Mary Ellen Lepionka, June 13, 2017
Reading the unpublished notes of amateur archaeologist N. Carleton Phillips, which he wrote in preparation for his talks to the Gloucester Rotary Club back in 1940, I was struck by the great quantity of Indian artifacts he removed from Riverview—bushel baskets full of potsherds and arrowheads! I was studying the history of Cape Ann prior to English settlement. Phillips reported large shell middens at Curtis Cove and Wheeler’s Point and copious artifacts and features from a site just north of Pole Hill: post holes and hearths of wigwams, fire pits with faunal and pottery remains, caches with stone tools, and camps and human burials nearby.
Some of these finds are in the basement of the Cape Ann Museum as the Phillips Collection, others in the basement of the Robbins Museum of Archaeology in Middleborough as the Chadwick Collection. Phillips had been following up on earlier archaeological investigations, and I was intent on tracking them down.
Artifacts or site reports from amateur and pre-modern excavations, some dating back to the 1870s, include the Johnson-Speck records in the R. S. Peabody Museum in Andover, the Cape Ann Collections in the Harvard Peabody Museum and Peabody Essex Museum, the Gustav Heye Collection from the old Museum of the American Indian in New York, and private collections. Much evidence has also been lost.
I wondered if there really could have been a village at Riverview north of Pole Hill. The Gloucester Archives contains no references to an Indian village. Oddly, the Archives contain no primary sources on Native Americans here at all–other than a reference to the baptism of a Native servant by the name of Pompey, and a local census with a few names annotated in pencil as “Indian”! I found one curious note in the minutes of a 1682 Selectmen’s meeting in which they voted to ask the townspeople to distinguish local Indians from strange Indians (those displaced by King Philip’s War of 1675) in their dealings with the Natives, suggesting there may have been some vigilantism. By then things weren’t going well. In 1688 Massachusetts offered its first bounties on Indian scalps, an incentive that lasted off and on up to the War of Independence.
Elsewhere (in the basement of the Sandy Bay Historical Society in Rockport), I found Ebenezer Poole’s 1823 account of his grandfather’s testimony that there was a large Indian village in Riverview north of Pole Hill and that it often had as many as 20 or 30 wigwams! But there seemed to be some question about the reliability of both accounts. Other than that, there were a few residents’ reminiscences and newspaper notices of Native Americans making pilgrimages to Cape Ann during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but no other references to a village.
Then I found John Dunton’s letter of 1686. Dunton was a London bookseller who had sailed to Ipswich to prospect for new markets for his books. He wrote home about his overland trip to Gloucester in which he observed a funeral in a woe-begone Indian village by the name of Wonasquam! (In addition to describing the Indian village, he observed that most of the people on Cape Ann were illiterate and had no use for books.) But there was some question about the veracity of Dunton’s description, which sounded a lot like Roger Williams description of an Algonquian funeral in Rhode Island. I questioned the critic, though. Why wouldn’t two different accounts of the same ceremony sound similar? I also wondered if Wonasquam was the source word for Annisquam. I’d chanced upon the information that there was a Hotel Wonasquam in Annisquam sometime in the 1800s.
I did some exploring and found that Riverview is a north-south aligned terrace flanked by two tidal rivers, Mill River to the east and the larger Annisquam River to the west. The terrace is about two and a half kilometers long and one kilometer wide at its widest point at mid-tide and contains freshwater springs and patches of wetland and two hills. The place has water access to two other rivers, Little River and Jones River to the west, and to the islands, salt and fresh marshes, clam flats, natural harbors, and beaches of Essex Bay, Ipswich Bay, and Massachusetts Bay.
An ideal place for a Native village if ever there was one. According to state archaeologists, the criteria for the siting of pre-Contact coastal Native villages in Massachusetts include the following characteristics:
- Partly submerged terrace on an outflow plain.
- At the junction of two or more tidal rivers.
- Less than an 8-degree slope.
- Within 1,000 ft. of permanent fresh water.
- Southwest-facing intervales of stratified, undisturbed, fertile soil.
- Abundant nearby sources of wood for fuel.
- North-facing soft earth overlooking water, for burials.
- Rock outcrops for wind and sea protection, defensive positions, and astronomical reckoning.
Riverview, north of Pole Hill, met every criterion. In addition to location, the estuarine environments all around Riverview would have been optimal for human habitation. Shellfish would have provided a year-round supply of easily obtained high-quality animal protein. In addition, fish, eels, land and sea fowl, marine mammals, and large and small game would have been continuously available. Equally important, the site would have had the following subsistence and cultural resources:
- Salt marsh, fresh marsh, permanent fresh water.
- Forests for fuel, wood, fibers, nuts, herbs, fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants.
- Tidal rivers/bays for marsh plants, canoe access, clay deposits, trade routes.
- Fertile riverine soils in upland intervales and beaver meadows for crops.
- Abundant rocks, minerals, and gemstones.
For most of the Woodland Period, the people in what is now Essex County migrated seasonally between inland winter villages and the coast. Upon reaching their summer sites, the people would set their fishing nets and then plant corn. However, at some time prior to direct European Contact, probably before the 15th century, some Algonquians were practicing more intensified agriculture and living on the coast year round. Cape Ann would easily have supported a population of at least 1,500 people at a subsistence level and probably more than twice that with the addition of agriculture.
Abundant diverse subsistence resources, reliable shellfish, and corn harvests with preserved surpluses would have supported increases in population, population stability, and more permanent settlement. Other major coastal villages in Massachusetts with the same siting criteria and environmental characteristics are known to have existed, for example, in Ipswich, Newbury, and Beverly.
It was not until I was reconstructing local Native place names based on the Abenaki language that I came across stronger documentary evidence for a village at Riverview. I was looking for the derivations and meanings of Annisquam and Wonasquam and discovered their common source in Wenesquawam, which in reconstructed Abenaki would be written Wanaskwiwam, which means “End of the marsh.” It’s an apt name. Geographically, Cape Ann is at the end of the Great Marsh that starts on the New Hampshire coast and stretches south along the Gulf of Maine.
Wenesquawam is attested in a pre-1603 document known as the Edgerton Manuscript, discovered in the archives of King Charles II in the British Library in London. The title of the document, probably a result of data gathering for James I or possibly even Queen Elizabeth before him, is Ye Names of Ye Rivers and Ye Sagamores Yt Inhabit Upon Them. It gives the Native names of all the rivers between the Penobscot and the Annisquam, noting that the river names are synonymous with the names of the principal villages found on them. The explorer, whoever he was, identified the Annisquam River and its village as Wenesquawam. (He missed the Merrimac, Parker, and Rowley rivers, probably because their mouths are concealed by the barrier beaches of Plum Island.)
So there really was an Indian village in Riverview north of Pole Hill! The people were gathering shellfish there and growing corn in Riverdale and burying their dead in Annisquam. And when John Endicott had surveys done to lay out the first house lots in Gloster Plantation, he referred to “the hoed land”—the land the Native Americans at Wanaskwiwam had already prepared for cultivation.
Now I had three new questions to try to solve. First, where did the people at Wanaskwiwam observe the sky and reckon ceremonial time? According to ethnographic accounts from the late 17th century to early 20th century, large Native villages in New England always had one or more nearby sites that served as astronomical observatories. Skywatching is a universal cultural feature among the first peoples of the Americas. Second, what happened to the people at Wanaskwiwam? Where did they go? And third, why ever didn’t we know about them and their village in Riverview?
- Pole Hill.
- After a generation, they left under duress and became part of the Pennacook diaspora to northern New England and Canada, where they have living descendants today.
- The politics of the archives, in which state-sponsored genocide was concealed by erasing public memory of its victims.
Mary Ellen Lepionka lives in East Gloucester and is studying the history of Cape Ann from the Ice Age to around 1700 A.D. for a book on the subject. She is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with degrees in anthropology. She studied at Boston University and the University of British Columbia and has performed archaeology in Ipswich, MA, Botswana, Africa, and at Pole Hill in Gloucester, MA. Mary Ellen is a trustee of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, serves on the Gloucester Historical Commission, and volunteers for Friends of Dogtown, Annisquam Historical Society, and Maud/Olson Library.