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Squaw Sachem

(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 same word.

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.

Sachem Nanepashemet

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.

Squaw Sachem

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 kindnesses."

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.

(courtesy of Ellen Knight)



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