Mashpee: A Question of Fact vs. Fiction

Who greeted the Pilgrims?
What claim do Mashpee Wampanoag have to Middleborough?

By James P. Lynch, Historical Consulting and Research Archives LLC

In the shortest, yet most instructive of his published writings, "History: Remembered, Recovered and Invented," the eminent historian Bernard Lewis wrote of three different types of history that confronts the contemporary reader in the various media.

Wampanoag country in 1600In his 1972 book, Professor Lewis noted that "critical [recovered] history begins with dissatisfaction with memory and a desire to remedy its deficiencies." Invention, he wrote, passes over recovered history and resorts to the "embellishment" of the past," which "influences inscriptions and chronicles, monographs and textbooks, and all the other media used to project an image and present a case."   (The map on right shows the range of the various sub-tribes of the Wampanoags in 1600)

It is to certain "inventions" of Mashpee history this essay will address: that the Mashpee are Wampanoag, greeted the Pilgrims when they landed at Plymouth in 1620; and have historical and cultural ties to the lands in the town of Middleboro.

Historically there was never a Wampanoag tribe

 How does a historical "invention" contrast with historical fact? Let's start with the question of "Wampanoag." Historically there was never a Wampanoag tribe per se. The term Wampanoag is a general linguistic descriptor. Its root lies in the Algonquian "Wa.panwi," which literally means "it dawns" or "easterner." It was a generalized term used by Algonquian-speaking tribes to refer to peoples to their east where the sun rises.

In the case of "Wampanoag" we find the suffix "oag" (some Algonquian tribal dialects use "aug"), which denotes near water, or near a body of water. Thus a literal interpretation of "Wampanoag" is - a people who live where the sun rises near a body of water.

In the case of southeastern Massachusetts, this descriptor was used as a term of reference by the Indians residing to the west of Indians who lived along Buzzards Bay, most notably the Pokanoket. This term of reference was picked up by the early colonists at Plymouth who equated the term Wampanoag with the Pokanoket tribe, in contrast to the neighboring Massachusett, Nipmuck and Narragansett tribes.

kingphilipwar1_325With the advent of King Philip's War in 1675 (shown on right in an old woodcut), the term became associated with those regional (eastern) Indian groups that joined Philip (Metacom) in his conflict against the colonists. Thus we hear of a Wampanoag confederation in various historical writings.

The Wampanoag did not greet the Pilgrims

Did any "Wampanoag" greet the first arrivals at Plymouth? No. No Indians did. What William Bradford and those other first arrivals found were deserted Indian villages, the victims of smallpox epidemic that had spread south from Newfoundland. Were there "Wampanoag" in the region? Yes. The boundary between the Pokanoket and Massachusett tribal lands was in this area. Were these "Wampanoag" members of the Mashpee tribe? No.
There was not a Mashpee tribe in existence in 1620.

Why weren't the Mashpee there? Simply put, there was not a Mashpee tribe in existence at the time of historical contact (1620) in Massachusetts. Mashpee, as a self-governing distinct Indian community or enclave having its own defined territory, did not come into existence until 1665, some 45 years after the point of first sustained Indian contact with non-Indians in this region. Mashpee was a product of the collision between two cultures, English and Indian. Mashpee is not what is commonly called an "historic or historical tribe" that is, a politically organized tribe, having its own defined territory that was in existence at the time of first sustained contact with the colonists. Mashpee was the produce of tribal disintegration and fissioning as a result of this bi-cultural collision. 

The Mashpee enclave that came into existence in 1665 consisted of expatriate Indians from many different tribal groups who, having adopted Christianity, shed their previous tribal political relations and portions of their own cultural ideology and came together into what was known as a "Praying Indian Town" or simply "Praying Town." There were many such towns established in eastern Massachusetts for these convert tribal fragments. Most importantly, the Mashpee did not represent a political or social continuation of a specific historic tribe or historic tribes that voluntarily and politically merged to form a new tribe.

mashpee.seal_162These converts with their new Christian ideology were drawn together mainly through the efforts of a colonist named Richard Bourne who, being a friend to the Indian groups residing at the western end of Cape Cod, convinced the sachems of two of these groups (Tookonchasm and Weepquish) to convey via a legal deed dated Dec. 11, 1665, lands belonging to their respective groups to the convert community that had congregated on the Cape's south shore. These extra-tribal convert Indians who initially resided on these conveyed lands became known as the "South Sea Indians," which later morphed into the name "Mashpee."

At this point in time the Mashpee formed their own town government, established land governance rules based in large part upon English law (proprietorship) and town organization, had a defined bounded territory in which to live and over which they asserted local jurisdiction. Even as late as 1753, the Mashpee reminded the Massachusetts General Court "that the same sachems who had given most of the Cape to the English had also created Mashpee."

How Mashpee passed muster concerning the descent from a historic tribe requirement (25CFR 83.7 (e)) with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, thus gaining federal recognition, leaves one wondering. With the name of the notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff now connected with the Mashpee's recognition quest and his close association with former disgraced Interior Department administrator Steven Griles, one begins to see a picture, a not very pleasant one at that.

Thus the Mashpee cannot be considered Wampanoag in any political or tribal sense in that they were never part of the Pokanoket tribe, nor were they part of King Philips wartime confederation. Mashpee came into existence in 1665 as a Praying Town under colonial jurisdiction. As a matter of fact, Mashpee remained loyal to the colonists during King Philip's conflict with some members of the community fighting against the Wampanoag confederation of tribes. Mashpee did not come into existence until 1665, thus making it an historical impossibility of having met the Plymouth colonists upon their landing in 1620, nor was there a Mashpee tribe present to have aided the new colony during those first terrible and trying years of Plymouth's existence.

Never in Middleborough, wrong side in war

Now what about Middleboro, a town at the center of present-day controversy concerning Mashpee historical claims and assertions to the area? First, if the Mashpee were never politically or culturally affiliated with the Massachusett or Pokanoket tribes, how can they make such a claim, especially given the fact that the Mashpee sided against the Pokanoket-Wampanoag  confederation during King Philips war? Second, the Mashpee cannot make a cultural affiliation with either tribe. They maintained a particular cultural and ideological base (Christianity) from their very inception that was vastly at odds with that of the traditional Pokanoket-Wampanoag.

massasoit1621265_330_01Third, from a historical perspective there was prior to Middleboro's 1669 founding one named Indian village in the Middleboro area  (Nemasket), which in 1622 was under the dominion of the Pokanoket sachem Massasoit, (shown in old painting greeting Pilgrims in 1621). Yet we later find two such villages, "Assawompsett"  in Middleboro and "Titicut" in north Middleboro near present-day Bridgewater.

The historical records clearly depict Titicut as a Massachusett tribal village, while Assawompsett appears to have had a polyglot Indian population of former Pokanoket and Massachusett (with many moving there from the former Massachusett village of "Mattakesitt" in 1674). There is also evidence of Abenaki Indians who had been re-settled on the Freetown reserve having moved into and settled at Assawompsett. It was from the remnants of these two village populations that the name "Middleborough Indians" evolved during the eighteenth century. Nowhere in this matrix is Mashpee to be found.

In fact, presently only two associations directly mentioning a connection between Middleboro and Mashpee are to be found in the April 1859 Report to the Governor and Council concerning the Indians of the Commonwealth, (Earle Report) a William Lee from Middleboro who had married a Mashpee woman and was presently residing in California, and a widowed state pauper named Sylvia Casco, also from Middleboro.

One fails to see any Mashpee historical or cultural connection to Middleboro without the coverage of the historically unsupportable "Wampanoag" umbrella.  Their request to have lands they purchased in that town taken into trust by the Department of the Interior appears to lack a historical or cultural foundation. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on