In the annals of native/colonist relations, little can be objectively known about the true nature of the interactions between the English settlers of Eastern Massachusetts and the tribe that “welcomed” them, the Wampanoag. The record is one-sided and dominated by the English and their system of deeds, genealogies, written records and literature. This has led to the perpetuation of the pleasant myth of Wampanoag welcoming and cooperating with the Pilgrims, a myth created in the 19th century in a burst of American patriotism and nostalgia which lives on in the quaint concept of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast.
The Wampanoag now regard Thanksgiving as a day of mourning, and, thanks to recent scrutiny of the actual historical record, it’s apparent the tribe are the forgotten first victims of the American “dream.”
If, as Churchill said, “history is written by the victors,” the Wampanoags left little in the way of a written record of their relations and feelings towards the colonists. They had no written language, only their Algonquin dialect, and no historical tradition beyond the spoken word and creation myths.
The discovery and re-publication of a unique account written by a member of the Connecticut Pequot tribe, William Apes (Apess), has revealed the earliest autobiography in American literature by a native, as well as cast some light on a little known incident that took place 180 years ago on the Wampanoag “reservation” or “praying town” of Mashpee, near its border with the village of Cotuit, is a little known historical incident that occurred 180 years ago, in a wood lot near the Santuit River between a group of angry Wampanoag natives, two brothers from Cotuit, and an alcoholic activist preacher, Apess.
Variously known as the Woodlot Revolt or the “Quarrel” (as Cotuit historian Jim Gould refers to it), it has been dusted off by historians and held up in recent years as the first significant expression of sovereign rights by a native tribe since contact with the colonists occurred more than 200 years before. The preacher, William Apes (who preferred the pronunciation “Apess”) was an eloquent and graceful writer, who’s work, “A Native of the Forest” has been republished in recent years and is regarded as one of the most important pieces of literature penned by a native writer.
Before I rush to an account of the events that happened that hot July day in 1833, let me set the historical table with a quick summary of how Mashpee, our conterminous neighbor to the west, came to be, and attempt to convey a sense of what relations were between the whites of Cotuit and the natives of the Plantation of Marshpee.
Before the English, with their love of deeds and records and certificates of birth, marriage and death, came to these shores, the history of the Wampanoag tribe — which means “Children of the Eastern Light” in their Algonquin dialet, Wopanaak — was purely an oral one, with no record left except the traditions and stories told by one generation to the next. Like their comprehension of private property, boundary lines and fishing rights, the Wampanoag sense of history was passed from one generation to the next through word of mouth and shared understanding.
In 1643, the Pilgrim’s military “muscle”, Captain Miles Standish, came to Cape Cod to buy land from the natives for the colonists. Land was everything to the Europeans. Land meant status, land meant class, land conferred rights that serfs and peassants could only dream of. In Europe land was inherited or conquered, rarely bought and sold, and the allure of the virgin forests of New England must have been breathtaking to the first settlers who saw before them as limitless wilderness that was theirs to take for a mere kettle and a ho.
Yes, Standish negotiated the transaction with the Wampanoag leader Paupmunnuck that gave the English the rights to settle Cotachester (modern Osterville) and Cotuit for the price of a kettle, a ho, and a promise to build a fence around the Wampanoag camp which may have been located on Oyster Harbors or Point Isabella according to Jim Gould.
The borders were blurry.. Surveyors were a luxury and boundaries and limits were rough descriptions of streams and boulders, landmarks and limits. Little was written down and put on file, and indeed, Paupmunnuck and his people may not have comprehended what such a transaction meant, especially when it came to concepts such as trespassing to a people accustomed to moving from camp to camp with the seasons, moving inland in the winter for shelter and to the coast in the summer for the same reasons we prize the shore today.
The western border between Barnstable and the Indians was set along the banks of the Santuit River and Santuit Pond. Such “rivers” or streams were incredibly valuable sources of protein when the herring run happened every spring, and were also potential sources of power to drive grist mills for the grinding of corn.
The settlers may have regarded the Santuit River as a convenient source of these things, but the Wampanoags told the story of how it was created by a frustrated giant man-sized trout named , who upon hearing the siren song of a beautiful Wampanoag maiden singing on the shores of Santuit Pond, thrashed and wriggled his way through the forest from Popponesset Bay to find her, only to die just yards from his doomed love. She was also transformed into a fish, but died of grief and both of them buried together in the Trout Mound which stands today a short distance to the south and east of the herring ladders at the southern end of Santuit Pond.
This area of Mashpee and Santuit is where the rest of this story is focused so let’s focus on the map for a moment.
Mashpee was formed in the 1660s by Richard Bourne of Sandwich, a prominent lawyer and minister who was part of the early missionary movement led by John Eliot — the minister who translated the Bible into Wopanaak — and which led to the founding of Harvard College as a so called “Indian School.” The conversion of the savages was an immediate priorty of the first settlers, and Bourne acted as a liason between the whites of this area and the tribe, administering to them during an epidemic where his survival conferred some god-like attributes in the eyes of the natives, and working on their behalf to acquire land in around the area to establish a “plantation” for their benefit.
In 1660 Bourne completed the purchase of the 16 square miles that roughly comprise Mashpee and established a deed which granted the land to the Wampanoags with restrictions on their ability to sell that land to the English who were always hot for land and indeed, were beginning to trespass and poach on the lands Standish didn’t buy in 1648. Bourne addressed the fuzziness of the western border between Barnstable and Mashpee, and at his insistence the boundaries were re-set to move the line around the “ancient Indian” village at the southeast corner of the pond.
In 1661 a meetinghouse for the tribe was built on Briant’s Point on the southern end of Santuit Pond. This was replaced by another structure in 1670 , the same building that was eventually moved in 1770 to its present site on Route 28, the Old Falmouth Road.
In 1670 tensions between the settlers and the tribe deteriorated — with the Wampanoag leader Metacomet, or “King Philip” as he was called by the colonists, leading the Wampanoags from their headquarters on Mount Hope Bay near modern Bristol, RI on a three year war of burnings, kidnappings, and terror that swept eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island but never involved Cape Cod.
Mashpee was viewed as the prototypical “Praying Town” — one where the influence of the missionaries and the conversion process into Xhristianity was sufficiently advanced that the tribe could be trusted. One can only assume the level of tension and emotions that ranged along the border of Cotuit and Mashpee during those tense years, marked in American history as perhaps the bloodiest per capita according to the historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his excellent history, “The Mayflower.”
Post war, as the colonists enacted a terrible retribution against the Wampanoags, resettling large numbers on Bermuda, while permitting alcohol to further erode their numbers, the missionaries resumed their conversions and ministrations, using the institution of the Congregational Church and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel as the civilizing center of life in Marshpee. Because the focus of the Harvard Indian College was the training and ordination of native ministers, the college played an integral role, a very paternalistic one, in overseeing the affairs of the village.
This paternalism persisted throughout the 1700s, manifesting itself in a combination of church and state — in this case church and colony — oversight consisting of a board of white overseers who looked after the affairs of the tribe, raised money to pay its expenses and provided the funds to pay the salary of the minister, the parsonage and meetinghouse.
To be continued …