(This article is based on a series of articles written for The Daily Times
Chronicle, Winchester Edition, published in December 1999.)
It is to the sachems of the Massachusetts Bay that Winchester owes its
beginning as a colonized community and subsequent town. The sachems were the
leaders, the kings and queens of the Massachusett tribes whose domain extended
from north of Plymouth to the Merrimack River.
According to Captain John Smith, who explored New England in 1614, the
Massachusett tribes called their kings "sachems" while the Penobscots (of
Maine) used the term "sagamos" (anglicized as "sagamore"). Conversely, Deputy
Governor Thomas Dudley of Roxbury wrote in 1631 that the kings in the bay area
were called sagamores but were called sachems southward (in Plymouth).
The two terms apparently came from the same root. Although "sagamore"
has sometimes been defined by colonists and historians as a subordinate lord,
modern opinion is that "sachem" and "sagamore" are dialectical variations of the
Both terms are found in early Winchester history. Squaw Sachem was the title
of the queen who lived west of the Mystic Lakes (among other places), while
her three sons, each of whom had his own territory, were called sagamores by
the English. Whatever called, tribal leadership was usually hereditary. Within
a nation or federation of tribes, there could be a chief or principal sachem.
The first sachem of the Massachusetts Bay territory to be identified by
name, Nanepashemet (husband of the Squaw Sachem) was known to the colonists
only by reputation, since he died in 1619, well before John Winthrop's party
arrived in Charleston in 1630.
Nanepashemet (whose name is usually translated as "New Moon") was,
according to modern scholarly thought, chief sachem of the Massachusetts, though
older histories may identify him as a Pawtuckett or even a Naumkeag. His
domain, according to the traditional story, extended roughly from Weymouth to
Portsmouth, NH, and as far west as Northfield. Though verifying the extent of his
sovereignty may now be impossible, what is clear is that, when the colonists arrived,
his family's territory stretched from the Charles River up to Salem, Lynn, and
Marblehead and extended westerly out to Concord.
Before the colonists arrived, traders and explorers visited New England
and had contact with the natives. Smith described "the country of the
Massachusits" as "the Paradice of all those parts, for here are many Iles planted with Corne,
Groves, Mulberies, salvage Gardens, and good
Harbours." He did not learn as much as he would have liked, he wrote,
because of the presence of the French.
Both Smith and Samuel de Champlain, who explored New England in 1605 and
1606, reported that the natives were quite populous. But that situation
changed during the last years of Nanepashemet, the only ones of which we have any
knowledge. Those years were a time of devastation for the natives of
Massachusetts and other parts of New England. With a few years of Smith's report
of seeing "great troupes" of people and a number of villages along the
coast, war with the Tarratines (Abnakis) of Maine and a great pestilence (still
unidentified) wiped out masses of the natives in Massachusetts.
On a later visit (1619-20) Smith wrote "where I had seene one hundred or
two hundred Salvages, there is scarce ten to be found." According to Daniel
Gookin, writing in 1674 (by which time other epidemics had struck), the
Massachusett tribes, which could formerly number 3,000 men plus women and children,
then only numbered about 300 men, plus women and children.
According to the traditional story, Nanepashemet was living around Lynn
before the Tarratines invaded. Under pressure from his enemies, he retreated to
Medford, where he built a stockade on Rock Hill, where he fell to his enemies in
1619. The site was visited by the Pilgrim Edward Winslow who, along with Myles
Standish and eight others, explored the Massachusetts Bay in September 1621, guided by
Squanto and two other friendly Indians. At the end of the month, they
went ashore and met a chief named Obbatinewat who told them of Nanepashemet's widow, the Squaw Sachem.
Though they found Nanepashemet's last refuge,
they did not find the queen.
The colonists of Salem, exploring land to their south, met Nanepashemet's eldest
son, Wonohaquaham, who reportedly invited the colonists to settle in the
Charlestown area, which Gov. Winthrop and his party did. His friendship
and that of his mother, the Squaw Sachem, opened the way for the settling of what
became the town of Winchester.
The name of the queen of the Massachusetts has not come down to us, just
her Indian title, the Squaw Sachem. It was apparently a rare but not unique
title. Reportedly, there were other squaw sachems known to the colonists: three
in Connecticut, two in Rhode Island, one other in Massachusetts. According
to William Wood (1634), "if there be no sachem the queen rules." When
Nanepashemet was killed, his sons were too young to rule in his stead.
The two eldest had barely attained their majority when they succumbed to small
pox. Not surprisingly, the deeds to the land were executed by the Squaw Sachem.
By the time the Squaw Sachem sold and gave her land to the English, the
way had been prepared for the colonists. The more zealous (and arrogant)
Puritans called it Providence. But it was actually a series of calamities that reduced the
Squaw Sachem's people to a fraction of their former size, much weakened and
continually threatened by war and pestilence.
These afflictions included the fierce, repeated, and deadly attacks upon
her people by their mortal enemies, the Tarratines of Maine, which, according to the
traditional story, drove her and her four surviving children inland at the time they
killed her husband. Then there was a devastating plague that killed a horrifying
number of her tribespeople. There were other tribal enmities and skirmishes.
Then the English came offering friendship and protection. Wonohaquaham
and other sachems accepted the offers of alliance. The Squaw Sachem kept
open the friendly door which her son had opened to the English and opted to share
her land in peace with them. In addition to selling land, she executed a deed, to
take effect after her death, that gave gave the land west of the Mystic Lakes, "as a small
gift," to Jotham Gibbons, son of Edward Gibbons" to acknowledge their many
In some of the documents, her name is joined with that of her second
husband, the tribe's powwow, Webcowit. According to the colonial writer, Thomas
Lechford, "commonly when (the king) dies the Powahe (powwow) marries the Squa
Sachem, that is, the queene." Widowed in 1619, the Squaw Sachem married Webcowit
sometime before 1635.
In Winchester, the Squaw Sachem has been called "Queen of Mysticke" ever
since Luther R. Symmes delivered a paper in 1884 to the Winchester
Historical and Genealogical Society using that name, taken from one of her deeds. But
she was queen of much more - of Salem, Concord, and other communities from
Charlestown to Marblehead. In Winchester, she is most associated with Myopia Hill,
because, while deeding other land now in Winchester to the English, she reserved
the land west of the Mystic Lakes for herself and, in 1650, probably died there.
The extent of her domain can be estimated from the deeds with the English.
She and some others sold Concord in 1637, according to depositions taken in
1684, for "wampumpeage," hatchets, hoes, knives, cotton cloth, and shirts, plus a
new cotton suit, hat, linen band, shoes, stocking, and great coat for Webcowit.
In 1637 Squaw Sachem and Webcowit signed the deed, to be effective after
her death, giving the land west of the Mystic Pond to Jotham Gibbons. That
year, they received from Edward Gibbons "36 shillings for land between the
Charlestowne and Wenotomies River."
In 1638 Charlestown granted its citizens permission to settle land to the
north. In April 1639 Squaw Sachem and Webcowit sold them the land (except the
Myopia Hill parcel). After her death, the deed said, more land "to neere Salem" was
to go to men of Charlestown. For this they received 21 coats, 19 fathoms of
wampom, and three bushels of corn.
Although colonial documents record that the Indians "acknowledged
themselves to bee satisfied" with their compensation, the selling prices today may seem
cheap, even a swindle. But, it may be argued, the Indians also benefited from
the alliance with a people who could and did assist the natives and who had
established their military strength, particularly during the Pequot War of 1637.
Additionally, the Indians received help and goods from the settlers. In
May 1640, Cambridge was ordered to give the Squaw Sachem a coate every winter for
life. In 1641, Cambridge was enjoined to give her 35 bushels of corn and four
coates (for two years). In 1643, the court granted her gunpowder and shot and ordered
"her piece to be mended."
There were advantages to being friends with the English. There were also
disadvantages, for, in exchange for the privileges they offered, the
English were gradually taking over the government, not only of their own people but of
the natives as well. In 1644 the Squaw Sachem and four other sachems signed a treaty
of submission, agreeing to abide by the government and jurisdiction of the
English colony and promising willingness to be instructed in their religion.
In addition, as the number of the English colonists continued to grow, so
did their desire for land. Where there appeared to be unlimited land, collectively
the English began to push the natives aside. One deed even specified "all Indians to
depart" following the death of the Squaw Sachem.
The queen died in 1650. Although stories have been written that, in the
end, she was deaf and blind and died by drowning, there is no documentary evidence.
Only her death date is known since, in that year, lawsuits over the land began.
The Squaw Sachem was survived by a son and daughter and several
grandchildren. The son lived around Salem, and the daughter at the "praying village" of
Natick. Some of their histories are known through the time of King Philip's War
and for a few years beyond, but as the natives gradually left the colonized areas,
their stories disappear from the written records.
Information on the sachems is, unfortunately limited, and is confined to
European and colonial writers. Nanepashemet and the Squaw Sachem were leaders of a
now vanished tribe, no longer able to give us their traditions.