Part 2 – The Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1833

(continued from part one)

The sovereign status of the Wampanoag tribe who lived in “Marshpee Plantation,” the praying town established for their benefit by Richard Bourne, is a fascinating story that persists in its telling through modern times as the tribe fought for Federal recognition, its ancestral lands, and its own cultural identity.

In the 18th century, in the aftermath of the King Philip War of 1675, the Wampanoags who lived in Mashpee were joined by members of other tribes, all seeking a community with a common language and practices. The tribe was making a transition from its traditional wetu style of hunter-gather living, moving between winter and summer encampments to seek shelter from the blizzards inland and to be near shellfish during the summer months. The English system of private property and the colonists’ insatiable appetite for land  had boxed the tribe into the space defined for them by Richard Bourne, an arrangement known as an “entailment” that forbid the sale of any lands to outsiders without the unanimous consent of the tribe. The Church, so crucial to the formation of the concept of a “Praying Town,” continued to be the dominant social structure in Mashpee, pushing the tribe’s members to adopt English dress, learn English, convert to Christianity and integrate themselves with their non-native neighbors.

That “integration” led to some deplorable practices ranging from “debt slavery” where the Wampanoag were put into the debt of English merchants or farmers and then pressed into forced indenture to work those debts down to a general racism that . The practice of debt enslavement became so acute that the native preacher Simon Popmonet (a descendant of the sachem Paupmunnuck) complained to the legislature about the terrible practice which saw children and elderly alike pressed into unpaid labor. It was noted that a father and son, working off a debt, worked as a crew of a Nantucket whaling ship and for two consecutive three-year voyages forfeited their entire wages to the ship’s owners as part of their debt service.

The Anglicization of the tribe, the conversion to Christianity, the impact of war (many Wampanoags fought in the Revolutionary War), the terrible effects of alcohol and the high mortality of the whale fishery cut deeply into the male population. The gender imbalance —  brought about the lasting after effects of the post-war retributions (a large number of Wampanoags were forcibly relocated to Bermuda), the impact of the Nantucket whaling fishery, and the general violent, short life-span of a 17th century male — left a void in the Mashpee society. Widows turned to the church and the tribe’s members began to intermarry with members of other tribes, African-Americans, even Hessian mercenaries who made their way to Mashpee after the end of the Revolutionary War.

The tribe that remained, several hundred at most, clustered together in three settlements — one near Ashumet Pond, another near the shores of Santuit Pond, and a third near Nantucket Sound and South Cape Beach. There was no form of government aside from the traditional tribal structure of sachems and sagamores. The rulers of the tribe were a board of white overseers, appointed first by Harvard College who provided for the tribe’s religious needs by educating and sending it a succession of ministers, and then the State. No Wampanoag served on the board of overseers. The overseers provided the tribe with a succession of preachers — all Congregational, the prevalent denomination of the English and the faith of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the early movement led by Jonathan Edwards and John Eliot to convert “the poor blind Indians in New-England.”

The center of the tribe’s life was a meeting house constructed in the late 1670s after the conclusion of King Philip’s War on Briant’s Neck on the southern shore of Santuit Pond, not far from the ancient tribal village, herring run on the Santuit River, and the mound of the Trout Grave. The building was built by Richard Bourne’s son, Shearhashaub with the construction funded by the Williams Fund of Harvard College, the primary source of funds for the religious needs of Mashpee through the 19th century. The meetinghouse was rebuilt at one point, and in 1717 it was moved by oxcart to its present location on Route 28, the old Falmouth-Barnstable road about one mile west of the Santuit River, on a hill above the Mashpee River.

The pastors and preachers of Mashpee were:

  1. Richard Bourne, 1670-1685
  2. Simon Popmonet, 1685-1729
  3. Joseph Bourne, 1729-1742
  4. Gideon Hawley, 1758-1807
  5. Phineas Fish, 1808-1833
  6. “Blind Joe” Amos, 1810-1836
  7. William Apess, 1833-1835

The last of the ministers subsidized by Harvard’s Williams Fund was Phineas Fish. He and his predecessors were provided for by the Corporation of Harvard College and were given the rights to a woodlot on the eastern side of town, a common parsonage arrangement in colonial times that permitted the minister to gain an income beyond the collection plate by selling pasturage or logging rights to others. That woodlot would prove to be the flash point of this story.

The 1700s were a time of complaint and friction by the Indians of Mashpee against the incursions of the white settlers that surrounded them on three sides. Delegations were sent to Boston to complain about debt slavery, white squatters, trespassing on Indian lands and other grievances. In 1762, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College,  one might assume as a guest of the recently installed Hawley. In his journal he placed the population of Mashpee at 250, consisting of about 75 families scattered throughout the plantation living in “about 60 wigwams (Wetus) and 6 houses.” The Stiles map shows there was no village or other definiable concentrations of population, though there were pockets around Ashumet Pond, Santuit Pond and South Cape. The dwellings on Stiles map approximate the location of the so-called “ancient-ways” – the early paths. 

Campisi writes in The Mashpee Indians, Tribe on Trial, “The map supports the view that the Mashpees were geographically, as well as socially isolated from the white settlers. The bulk of their residents as well as the church, the principal meeting place, were on the south side of the plantation.”

The parsonage, or home of the minister was located near the present day intersections of Route 28 and Route 130 near the Santuit River/Santuit line. Gideon Hawley’s home is near the gas station on the northwest corner of the intersection, located on a slice of land that the old maps indicates was actually part of Sandwich (for reasons unknown to this writer, along with another piece designated as Sandwich near where the Santuit River pours into Shoestring Bay. Phineas Fish, the minister who succeeded Hawley, made his home a bit to the north, just south of the Trout Mound.

Phineas Fish is the key player in the factors that led to the Woodlot Revolt of 1833.  After graduating from Harvard in 1807 he was appointed as the official missionary and Congregationalist Minister of Mashpee by the overseers in 1809. He was granted an annual salary of $520, a $350 “settlement” fee and “as much meadow and pasture land, as shall be necessary to winter and summer.” According to Donald Nielsen in The Mashpee Indian Revolt of 1833, “The sale of wood from the parsonage woodlot brought him several hundred dollars more each year. Fish was assured a comfortable living on Mashpee land with money designated to help the Indians, yet he was in no way accountable to his Indian flock.”

The Reverend Fish was not popular with the Indians. As non-tribal residents came into town and intermarried with the old Wampanoag familes, they brought with them new denominations that threatened the Congregationalist hold over the Plantation. By the time Fish arrived in Mashpee the tribe had shifted their religious allegiances to the Baptists and an Indian preacher named Blind Joe Amos. Fish, from his pulpit in the Indian’s Meetinghouse, ministered to an increasingly white-flock, most of whom (one can assume) were residents of Cotuit. In reflecting on the Indian’s tergiversation from his ministry, Fish wrote that he had “survived” as many as seven different sectarian preachers and “felt pain in seeing these good houses used for the purposes of Baptist and Methodist meetings….the sectarian busy bodies now feel quite sure of demolishing the remnant of Congregationalism…Religion should be respectable and orderly. The Indians are given to excitement and revivalism.”

Blind Joe Amos

Fish’s religious differences and take over of the Meetinghouse was only one reason his presence in the town caused the tribe to resent him. A particular sore point was his decision to lease the logging rights of the woodlot to two Cotuit brothers, the Sampsons.

Thoreau in his account of his walk down the sandy peninsula, Cape Cod, wrote of the deforested wasteland that was the Cape in the 19th century. Deforestation to fuel the Sandwich Glass factory, to speed the evaporation of sea water for the production of sea salt, and the general sparse sandy soil made trees a premium on Cape Cod in the 19th century. Cut off from commerce, its economy based on fish, shellfish, the harvesting of salt hay, and the employment of its men as whalers and sailors, a commodity as basic as a cord of fire wood was a very valuable asset. The overseers of Mashpee “do not allow more wood to be carried to market, than can be spared; but it is for the general interest, that three or four hundred cords should be annual exported to Nantucket and other places.”

Old photographs of the Cotuit waterfront show immense stacks of cordwood on piers awaiting loading on packet schooners bound for Nantucket. Cordwood Lane which leads through the woods of Eagle Pond to Cotuit’s Inner Harbor is one vestige of the old cordwood trade. Grand Island or Oyster Harbors, was long a woodlot worked to supply Nantucket’s insatiable demand for fuel. If Thoreau found Cape Cod devoid of trees, then Nantucket was bald, a sandy moor that demanded huge amounts of wood for the whaling ships that needed to render whale blubber into whale oil on the big brick tryworks that sat amidships. Cotuit was perfectly positioned navigationally as the port of preference for the wood trade. With the prevailing breezes from the southwest in the summer and the northeast in the winter, a schooner could make the 25 mile voyage across Nantucket Sound on a single tack in each direction. The Reverend Fish’s woodlot, a scant two miles from Cotuit Bay, was perfectly positioned to supply that trade. The overseers had no problem with opening up Mashpee’s natural bounties to the whites, most of whom harbored resentment of the riches left untouched inside of Richard Bourne’s Praying Town. The overseers rented lands inside of Mashpee’s borders to the whites for the grazing of livestock, they auctioned off wood shares, permitted fishing and shellfishing on its streams and ponds, and, in Nielsen’s words, “the overseers believed there was plenty for all.”

(to be continued in part 3)




Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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