During Native American Heritage Month, it’s important to recognize the culture and history of indigenous peoples in the United States. Massachusetts is one of the first places where the complicated and controversial history between colonizers and Native Americans begins. Instead of seeing these events as part of a past that can be easily forgotten, we need to acknowledge the wrongs of our ancestors and continue advocating and learning about the tribes that exist now and those that came before us.
In this guide, you’ll find resources to learn more about indigenous history and tribes in New England.
Indigenous History in Massachusetts
[Town of Arlington] Arlington History (History & Facts)
When the first settlers made an agreement in 1635 with Squaw Sachem, she reserved the right to maintain some land near the Mystic Lakes for her use and required as part payment, a new English (woolen) coat every year for as long as she lived. This area was called Menotomy, an Algonquian word.
[Arlington Historical Society] Queen of the Mystic: Squaw Sachem
Squaw Sachem (translated into Lady Chief) owned a large portion of land, which encompassed much of present-day Charlestown, Arlington, Medford, Malden, and Winchester. She was married to Nanepashemet (translated to “New Moon”), who was the Sachem of the Pawtucket Confederation of Indian tribes until his death in 1619. Squaw Sachem, whose name has been lost to history, ruled after his death with her sons: Wonohaquaham (Sagamore John), Montowampate (Sagamore James) and Wenepoykin (Sagamore George).
[The Pluralism Project] Native Traditions in Boston
Long before European colonization, in what is now the state of Massachusetts, this land was home to tens of thousands of Native Peoples from many tribes. These included the Pawtucket (or Penacook), the Massachusett, the Pokantoket (or Wampanoag), and several other smaller bands including the Nipmuck and Pocumtuck. To the south, in what is now Rhode Island and Connecticut, there were bands of Pequot-Mohegans, Narragansetts, Western and Eastern Niantic, Quirpi, Tunxis, and Podunk Indians. Although it is much disputed exactly how long the ancestors of these Native Peoples had been living in this area, it is generally agreed that some have been here for at least 12,000 years. Indian paths and campsites, located in the 6,500-acre Blue Hills Reservation near Boston, are thought to be approximately 10,000 years old.
See also: Native Tradition Centers in Boston
[NLM Native Voices] Timeline
Native peoples and their healing traditions have histories that extend into the distant past. No single exhibit can capture the full story of these diverse peoples and their practices. This timeline presentation highlights key events and themes from antiquity to today. Explore the richness of Native history!
[The Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag] Tribal History
In a time before now, before the arrival European Traders or the English Settlers to the coasts of Massachusetts, The Confederation of Indigenous Massachusett lived and thrived in what is now called the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For years beyond counting, Indigenous Massachusett Villages spanned from Salem to Plymouth along the coast, and inland as far west as Worcester. The Massachusett People led by their Sac’hems, hunted, fished, worked their quarries, created their tools and sculpted their weapons. They planted vast fields of grain, corn, squash and beans, harvested, prepared and stored their harvests. In their villages they celebrated, practiced their religion, built their homes, raised their families and enjoyed prosperity. One of the Massachusett Tribes was the Neponset and their Sac’hem was Chickataubut, Principal Chief of the Massachusett when the English sailed into Massachusett Territory to settle.
[Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe] A Brief Timeline of Wampanoag History
[Mattakeeset Tribe] Our Story Not Theirs
[Nimpuc Nation] A Brief Look at Nipmuc History
[Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)] Wampanoag History
[Chappaquiddick Tribe of Wampanoag Nation] Our History
[NPS] Native Americans and the Boston Harbor Islands
Histories and other studies prepared by and with Native American/Indigenous Peoples are needed in order to adequately present Indigenous connections with the islands. Because those studies are not complete, the following sketch is offered to introduce the complex Native American connections to what we call today Boston Harbor Islands.
[American Ancestors] Native Nations of New England
The history of the Native Nations in New England, particularly their relationship with European settlers is often clouded and distorted by myth. Centuries of conflicts and disease drastically reduced the population of the original inhabitants and contributes to the myth that all Native peoples in New England perished long ago. There are, however, many rich and thriving Native Nations in New England today and their history is one that can be explored through many traditional and perhaps unfamiliar genealogical sources.
[National Geography] Native Americans in Colonial America
Native Americans resisted the efforts of the Europeans to gain more land and control during the colonial period, but they struggled to do so against a sea of problems, including new diseases, the slave trade, and an ever-growing European population.
[Time] 400 Years After the Mayflower Set Sail, a New Exhibit Acknowledges the U.K.’s Impact on Native American Communities
On a September day in Plymouth, southwest England, a ship set sail. The day was Sept. 16, 1620, and the vessel was the Mayflower. Its passengers and their voyage would soon secure their place as an indelible part of American history. Now, 400 years later, in another September in Plymouth, the facts of that story are coming in for a reexamination.
[National Geographic] A few things you (probably) don’t know about Thanksgiving
When the Mayflower pilgrims and the Wampanoag sat down for the first Thanksgiving in 1621, it wasn’t actually that big of a deal. Likely, it was just a routine English harvest celebration. More significant—and less remembered—was the peace treaty that the parties established seven months earlier, which lasted for 50 years.
[Library of Congress] The Treaty That Saved Plymouth Colony
At the time of the treaty, it had only been four months since the Mayflower arrived on the shores of America. The English settlers were still living either in temporary dwellings on the shore or onboard the Mayflower. The first winter had been brutal. In that short time, nearly half of all the people who arrived in the Mayflower, 50 out of 102, died from disease or exposure.
[Smithsonian Magazine] Everyone’s history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known
The Thanksgiving story deeply rooted in America’s school curriculum frames the Pilgrims as the main characters and reduces the Wampanoag Indians to supporting roles. It also erases a monumentally sad history. The true history of Thanksgiving begins with the Indians.
[Martha’s Vineyard] What Was Massasoit Thinking?
Four hundred years ago the paramount sachem of the Wampanoag nation made friends with the newly arrived Pilgrims at Plymouth. According to the award-winning author of the recent book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, Massasoit’s allies on the Cape and Islands were not exactly thrilled with the plan.
[Boston University] Eliot, John (1604-1690)
Eliot left England, the land of his birth, in 1631 as a young Puritan pastor. He worked in Boston for a year, then established a church five miles away in Roxbury, where he remained for 58 years, until his death. From the beginning he established an excellent relationship with the Narragansett Indians in the area and gradually also with other peoples speaking related languages. From 1660 he was called the Apostle of the American Indian. He carried on his work with the Indians parallel to his pastoral duties at the Roxbury congregation and to his general duties for the New England church as a whole.
[New England Historical Society] The Praying Indians of the American Revolution
The praying Indians were set apart from the colonists and from neighboring tribes. They became farmers, established homesteads, built frame houses, lost their tribal identities and intermarried with blacks and whites.
Praying towns in Massachusetts included Gay Head and Christiantown on Martha’s Vineyard; Nantucket, Natick, Mashpee, Grafton, Dartmouth and Herring Pond in Plymouth. In Connecticut, Nipmuc praying towns included Maanexit, believed to be in today’s Fabyan, Quinnatisset, six miles south of Maanexit, and Wagaquasset in Woodstock.
See also: Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag
[Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation] The Pequot War
The attack began at dawn on May 26th (Old Calendar – June 5 New calendar) when the English surrounded the 2-acre village and fired a volley through the gaps in the palisade. The force of 77 English, 60 Mohegan and 200 Narragansett surrounded the fort and the English fired a volley through the palisade walls. Mason and Underhill, with twenty men each, entered the fort through entrances on the northeast and southwest sides. Their objective was to “destroy them by the Sword and save the Plunder” (Mason). Unknown to the English the fort was reinforced the night before by 100 warriors from other villages, bringing the total number of warriors inside the fort to approximately 175. Within 20 minutes English inside the fort suffered 50% casualties. It was then that Mason said: “We should never kill them after that manner: WE MUST BURN THEM!”
[Peabody Museum] The Harvard Indian College
A cornerstone of Harvard, the first university in America, is Harvard Indian College. Harvard struggled financially soon after its 1636 inception. To support the faltering college, the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (SPGNE) raised and granted funds for Indian education at Harvard. The College, in turn promised to waive tuition and provide housing for American Indian students. The founding Harvard Charter of 1650 manifests this promise and dedicates the institution to “the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge: and godliness.”
The Indian College’s founders hoped graduates would proselytize their home communities with the Gospel.
[Natick Historical Society] John Sassamon
Wassausmon (Wussausmon) was known to 17th-century Puritan colonists as John Sassamon, a Massachusett man and talented linguist who was deeply involved with the creation and administration of “Praying Towns” in eastern Massachusetts. He was also engaged in the translation of the Christian bible into the Algonquian languages for use by “Praying Indians,” and highly-regarded among Native and English people alike for his work as an English-Massachusett interpreter, scribe, and counselor. Sassamon’s death—he may have been murdered—in January 1675 was a key event leading up to the outbreak of King Philip’s War.
See also: Sassamon, John, – 1675
[Bill of Rights Institute] King Philip’s War
In what is now Massachusetts, the period between the Pilgrims’ landing in 1620 and the 1661 death of Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag confederation, was one of mostly peaceful coexistence between the colonists and the local tribes. The American Indians, however, were suffering. Their population had been decimated by European diseases. Moreover, they had lost tribal lands due to legal sales to the colonists and illegal land grabs, which meant they had less area for hunting and agriculture. It was clear to American Indian leaders that English power was increasing while the power of the Indians was declining.
[UConn] King Phillips War: Native American Story
From the beginnings of English settlement in America, cultural differences played a pivotal role in creating the tensions that would eventually turn to conflict. The Native American tribes saw themselves at the center of a struggle to defend their land and way of life. King Philip’s War started in 1675 after years rising tensions between Native American tribes and English settlers. The resistance was spearheaded by the Wampanoag leader, whom the English had themselves called Philip; and was by ironically the son of chief (Sachem) Massasoit who had helped the original Pilgrims survive at Plymouth Colony.
[Native Northeast Portal] Metacom, – 1676
Metacom, alias Pometacom, Philip, Philip Keitasscot, Wewasowannet, was a son of the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, whose home village was at Mount Hope at Pokanoket. He married Wootonekanuske, daughter of the Pocasset sachem Corbitant and sister of Weetamoe, Philip’s sister-in-law. Metacom succeeded his brother Wamsutta as tribal leader in 1662 and that same year willingly signed a treaty declaring allegiance to Charles II. From him was bought what would become the Town of Wrentham (1662), Mattapoisett (1664), Acushnet (1665), and other tracks of land. However, seeing aggressive English Indian policies to threaten Wampanoag sovereignty, Metacom began an active campaign against Plymouth Colony settlers in the summer of 1675. He and the Wampanoags were joined by Narragansetts, Nipmucks, Pocumtucks, Indians from the Christian Praying Towns, and Abenakis in trying to expel the English from New England. In late summer of 1676, Captain Benjamin Church captured Metacom’s wife Woononekanuske and their nine year old son, who were later sold into slavery. Weeks later, Metacom himself was shot by an Indian named Alderman on August 12, 1676. Recent scholarship suggests that Metacom was not Massasoit’s son but his grandson. However, this theory has been shown to be mistaken.
[National Humanities Center] The Taking of Indian Lands
Our media-driven image of the white man’s conquest of the Indian focuses on the American West of the 1800s, when Indians were forcibly moved to resource-barren reservations, many dying from battle, disease, and harsh conditions. The earlier chapters of this history, however, in the late 1600s through the 1700s, are driven by the less dramatic mechanism of land negotiations between Indians and colonists. Deeds of sale in incomprehensible legal language, plus white-written accounts of days-long conferences ⎯ countered by complaints and petitions for redress from tribal leaders ⎯ document the loss of Indian land to the colonists, tract by tract, colony by colony, heading west. As clarified by historian Stuart Banner, “at most times, and in most places, the Indians were not exactly conquered, but they did not exactly choose to sell their land either. The truth was somewhere in the middle. . . . every land transfer of any form included elements of law and elements of power.
Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations
What Values Shaped Treaty Making Between Native Nations and the United States?
[Library of Congress] Removing Native Americans from their Land
In 1786, the United States established its first Native American reservation and approached each tribe as an independent nation. This policy remained intact for more than one hundred years. But as President James Monroe noted in his second inaugural address in 1821, treating Native Americans this way “flattered their pride, retarded their improvement, and in many instances paved the way to their destruction.”
Tribes in the New England/Northeast Region
Abenaki | Eastern Pequot Nation | Golden Hill Paugussett Indian Tribe | Haudenosaunee Confederacy | Maliseet Indians | Mashantucket Pequot Nation | Mi’kmaq Indians | Mohegan Tribe | Narragansett Indian Tribe | Nipmuc Nation | Passamaquoddy Tribes of Maine | Penobscot Nation | Schaghticoke Tribal Nation | Shinnecock Indian Nation | Unkechaug | Wampanoag
Collections, Exhibits, and Archives
- Plimoth Patuxet Museums: Plimoth Patuxet Museums brings to life the history of Plymouth Colony and the Indigenous homeland. Major exhibits include the Patuxet Homesite, 17th-Century English Village, Mayflower II and Plimoth Grist Mill.
- From English to Algonquian: Some of the earliest and rarest materials printed in British North America were not printed in English. Instead, these books, pamphlets, and broadsides were printed in the various dialects of Algonquian, the language of the Native Americans who populated the American Northeast. Beginning in 1643, English colonists such as John Eliot, Roger Williams, and Thomas and Experience Mayhew endeavored to capture the spoken language of the New England natives in print. Many of these colonists saw this work as integral to the Christianization of the New World, but they did not do this work all on their own. They needed help from local Nipmuc, Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Massachuset Indians to start to piece together the sounds and structure of this “foreign” language, as well as to reproduce it in print.
- Naab Research Center: Native Americans: Then and Now invites you to explore the dynamic history of Indigenous peoples in North America. Through a look at life on reservations, beautiful southwestern art, military service and other forms of heroism, land management and agriculture, the sport of lacrosse, and the film industry, our exhibit reveals common struggles faced by Indian communities but also illuminates the creative, courageous, and determined solutions Indigenous individuals and nations have found in response to centuries of settler-colonialism. This is, therefore, an inspiring story of resilience and increased self-determination. Each of our sections use original archival documents, images, and objects to show how culture change and adaptations have not meant cultural loss or decline but, instead, resistance, vibrancy and growth. We hope you enjoy this journey!
- Native Northeast Portal: The Native Northeast Research Collaborative‘s Native Northeast Portal contains primary source materials by, on, or about Northeast Indians from repositories around the world. Documents are digitized, transcribed, annotated, reviewed by the appropriate contemporary descendant community representatives, and brought together with scholarly annotations and academic/community commentary into one edited interactive digital collection. The Portal currently contains thousands of records associated with scores of Native communities.
- The Occom Circle: This collection of papers has been digitized as part of the Occom Circle Project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It includes letters, diaries, sermons, prose, a page of herbal remedies, and annotated books by or related to Occom and several of Wheelock’s earliest Indian students. The manuscripts, circa 1743-1794, document Occom’s early student life under Wheelock’s tutelage, his life as a minister at Montauk and Mohegan, his trip to England to raise money for what would become Dartmouth College, as well as personal reflections on his life as an educated Indian in Colonial America. The manuscripts also document his and other Indian students’ relationships with Eleazar Wheelock.
- North American Indian Thought and Culture: North American Indian Thought and Culture brings together more than 100,000 pages, many of which are previously unpublished, rare, or hard to find. The project integrates autobiographies, biographies, Indian publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files for the first time. The result is a comprehensive representation of historical events as told by the individuals who lived through them. The database is an essential resource for all those interested in serious scholarly research into the history of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Canadian First Peoples.
- American Indian Records in the National Archives: Among the billions of historical records housed at the National Archives throughout the country, researchers can find information relating to American Indians from as early as 1774 through the mid 1990s. The National Archives preserves and makes available the documents created by Federal agencies in the course of their daily business.
- Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center: Tribally owned and operated since it opened on Aug. 11, 1998, the Museum brings to life the story of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. It serves as a major resource on the histories and cultures of Native Americans in the northeast and on the region’s rich natural history.
- Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian: A diverse and multifaceted cultural and educational enterprise, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is an active and visible component of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. The NMAI cares for one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native artifacts, including objects, photographs, archives, and media covering the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.
- Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum: Tomaquag Museum’s mission is to educate the public and promote thoughtful dialogue regarding Indigenous history, culture, arts, and Mother Earth and connect to Native issues of today. Tomaquag Museum envisions its future as an Indigenous Cultural Education destination that engages visitors in thoughtful dialogue that promotes understanding and strives to create experiences that transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of Indigenous Cultures and the interrelationship with the wider world.
- Institute for American Indian Studies: IAIS preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality and knowledge of Native American cultures.
- Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian: Edward Sheriff Curtis published The North American Indian between 1907 and 1930 with the intent to record traditional Native American cultures. The work comprises twenty volumes of narrative text and photogravure images. Each volume is accompanied by a portfolio of large photogravure plates. Search tip: shortcut to a list of just the text volumes by searching “illustrated books” in the search bar.
- Portrayals of Native Americans: A digital companion to an exhibit from 2000 of rare books, photographs, illustrations, and other archival and manuscript materials from the Bancroft Library at Berkeley University.
- IDA Treaties Explorer: While treaties between Indigenous peoples and the United States affect virtually every area in the USA, there is as yet no official list of all the treaties. The US National Archives holds 374 of the treaties, where they are known as the Ratified Indian Treaties. Here you can view them for the first time with key historic works that provide context to the agreements made and the histories of our shared lands.
- PBS/American Experience/Native Americans: After centuries of encroachment, warfare and neglect, America’s Indigenous people remain a vital force in the life of America. In this collection, delve into stories from We Shall Remain, a five-part 2009 series on the history and lives of Native Americans, and from other American Experience films. Follow American Experience into the Everglades, where, more recently, in 2018, we interviewed members of the Seminole and Mikasuki tribes, to learn about their families’ histories in southern Florida.
- Massachusetts law about American Indians: A compilation of laws, regulations, cases, and web sources on Native Americans and tribal law in Massachusetts.
- United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- An Act prohibiting the use of Native American mascots by public schools in the Commonwealth: By Representatives Elugardo of Boston and Gouveia of Acton, a petition (accompanied by bill, House, No. 581) of Nika C. Elugardo, Tami L. Gouveia and others relative to prohibiting the use of Native American mascots by public schools in the Commonwealth. Education.
- Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness: MCNAA’s mission is to preserve Native American cultural traditions; to assist Native American residents with basic needs and educational expenses; to advance public knowledge and understanding that helps dispel inaccurate information about Native Americans; and to work towards racial equality by addressing inequities across the region.
- National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers: is a non-profit membership organization of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) that supports and encourages tribal historic preservation programs. We provide guidance to preservation officials, elected representatives, and the public about national historic preservation legislation, policies, and regulations. We promote tribal sovereignty, develop partnerships, and advocate for Tribes in governmental activities on preservation and funding issues.
- UMASS Institute for New England Native American Studies: The Institute for New England Native American Studies (INENAS) was established at the University of Massachusetts Boston in June 2009. Our mission is to develop collaborative relationships, projects, and programs between Native American tribes of the New England region and all of the UMass campuses so that the tribes may participate in and benefit from university research, innovation, scholarship, and education.
- North American Indian Center of Boston: NAICOB was originally established in 1969 as the Boston Indian Council when it served as the hub of social and civil rights activities for the American Indian community in Boston. The center was later organized as the North American Indian Center of Boston, a non-profit organization, in 1991. Since then, the center has provided cultural, social, educational, and professional related services to the New England Native American* community for 50 years. As the oldest urban Indian center in Massachusetts, our mission is to empower the Native American community with the goal of improving the quality of life of Indigenous peoples.
- Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA) was created by legislature in 1974. Their office is located on Cambridge Street in Boston. Fundamental role of MCIA is assisting Native American individuals, tribe or organizations in their relationship with state and local government agencies and also to advise them in matters pertaining to Native Americans. The commission helps to assist things from social services, education, to legal aid and treaties. They also make recommendations to the people concerning programs and policies that will best serve the interest of the Native American residents such as assisting students who want to go to college by recommending and paying for college prep activities.
- American Indian Community House: was founded in 1969, by Native American volunteers as a community-based organization, mandated to improve the status of Native Americans, and to foster inter-cultural understanding.
- United American Indians of New England: UAINE is a Native-led organization of Native people and our supporters who fight back against racism and for the freedom of Leonard Peltier and other political prisoners. We support Indigenous struggles, not only in New England but throughout the Americas.
Newsworthy and Further Reading
- [NYTimes] Lost Lives, Lost Culture: The Forgotten History of Indigenous Boarding Schools
- [The Boston Globe] The myth of Native American extinction harms everyone
- [NPR] Boston will celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day
- [NPR] For Native Peoples, Thanksgiving Isn’t A Celebration. It’s A National Day Of Mourning
- [Smithsonian Magazine] Native Intelligence
- [BU Today] Indigenous Voices Speak Out at BU
- [The Pluralism Project] Native American Traditions
- [The Atlantic] Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans
- [Places] The “Indianized” Landscape of Massachusetts
- [Karuna Center for Peacebuilding] Decolonizing Curricular Resources
- [WBUR] For Native Americans, Harvard And Other Colleges Fall Short
- [Intercontinental Cry] Indigenous Erasure in Plain Sight: Place Names in New England
- [Patch] MA Bill Would Ban Native American Mascots For Public Schools
- [The Patriot Ledger] 400 years after Standish landed in Squantum, Massachusetts rethinks its flag, his legacy
- [The Atlantic] Return the National Parks to the Tribes
- [CNN] Indigenous people across the US want their land back — and the movement is gaining momentum
- [United Nations] COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples
- [WBUR] Feds Drop Legal Battle Over Tribe’s Reservation Status
- [The Harvard Crimson] Native American Nonprofit Accuses Harvard of Violating Federal Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
- [NPR-RWJF-HSPH] Discrimination in America: Experiences and Views of Native Americans
We acknowledge that the Town of Arlington is located on the ancestral lands of the Massachusett Tribe, the tribe of Indigenous peoples from whom the Colony, Province, and Commonwealth have taken their names. We pay our respects to the ancestral bloodline of the Massachusett Tribe and their descendants who still inhabit historic Massachusett territories today.