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The Converging Cultures of the Neponset River Estuary
Map, 1831
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 The Converging Cultures of the Neponset River Estuary by Richard Heath


The Neponset River Estuary is the convergence of not only two ecosystems but two cultures. The Estuary is where the freshwater river meets the salt water, where the tidal river meets freshwater. After rushing through gorges and hardwood uplands, the river joins the placid salt marshes and the open expanse of ocean. The Estuary was also the meeting place of the Massachusett Indians and the Europeans, particularly the English. This meeting of native Americans and self-proclaimed saints at the mouth of the Neponset River had a profound affect on the Massachusett. Only the name survives today as both the colony and then the state took the appellation of the confederation. Note: a map showing the place of the Massachusett among other groups appears at the very bottom of this page.

The relationship between the Massachusett--as they preferred to be called, they disliked the term Indian--and the English was never reconciled and would be tense and complex throughout the 17th century. The English were basically racist in their view of the Algonkian tribes in the Bay Colony, the Wampanoags of Plymouth, the Nipmuck in the Grafton - Worcester area or the Pennacooks of Leominster - Fitchburg area overlapping into New Hampshire.

The only group who took the Massachusett seriously as people, learned their language and customs, and regularly visited with them over five decades were the Puritan missionaries, Richard Mayhew, Thomas Shepard, John Wilson and most notably of all, Reverend John Eliot of Roxbury. It is mainly from their writing, and those of their contemporaries Daniel Gookins, William Wood and Roger Williams, that a history of the vanished Massachusett has been passed down to Americans today. Indeed, when John Eliot died at the age of 86 in 1690, the Massachusett lost not only their lone defender, but their historical voice and their place in the colony named for them.

The human history of the Neponset River begins with the Massachusett, or Massachusauk as it was pronounced. One suggestion for the origin of the term Massachusett is that it means "place of the hills" referring to the Blue Hills below where the Neponset flows. "Achu" means" hill"; "Sett" is the word for place, and suggests that the confederation--which preceded contact with the English by centuries--originated in the Blue Hill range.

Massachusetts takes its name from the Massachusetts tribe of Native Americans, who lived in the Great Blue Hill region, south of Boston. The Indian term supposedly means ?at or about the Great Hill.?

There are, however, a number of interpretations of the exact meaning of the word. The Jesuit missionary Father Rasles thought that it came from the word Messatossec, ?Great-Hills-mouth?: ?mess? (mass) meaning ?great?; ?atsco? (as chu or wad chu) meaning ?hill?; and sec (sac or saco) meaning ?mouth?. The Reverend John Cotton used another variation: ?mos? and ?wetuset?, meaning ?Indian arrowhead?, descriptive of the Native Americans? hill home. Another explanation is that the word comes from ?massa? meaning ?great? and ?wachusett?, ?Mountain-place?.

The Massachusett were members of the Algonkian family and was a confederation of fourteen tribes that stretched from Boston Harbor to Springfield. These were, the Agawam (Springfield ), Nahant, Nashoba, Nashua, Neponsett, Norwattuck, Pocumtuk, Ponkapoag, Quabaug, Saugus, Shawmut, Wachsett, Wesaguesett and Winnisemit. Their neighbors were the Pennacook to the north, the Nipmuck to the west, and the other coastal confederation, the Wampanoag to the south.

The confederation boundary lands, as well as tribal lines, were marked by topographical features such as a swamp, stream or river, hill, ridge or some other physical landscape limit.

Their concept of land ownership differed sharply from the European. The Massachusett did not own the land, but what was on it or what it produced. The Neponsett owned the shellfish beds, beaver, and trout from the marsh and river; the planting fields from the hillsides and the deer from the forests. Names attached to a territory often meant their use or the landscape feature. The very name of the tribe was the river from which it derived its health and well being. Another Massachusett meeting a Neponset sanop knew exactly where he lived and what he owned. A Pequot meeting a Massachusett recognized that he lived in the place of the hills.

Burning the forest floor and clearing the hillsides for planting fields were improvements to their land, which very few English understood as rights to ownership.

Local custom was strong and tribes never trespassed. Some hunting grounds which overlapped tribes were shared, as well as fishing areas. However aggression from the south and west was common and the Massachusett often allied themselves with the Wampanoag to fight off the powerful Narragansett from present day Rhode Island and with the Nipmuck to stop the fearsome Mohawks, one of the Five Nations of the Iroquois. (The Massachusett called them the "maneaters ".) The Mohawk lands lay along the Hudson River valley into the Berkshires.

Lacking a written language, their political, civil and religious customs were based on oral tradition in which the elderly - with the most experience and memory - were held in the highest esteem. Among the English chroniclers, respect shown to parents was held in awe. Women too were consulted on important matters because they were the food producers and recognized as having good judgment and experience. The leaders of each tribe were called sachems, the chief priests and physicians were powwas, and men and women of the tribe were sanops and squaws, although these two terms were used by the English and may be and may have been derogatory to native American themselves.

The sachems were sensitive to public opinion and issues were debated loud and long, but once he made a decision, the sachem's word was law and was obeyed.

In 1634, the careful observer William Wood offered the best description of a Massachusett sanop: five to six feet tall, strong, straight, swarthy (less than the Spaniard he noted, however ), with black hair and dark eyes, high forehead and long nose. Sometimes the hair was worn in a ponytail, other times worn long on one side and cut off on the other. Their skin had a sheen from bear or goose grease which was used as protection against the cold, the wind and insects.

Their lifestyle was communal. They had neither a strong desire to be rich - although they were fond of gambling - nor a fear of being poor. They avoided shame and were respectful to others. Generally they were a hospitable people who cared for their old and spoiled their children.

The Massachusett were a settled, intelligent agricultural people. The domain of the Neponset tribe included village, planting fields, fishing areas, distant hunting grounds, a sacred burial place and a fort for defense.

The Neponset Estuary was the perfect location for the eponymous tribe. It was within easy reach of both fresh drinking water and salt water for fishing, and the soil was a well drained alluvial river plain which could be worked easily with clamshell and stone implements. The salt marshes provided food and reeds for mats. The steep hillsides of Quincy and Milton were perfect planting fields: they were free from unexpected frosts with full sunlight and good drainage.

The Neponset was also their highway, the principle means of transportation through their territory and to inland hunting and trapping grounds.

Source for the meaning of the word Massachusetts: Massachusetts Facts. A Review of the History, Government and Symbols of the Commonwealth. Citizen Information Service, Secretary of the Commonwealth, c1977.

Native American Dwelling
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 They lived in wigwams, a word meaning ?at home" or ?my home." This was a circular structure 14 feet high and ten to 15 feet wide made from strong frames of sapling trees covered with strips of elm, birch or oak bark sewn together with evergreen roots. There were two doors and a hole in the roof for the release of smoke. Snug and warm, it was a deliberate attempt to imitate the beaver lodge. According to legend, the beaver was one of their tribal forbears. Massachusett women decorated the interior walls with finely woven mats made of reeds, sedge or corn stalks. Around the central circular hearth of stones were arrayed horizontal benches covered with deerskin, sealskin or woven mats of grass which served as benches and beds. In winter the family kept warm with coverings of bear, deer, otter, raccoon and beaver skins. As befitted their status, the sachem and powwa lived in substantial wigwams of quality workmanship and decoration.

Native American Dwelling
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 Territorial disputes often escalated into warfare. It seems that all Massachusett towns were protected by a palisaded fort 40 to 50 feet square of 10 to 12 foot sharpened logs tied together. A deep moat surrounded the walls and the excavated earth served as protective beams from which the sachem and sanops shot their arrows.

Native American cornfield
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 The Neponsets took 65 to 85 percent of their daily food from agriculture. Between May and September they planted and cultivated their fields.

When the English settled in Charlestown and then removed to Boston, the sachem of the Massachusett was Chickataubut whose village was in present day Squantum. The publicly owned Mosswetusset Hummock preserves his homestead, today. The hill to the east of the town was the Massachusett fields which were planted with corn, beans and squash - called the three sisters of Massachusett agriculture. Tobacco, watermelon, pumpkin, and Jerusalem artichoke were other crops. Blackberries, strawberries and raspberries were taken from the wild and carefully cultivated into larger fruits than were found growing naturally. The harbor islands were included in the territory of the Massachusett - shared by the Neponsett and Shawmut tribes- and were thickly planted with corn. Each homestead had a family garden too, which is where the berry plants were cultivated.

The Massachusett cleared their planting fields by setting fire to wood piled around standing trees which destroyed the bark and killed the tree. The trees were felled by further burning. The fallen slash was used as firewood. Massachusett fields were centuries old by the time of European contact about 1604. The rows of corn and other foodstuffs were thoroughly weeded all season, but after harvest were left to hold the soil from erosion. In spring, the weeds were burned off and the soil turned over for planting. The Massachusett practiced multiple crop growing: for example corn stalks would be used as bean poles. Without exception, Massachusett villages stood beside a river, harbor, lake or stream. The Neponsett had both fresh water for drinking and bathing and salt water where fish and clams were within an easy reach of their town. Cod, oysters, bass and mackerel were staples in their diet. In the freshwater reaches of the Neponset River, the Indians caught trout, pickerel and eel. The Massachusett rarely traded with their neighboring Algonkians because each had what it needed in its own territory. But the coastal tribes would often trade shellfish for deer meat with inland tribes.

Native American Dwelling
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 The salt marshes which formed the heart of the home of the Neponsett was a source of food and raw material for mats and roof coverings. The soft cattail fluff was used to prevent chafing of infants and as dressings for burns and cuts.

The great invention of the Northeast Woodland Indian, of which the Algonkian was a part, is the canoe. The Massachusett lived in a country with many rivers and streams. The Neponset River was the heart of Chickataubut's clan; it was the highway into their country. Sanops took their canoes deep into the interior to the foothills of the Blue Hills.

The Massachusett practiced sound forestry management. Around the villages, they would set fire to woodlands twice a year, burning up thirty miles or more of undergrowth. This made land travel better over an open forest floor. The effect was also widely spaced trees which grew very tall. It provided light to the forest floor for berries which was excellent browsing for birds and deer which made hunting easier. Fires also kept down pests and diseases of trees which retained the old growth forest which so impressed the English settlers. The open woods reminded them of royal deer parks.

Hunting was also part of the life of the Neponsett. It was important for food and clothing. It was important for agriculture too: deer, bear, raccoon, rabbit and woodchuck were not welcome in the planting fields.

Native American Dwelling
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 Each fall and winter, deer, bear, moose and wolves were hunted in the Blue Hills. Deer was the buffalo of the Massachusett. It was the source of food, clothing and tools. Sometimes they were trapped or driven through narrow blinds of hedges planted for the purpose and killed by hunters in blinds. Although the Neponsett had dogs, they were small and not used for hunting. The moose was hunted in winter and when discovered would be chased through deep snow until, exhausted, it was an easy kill. Bears were killed while they hibernated, although the Neponsett had a healthy respect for the strength of an angry bear groggy or awake. Wolves were usually trapped. The Black Wolf was especially prized.

The men of the village brought strips of bark for temporary wigwams that they set up as hunting camps. The frames were left standing for the next year's hunt.

Native American Dwelling
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 Although non-native Americans may not fully understand the beliefs of the Massachusett, it seems that the Massachusett had a strong spiritual life. They recognized good and evil and believed that supernatural spirits ruled their lives. All of nature was sacred and each aspect of it was controlled by a spirit. Trees were almost like people because legend said that the first man and woman were created from a tree. Although they believed in many gods - the Wampanoags had a pantheon of 37 - they believed in one all powerful god, Kietan or Manitou.

The god Waushakim, the coastal god, was the great provider of the Massachusett. They looked to Muinwa, the rain god who lived by a lake in the sky, to water the corn fields. Squantum was the patron god of women and another watched over children.

The god that they paid most attention to was the evil one, Chepian. It was to him that the Massachusett sought out to explain sickness, calamity and misfortune; after all he created it so he would be able to explain why. But only one person could communicate with the gods, especially Manitou and Chepian, and that was the powwa. Sometimes the powwa was also the sachem of the tribe - as was probably the case of the Neponsett. The powwa would fall into trances during which times he talked with the patron gods or the gods of good and evil on behalf of the tribe, a family or an individual. The family and individual paid the powwa in wampum, furs or other valuables.

Each village had its sacred burial ground. The dead were wrapped in mats and placed in circular mounds either in the sitting position or with the legs flexed with the head to the southwest. It was in the southwest sky where the gods and the ancestors lived who would welcome the departed soul. The dead were buried with their most cherished possessions: a man would have his bow and his pipe; the woman her shell necklace and her bowls; a child would have a deer antler toy and a tiny pot. Mourning might go on for weeks.

The location of the burial ground of the Neponsett is unknown. It was certainly on high ground facing southwest. One suggestion is at the crest of Adams Street overlooking the Neponsett and the ocean to the north and east and with full view of the Blue Hills in the southwest. The population of the Massachusett in 1600 is variously estimated to be between 4,500 and 9000 people. Yet in two horrible years, this population was reduced by 75% to between 750 and 1000 people by a smallpox epidemic spread by English and French fishermen lasting from 1617 to 1619. So rapid was the catastrophe that the sick could not bury the dead and villages were strewn with corpses and piles of bones. Whole townships vanished: Plymouth plantation of 1620 was built over the remains and the planting fields of the Patuxet village. The penninsula to which Governor Winthrop moved his band of Puritans in 1630 was the abandoned home of the Shawmuts.

Native American
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 The first settlers of New England encountered a world of severely disoriented and isolated people. Family, religion and government were frayed. For a people without written records, whose culture was based on oral tradition and memory, the loss of so many people at once, particularly the elders, was equally terrifying because it meant the loss of their sense of who the Massachusett were and where they had come from.

The first encounters that the Massachusett had with the strange men from the walking islands (as the Indians called ships) then was from a weakened condition in which they could offer no resistance. There were two types of relationships with the English: commercial and ecclesiastical. The Neponsett carried on a brisk fur trade from a post established by the English by 1619 on Thompson's Island. The Neponsett trapped beaver and mink on the low land tributaries of the river and brought otter, bear and wolf skins in their canoes down the Neponsett from the Blue Hills. But beaver skins were the most prized by the English. These were traded for hunting knives, pots, brass, copper jewelry and metal for arrows and spears as well as wampum- the strings of shells that were highly valued as permanent wealth. The beaver was never populous in Southern New England and the trade in beaver skins had ceased by the 1650's. But by then, the Neponsett were a tiny tribe and moved from the Estuary in 1658.

The first Englishman to live in the Estuary was Richard Collicot who had been carrying on active fur trading with the Neponsett before 1633. He built a house in 1634 at the Northwest corner of Adams and Center Streets in present day Milton (then Dorchester) on the Colonial Road to Plymouth. Not far away, he built a wharf on Gulliver's Creek as a landing for smaller boats to carry the furs to market. Collicot could speak some of the Algonkian dialect of the Massachusett. He owned several slaves; Pequots from Conneticut captured in the 1637 Pequot war.

Another epidemic swept through the Massachusett in 1633 which caused the death of the Neponsett sachem, Chickataubut. His son, Cutchamakin, assumed leadership and removed the remnants of the tribe well inland to the high ground on the North side of the river just below the second falls of the Neponset. What remains of this village is called Ventura Park on Ventura Street.

In that same year, Israel Stoughton received a 101 acre grant on the south side of the river--including much of what were the planting fields of the Neponsett--to construct a grist mill. One of the earliest water-powered mills in British America began operating in 1635.

On October 8, 1636, Cutchamakin deeded the remainder of his territory, called Unquety, to Richard Collicot for 28 fathoms of wampum. This was in addition to the 56 acres of salt marsh and upland which Collicot received earlier from Chickataubut. Collicot's land grant, which became modern day Milton, was clearly delineated by land forms. It stretched from the Neponset River, between the Estuary and Fowl Meadow to the summit of the Great Blue Hill.

The sachem reserved the best land for himself; forty acres of upland, salt marsh, and fields including present day Ventura playground and Dorchester Park.

John Eliot
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 Cutchamakin held on to his tiny tribe, vastly reduced in numbers by disease, which crippled their ability to farm or hunt, surrounded by a community governed by English law and the English God. Yet, it was this predictable order and community that the Neponsett needed to shake off the despair of isolation after two ferocious epidemics. The English gave some meaning to the lives of the Neponsett. The Massachusett also felt that their gods had abandoned them. Despite repeated entreaties, the once powerful powwas--the sole line of communication to Chepian--could find no explanations for the desolation of the 1617-1619 epidemic. The Massachusett were completely bewildered and lost after the 1633 epidemic.

Cutchamakin removed to the falls of the Neponset to be a part of a larger community; to feel safe.

The second relationship was ecclesiastical. In September of 1646, Reverend John Eliot took the Road to Plymouth to the falls of Neponset to pay a call on Cutchamakin. Eliot's goal was to convert the Massachusett to Christianity. The charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, signed by King Charles I in 1629 had as one of its principal objectives {to} "win the Natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only God."

Richard Collicot introduced Eliot to the Neponsett tribe at the falls. He made a gift of his slave to Eliot, as an interpreter and house servant. Eliot hoped to begin his ministry with the Neponsett, but Cutchamakin was unfriendly and unwilling to permit Eliot to convert either him or his people to the English God.

Eliot Indian Bible
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 Cutchamakin felt that his authority was threatened. But although he refused the religious teachings, the two men struck up a relationship and John Eliot visited the Neponsett sachem once a fortnight for the remainder of the life of the sachem. Most English ignored the Massachusett, but Eliot was a friend.

Eliot took his teachings to the sachem Waban of the Nonantum tribe on the Charles River. This tribe may have been remnants of the Shawmuts who were decimated in the 1617-1619 epidemic. The Nonantum received his teachings warmly, because they felt that the English God of Jehovah would protect them since their own gods had abandoned them to isolation and chaos.

By 1640, Cutchamakin was the principal sachem of what remained of the Massachusett confederation. He witnessed the nascent industrial age of North America and the decline of his own culture from his seat high above the falls of the Neponset River. To protect and sustain his own culture, Waban agreed to the plan suggested by Eliot to remove the Nonamtum to a community of their own, Natick, on the banks of the Charles. Cutchamakin resisted this, although late in life he did convert to Christianity. His old gods had deserted him and seeing that the English were immune from disease; the English Jehovah was obviously very strong. But Cutchamakin would never leave the land of his fathers and when he died in 1654, he was buried on his 40 acre tract in a ceremony fitting a sachem: on tree branches around his mound grave were draped his wealth of furs.

The English wanted the Neponsett land to expand their mill operation and for more farm land. Fearing increased isolation, the remnant Neponsett agreed to the plan suggested by Eliot to relocate to Ponkapoag. On December 7, 1657, the town of Dorchester granted 6,000 acres to the Neponsett for the new village. As an indication of how decimated the tribe was, only 12 families removed there in the spring of 1658. So attached were they to the Neponset Estuary and the woodlands and fields around it that the remaining Neponsett made annual pilgrimages to the falls of the river which bore their name until the 19th century.

By Richard Heath. October 23, 1996


The title of this essay is taken in part from the name of an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in March -July 1996 called Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America curated by Diana Fane who also edited the catalogue of the same name.

Cronin, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, 1983.

Johnson, Steven F. Ninnuock (The People) The Algonkian People of New England, 1995.

Russell, Howard S. Indian New England Before the Mayflower, 1980.

Morrison, Dane. A Praying People: Massachusett Acculturation and the Failure of the Puritan Mission, 1600-1690, 1996.

For attitudes toward Native Americans in the early years of English settlement, see Judge Sewalls Apology by Richard Francis. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Native Americans in Massachusetts
Map of Native Americans
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 The Native Americans who lived in several dozen villages around Massachusetts Bay were called the Massachusetts. They were in a tripartite alliance with two other confederations: the Wampanoags, a confederation of a dozen or so settlements to the south, and the Nausets with about thirty settlements on Cape Cod. All of these people spoke variants of Massachusett, a member of the Algonquian language family, the biggest in eastern North America at the time.

Source: 1491. New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

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Here are some images from the Atheneum archive related to this topic. Click on any of these images to open a slideshow of all 19 images.
Neponset RiverView of Neponset RiverDown the Neponset, Hallet & DavisNeponset River and Dam at Mattapan
Neponset River1637 Conjectural map of meadow lands south of Neponset RiverAerial view of Gallivan Boulevard and Neponset River BridgeLocation of Asa Robinson mill at Neponset
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Created: October 3, 2005   Modified: August 10, 2014