By Mary Ellen Lepionka
Histories are benchmarked with turning points—significant events that change all that follows. In large and small ways they affect the lives of persons, nations, species. A turning point for me in my work on Cape Ann’s past was discovering how subjective history is, a hard fact for a truth-seeker. Native people did not write history at first. The English, therefore, thought they had none, nothing of significance anyway, and barely mention them in town records. But in scraps of ancient texts and translations, I had found a long, rich, Native history—a kind of parallel universe. Was there a way to bridge the disconnect between the histories of Cape Ann’s early English settlers and the Native people living here at the time?
I decided to look at a single year—and chose 1644, which had turning points for both the Indians and the colonists. The colonists had just made the Cut connecting Ipswich Bay with Massachusetts Bay via the Annisquam River. They built the first cut bridge, the first meetinghouse on the green, and the first mill at Alewife Brook. Gloster Plantation had become a town, and it was a happening place. The first fishing vessel was built and launched. Ten Pound Island was reserved for rams. People were not allowed to cut trees without permission of the town proprietors. Mandatory church attendance was in effect as well as mandatory drills for men on the military training field adjacent to Meetinghouse Green. Towns were supposed to admit Indians to church services, but a decree of the General Court of the Mass. Bay Colony in 1644 barred them from randomly entering towns or townspeople’s homes without invitation.
In 1644 fishermen were not allowed to fish on Sundays, a frustration that contributed to the downfall of Rev. Richard Blynman, who had control of the Cut, Cut Ferry, and Cut Bridge in lieu of pay as the town minister. The minister was unpopular also as a Puritan hardliner in a town containing Pilgrims and freethinkers as well as fishermen. Records of the Circuit Court in Salem and the Court of Assistants in Ipswich include several cases of Gloster men being whipped and/or fined for blasphemy against Rev. Blynman. He and his party left or were driven out a few years later, including the first Town Clerk, Obadiah Bruen, appointed in 1644 after the General Court decreed that all towns must keep vital records.
In 1644 Masquenomenit (Masconomet)—hereditary sagamore of Kwaskwaikikwen (Newbury), Agawam (Ipswich), Wanaskwiwam (Cape Ann), and Nahumkeak (Beverly-Salem)—was also in Circuit Court at Salem. He was there on March 8 with leaders of remnants of the Massachuset and Pennacook confederations. There was Cutchamakin of Neponset, brother of the late grand sachem Chicatawbut, lost in the smallpox epidemic of 1633, and Josias Chickatawbut of Nonantum, the late grand sachem’s grandson. There was Nashacowam of Nashua, New Hampshire, a Pennacook, and Wassamagin of Wachuset, a Nipmuck. And there was Squaw Sachem, tributary to Pappiseconewa (Passaconaway) of the Pennacook and widow of Nanepashemet—late grand sachem of the Pawtucket Confederation of Abenakis.
Squaw Sachem—her name was never recorded—had lost two of her three Christianized sons in the smallpox epidemic of 1633 and in 1639 had sold Cambridge, Watertown, Newton, Arlington, Somerville, and Charlestown to the English. She and her surviving son, Wenepoykin (disfigured by smallpox and known to the English as George No-Nose and later as George Rumney-Marsh) soon also sold the land that became Lynn, Saugus, Revere, Medford, Wakefield, Woburn, Stoneham, and Winchester. They threw in their lot with Passaconaway, who himself appeared in the Circuit Court at Salem the following year to add his signatory mark to the Oath of 1644.
In 1644 John Endicott was Governor of the Mass. Bay Colony and John Winthrop was Deputy Governor. Winthrop’s son, John Jr. was preparing to return to New London as founder of Connecticut Colony and to his new wife, having lost his young first wife and child in childbirth at Ipswich ten years before. In 1644 he gave Castle Hill, which Masquenomenit had deeded to him in 1637, to his brother-in-law Samuel Symonds, Deputy Governor of Ipswich. In 1644 the General Court voted to allocate 100 pounds to build up the nearby fort on Castle Island, lying just north of Hog (Choate) Island on Castle Neck River. The fort was to receive the benefit of 150 tons of lumber from Nantasket, a garrison, artillery, and a commander.
That was Masquenominet’s fort. The Sagamore had invited the English to occupy it—to help defend the Pawtucket from their enemies. Pawtucket enemies were the Tarrantines, mainly Micmac and Maliseet from Nova Scotia and the Canadian Maritimes. They annually raided Pawtucket farms for corn, which would not grow at their latitudes. They also abducted women and carried out intergenerational blood vengeance. It was for vengeance that in 1631 one hundred Tarrantines had come down the coast in canoes (another account says it was one hundred canoes) to attack Masquenomenit at Castle Hill. In another attack the following year a dozen Englishmen from Charlestown exploring in the vicinity, including John Winthrop Jr., came to Masquenomenit’s aid just in time to prevent a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Tarrantines. Masquenomenit had sold Castle Hill and his farm on Argilla Road to the English in gratitude and subsequently encouraged them to settle Ipswich. For the English, it was a chance to prevent further French incursions down the coast on the Gulf of Maine.
In 1644 William Stevens was Gloucester’s Deputy to the General Court. He had also been appointed to a three-man “Commission for Ending Small Causes” (i.e., handling local complaints). The Court insisted on Stevens’ participation because he was elected by the townspeople. Gloucester had sent the Town Clerk Obadiah Bruen in Stevens’ place, because Stevens was one of those unfortunate citizens who had expressed disapproval of the interpretation of the gospel being offered by the controversial pastor Richard Blynman (and who also stood accused of anti-royalist sentiment). The General Court wasn’t having any of Gloucester’s politics, however, and insisted that the rightfully elected Deputy attend. Stevens was at Circuit Court in Salem on March 8 and witnessed the signing of the Oath of 1644. I wonder what he thought of the six Indian “chiefs” with their retinues.
They had come to petition the Court, to place themselves under the protection of the English. That protection, against both the Tarrantines and the increasingly unfriendly colonists, came at a price. They had to swear that they “voluntarily & without any constraint or persuasion, but of our own free motion, put ourselves, our subjects, Lands, and estates under the Government and [will be] protected by them according to their just laws.” They also had to swear an oath to accept certain conditions, expressed in the following nine questions, put to them by the Puritan cleric Richard Mather, who recorded their answers.
- Will you worship the only true God, who made heaven and earth, and not blaspheme?
- Ans: “We do desire to reverence the God of the English and to speak well of Him, because we see He doth better to the English, than other gods do to others.”
- Will you cease from swearing falsely?
- Ans: “We know not what swearing is.”
- Will you refrain from working on the Sabbath, especially within the bounds of Christian towns?Ans: “It is easy to us, — we have not much to do any day, and we can well rest on that day.”
- Will you honor your parents and all your superiors?
- Ans: “It is our custom to do so, — for inferiors to honor superiors.”
- Will you refrain from killing any man without just cause and just authority?
- Ans: “This is good, and we desire so to do.”
- Will you deny yourselves fornication, adultery, incest, rape, sodomy, buggery, or bestiality?
- Ans [after some explanation]: “Though some of our people do these things occasionally, yet we count them naught and do not allow them.”
- Will you deny yourselves stealing?
- Ans: “We say the same to this as to the 6th question.”
- Will you allow your children to learn to read the word of God, so that they may know God aright and worship him in his own way?
- Ans: “We will allow this as opportunity will permit, and, as the English live among us, we desire so to do.”
- Will you refrain from idleness?
- Ans: “We will.”
To seal the deal the six sagamores and sachems paid 26 fathoms of wampum (that amounts to a minimum of 6,240 shell beads, roughly 624 colonial dollars in value), essentially buying protection by paying tribute. Wampum was legal tender in Mass. Bay Colony at that time for both colonists and Indians. In turn, each “chief” was given 2 yards of red woolen cloth and a pot of wine. The Puritan ministers wrote home to England that a new age of spreading the gospel among the Indians had begun. And the Indians went home with the news that a new age of coexistence had begun under the justice of English laws.
So 1644 was a turning point in Cape Ann history for all its peoples, even if things didn’t turn out as expected, or perhaps because of that. Turning points can be thrilling, uplifting, or horrifying, and the actors heroes, villains, or fools. However subjective, one thing rings true to me about history: It is strange, and as a body of personal narratives, nothing if not sad.
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 and serves on the Gloucester Historical Commission.