) used the term "sagamos." Conversely, Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley of Roxbury wrote in 1631 that the kings in the bay area were called sagamores but were called sachems southward (in Plymouth).

"Sachem" and "sachimo" or "sagamo" (anglicized as "sagamore") apparently came from the same root. Although "sagamore" has sometimes been defined by colonists and historians as a subordinate lord, modern opinion is that "sachem" and "sagamore" are dialectical variations of the same word.

Both terms are found in early Winchester history. Squaw Sachem was the title of the queen who lived west of the Mystic Lakes (among other places), while her three sons, each of whom had his own territory, were called sagamores by the English.

Whatever called, tribal leadership was usually hereditary. Within a nation or federation of tribes, there could be a chief or principal sachem (or high king).

Most of the sachems whose names are known are those whom the colonists knew personally. A few others were known only by reputation, including the first sachem of Winchester territory to be identified by name, Nanepashemet.

Sachem Nanepashemet

The Puritan colonists never knew Nanepashemet because he died in 1619, well before John Winthrop's party arrived in Charlestown in 1630. His name, however, survives. It is usually translated as "New Moon" (and memorialized as a crescent moon on the Winchester Country Club's seal).

According to the traditional story, Nanepashemet was the chief sachem of the Massachusett federation of tribes, and his domain extended roughly from Weymouth to Portsmouth, N.H., and as far west as Northfield.

Verifying the extent of his sovereignty may now be impossible. The northern boundary seems too high, if Smith was right when he wrote that the Massachusett tribes were located below Cape Ann and that the tribes of Cape Ann and Ipswich held the Penobscot leaders in Maine to be "the chiefe and greatest amongst them." He did add, though, that the Massachusetts hunted as far north as Maine.

What is clear is that, at the end of Nanepashemet's life, his family's territory stretched from the Charles River up to Salem, Lynn, and Marblehead and extended westerly out to Concord.

Before the colonists arrived, traders and explorers visited New England and had contact with the natives. Smith described "the country of the Massachusits" as "the Paradice of all those parts, for here are many Iles planted with Corne, Groves, Mulberies, salvage Gardens, and good Harbours." He did not learn as much as he would have liked, he wrote, because of the presence of the French.

Both Smith and Samuel de Champlain, who explored New England in 1605 and 1606, reported that the natives were quite populous. But that situation changed during the last years of Nanepashemet, the only ones of which we have any knowledge.

Those years were a time of devastation for the natives of Massachusetts and other parts of New England. Within a few years of Smith's report of seeing "great troupes" of people and a number of villages along the coast, war with the Tarratines of Maine and a great pestilence (still unidentified) wiped out masses of the natives in Massachusetts.

On a later visit (1619-20) Smith wrote "where I had seene one hundred or two hundred Salvages, there is scarce ten to be found." Dudley wrote (in 1631) that Nanepashemet's two eldest sons could not command above 30 or 40 men apiece. According to Daniel Gookin, writing in 1674 (by which time other epidemics had struck), the Massachusett tribes, which could formerly number 3,000 men plus women and children, then only numbered about 300 men, plus women and children.

Death of a king

According to the traditional story, Nanepashemet was living around Lynn before the Tarratines invaded. Under pressure from his enemies, he retreated to Medford, where he built a stockade on Rock Hill, where he fell to his enemies in 1619.

The end of this story and the name of Nanepashemet have been preserved in an account attributed to the Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who along with Myles Standish and eight others, explored the Massachusetts Bay in September 1621, guided by Squanto and two other friendly Indians.

At the end of the month, they went ashore and met a chief named Obbatinewat who told them of Nanepashemet's widow, the Squaw Sachem. Going in search of her (ultimately futile), Winslow recorded:

"We went ashore, all but two men, and marched in arms up in the country. Having gone three miles, we came to a place where corn had been newly gathered, a house pulled down, and the people gone.

"A mile from hence, Nanepashemet their king, in his lifetime, had lived. His house was not like others; but a scaffold was largely built, with poles and planks, some six foot from the ground, and the house upon that, being situated on the top of a hill.

"Not far from hence, in a bottom, we came to a fort built by their deceased king, the manner thus: There were poles some thirty or forty feet long stuck in the ground as thick as they could be set, one by another; and with them they enclosed a ring some forty or fifty feet over; a trench, breast-high, was digged on each side; one way there was to go into it with a bridge.

"In the midst of this palisado stood the frame of a house, wherein, being dead, he lay buried. About a mile from hence we came to such another, but seated on the top of a hill. Here Nanepashemet was killed, none dwelling in it since the time of his death."

During the nineteenth century, at least three Indian burial places were discovered in Medford, two on Brooks family land and one on College Hill. One of these was subsequently dedicated to the memory of Nanepashemet's son, Sagamore John (who was actually buried in Charlestown or Chelsea), and to the memory of the Indians who lie buried there, but whether anyone actually found the last resting place of Nanepashemet is unknown. (A suggestion in the History of Winchester that Nanepashemet's skeleton is at the Peabody Museum in Cambridge is wrong, according to the museum.)

Pawtuckett or Massachusett?

Nanepashemet has been identified in different histories as a Massachusett and a Pawtuckett, as well as a Naumkeag. Some colonial sources (like Winslow, quoted above) clearly identify his wife and sons as Massachusetts, and modern thought is that he was himself a Massachusett.

However, he is frequently called a Pawtuckett. So says the History of Winchester, although the second edition corrects that (in a note) to Massachusett.

Since the 17th century, the tribes of New England have been variously named and their territories identified. Smith named quite a few, including the Naumkeag around Cape Ann and the Massachusetts to their south, but no Pawtuckett.

William Wood, writing in 1634, identified a tribe called Aberginians, and Capt. Edward Johnson wrote in 1651 that the "Abarginny-men" consisted "of Mattachusets, Wippanaps and Tarratines." The town records of Charlestown, written by John Greene in 1664, also use the term "Aberginians," specifically in relation to Nanepashemet's family.

The most frequently cited authority on tribal nations is Daniel Gookin's Historical Collections of the Indians in New England (1674). That work identifies the major eastern nations in Massachusetts from north to south as the Pawtuckett (also in New Hampshire), Massachusett, Pawkunnawkutts (later called Wampanoag) around Plymouth, and the Nausett of Cape Cod. He also identified smaller tribes, but no Aberginians.

Gookin wrote that the Massachusett tribes inhabited "principally about that place in Massachusetts bay, where the body of the English now dwell" and that the Pawtuckett were north and northeast of them. Since the Massachusetts Bay Colony lay between Plymouth and Cape Ann, several historians have placed the dividing line between the two nations around Cape Ann.

Others, however, have put the division at the Charles River. After Nanepashemet's death, that river was, indeed, a tribal boundary. The southern tribes acknowledged Chickataubut as sachem. Across the river, Nanepashemet's heirs were sachems. North of them, Passaconaway, living in the Merrimack River valley, was the principal sachem of the Pawtucketts.

Historians disagree

Was the river a dividing line between two Massachusett kingdoms or between the Massachusett and Pawtuckett nations?

Alonzo Lewis, in his History of Lynn (1829) wrote that the tribes north of the Charles and their sachem Nanepashemet were Pawtuckett. That was then repeated in Richard Frothingham's History of Charlestown (1845), Mrs. E. Vale Smith's History of Newburyport (1854), Charles Brooks' History of Medford (1855), and Henry Chapman's History of Winchester (1936).

But it was not repeated in Lemuel Shattuck's A History of the Town of Concord (1835) (who saw the Charles as a division between the Wampanoags and the Massachusetts) nor John Fogelberg's more recent history of Burlington (1976) or some other histories. Less sure, Samuel Sewall's History of Woburn (1868) says the tribes north of the Charles were "perhaps Pawtucket Indians" or more probably Aberginians.

Lewis and his followers may have been influenced by the later 17th-century practice of calling Indians after the praying villages in which Christian converts were located. One village inhabited by the Massachusetts was at Natick, but another, used by both Pawtucketts and Massachusetts, was at Lowell. Though named Wamesit, it was sometimes referred to as Pawtuckett. Thus, a Massachusett could also be called a Pawtuckett.

A few other writers have identified Nanepashemet as a Naumkeag, a name identified with Salem and Marblehead, which were within his territory. According to Dudley, the Naumkeag were tributary to Chickataubut before 1630 and then to Nanepashemet's sons. Gookin, writing later, saw them mingled with the Pawtuckett at Wamesit and considered them allied with tribes to the north.

Of course, alliances and territories changed over time. After the devastations of the early 1600s, many Massachusetts reportedly fled the area and allied themselves with other tribes. They intermarried.

Neither the Pawtuckett or Massachusett tribes have survived to offer their traditions. Our information comes from European writers, who based their information on a variety of first- and second-hand experiences, much of which they could have misunderstood.

However identified, Nanepashemet was a sachem of a lost time, when his people were numerous and thriving. He was sachem of a now vanished tribe that might have been a real threat to the European colonization of Massachusetts. After him, his widow, the Squaw Sachem, and their eldest son befriended the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Those friendships opened the way for the settling of what became the town of Winchester.

Part 2

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