Who Were The Massachuset Indians?

The history, culture, societal make-up, hunting and spiritual life of the Massachuset Indians. Also an analysis of the living conditions of the remnant of these people surviving in the 21st century.

The Massachuset Indians were the original inhabitants of what is now Boston, Massachusets, from the Charles to the Neoposit River. At time of first European contact there were about 3,000 of these people living in this area. Their numbers, however, rapidly declined until, by the beginning of the 19th Century they were gone. The name Massachuset is Algonquin and means "˜at the range of the hills.' They spoke the N-Dialect of the Algonquin language. There were as many as twenty villages at the beginning of the 17th Century. These were organised in accordance with the six sub-divisions, named for their chiefs.

The Massachuset, like most of the other eastern tribes, were farmers of the land. They grew maize, beans and squash. During the winter, however, they relied on hunting for their livelihood. Fishing and shellfish gathering was done year round. They lived in villages located along the coast in the Summer period and moved inland to their hunting camps during the winter time. Dwellings in the Summer village were wooden longhouses while homes in the winter camp were hide covered wigwams. The villages were relatively autonomous, each being ruled by a sub chief.

Immediately following their first regular contact with Europeans in 1614, the Massachuset were struck by the white man's epidemic. Between 1614 and 1617 they were, in fact, hit by three separate epidemics. The effect was that 75 % of their population was destroyed. At the same time, the Massachuset came under attack from neighbouring tribes. By 1633, when Puritan John Eliot began his preaching work there were just five hundred Massachuset left in the Boston area. New converts were soon made and these were organised into what were called "˜Praying Villages.' Under the dominion of the Puritans, the native culture of the Massachusets was quickly eroded. The praying villages incorporated new Christian converts from other tribes. The effect of this was that, by about 1640, the Massachuset ceased to exist as a separate people. The inhabitants of the Praying Villages lived a precarious existence. In the 1660's they were attacked by the Mohawk. Despite their new found peaceful religion the inhabitants of the Praying Villages led retaliatory attacks on the Mohawk village.

During King Philip's War, which began in 1675, many of the inhabitants of the Praying Villages left their villages and joined Philip in his rebellion. To keep those who stayed behind from also leaving to join the battle, the Puritans rounded them up and relocated them to islands off Boston Harbor. These Indians were now regarded as outcasts on all sides. They were hated by other native Indians for refusing to join in the rebellion. On the other hand they were treated harshly by their Puritan overlords, with many settlers on the verge of attacking their peaceful village. Despite the fact that many of them served as scouts and guides during the war, they were under constant suspicion of being spies for King Philip. More than a few of them were thus murdered by English soldiers on the flimsiest of pretexts.

After the war, the 300 or so Praying Indians that were left were herded into camps with survivors of the war who had taken part in the rebellion. The result of this mixture was predictable. The numbers of the praying Indians and in turn, any surviving Massachusett Indians, were further depleted. Despite this their can still be found a few descendants of the Praying Indians living around Canton, Massachusets. As to whether they are actually descended from the Massachuset it is impossible to tell.

Perhaps the most famous of Massachuset Indians was a mixed blood Negro/ Indian named Crispus Attucks. Attucks won fame in his death by becoming the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. Attucks was a runaway slave who became a seaman. He responded to the call to demonstrate against the British Troops guarding the customs commissioners and, being at the forefront, was the first to be shot down.

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