Chelmsford Historical Society
Indian History from the "History of Chelmsford" by Wilson Waters

At the time (1604) when the Sieur de Champlain discovered the Merrimack the region between the Concord and Merrimack rivers, afterwards called Concord Neck, and up to the Pawtucket falls, was the rendezvous of the Pawtucket or Pennacook Indians, the foremost of the five New England tribes, numbering, prior to the great plague of 1617, several thousand souls. [1]

The Territory over which they roamed included all of what is now New Hampshire. Wamesit, at the confluence of the rivers, Merrimack and Concord, was their capital or headquarters, and these streams attracted the red men on account of the abundant supply of fish which they afforded. "Merrimack" means sturgeon, and this fish with salmon, shad, and alewives were easily taken in goodly numbers. "It was no unusual spectacle to see thousands of the dusky sons and daughters of the forest encamped here in the season of Spring, catching with rude strategem their winter's store of fish. Aside from this periodical conventions of Indians this region contained one or two villages of more permanent inhabitants- one at Pawtucket falls and another at Massick or Wamesit falls. [Cowley.]

Within the bounds of the Lowell cemetery, during the progress of improvements, there have been exhumed, in past years, a large number of human bones, which should indicate that this was a burying place of the Indians. Near the Concord river a large skeleton, presumably that of an Indian chief, was found buried in what appeared to be charcoal. It was in a sitting posture, facing the east, and the skull seemed to have been broken by the blow of a tomahawk. Another skeleton seemed to indicate that the chief's squaw had been buried near him. A number of Indian fireplaces, constructed with stones, and of circular form have been discovered in this vicinity, at a depth of four or five feet below the surface of the ground, indicating great antiquity.

The purpose of this History requires but a brief account of the Indian inhabitants of this region. Extended narratives may be found in the writings of Gookin, Hubbard, Drake and others with descriptions of their wigwams, canoes, and implements and various personal ornaments. They were polytheists and polygamists, untruthful and fond of gambling; very hospitable and fond of extravagant dancing and reveling. Their government possessed of some noble traits and were grateful for kindness of all animal life. They had no priests, but the powwow, or medicine man, had almost unlimited influence among them.

Various writers have given us their observations on the relations of the Whites and Indians.

The Indians can hardly be said to have had proprietary right to the land. They were nomadic, occupying a certain territory as long as it afforded them a livelihood, their occupancy being determined largely by the superior strength of their particular tribe. The earliest cessions of land were made under a misconception on their part. They thought that the English, after a few years, would move on and leave the tract again to them. It was not easy to deal with them in buying land or in making treaties, as their government was on a loose system without a responsible head, so that it was uncertain that any compact made with them would be secure.

The Indian trade was one incentive to colonization, and the stubborn contest for supremacy on the par of the English, who felt that the country rightly belonged to those who could make the best use of it, developed among the pioneer settlers a bravery and spirit of endurance, which was an element of strength in the colony. The fierce and savage nature of the natives prevented their being largely domesticated as slaves and saved the northern colonies from the moral danger arising from contact with a servile race.

These treacherous foes persecuted scattered settlements in the interior country, and thus compacted the population and enabled the colonies to make a more united stand against the English government, when this became necessary.

Passaconaway, "the child of the bear," a man of considerable ability, was the earliest Indian chief whose subjects dwelt upon the banks of the Merrimack, and whom history has made known to us. He was regarded as a magician for whom the trees would dance and the rocks move, who in the summer turned water into ice, and in winter made it burst into flame. He could bring dead serpents to life, and make himself a burning fire. Major Gookin says he saw him alive about 1663, at Pawtucket, when he was about one hundred and twenty years old. He flourished at the time of the first permanent English settlements in Massachusetts, and showed himself the friend of the white man. In 1644 he, with others, made a treaty with and submitted themselves to the English. In 1660 he resigned the sachemship to his son, Wannalancet, and at a great banquet, according to the early chronicles, made the following oration:

Hearken to the words of your father! I am an old oak, that has withstood the storms of more than a hundred winters. Leaves and branches have been stripped from me by the winds and frosts. My eyes are dim; my limbs totter; I must soon fall. When young no one could bury the hatchet in a sapling before me. My arrows could pierce the deer at a hundred rods. No wigwam had so many furs, no pole had so many scalp-locks as Passaconaway's The I delighted in war. The whoop of the Penacooks was heard on the Mohawk and no voice so loud a Passaconaway's The scalps upon the pole in my wigwam told the sotry of Mohawk suffering. The English came; they seized the lands; they followed upon my footpath; I mad war on them, but they fought with fire and thunder. My young men were swept down before me when no one was near them. I tried sorcery against them but they increased, and prevailed over me and mine. I gave place to them, and retired to my beautiful Island, Naticook, I, that can take a rattlesnake in my palm as I would a worm without harm, - I, that have had communication with the Great Spirit, dreaming and awake, - I am powerless before the pale-faces. These meadows they shall turn with the plow; these forests shall fall by the axe. The palefaces shall live upon your hunting grounds, and make their villages upon your fishing places. The Great Spirit says this, and it must be so. We are few and powerless before them. We must bend before the storm; peace with the white man is the command of the Great Spirit, and the wish-the last wish- of Passaconaway. [Indian Wars of N.E., Caverly]

Wannalancet, the son of Passaconaway, succeeded his father in office and was friendly to the English. Numphow, the Indian magistrate, held a monthly court in a log cabin in the vicinity of the Boott canal in the City of Lowell. Samuel, his son, who had been well instructed in English and in Christianity, gave instruction to his fellow‑Indians in a log chapel near the west end of Appleton street in Lowell. Cowley was certain this stood near or upon the site of what is known as the Eliot church on Summer street. Mr. H. S. Perham thought there was not sufficient evidence to substantiate the opinion of Cowley. The writer has talked with both these men on the subject. Mr. Cowley claimed to have the evidence of some who had seen the log chapel before it disappeared in 1823 or 1824. John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, who in 1647 had made his first visit to Pawtucket falls on the Merrimack was their staunch friend and in 1653, when the Chelmsford and Billerica grants were made, secured an ample reservation for the exclusive use of the Indians, where the City of Lowell now stands. There were two villages: Pawtucket, east of the falls, and Wamesit, east of Massick or Wamesit falls. The two were finally merged into one, known as Wamesit. The bounds of the reservation were enlarged in 1656 and 1660, and a few years later a ditch was dug to mark its limits. Eliot and Gookin did good work among the Indians, who, for ten years or more, gave promise of growth in civilization. General Daniel Gookin, appointed superintendent of the Indians, gives this description of the praying town at Wamesit.

Wamesit is the fifth praying towns; and this place is situate upon Merrimak river, being a neck of land, where Concord river falleth into Merrimak river. It is about twenty miles from Boston, north north west, and within five miles of Billerica, and as much from Chelmsford: so that it hath Concord river upon the west north west; and Merrimak river upon the north north east. It hath about fifteen families; and consequently, as we compute, about seventy five souls. The quantity of land belonging to it is about twenty‑five hundred acres. The land is fertile and yieldeth plenty of corn. It is excellently accommodated with a fishing place; and there is taken variety of fish in their season, as salmon, shad, lamprey eels, sturgeon, bass, and divers others. There is a great confluence of Indians, that usually resort to this place in the fishing seasons.

"Of these strange Indians divers are vitious and wicked men and women; which Satan makes use of to obstruct the prosperity of religion here. The ruler of this people is called Numphow. He is one of the blood of their chief sachems. Their teacher is called Samuel: son to the ruler, a young man of good parts, rind can speak, read, and write English and Indian competently. He is one of those that was bred up at school, at the charge of the Corporation for the Indians. These Indians, if they were diligent and industrious,‑to which they have been frequently excited, might get much by their fish, especially fresh salmon, which are of esteem and good price at Boston in the season; and the Indians being stored with horses of a low price, might furnish the market fully, being at so small a distance. And divers other sort of fish they might salt or pickle, as sturgeon and bass; which would be much to their profit. But notwithstanding divers arguments used to persuade them, and some orders made to encourage them; yet their idleness and improvidence doth hitherto prevail.

"At this place, once a year, at the beginning of May, the English magistrate keeps his court" accompanied with Mr. Eliot, the minister: who at this time takes his opportunity to preach, not only to the inhabitants, but to as many of the strange Indians, that can be persuaded to hear him: of which sort, usually in times of peace, there are considerable numbers at that season. And this place being an ancient and capital seat of Indians, they come to fish; and this good man takes this opportunity to spread the net of the gospel, to fish for their souls.

"Here it may not be impertinent to give you the relation following. May 5th, 1674, according to our usual custom, Mr. Eliot and myself took our journey to Wamesit, or Pawtuckett; and arriving there that evening, Mr. Eliot preached to as many of them as could be got together out of Mat. xxii. 1‑14, the parable of the marriage of the king's son. We met at the wigwam of one called Wannalancet, about two miles from the town, near Pawtuckett falls, and bordering upon Merrimak river. This person, Wannalancet, is the eldest son of old Passaconaway, the chiefest sachem of Pawtuckett. He is a sober and grave person, and of years, between fifty and sixty. He hath been always loving and friendly to the English. Many endeavors have been used several years to gain this sachem to embrace the christian religion; but he hath st(5od off from time to time, and not yielded up himself personally, though for four years past he hath been willing to hear the word of God preached, and to keep the Sabbath.‑A great reason that hath kept him off , I conceive, hath been the indisposition and averseness of sundry of his chief men and relations to pray to God; which he foresaw would desert him, in case he turned christian.‑But at this time, May 6th, 1674, it pleased God so to influence and overcome his heart, that it being proposed to him to give his answer concerning praying to God, after some deliberation and serious pause, he stood up, and made a speech to this effect:

" 'SIRS: You have been pleased for four years last past, in your abundant love, to apply yourselves particularly unto me and my people, to exhort, press and persuade us to pray to, God. I am very thankful to you for your pains. I must acknowledge, said he, I have, all my days, used to pass in an old canoe (alluding to his frequent custom to pass in a canoe upon the river) and now you exhort me to change and leave my old canoe, and embark in a new canoe, to which I have hitherto been unwilling; but now I yield up myself to your advice, and enter into a new canoe, and do engage to pray to God hereafter.'

"This his professed subjection was well pleasing to all that were present, of which there were some English persons of quality; as Mr. Richard Daniel, a gentleman that lived in Billerica, about six miles off, and Lieutenant Henchman a neighbor at Chelmsford, besides brother Eliot and myself, with sundry others, English and Indians. Mr. Daniel before named desired brother Eliot to ten this sachem from him, that it may be, while he went in his old canoe, he passed in a quiet stream; but the end thereof was death and destruction to soul and body. But now he went into a new canoe, perhaps he would meet with storms and trials, but yet he should be encouraged to persevere, for the end of his voyage would be everlasting rest. Moreover he and his people were exhorted by brother Eliot and myself, to go on and sanctify the sabbath, to hear the word, and use the means that God hath appointed, and encourage their hearts in the Lord their God. Since that time, I hear this sachem doth persevere, and is a constant and diligent hearer of God's word, and sanctifieth the sabbath, though he doth travel to Wamesit meeting every sabbath, which is above two miles; and though sundry of his people have deserted him since he subjected to the gospel, yet he continues and persists.

"In this town they observe the same civil and religious orders as in other towns, and have a constable and other officers.

"This people of Wamesit suffered more in the late war with the Mawkawks than any other praying town of Indians; for divers of their people were slain; others wounded; and some carried into captivity; which providence hath much hindered the prosperous estate of this place."

From this account it appears that their capital was on the east of Concord river, in what is now Belvidere. Allen states that Wamesit consisted of about 2500 acres, of which 1000 were estimated to be east of Concord river and 1500 on the west.

The English came to this region at an opportune moment, because, a few years previously, the number of Indians had been greatly reduced by a most sanguinary war begun about 1614 between the Pawtuckets and the Tarrantines of Maine, whose devastation was followed by a terrible pestilence, which so afflicted the Indians that they "died in heaps." Thousands of corpses were left unburied, and the terrors of the plague were greatly increased by the comet of 1618, which appealed to the superstition of the savages.

In the early settlement of New England, says Allen, the Pawtuckets consisted of about 3000; and, in 1674, 250. At Wamesit, when Mr. Eliot persuaded them to receive the Gospel, there were about 75 souls. Wannalancet resisted all Eliot's efforts, until 1674, when he received the Christian religion, and persevered in it, although some of his people abandoned him on that account. At the time of King Philip's war, the English and Indians in New England were about equal in number, probably 55,006 each.

In 1642, upon suspicion of conspiracy to exterminate the English, forty men were‑ sent to arrest Passaconaway, but could not find him. Wannalancet was taken and tied with a rope, which he loosened and escaped. He was retaken, and his squaw captured. When the English saw they had been mistaken in their suspicions, they apologized to Passaconaway, and invited him to Boston. "Tell the English," he said, "when they restore my son and his squaw, I will talk with them."

Thinking the Mohawks were about to attack them, Wannalancet and a number of Indians descended the Merrimack, in 1669, and built a fort on what became known as Fort Hill, in Belvidere, Lowell. The English settlers became alarmed. The Indians of this region, numbering several hundred, and including the most dangerous, went against the Mohawks and were badly defeated. Wannalancet, however, ‑was peaceably disposed, and friendly to the English, and escaped the fate of many of his race.

For the first twenty years, the relations between the people of Chelmsford and the Indians were friendly. Trade between them was mutually advantageous. By it the Indian obtained food in winter (when, from their improvidence, it was lacking); better utensils; and, too often, rum.

The Massachusetts Court held that trade with the Indians belonged to the Commonwealth and not to particular persons. From The Returne of ye Committee betrusted to agree with such as presented to carry alonge ye Trade of Furrs, we learn that The exclusive right of Trading with the Indians on the Merrimack River was sold to Simon Willard, Thomas Henchman ensign Thomas Wheeler and William Brenton for ℒ25. on July 1, 1657. The trade of Concord sold for ℒ5; that of Springfield and Norwottock for ℒ20; Cambridge ℒ2; Nashaway & Grotton ℒ8.


From 1637, when the crushing blow was given to the Pequots, until 1675, the people of New England were at peace with the Indians.  But as the years went by, the courage of the Indians revived. Though contrary to the law, the savages procured rum and muskets, both of which were elements in this revival.

1644, June 12. Passaconaway and Nanamocomuck signed a covenant submitting themselves and their subjects and possessions to the Massachusetts Government.

1645. The military officers of the several towns were ordered to keep a daily watch against the Indians; and the Reverend Elders were requested to give advice concerning the Christianizing of the Indians.

1654. Persons licensed to sell intoxicating liquors to Indians were advised not to sell more than one pint to each individual.

1656. The sale of horses, boats and skiffs to the Indians. was prohibited.

1659. John Eliot asked that Indians have no power to sell their land. But within a month (Nov. 8th) an order was issued permitting them to sell an island in Merrimack river (Wicassee) to John Evered to redeem Nanamocomuck, a son of Passaconaway, from imprisonment for a debt of 945. In 1663 there was made a grant of 3,000 acres on the same river at Naticot to Passaconaway and his associates.

In 1663 John Evered and Thomas Hinchman were appointed to lay out 100 acres for Wannalancet about twelve miles from the house of Evered, on a great hill near a great pond.

1665. The Indians, living on the "Island of Wicosucke," asked permission to exchange other lands for the island purchased by Mr. John Webb (Evered), Wannalancet to surrender 100 acres of land formerly granted him by the Court. This was granted, and the Court gave John Evered, alias Webb, 500 acres adjoining his own, if he release his right and interest in Wicosuche.

Wickasauke, Wicassee or Tyng's island, in the Merrimack river, opposite the northwestern part of Chelmsford, was owned by the family of Passaconaway, and cultivated as a corn field. Wannalancet, the son and successor of that chief, occasionally made it a place of residence. As stated, Wannalancet's elder brother was in prison in Boston, having become surety to one John Tinker, for another Indian to the amount of L45. In order to have Nanamocomuck released from jail, Wannalancet obtained permission from the General Court to sell the island in 1659 to John Webb, alias Evered. Wannalancet was granted 100 acres on a hill, ten or twelve miles westward. The former, owners came again into possession of the island, for the release of which the Court gave Mr. Webb 500 acres, and Wannalancet forfeited his 100 acres, above mentioned. After King Philip's war about sixty of the praying Indians from Wamesit were removed to this island or vicinity, under the care of Jonathan Tyng. They remained there about ten years, when they removed to St. Francis in Canada.

In 1680 Capt. James Oliver, admitted freeman 1640, member of the Artillery Company, petitioned the Court to grant him the Island whereon the Indian Wianenset lately dwelt lying neer Dunstable," etc. The Court for his relief on account of his incapacity for getting a "livelyhud, " granted to his Kinsman, Nathaniel Barnes, with whom he lived, "a small Island of upland containing about twenty acres (more or less) wch lyeth in Merimack River near to Mr. Jonathan Tings farme wch Island hath been commonly caled & knowne by ye name of Tinker's Island, etc. [Massachusetts Archives, Vol. 45, p. 174.1

October 18, 1681. The Court granted him two hundred acres where it is to be found.

December 5, 1683. Tyng's island, called Weikeset, was granted to Mr. Jonathan Tyng, in full, for all accounts having to do with his care of the Indians. [Massachusetts Bay Records, Vol. V, p. 430.1

Whereas Mr. Jonathan Ting of Dunstable hath obtained of ye Honord Genll Court of the Massachusetts Bay a grant of a certaine Jland lying in Merimack River, near to the north east corner of Chelmsford land and partly right over and against a great commonfield in Chelmsford, lying upon said Merrimack River, which Jland is called & Known by ye name of Wekesoak Jland, which Jland hath been formerly planted by the indians" of which "the indian right & title did & do belong & appertaine to Wanalansit, and indian sachem." The latter sells to Jonathan Ting for the full & just sum of six pounds sterling, New England coyne‑27th Oct. 1685. [Early Court Files, Number 2356.]

[1] This reference is to the small pox epidemic which devestated both the Indian and white populations.

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