New England Before Europeans – the Native Americans

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Rough Locations of Primary New England Native American Tribes

Rough Locations of Primary New England Native American Tribes

Map © 2008 DeLorme ( TOPO USA® – Annotations by the Author

By the time white Europeans arrived, New England had been inhabited by Native Americans for over a thousand years. Migrating here after the retreat of the last ice age, by 1500 they had a population likely in excess of 100,000. Originally hunters and gatherers, they had become more agricultural – with extensive fields of corn (maize), beans, and squash.  By this time the tribes were fundamentally stationary, but shifted dwellings several times year based on weather – winter, autumn hunting, and summer.

The New England tribes had a common heritage and belonged to the Algonquian family. Their language was fairly common, and although each tribe had nuances, there was the ability to be understood from Cape Cod to Canada.

Politically, each tribe and sub-tribe had a single primary ruler, called “sachem” or “sagamore”.  These sachem were usually men, but sometimes there were squaw, or female, sachem.  Within the tribal hierarchy, there were sub-sachems for functions such as the military (for war), powwows (medicine), and other functions.

At the time of the white man’s arrival, there were a number of principle tribes, many peaceful, but some warlike and in competition with their neighbors. The names of these tribes have been inherited by many New England towns, rivers and lakes. Those tribes included:

  • The Abnaki, also known as the Tarrantine to other tribes, inhabited western Maine, especially the Kennebec Androscoggin & Saco River valleys, as well as portions of neighboring New Hampshire. As this is the colder and more mountainous portion of New England, the Abnaki tended more to hunting than farming. More warlike than their southern neighbors, many tribes, and particularly the Massachusetts, lived in dread of Tarrantine raids. They had a reputation for cruelty and were accused of cannibalism by the English.
  • The Penacook inhabited southern and central MA, northeastern MA and southeastern ME, with the principle subdivision around Concord, NH. The Penacook had many subordinate tribes including the Nashua, Piscataqua, and the Winnepesaukee.
  • The Massachusett (in Algonquian, “people of the great hills”), from whom the state of Massachusetts got its name, inhabited the eastern area of state, around Boston. Originally one of the more powerful tribes, it was devastated by the plague and wars with the Abnaki. Their population declined from about 3,000 to 500 between 1615 and 1630.
  • The Wampanoag inhabited the areas of southeastern Massachusetts near where the Pilgrims landed in current Plymouth. They were also devastated by the plague. Metacom (King Philip of “King Philip’s War”) was Wampanoag.
  • The Narragansetts were a powerful tribe that lived in present-day Rhode Island.
  • The Niantics were a largely coastal tribe lived on Narragansett Bay, and extended as far west as the Pequot tribe in Connecticut.
  • The Pequots, of eastern Connecticut were originally part of the Mahican (known as Mohegan, a corruption of the Mahigan name) a tribe of the of upper Hudson River valley in New York.  They were warlike and aggressive and the primary protagonist in the Pequot War in 1637-1638.
  • The Nipmucs who inhabited central MA, were a comparatively weak tribe who frequently paid tribute to their neighbors.
  • The Pocumtucks were a loose association of tribes that lived west of the Nipmucks in the areas around Deerfield, MA.
  • South of the Pocumtucks along the Connecticut River Valley lived the “River Indians”, another loose association of tribes.
  • Bordering the River Indians to the west was the Wappinger Confederacy, which extended from the west bank of the Hudson River as far south as Manhattan and north to Poughkeepsie. Tribes of the Wappinger included the Mattabesic, Quinnipiac, Paugusset, and Tunxis.
  • North of the Wappinger Confederacy were the Mahicans, (Mohecan), the parent tribe to the Pequots. They inhabited the western Connecticut and the upper Hudson Valley in New York.
  • The Nausets were a smaller tribe that lived on Cape Cod.
  • The Montauks inhabited eastern Long Island.
  • The Mohawks, who spanned most of eastern New York State, were the easternmost tribe of the Iroquois confederacy, e.g., they were not Algonquin. Extremely warlike, they were formidable and feared by the Algonquin tribes.

Between 1616 and 1619 a plague, or the “Great Dying,” wiped out almost ¾ of the New England Native American population, with the devastation worse in the coastal areas where mortality was as high as 95%. A major effect was that when white settlers began arriving, starting in 1620, they encountered very little of the indigenous population. The Native American’s ability to resist the Europeans was very weak.

For Part 2, the Early Exploration of New England, click here.

Sources and for additional reading:

Bragdon, Kathleen Joan, Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Vaughan, Alden T., New England Frontier Puritans and Indians 1620-1675.  Little Brown and Company Boston, 1965.


Henry VIII’s Critical Influence on Boston’s Founding

There is an amazing linkage between Henry VIII (king of England from 1509 to 1547) and the founding of Boston. In his quest to produce a male heir, Henry wanted to divorce his first queen, Catherine of Aragon. The pope refused to annul the marriage, so Henry drove what became known as the English Reformation (+/-1530) by which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. (Henry’s motives were also political, but that is another story.)
When England broke with the Catholic Church, many different Protestant sects vied for power. After Henry’s death, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen, reigning 1558-1603), set out to eliminate the “foolish theological quibbling” among the Protestant sects by formalizing the Church of England (Anglican Church) as the official church and instituting Penal Laws to enforce compliance.
The Church of England retained many of the trappings and hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which many English Protestants abhorred. Some dissenters joined the Church of England and worked to “purify” the church from within, becoming known as “Puritans”. Some refused to join church, and became known as “Separatists.”
Elizabeth’s successors, James I (rule 1603 – 1625) and his son Charles I (rule 1625 – 1649), made things particularly uncomfortable for the dissenters and were zealous in enforcing conformity to the Church of England. The persecution inflicted on the non-conforming Protestant approaches prodded two key groups to leave England in search of religious freedom and found settlements important to Boston history.
The first group of dissenters were Separatists, who after departing England for Holland in 1608, left for America 1620 and founded Plymouth, about 40 miles south of Boston. This group was relatively poor and agrarian.
The second group was more affluent and included sophisticated merchants and businessmen. Led by John Winthrop, they sailed from England to New England in 1630 with the ambitious mission to create a new society, a “city upon a hill” (reference from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount), that would be watched by the world. This new kind of society would balance both civil and ecclesiastical dimensions for the good of the public – guided by God and the Bible. This group landed near present day Salem, MA, about 20 miles north of Boston. They then moved south and founded Boston, named for a town near their home in Lincolnshire, England.
Would Boston have been founded if Henry had not wanted a male heir? Over time, there would have certainly been an important city at site of present-day Boston.  However, it would not have been called Boston, and it would not be close to the city we know. The Puritans, their culture, their society and even their form of governing was instrumental to the character of early Boston, the American Revolution, and lives on to this day. Thank you, King Henry.