Native Americans in Jamaica Plain

Too many people in this area of Massachusetts believe Francis Drake's statement in his History of Roxbury (of which Jamaica Plain was a part) that no traces of aboriginal occupation were ever observed there. Proof to the contrary comes from the Indian artifacts from our major tract of mostly untouched land, the Arboretum, which will be dealt with in a later article.

They are the people of little talk and stern look, of little laughter, proud as well as arrogant. They go with rough hair on the left knot-tied, trimming the tufts orderly in uneven masses. They have a straight, robust, tall build, clad in deerskins against winter’s harsh cold, so that they may push the pulled-up pelt to meet the blast when they please with right arm kept warm by a pelt, so ‘tis easy to take up the flexible bow. Deerskin coverings adorn their thighs and long legs, while tight-fitting moccasins protect their feet.
— -Wm. Morrell, Nova Anglia

More proof is found in the literature promoting New England to Old England, written in the later 1600's by the few Puritans (Eliot, Gookin, Morrell, Wood), who knew and loved the Indians they dealt with - in stark contrast to the prevailing Puritan notion that a good Indian was a dead one.

All of these authors give a uniform picture of one branch of the grand old Algonquin tribes of New England. Among them were the Massachusetts, who lived within the perimeter of our Rt. 128 under a sachem, Kuchamakin (after whom Jamaica Plain is probably named), headquartered at the mouth of the Neponset River with sagamores under him ruling various family groups. The tribal names, meaning "by the great (Blue) Hill," shows their location, as many Indian names do, and the name was spread westward on the map by the Puritans as this was the first tribe the dominant English met.

A male Indian of this tribe has almost always been on the seal of Massachusetts, even when a colony, as the stained-glass Main Stair Window in the State House shows. Part of the reason may well be some guilt rightly felt at the poor treatment of the natives. During King Phillip's War (1675-76), among other things, Rev. John Eliot's Christianized Indians in the 14 "Praying Towns" were shipped to Deer Island in Boston Harbor for the winter of 1675/6. Furthermore, the 2,500 natives here were almost extinct by 1700 due to diseases caught from the English, including alcoholism. Only two other states have Indians on their seal, seen on state flags and buildings.

In 1885, the legislature decided to set an official standard for the state seal. By happy coincidence, in 1888, workmen excavating for a railroad in Winthrop unearthed several Indian skeletons near the central railroad station. Archeological digs yielded 10 more skeletons in a crouched position at a depth of 2 Ω feet with some Algonquin artifacts, indicating burial about 1600 - a rarity among known Indian burials.

Grave one contained a complete six-foot male skeleton originally wrapped in a woven mat, along with 10 bone arrow-points, two beaver tooth knives, and a corroded iron bar. A brass arrow-point was imbedded in the lower spine, death having been caused to the man by being shot through the abdomen. Other graves yielded the more usual Algonquin brass beads made from sheets sold by European fishermen, who were in the vicinity long before any settlers. The fine condition of the remains enabled Harvard's Peabody Museum staff to flesh out this Massachusetts Indian.

He is dressed (after specimens in the Peabody) in winter clothing of pelt shirt, leggings, and deerskin moccasins rather than in pelt angled over the body, although natives are known to have ice-fished in Adam's state. The long hair flows naturally, though it was often worn differently. Summer clothing was usually limited to a breech-clout. Following early sources, feathers were added in the style still worn by other surviving Algonquin tribes. He wears no paint. The beads and arrow-points are modeled from those buried at Winthrop. The belt is that of King Philip, while the bow (the Indian symbol for hunting excellence) is modeled after the only Massachusetts bow known - both are at the Peabody along with the arrows.

The representation from the Peabody became the basis of the revised seal of the Commonwealth in 1898. Interestingly, the state artist fell under the influence of other seals designed after 1780 and shifted bow and arrows to produce a left-handed Indian who probably existed - but not on the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The single arrow pointing downwards shows peaceful intent, reinforced by the fact that there is no quiver for a supply of weapons. Thus on our Commonwealth's seal is a perpetual genuine native of our area "whose feet in ancient time did walk upon New England's mountain green" as well as in our Arboretum, the area of Jamaica Plain nearest to the Indian's non-corrupting way of life.

Artifacts Reveal Much About Indians' Lives

The last article in this column revealed the dress, weapons, government, and appearance of our area's primeval residents and made mention of their artifacts found in the Arboretum. The artifacts have recently been re-catalogued at Harvard's Peabody Museum and will soon return to the Arboretum's Visitor Center. Viewers will then note that these materials are all of that most indestructible item, stone, and that they were found on or near the surface as the Arboretum collection was being planted.

Other materials, easier to recognize, of shell, bone, or clay, were probably removed early on by white men in our area or were such that they disintegrated in the earth soon after usage. In addition, Indian families had few possessions.

The majority of their relics found - never of metal - are the Indian trademark of the arrowhead or the projectile point for a javelin. Compatible with these are the stone knives, scrapers, and a hatchet found at four places in the Arboretum.

All these point to the Massachusetts Indian diet of meat, chiefly from moose and deer, which also provided their pre-English clothing. Such artifacts would also be in use for fishing - an occupation still seen at Jamaica Pond, the only such body of water in the City of Boston. Contrary to popular belief these Indians were not keen on living by the seashore, but when the white men wanted forest as well as shore a collision was forthcoming.

An artifact associated with Indian sites but not found in the Arboretum is a grindstone - something easily carried off by the Indians or by earlier souvenir hunters. Grindstones were a keystone of the aboriginal diet: corn, processed and stored for use during the long New England winter along with pounded and/or dried vegetables, nuts, and berry pastes.

As was common in the culture, women tended the fields and did the domestic tasks, while the men hunted and trapped - all bringing disbelief to the first Europeans to our shores. The Massachusetts garden of that era consisted of beans, pumpkins, tobacco, wild rice, popcorn and maize corn - which so often saved the Pilgrims and Puritans from starvation.

The lone drill and the digging tool in the Arboretum's collection give evidence of the daily life of Indian women as well. They also worked the furs of the captured animals and were very proud of their fur jackets, but their usual costume was a skin skirt around the waist with a belt and hair dressed with great care. The drink for all was water with cider in season, so that it is no wonder they took to white man's "firewater" for a welcome change.

The Arboretum's Indian artifacts were found in four areas: the meadow by the Visitor Center, the summits of Peters and Bussey Hills, and a village site by Spring Brook.

The sites were chosen either for height for defense or water for drinking - nothing new in the history of human habitation.

The Massachusetts, like all the grand old Algonquins, lived in communal bark lodges, hemispherical in shape, made of branch supports and covered over with bark rugs, skins, and grass mats, all of highly perishable material. A small hole allowed the smoke to exit through the top of the dwelling, and seats were built onto the supports to allow for sitting or sleeping. These habitations are the type to be seen at Indian museums in New England. With little imagination, one can picture the Arboretum's Spring Brook Village with its background and naked Indian children at their games while their mothers worked and their fathers (if not out hunting) are playing ball, running races, dancing, or swimming.

This, then, was the Massachusetts tribe, one of the Algonquin language group stretching from Nova Scotia to Virginia to the Blackfeet in the Midwest as far as the Mississippi, with the fearsome exception of the Iroquois of New York, who drove a wedge up from the South between these very loosely associated and ever feuding tribes.

Agricultural and semi-sedentary, the Algonquins were fine fishermen and hunters who gave the white man the canoe and snowshoe - still in evidence today. In history they produced many famous and noble characters: Massasoit, Squanto, and King Philip being the prominent local examples. White man's diseases and vices soon slew the Massachusetts. The last full-blooded Massachusetts is said to have died at Natick in 1860.

Given all these tantalizing Indian bits, is it surprising that one Jamaica Plain boy, seeing earlier-gathered Indian relics, had his young imagination fired up? Thus in the summer of 1846 Francis Parkman went out West to see live Algonquin Indians (the Sioux) and recorded this experience in his "Oregon Trail". That summer inspired him to spend the rest of his life writing of the French and Indians - mostly by Jamaica Pond. Thus the statue marking his home there pictures an Iroquois Indian in the woods of New York State.

Walter H. Marx

December 29, 1988