Appropriations of Native Identity: Pocahontas and the Last Wampanoag

Mary Ellen Lepionka

Frederick Mulhaupt (1871-1938) painted “Native American Life on Cape Ann” for the old Maplewood School in 1934. It was later moved to its current location at the O’Maley Middle School.

Erasure narratives, in which the Indians disappeared, reached even into science. Many early archaeologists and ethnologists believed that New England Indians were of little interest or consequence, not worthy of study. Archaeological sites in New England consisted only of shell heaps and burial grounds, paling in comparison to the monumental architectures of the Native civilizations of Mexico and South America. But the more the Indians were thought to have disappeared, the more people began to lament their loss. The “vanished Indian” was invented, and New Englanders began to exploit, and distort their memory. In the process, they misappropriated Native culture and identity.

Impersonating Indians and dressing up as Puritans and Indians became fashionable around the turn of the century. The history of English-Native relations had been reduced to iconic moments—deed signings and massacres. In the celebration of Gloucester’s 250th anniversary in 1892, Robert Pringle designed four horse-drawn floats with costumed actors frozen in significant poses: Samuel de Champlain warily greeting the Pawtucket on Rocky Neck in 1606; Roger Conant arbitrating the feud between Captain Hewes and Myles Standish on Fisherman’s Field in 1625; Samuel English, the “Last Sagamore of Agawam”, deeding Gloucester to the English in 1701; and Gloucester militiamen drawn up against the British in the War of Independence. Pringle also had a Myles Standish—diminutive red-bearded soldier with fiery temper and Napoleonic hauteur—circulating through the throngs of thrilled spectators with “Puritans and Savages” in tow.

Bicentennial celebrations throughout the Northeast included speeches in honor of someone in the community identified as the last Indian. In the 1890s Zerviah Gould Mitchell of Lakeville was billed as the “Last of the Wampanoags”, for example, despite the fact that she (a) was Mahican, not Wampanoag, and (b) had two daughters with descendants whose descendants are living to this day. Her designation as the last had to do with the concept of racial purity. To be authentically Indian you had to be pure-blooded.

Believing there were no more pure-blooded Indians left east of the Appalachians, beginning in the mid-19th century New Englanders developed a nostalgic, romantic craze for them. We got Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”, the Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper, and “The Bridal of Pennacook” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Henry David Thoreau canoed up the Concord and Merrimack. Monuments were erected in town parks throughout the Northeast in memory of famous Indians—Uncas, Canonicus, Miantonomo, Masconomet, Samoset, Squanto, Massasoit. Streets are named after them in Winniahdin (“In the vicinity of the heights”), a neighborhood on Little River in West Gloucester developed in the 1890s as a summer colony. No less than twelve statues of Massasoit stand in twelve different cities and towns, all eager to claim him for their own.

By 1900 it became popular to impersonate Indians on stage as well as in parades, in addition to writing romantic fiction harking back to the days when there were Indians. Most notably, the famous actor Edwin Forrest played Metamora, “the Last Wampanoag” in a melodrama about the vanished Indians. Metamora toured internationally and was a sellout equivalent to Hamilton today.

Appropriations of Native identity were not new. Pocahontas, for example, first appears in a 17th-century engraving by Simon de Passe as a dour Englishwoman-by-marriage (to John Rolfe in Virginia Colony). Then, in an anonymous 19th-century etching she is a chaste but ravishing (or ravished) beauty holding a calumet (peace pipe). Now, in a 21st century Disney cel she appears as a competent, liberated, athletic (but still sexy) girl. As in Snow White, forest animals and little birds adore her.

The acme (or perhaps the nadir) of appropriation was the Improved Order of Red Men (IORM), a fraternal organization and secret society for white men that spread in the late 19th century. Their stated intentions were to preserve beliefs and values of the vanished Indian and his way of life. It involved organizing as a tribe, meeting at council fires, and dressing up as Indians. Until the mid-1900s actual Indians, blacks, those of mixed race, immigrants, and the unemployed were not allowed to join.

On parade in Gloucester’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1892 were IORM Wingaersheek Tribe No. 12 of Gloucester, Wonasquam Tribe No. 23 and Winnekoma Council Daughters of Pocahontas No. 41 of Rockport, Chebacco Tribe No. 93 of Ipswich, Ontario Tribe No. 103 of Wenham, Manataug Tribe No. 1 of Marblehead, Naumkeag Tribe No. 3 of Salem, Masconomo Tribe No. 11 of Peabody, Chickataubut Tribe No. 13 of Beverly, Passaqui Tribe No. 27 of Haverhill, Taratine Tribe No. 24 of Swampscott, and three tribes from Lynn: Sagamore Tribe No. 2, Winnepurkit Tribe No. 55, and Poquanum Tribe No. 105. In “Degree of Pocahontas” parade floats, white women in the IORM women’s axillary impersonated squaws.

The Improved Order of Red Men

The Red Men remained active on Cape Ann—I remember them in parades when I was a child—perhaps you do too–with black braided wigs, mysterious loincloths, bloodied tomahawks. They made war whoops, and we would shriek. They would prowl on the fringes of parades and menace onlookers, pretending to scalp the boys at the curb, taking pretty girls captive. They would reach into the crowd and grab the girl, tie her hands or put a rope around her neck, and force her to walk a ways in the parade before letting her escape. (I shudder now to recall how badly I wanted to be that girl.)

The IORM movement did not start to wane until the 1950s as the American Indian Movement began. Wingaersheek Tribe No.12 of Gloucester was not officially disbanded until 2009. Participants thought they were preserving the best of authentic Native American culture when they more often were passing on distorted and mythologized interpretations of Native history and culture and perpetuating the narratives of erasure. The wrong stories and stereotypes even became enshrined in our social institutions. Charles Allan Winter’s beautiful mural in Kyrouz Auditorium in Gloucester City Hall, created in 1934—the masthead for “Enduring Gloucester”—features a solitary seated “naked” Indian smoking a peace pipe, no doubt representing legendary Pawtucket neutrality toward the English throughout Agawam during the colonial period.

Elsewhere in City Hall, Frederick Mulhaupt’s mural misrepresents the Indians while meaning to commemorate them as a part of Gloucester’s history. No Pawtucket ever dressed like that or had pots and blankets decorated thus, nor did they ever conduct trade with Vikings. (Actually, there is not a shred of evidence that Northmen ever set foot here, and Thorvald is not buried on the Back Shore. Robert Pringle and others promulgated this idea during the Viking craze of the 1890s, while earlier histories of Cape Ann do not mention them at all—but that is another whole story.)

Meanwhile, Mulhaupt can be forgiven for artistic license and not knowing better. We must all be forgiven, I think. We are all products of our time and place and cannot be held accountable for what happened in the past. Plus, most people in any time and place don’t really know what’s happening to them most of the time or understand how their actions and beliefs are shaping human history. We can only be responsible for how we respond once we figure it out. As FDR says in the legend under the Kyrouz Auditorium mural, we must build for tomorrow.

Pocahontas (1910 silent film)

In our special place that is Gloucester, over the sweep of time, I see that in the first hundred years of contact colonists’ admiration for Native Americans as noble savages was replaced by fears of Englishmen becoming savages themselves and by derogatory views of Indians. The red man became the white man’s enemy and after that the white man’s burden as conquered people. Over the next hundred years, the narratives of erasure were written and acted upon. Then in the hundred years following their “disappearance”, Native Americans were remembered, lionized, impersonated. Native identity was appropriated and they became romantic heroes and victims in literature and in art. In the last 50 years New England Indians have been rediscovered as not so vanished after all, nor so romantic. I wonder what the next 50 years will bring.

Many Native Americans today are politically active. They have been risking rediscovering and redefining who they are–intent on language revival, cultural preservation, and the reconstitution of true communities, incorporating western as well as eastern expressions of Native culture. As a scientist and historian, I see great interest and consequence in this enterprise, certainly worthy of study. I think all our early literatures need to be reread, our histories rewritten, and new narratives put together for more accurate, integrated, truths. I wonder what that would look like—a history that integrates colonial and Native lives and events. Hmmm….

Cigar Store Indian Princess. Courtesy of Cape Ann Museum
Unknown Carver c. 1855
On display at H. C. Brown Tobacco Shop, Gloucester, from 1905 to 1945.



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.


The Wanaskwiwam Villagers: Where Did They Go?

Mary Ellen Lepionka July 20, 2017

Descendants with Hassanamesit Nipmuc Chief Cheryl Toney Holley in Mass.

Discovering a Native presence on Cape Ann during the Contact Period, I naturally wondered what had happened to them. On both their presence and their disappearance local Archives are mum, except to quote William Bradford of Plymouth and John Winthrop of Boston on the disease that decimated Native populations prior to 1620 and again in the first smallpox epidemic of 1633. Winthrop wrote in 1629: “God hathe consumed the natives with a miraculous plague, whereby a great part of the country is left voyde of inhabitants.” So it has been easy ever since just to say that the Indians had all died off before the English settled here.

But medical sources estimate a survival rate of 75 percent for the first disease (leptospirosis) on the North Shore and points north, mainly because people moved inland to avoid contact–above the fall line on rivers contaminated with the bacteria and away from its animal carriers. Also, in the north, about half the people survived the first smallpox epidemic and subsequently experienced population recovery because of acquired immunity. Survivors of the epidemic of 1633 had a higher chance of surviving subsequent exposures and passing on resistance to their offspring. Although there was a great “dying off,” there had to be more to the story.

When I got to the State Archives, the more I learned the more questions I had. If the Indians had disappeared, why are the records of the General Court and Governors and Indian Overseers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony so full of accounts, treaties, histories, policies, laws, decrees, deeds, and court cases pertaining to Native Americans? How could the 2010 U.S. Census report so many people living in Essex County identifying themselves as “American Indian/Alaska Native”? Could they have included living descendants of the Wanaskwiwam villagers and others of Masquenomenit’s people?

As it turns out, yes. Masquenomenit (Masconomet), Nanepashemet, Pappiseconewa (Passaconaway), Chickatawbut, Massasoit (Ousamequin) and the others all have living descendants. Some, with surnames Tyler, English, Wiser, Safford, Bent, Mitchell, to name a few, are living with Natick, Mashpee, Wampanoag, and Narraganset around Lakeville and Wareham, Cape Cod and the Islands. Others, Emertons for example, are from Gloucester. Jacqueline Emerton, known as Fire Woman, widow of Quiet Bear, was a matriarch of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki and the founder of the Inter-Tribal Council of Tolba Menahan. She organized the pow wows that took place here every August for years in Fisherman’s Field.

Fire Woman and Walking Fox

The pow wows were continued in Fire Woman’s honor after her death in 2004. The last was in 2012. The Council disbanded then and some of her family went to live with kin at the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin, where Indians from Massachusetts had been forced to relocate in compliance with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Removal Act called for forced migration of all Indians to lands west of the Mississippi. Pawtucket interned with Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, and Mahican families at the Stockbridge, Brotherton, and Schaghticoke reservations were moved to Wisconsin. At the same time, Pennacook-Pawtucket interned with Mohawk were absorbed into the Iroquois reservations in upstate New York and Canada, where they have living descendants today.

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I learned that the survival and resilience of the Native people who lived here took many paths. Some assimilated early. They fenced their farms and kept cattle and converted to Christianity. They spoke English and became literate. They apprenticed themselves to colonial trades and went to sea on English vessels. They indentured themselves to English families and adopted English names and intermarried. In 1650, for example, Great Tom of Quascacunquen (Kwaskwaikikwen) sold his 30-acre farm on the Parker River and indentured himself and his wife and children and their heirs and assigns for all time to William Gerish, Abraham Toppan, and Anthony Somerby of Newbury.

Those assimilating successfully did not live as Indians. They concealed their identities and became invisible, largely avoiding the terrible conflicts to come. Their descendants—except perhaps those with mail-order DNA kits—do not know who they are.

The later 17th century saw two major diasporas. The first was in 1676 during King Philip’s War (Metacomet’s Wampanoag War), when many Pawtucket in Essex County, unable to maintain neutrality, escaped en masse by canoe. They crossed the Merrimack River at Newburyport into New Hampshire and Maine. Some joined the Wabanaki resistance movement. Others sought refuge with former allies or with former traditional enemies. Some descendants of those Pawtucket are living today in Abenaki, Sokoki, Pequaket, Mississiquoi, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Malecite and Micmac communities in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Nova Scotia.

Descendants in New Hampshire

During and after King Philip’s War, captured survivors of many different cultural groups speaking different languages were thrown together in internment camps. Some were interned with Africans and shipped to Bermuda and Barbados as slaves. In 1676 Pennacook Indians and Africans were shipwrecked on St. David’s Island, for example, en route to a slave plantation in the Caribbean. They have living descendants on that island today.

Descendants on St. David’s Island

A second diaspora occurred in 1695 from the village of Wamesit (Lowell), a “Praying Indian” winter village where survivors of colonial military expeditions against the Indians had gathered for protection. Wamesit came under attack by local settlers, however, among them my own ancestors, who had founded Chelmsford in 1636. I try to imagine them as hardscrabble men incensed over gruesome Indian massacres in other towns they reached too late to defend. But I cannot. They scapegoated their ones at home. They set the wigwams ablaze and shot the people as they ran. Pawtucket who lived fled into the White Mountains and those who survived exposure reached sanctuary in St. Francis, Quebec. Their descendants are living there today with the Abenaki at Odanak and Becancour on the St. Lawrence River.

Descendants at Odanak

The 1690s is also the last recorded evidence of Indians in Gloucester until after the Civil War, except for the 1701 appearance of Masquenomenit’s grandchildren in General Court to receive Gloucester’s last payment for their land. Daniel Gookin, Indian Supervisor for the Mass. Bay Colony and a great protector of the Native people under his purview, died in 1687 and was greatly mourned by them. On a 1700 map, Essex County is triumphantly marked, “Cleared of Indians”.

Between 1689 and 1763, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony offered bounties on Indian scalps—men, women, and children—in an off-and-on campaign of state-sponsored genocide spanning three generations, a fact little known. Some Gloucester men, Andrew Robinson for example, enriched themselves in this way, especially during the French and Indian Wars when an enemy warrior’s scalp could fetch as much as 100 English pounds. Indian scalps were hung from the rafters of the Court House in Salem. They were taken down on the eve of Revolution only after barristers complained of unsightliness and falling dust.

As in any holocaust, survival depended either on escape and self-exile or invisibility. In this way, many Pawtucket and other Native people in New England gave up their homes and possessions, religion, language, culture, knowledge and skills, communities, gene pools, and identities as Native Americans. Today some descendants of Native Americans of the Northeast are working to reclaim or reinvent their remixed Native heritage. Theirs is a story of adaptation, resilience, and cultural creativity in the face of 400 years of persecution and catastrophic change. Times have changed, but prejudice and discrimination—and indifference—both casual and official are commonplace still.

There are pow wows in Beverly, Danvers, and Lowell. I asked the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness about having pow wows on Cape Ann again—you can now hire groups to lecture and perform—which is how I learned about Fire Woman. I’m told that Fire Woman’s people felt discouraged from trying to continue their pow wow tradition in Fisherman’s Field. The Council members had grown older, fewer, poorer—but in 2012 the City of Gloucester could not make an exception for them to be able to afford to park their campers and sell their crafts at Stage Fort Park.

You may remember that year’s howling and drumming as the loudest ever, lasting all night under Tablet Rock. But you did not hear it as appeals to the spirits of the ancestors of that place. And we did not know it would be the last public expression of Native culture on Cape Ann. Or is it?


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.