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Encyclopedia of North American Indians


The Massachusetts, indigenous residents of what are now the central and northern coastal regions of the state of Massachusetts, claimed territories extending as far south and east as present-day Marshfield, Massachusetts, and west to the boundaries marked by the Charles and Seekonk Rivers. At the time of first contact with French and English explorers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Massachusetts were a populous, semisedentary people dependent on marine and estuarine resources, cultivated crops, and wild game. The Massachusetts were among the hardest hit of southern New England native peoples by the European-introduced epidemic of 1616-19, which may have claimed up to 90 percent of their population.

Like most of their neighbors, the Massachusetts were organized into political units known as sachemships, each led by a hereditary ruler, usually male, known as a sachem or sagamore. A complex and hierarchical social order was characteristic of these sachemships, with the sachem occupying the position of highest prestige. The sachem's responsibilities included the allocation of land, diplomacy, trade, and decisions concerning warfare. The sachem's advisers, sometimes called "nobles" by English settlers, shared the burdens of leadership as well. Warriors who underwent rigorous training also occupied positions of status within Massachusett society.

Labor was divided by gender; women among the Massachusetts farmed, collected shellfish, and undertook most domestic chores. Men were hunters, deep-sea fishermen, traders, and warriors.

The Massachusett cosmos was populated by numerous beings and forces collectively and individually known as manitou, a term also used to describe anything strange, wonderful, or inexplicable. Manitou was sought through dreams, fasting, and visions, and its possession was linked to power, health, and well-being. The principal religious practitioners among the Massachusetts, known as pawauog (and called "powwows" by English travelers), encountered manitou in dreams, and thereafter served their communities as curers, prophets, and wonder workers.

Early relations between the Massachusetts and English settlers, with the exception of hostilities provoked by the Pilgrims at Wessagusset (now Weymouth, Massachusetts), were generally peaceful, but the attenuated native population was rapidly overwhelmed by the Great Migration of the 1630s. The rapid expansion of English settlement, and the subsequent isolation of the Massachusetts from more powerful native allies, may have motivated those Massachusett people who in 1646 agreed to receive John Eliot, who then held the office of teacher at the Roxbury, Massachusetts, church, as a missionary. In keeping with the Puritan "text-based" theology, Eliot initiated efforts to establish vernacular literacy among the Massachusetts, an effort that had largely succeeded by the end of the seventeenth century.

Eliot's missionary program brought together Massachusett people with neighboring Nipmucks and Pokanokets into a number of villages that came to be known as "praying towns." These communities remained largely isolated and self-sufficient until the end of the eighteenth century. Increasingly confined to small acreages, and constrained by debt to sell much of their remaining land, the Massachusetts by the mid-nineteenth century had become largely invisible to outsiders, but continued to maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity into modern times.

Ives Goddard and Kathleen Bragdon, Native Writings in Massachusett American Philosophical Society Memoir no. 185 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988); Bert Salwen, Handbook of North American Indians "Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Early Period," ed. William C. Sturtevant, vol. 15, Northeast, ed. Bruce Trigger (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978).

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