Westborough Center Pastimes – May 17, 2024

An ad from an 1877 Westborough Directory for blacksmith services.

Westborough’s Blacksmiths

As a child, when my parents would take our family to craft fairs to sell their creations, I was given the freedom to wander among the various vendors on my own. Inevitably, I planted myself in front of a blacksmith, who demonstrated his technique while selling the metal items he made. I was fascinated by his ability to pound heated metal into the shape he wanted, and I sat for what seemed to be hours in the hope that he would throw me a cast-off nail that didn’t meet his standards. (One year, I finally summoned the courage to ask for one directly, and after he reluctantly fulfilled my request—he probably wanted me to buy one—I promptly lost and forgot about it. After all, what use was a faulty nail? Then again, what use was a handmade nail to a ten-year-old anyway?)

Blacksmiths were the automobile mechanics during the era of the horse. The diary of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, Westborough’s first minister, is full of accounts of him dropping by the house of Cornelius Cook, the town blacksmith, to have horseshoes fit on his horse. Here is one example from March 1, 1737: “It had been very Icy and now by a snow upon the Ice and it was very Slippery and Troublesome riding. I rode to Mr. Cook’s to fix my Horse.” He writes as if he is having a mechanic put snow tires on his car for the winter!

Blacksmiths use charcoal to heat up metal to the point where it can be pounded and shaped into the desired product and design. Air needs to be forced into the charcoal fire to bring it to a high-enough temperature to make the metal pliable. In colonial days, such a task was accomplished with an enormous bellows made out of a couple deerskins or a whole bull’s hide. Generally, apprentices had the job of pumping the bellows and making sure that the fire remained hot enough.

Blacksmiths mainly provided the necessary service of making and mounting horseshoes to horses’ hooves to protect them from cracking while walking and working on rough terrain. But blacksmiths also provided other important products and tasks: making nails, latches, hinges, and other hardware; sharpening plow blades; and repairing chains. The account book of Joshua Mellen, a Westborough blacksmith and farmer who worked during the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, records his activities between 1798 and 1802: shoeing horses and oxen, constructing or repairing fences, and making or fixing tools and farm equipment, such as scythes, shovels, and hoes. Like most people living at the time, Mellen took cash but also bartered for sugar, corn, liquor, and work as payment. Because their work and services were always in high demand, most blacksmiths did well economically.

The work of the blacksmith, however, was rarely inventive.  We often celebrate craft for its ingenuity and its product’s close connection to the person making it, but craft usually involves some kind of repetitive labor as well. Trades before the Industrial Revolution required even more repetitiveness and less inventiveness when it comes to craft, since artisans had to meet a standard expectation of form and function in what they created for their customers. Horseshoes all had the same shape, even if the size needed adjustment for the individual horse. Nails were needed in the hundreds, if not thousands, which meant performing the same operation to make one nail over and over again.

The Cantankerous Cornelius Cook

Westborough’s most colorful blacksmith, at least judging by extant historical records, is Cornelius Cook. His son, Tom Cook, the Westborough’s notorious criminal, is better known in town lore, but his father also created plenty of trouble in town.

On August 22, 1727, Cook married Eunice Forbush, the daughter of Thomas Forbush (sometimes Forbes) who owned land where the Willows sits now on the corner of Lyman and East Main Streets. The marriage that day was their second attempt, since Parkman had ridden out to marry them the day before, but Cook could not provide a legal certificate. With a storm brewing, Parkman got impatient waiting for Cook to go and secure one, so he walked home. He left his horse and requested that Cook bring it back to his house, which he did. My guess is that Parkman was trying to kill two birds with one stone: marry the couple and get his horse serviced by Cook.

The marriage may have been forced, because the couple first had to confess to the sin of fornication. Having done so, Parkman married the couple and then baptized their son, Jonathan. In 1732, Cook’s father-in-law deeded a house and four acres of land to the couple, which also sat close to the intersection of Lyman and East Main. This house later became known as “the Plaster House,” given the bluish-hued plaster that covered it. The house was razed about a decade ago and was replaced with a modern house with a similar blue color.

In 1741, relations between Cook and Parkman and the Church erupted in animosity when Cook was charged with “undue Conduct and Language” (Westborough Church Records, June 28, 1741). On October 9, Cook was called to the Church to mount a “Declaration and Defence.” After doing so, the Church Council passed the following votes:

1. That the Church is not satisfyed with the Declaration made by Cornelius Cook, respecting his Guiltiness of the matter of Complaint made against him. Nem. Contrad.

2. That Cornelius Cook is, in the Judgment of the Church guilty of profane swearing; and Expects his Humiliation before he enjoy Special Privileges in the Church.

They concluded the meeting “with Prayer and the Blessing.”

Tensions between Cook and the Church continued. In January 26, 1743, Cook read a paper to the Church, “in which he hopd he was truly humble and sensible of his Sin in profane Swearing and prayd God and his people to forgive him etc.” After reading the paper, he was asked if he had anything to add, and

he told the Church (in Substance) that he doubted whether he was in a State of Grace at the Time of his taking Said Oath, and was in Doubt whether he ought to take it: but insisted that he was not guilty of taking it in the manner that the Church had understood it; was in no passion etc., but as well as he could in the fear of God – [As an?] act of worship: But as all his Family prayers, public attendances etc. were then profane, so was this also, and he could not judge it any otherwise etc. Upon which the Church debated and then passd were the following Votes —

  1. If the Confession offered by Cornelius Cook was satisfactory they were desird to manifest it by lifting up their hands.

To which No Hand was seen.

  1. If it was the Churchs mind to defer further proceeding with him by way of Censure for the present out of Tenderness and Compassion to him.

Almost a year and a half later, Cook finally “offerd a Confession of his Sin of profane Swearing and was restord.”

Still, Cook could not let the matter go. While in conversation with Parkman on September 11, 1744, “without any Sign of Provocation,” Cook “bitterly told me that he had been more abus’d by me, and by my wife and Children than ever he had been abus’d in All his Life.” The exchange clearly rattled Parkman, because he referred back to this admonishment again in his diary almost a year and a half later after Cook refused to shake hands with him after a bitter exchange between the two.

After this episode, tragedy began to fall on the Cook family. In August, 1746, “Fever and Flux” began to circulate and hit various families in town. Within three days, three of Cook’s eleven children (a twelfth seemed to have died at birth) died of the illness. By the middle of October, Parkman records that 24 children had died in town, with Cook’s Lydia being the first of them.

The hard times continued. On October 28, 1753, Cook appealed to the town for monetary support after learning that his two sons, Robert and Stephen, were imprisoned and tried for killing a Native American in Stockbridge. In 1760, Cook and his wife left Westborough and moved to Wrentham. Five years later, on December 4, 1765, Parkman received an update on the family: “We have not only Sorrowfull News of the Death of Mr. Cornelius Cook, once of this Town; but of the sad Condition of Several of his sons — That Daniel is hanged, and that Thomas has been condemned and has broke Jayl. It occasioned sorrowfull Reflections on Such vicious Lives!”

Westborough’s Last Blacksmiths

As late as 1918, two blacksmiths continued to practice in Westborough: Homer J. Pariseau on 8 Main Street and the “Estate” of George J. Jackson on 26 Cross Street. Helen Blois Schuhmann recalls as a child, probably around 1910, being fascinated with the work of George Jackson, and she provides, to my knowledge, a final account of a blacksmith in town:

I was born at 11 Ruggles St. and lived there the greatest part of my life. Jackson’s Blacksmith Shop was a big item to the youngsters in that area. Mr. Jackson lived at 16 Ruggles St. and the corner lot from there to 22 Cross Street was owned by him and his blacksmith shop founded on that area. Near the sidewalk was a large flat stone where metal tires were attached to the wooden wheels of wagons. When the truck from Bartlett Box Co. came to the shop with bundles of kindling, we knew that meant a busy time. The wooden wheel was placed on the stone, the metal tire was brought from the fire of kindling by two men with large gongs and quickly attached to the wooden wheel. Then water poured on from the hose quickly to be sure the hot metal could not burn any of the wooden wheel. That created a heavy smoke and suddenly that was the end of our watching. But one could go into the shop and watch the blacksmiths shoe horses. Mr. Jackson was very kind to us but each one was told where he or she could stand and observe. We obeyed his instructions for no one wanted to be deprived of an occasional visit to the blacksmith shop.

Works Cited

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The Historical Society Spring Bazaar

Don’t miss the Westborough Historical Society’s annual Spring Bazaar on Saturday, June 1, 2024 at the Westborough Historical Society, 13 Parkman Street. Discover unexpected treasures—antiques, jewelry, books—at bargain prices!

You can also drop off any donations at the Westborough Historical Society, 13 Parkman Street, from 1-3 p.m. on Wednesday, May 29; Thursday, May 30; or Friday, May 31.

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American Toad (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes

I just cleaned out my garage, but I kept the butterfly nets that my daughters used when we would walk down to the pond in our neighborhood to go “frogging,” even though both girls have grown up and left the house. After all, who knows if another set of young visitors may end up at our house someday and need a fun activity? But after reading Annie Reid’s “Songsters with Warts,” I now have to stop and ask myself: were we catching frogs or toads? Now, I may have to pull one of those nets off the rack and head to the pond to find out.

May, of course, is when nature suddenly springs to life. Learn more about what to expect to see this month in Reid’s Nature Notes for May.

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Westborough Center Pastimes – April 19, 2024

House Raising by William P. Chappel, 1870s (Metropolitan Art Museum: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10453)

Raising Parties in Colonial Westborough

Craft is a social act. We first learn a craft from people who are proficient at it, and as time goes on and we become more accomplished ourselves, we trade tips and techniques with each other to improve the results of our work. So what better way to begin exploring the history of craft in Westborough than to examine times when the whole community would gather together to offer their crafting skills to help others?

Colonial settlers in Massachusetts had to build their own individual houses and barns. They could do a lot of the work by themselves, but in creating a structure so big, there comes a crucial point during the project when the physical labor of others is needed. The construction of public structures, such as meeting houses, also required the help of community members, who volunteered their labor and time to create buildings that belonged to everybody in town.

A recreation of a wetu.(Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wetu_recreation_at_fruitlands.jpg)

When colonists came to America to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, they quickly needed to build shelters. Naturally, they copied the wetus of Indians who had learned to live in the Eastern woodlands for millennia. The structures were rectangular with arched roofs. The frames consisted of poles lashed together with vines, which were then covered with bark or woven matting. But rather than rely on smoke holes at the top of the house, as Native Americans did, the settlers created chimneys made out of sticks and clay. Needless to say, these makeshift chimneys often caught fire.

Broadaxe (Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Topor_ciesielski.jpg)

Once societies stabilized, the colonists turned their attention to building more permanent structures. Individual households had to cut down their own trees to build their own houses. Once they felled enough trees that were tall and long enough, they squared the timber using a broadax and, if the timber was to be visible inside the house, smooth it out with an adz. Once enough timbers were created, colonists then dug out space in the ground for a cellar for frost-free storage, lined it with stones laid with mud, and then built a stone chimney. After beams from the timbers were fashioned together into a frame, the frame then had to be raised and put into place. Families could not accomplish this last task on their own, so they threw a raising party to solicit the help of other members of the community.

Adz (Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adz_(PSF).png)


Raising parties were community events. Neighbors were invited to the property of the family building the structure for a work party, and as the men guided the frames into place and secured them, women prepared and served plenty of food and drink for everyone. Our modern equivalent is buying pizza and beer for friends who volunteer to help someone move—although that turns out to be a young-person’s practice as most adults eventually wise up and realize that reciprocation to help them move at a later date will probably not be forthcoming. Anyway, once the frame was up, individual families could pretty much finish building the structure on their own. Raisings were hard work, and if you have ever seen the 1985 movie Witness and the “building a barn” scene, you will have an idea of what is involved.

Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, Westborough’s first minister, often recorded raisings of houses, barns, meeting houses, and even mills in his diary. Some of the structures built were quite large. Parkman records that a raising on June 14, 1742 at Captain Fay’s resulted in a barn that measured 70 feet in length. Large numbers of people gathered for raisings. On July 10, 1782, Parkman’s son, Breck, raised his house—“28 feet Front; 30 feet back”—and even though 115 people showed up at the gathering, Parkman observed that “Through the Goodness of God there was no Evil Occurrence.” That was not always the case, and in many instances, raisings turned out to be problematic affairs for the minister: on June 20, 1726, Parkman attended a barn raising at Mr. Tainters and noted, “It was a pleasant time, but not altogether without Trouble and Toil.”

Much to the chagrin of Parkman, the raising of a large barn on Captain Maynard’s property on April 30, 1744 met with an accident and later devolved into a raucous party that lasted through much of the night. The entry tells us as much about the nature of raisings in Westborough as it does about Parkman and his temperament, as he returned two times at various points in the night to check up on the gathering after first retiring to bed:

Captain Maynard rais’d another Large Barn. My Wife and I were there. N.B. One Goodhew, a Young Man from Boston residing among us, had a fall from the Frame and was led into the House much hurt, but afterwards recover’d. At Supper there were So many to be entertain’d that we were kept till 10 o’Clock. I manifested so much uneasiness that we were so detain’d that I concluded everybody would retire home as Soon as they might, but it prov’d otherwise. Many tarried long after I was got home and the Time run off; among the rest 3 of my own Family. After 12 I walk’d away towards the House again. Ebenezer and Thomas Needham were returning home — upon which I went to my Bed — but understanding that there were many yet behind and among them Some Heads of Family, I rose very uneasy and went down to the House, and having acquainted Captain Maynard with what Time of Night it was, I ask’d him whether he did not Consent to my going in among the Company that were Still diverting themselves at this unseasonable Time. I went in and admonish’d them, and sent them home. N.B. George Smith (the Taylor) and Robert Bradish made the Chief Stand — but Smith I Sent off and Bradish took up his Lodging there. This Exerting my Authority gave me great uneasiness, but I was resolute to Shew Impartiality and not be partaker of other Mens Sins, as likewise to discharge my own Duty as Watchman in this Place and as having the Care of their Souls.

When it came time for the town to build a new meeting house on May 3, 1749, Parkman knew better and used the pulpit the Sunday before to give “the People a fervent Caution and Exhortation respecting their Conduct on the design’d Raising of a new Meeting House.” The structure to be raised was quite large: fifty feet long and forty feet wide, with posts twenty-three feet high. Happily, “The Frame went up well; and through God’s great Goodness, Neither Life nor Limb lost. The only Hurt I have heard of was by the Fall of a Board which graz’d a man’s forehead but Slightly.” An accident-free raising was not guaranteed, though, since the precinct voted to purchase a half barrel of rum for the occasion. Still, some of the attendees did not heed Parkman’s earlier warning at the pulpit: “the Impudence of Young Men with the Young Women was with them very Shameless. I was obliged to go and reprove several.”

After the new meeting house was constructed, Parkman built a new house for him and his family with the help of many townspeople, who chipped in to dig the cellar, build a chimney, construct the frame, and then raise it. During the raising on September 7, 1750, “Sundry Neighbours Sent and brought Cheese, Cake, Wheat Bread, etc. which with Some Apples Pyes which my Wife provided, made up our Entertainment.” Six months later, Parkman visited Ebenezer Rice to pay him for the rum he borrowed from him, “chiefly for raising my New House, my Well, Cellar and Chimney work.”

Even though raisings often caused Parkman a host of anxiety and trouble, the people of Westborough clearly enjoyed such gatherings. The building of the town was a community effort, since everyone knew that they at one point would need to rely on the kindness of neighbors to ply their craft and help them build the structures they needed to create a flourishing life for themselves.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

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The Violet Protest

I grew up in a crafting family. Both of my parents are crafters, and they always encouraged me and my siblings to take up sewing, woodworking, and other crafting skills. I spent a lot of time in my youth at craft fairs, where my parents sold the items that they made, and I was able to wander about looking at other people’s wares and watching craft demonstrations.

After I announced a series on craft in my last newsletter and argued that craft has the potential to overcome political divisions once we start working together with our hands, my mom sent me an e-mail to tell me about The Violet Protest, “a public effort to send bundles of hand-made textile squares to each and every member of Congress in support of these core American values”:

  • Citizenship
  • Compromise
  • Country over party and corporate influence
  • Courage
  • Candor
  • Compassion
  • Creativity
  • Respect for the other

In 2021, my mom contributed 50 squares to the project.

You can watch a documentary on the Violet Protest on the Web, or you can wait until May when it will be released for broadcast on PBS stations. Not coincidentally, the first speaker in the documentary has a copy of Craft: An American History by Glenn Adamson sitting next to her, the book that inspired me to start this series on craft.

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A Busy Historical Society

The Westborough Historical Society is busy during this time of year with two events:

  • Sunday, April 28th 1:00-4:00pm: Westborough Historical Society Open House: Visit period rooms and take a docent tour of four centuries of artifacts that capture Westborough’s history. Westborough Historical Society, 13 Parkman Street, free.
  • Monday, MAY 6th 6:30pm: You Can Write and Publish a Book! Published authors from Westborough describe their experiences on writing and getting their work published. This discussion will include Dr. Wednesday Boateng, Dr. Mary Christensen, Jillian Hensley, Phil Kittridge, and Tom Salvemini. Co-sponsored by Westborough Public Library. Westborough Library Meeting Room, 6:30pm, free.

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Song Sparrow (Photo Courtesy of Garry Kessler)

The Senses of Spring

Spring hits the senses with many joys: the feel of the warm sun finally hitting bare skin, the taste of fresh spring vegetables, the sight of budding greens, and the return of earthy smells. But one of the best joys of the senses is once again hearing birds jubilantly singing their songs. That’s when you really know that spring has truly arrived!

Annie Reid tells us all about one of these birds, the song sparrow, and why its singing is so intense at this time of year, and covers other sure signs of spring, in her Nature Notes for April.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

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Westborough Center Pastimes – March 15, 2024

National Straw Works – Sewing Hall, ca. 1885

Let’s Consider Craft in Westborough

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

—Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing” (1860) from Leaves of Grass

What does Westborough make?

The question came to me as I read Craft: An American History by Glenn Adamson and realized that while Westborough history can be framed in many ways, exploring our town’s culture and history through the lens of craft could be particularly fruitful. After all, our history includes Eli Whitney, the once imposing National Straw Works factory, the sleigh industry, the Bay State Abrasives Company, even the current Amazon robotics factory can arguably fall under the rubric of “the history of craft in Westborough.”

But even more, craft promotes values that our society could really use right now:

  • Craft unites people. When people engage together in an activity that involves using their hands, political and other differences suddenly cease to matter.
  • Craft is inclusive. All cultures engage in craft. When we share the crafts that we practice with others, we open ourselves up to cross-fertilization in techniques, ideas, and culture.
  • Craft is not limited by age. Children regularly do “craft projects” in school. Teens find more sophisticated ways to express their creativity, such as decorating their clothing or their rooms. And adults engage in craft both in work and play. Craft is truly intergenerational.
  • Craft teaches us the importance of education and community. We may be able to practice a craft on our own, but we become better when someone more skilled than we are teaches us how to improve. Craft knowledge is communal knowledge that has been developed over time. Craft manifestly demonstrates that when we work together as a community, we can create something better and more meaningful than we could on our own.
  • Craft forces us into discussing the value of work and what “quality” means. Practicing a craft forces us to acknowledge our weaknesses and faults, but it also offers us a path towards regular improvement over time. Craft involves a lot of hard work, but through it we learn and experience how time, effort, and consistency lead to better results.
  • Craft provides an alternative to our digital culture. While working with our hands on a craft, we are not holding our phones or sitting at a computer.
  • Craft requires us to focus on our work, not on ourselves. As we focus our minds on the physical activity in front of us, we are able to clear away our everyday worries and concerns during the time when we are working on a craft.
  • Craft opens up new possibilities for creativity. Creativity is a mindset, and the more times we can practice putting ourselves into that mindset, the more creative we become in other aspects of our lives.
  • Craft adds beauty to the world. We can all certainly use more beauty in our lives!
  • Craft is an important element of what it means to be human. Human beings are creative creatures. When we engage in work, figure out how to improve what we are doing, and then teach what we have learned to others, we are performing a series of activities that is distinctly human and in doing so we become fuller human beings.

I have quoted the Walt Whitman poem that starts this newsletter before, but it is worth considering the poem again, both because I love it and because it shows us what happens when we stop to appreciate how we all work together to sing the song of Westborough’s history and culture. In the coming months, I will be thinking and writing about the history and practice of craft here in Westborough and do so by following the spirit and principles of craft itself: by studying what has been said and done about craft before, by enlisting in necessary trial-and-error to find relevant topics and information, by moving forward despite temporary failures, and by respecting tradition while at the same time putting my personal spin on what I create. My goal is to craft an inclusive tapestry of Westborough’s history and culture by looking at some of the people who make things in our town, both in the past and today.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Pamela Vaccari – Pink Little Boat

What’s on the Library’s Walls?

The library is currently showing artwork by Pamela Vaccari, who works at the Evangelical Congregational Church here in Westborough. Vaccari is a graduate of the Montserrat School of Art and specializes in using fiber and mixed media. In some of the works on display, she uses wool and a felting technique to create landscapes and seascapes that have three-dimensional textures on a two-dimensional surface. You can view her work in the Adult section of the library until the end of April.

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Scavenger Hunt

Take a stroll through downtown Westborough and provide feedback about how to improve it, all at the same time! The Planning Department has created an interactive Downtown Scavenger Hunt, which takes you on a 1.2 mile walk through Westborough and asks for feedback on how to improve specific areas at various points along the way. It’s a fun way to learn more about Westborough and to provide useful data about how to make the downtown safer and more enjoyable.

You can learn more information about the scavenger hunt and access it here: https://www.westboroughma.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=99.

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A male yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and blue-spotted salamanders. Now that spring is finally beginning to arrive, these animals are among the first to usher in some color and counteract the drab gray that we have been living with all winter.

Learn more about these three animals and the flora and fauna of early spring in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for March.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – February 16, 2024


This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

The Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs Today and Some Reflections on the Series

In 1976, the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts officially recognized the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs. A few years later, the Chair of the Commission and Nipmuc tribal sachem, Zara Ciscoe Brough, spearheaded an idea to create a self-sufficient Indian community on land that was once home to the Grafton State Hospital and that partly crossed over into Westborough. The goal was to put in place “a self-supporting farming community for local Indians” that would include crops, cattle, and gardens, along with the means to offer food and shelter to transient Indians. Settlement plans also included social and cultural activities for Indians and non-Indians alike, and residences would be made available for members of the Nipmuc or any other Indian tribe.

Local Indian leaders originally hoped to receive 500 acres of hospital land to house 400 Indians in an agrarian village. But after the state deeded much of the property to Tufts University to create a veterinary school, they lowered their sights to “whatever the state will give us.” In the end, the Nipmuc Indians, who at one time had lived on this land for thousands of years, did not receive any of this land from the state to help benefit their community. Before the land was deeded to Tufts, it was under consideration to house a 150-bed medium-security prison until heavy push-back by local residents prevented this plan from moving forward.

After securing state recognition, in 1980 the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs began to seek federal recognition, but in 2004 their federal application was denied. The main basis for the denial rested on the conclusions of John M. Earle’s 1861 race-based survey of Native American tribes in Massachusetts: because the Nipmucs had historically been grouped together geographically with African-Americans, mainly in Worcester, for reasons that had to do with class and race throughout the nineteenth century, inevitable intermarriage between the two groups disqualified the Nipmuc from constituting a cohesive tribe. So even in the twenty-first century, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs continued to uphold race, rather than tribal and familial tradition, as the overriding standard to meet for tribal recognition. Ultimately, the traditionally open and welcoming culture of Native Americans undermined their petition in favor of outdated, nineteenth-century European conceptions that prioritized race as the main means for categorizing human beings.

Indians did not simply fade away and disappear once Europeans landed on their shores. Indeed, in his recent book, Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, Pekka Hämäläinen reminds us that the Native American people controlled much of North America up until the late 19th century. Even though the Hassanamisco Reservation in Grafton occupies a mere three acres, the land itself is unique to Massachusetts in that it has never been owned or occupied by non-native people and has been owned solely by the Nipmuc tribe over the past 400 years of European presence. Today, the website of the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs says that they have nearly 600 members, all of whom work hard “to preserve and promote their culture, language, and values,” despite all of the obstacles that were, and continue to be, placed in front of them. In their practice of resilience, they are following the tradition of their ancestors, who also struggled to maintain their identity and connection to their land after the first arrival of Europeans.

Conclusions and Reflections on this Series

I often argue that when we look back in history, we cannot and should not assume that the people who lived back then think like we do today. We have to try to put ourselves in their mindset and let go of ours if we truly want to understand their culture and times. Giving up our current ideological and political frameworks and trying to adopt the ones that were in play during the time and place that is in question is one of the most difficult, but necessary, steps when doing history. At the same time, we have to recognize that the people back then were, well, people, people who sometimes held contradictory beliefs and often disagreed with one another, both between and even within coherent groups—just like today. We have to be willing to recognize the complexity of the human experience and be willing to face that complexity when we look back in history.

If we want to go beyond tired stereotypes about Native Americans and view them as people rather than as caricatures, we have to be willing to see them in all of their complexity. Even though Native American culture values community and promotes peaceful understanding, this same culture also has had people who disagree and sometimes even fight with one another. Native Americans have at times acted nobly, and at others times pettily, just like everyone else in the world. They have revered the environment in which they live, but they have also committed acts that were destructive to it, such as overhunting the giant mammals of North America thousands of years ago or, more recently, the beaver in response to European market demands. But if we are going to embrace learning about Native Americans and all of their complexity, we also have to be willing to apply this same framework to the settlers who encroached on Native land by seeking to understand their contradictions and complexity. In other words, holding up either group as an embodiment of a transcendent moral standard in order to score political points today is doomed to failure in the face of historical accuracy.

Researching and writing about the meeting of Native American and European cultures has made me a better person. Learning how the worldviews of both groups shaped their lifestyles, decision-making, and interactions has helped me to understand more precisely the many ways that human beings can come together and organize themselves. I find a lot about Native American epistemology and philosophy—much of which was new to me before I started researching and writing this series—to be appealing. And I wonder what would have happened if Europeans had arrived in North America with more curious minds rather than with avarice and insularity guiding their actions. What if Europeans came to America with a realistic expectation of living side-by-side with Native people, rather than claiming the “open and unoccupied” land as their own, and if both groups were able to use their varied knowledge and experiences to improve all of their living situations in North America? What would that result have looked like? Unfortunately, we cannot turn back the clock and change what happened in the past, but we can learn from the past and then try to adopt what we like and avoid or change what we do not.

I often say that asking the question of what it means to be American is one of the most American things that we do. Unlike older countries and cultures that have long traditions, our American culture and society is in a constant process of “becoming,” which is what makes our country so dynamic and exciting. But even as we begin to see how Native Americans have influenced American society and culture more than we normally have given them credit, Native American history still forces us to confront the question of what it means to be American in uncomfortable ways. Today, we celebrate the great diversity of people in our country, but that diversity was enabled by taking land from Native Americans to create, in essence, a new space where people can find refuge and opportunity from every part of the world. The cultural dynamism that we now enjoy was built on the sins that Europeans perpetrated on Native Americans starting when they first arrived in North America. But Native Americans and their history can also guide us into realizing and defining what it truly and uniquely means to be an American.

My hope is that this series serves as a beginning for exploring Native American history on its own terms within the context of Westborough history. I am not a traditional historian, so there are many details about this history that I left unexplored. What is clear, however, is that when we talk about Westborough history, we must start with Nipmuc history. And once we go down that path, we more clearly see how four migration patterns, each one tied to a specific economic practice or development, have shaped Westborough and its people over time.

The first group to inhabit the area where we live were Native Americans, who arrived here eight to ten thousand years ago as hunter-gatherers and who at some point also engaged in polyculture planting, an agricultural practice that works closely with native plants and the natural environment to optimize food production. The second migration wave was the English starting in the 17th century and proceeding through much of the 18th century. This migration pattern brought European agriculture to the “New World” where domesticated animals helped clear the land for monoculture planting (that is, single crops planted on individual fields) of both native and European-imported crops. The third migration took place in the 19th century, when Irish and French-Canadians came to Westborough to work in the factories that sprung up after a railroad was built through the center of town. And today as part of the fourth migration, people from South Asia and other parts of that continent are moving to Westborough to work in the technology and medical industries in our region.

What makes living in Westborough so interesting is that the history of these four migration periods are still visible to us and that we continue to tell stories about them to each other. To this end, we owe it to ourselves and to history to tell a more accurate narrative about Native American life in Westborough than we have up until now. We do not need to rely on tales with dubious origins to tell the “Native American story of Westborough.” We can instead read Curtiss R. Hoffman’s book about his archaeological studies of the Nipmuc Indians; look closely and critically at the land grants that were used to justify taking away and limiting Native American access to the very land where they used to live; and turn to Rev. Ebenezer Parkman’s diary and similar resources for more reliable insight into how early members of our town continued to interact with Native Americans throughout the Colonial Period, all the while keeping in mind that these accounts come from the perspective of a Congregational minister.

Even better, we can investigate projects that seek to recover early Nipmuc history, such as the Reclaiming Heritage: Digitizing Early Nipmuc Histories from Colonial Documents, a joint project between members of the Nipmuc community and the American Antiquarian Society. Or we can look for ways to interact with the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs today, such as attending one of their Powwows. When we engage in consulting these kinds of resources, the history that results is far more interesting and connects much more to our lives today than continuing to tell a rote package of nineteenth-century “Native American” stories about Westborough, stories that minimize the complexity of Native American culture and experience and ultimately serve to valorize European presence on the land where we live today.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

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See the New Exhibit on The Round Table

Stop by the library to check out a new exhibit on The Round Table, a literary and social club that began in the nineteenth century in Westborough and lasted for well over one hundred years. The club met on a regular basis throughout each year at member homes to learn about and discuss a host of topics, including literature, politics, culture, and social concerns. The club even ventured into holding theatrical events and gathered outdoors for picnics during warmer months. The exhibit is in the display case in front of the Westborough Center and includes programs and pictures at various points in the club’s history.

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WPL Bookmobile – 2/3/1977

The Digitization of Westborough’s Historical Photographs Are Headed to Completion

Since arriving in my position as the Local History Librarian here in the Westborough Public Library, I have periodically been engaged in digitizing our Historical Photographs, but the sheer size of the collection has meant that I have only been able to make limited headway into completing the project.

Now, thanks to an unexpected windfall of grant money from the Internet Archive and its Community Webs program to fund digitization activities, we have decided to send both our Historical Photographs and our Historical Postcard collections out to a vendor to complete the digitization of these collections. During the time when they are away, these collections will, of course, be unavailable, except for a sizeable number of images that I had already digitized and put online in the Westborough Digital Repository. But once the digitization of these collections is completed at some point in the spring, everyone will have free and easy access to all of these historic images through their computers.

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Photo Courtesy of Garry Kessler

A Valentine’s Day Visitor?

Did Pepé Le Pew pay you a visit on Valentine’s Day this past week looking for some love from you—or from that of your cat? Okay, maybe Pepé Le Pew himself did not make a guest appearance on your doorstep. But such a visit by another skunk would not have been entirely implausible, says Annie Reid in one of her past Nature Notes essays, given that skunks come out for mating season around mid-February.

Learn what other wildlife you should look out for this month in Reid’s Nature Notes for February.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – January 19, 2024

Memorial to the Rice Boys capture, near the Westborough High School.

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Native Americans in Westborough History, Part III: The Rice Boys, European Settlement, and War

In the mid-1680s, Chauncy Village was a thriving neighborhood of Marlborough. According to Harriette Merrifield Forbes, Edmund Rice and his brother Thomas, two of the first settlers in what became Westborough, built two garrison-houses. These houses were specifically designed to resist Indian attacks, which tells us something about the relations between the two groups at the time and how settlers had full knowledge that building houses on “unoccupied” land would not be taken well by the Nipmuc.

In 1702, the people who lived in the village filed a petition to establish a town separate from Marlborough and then did so again in 1716. Finally, the General Court granted the request in 1717, thus establishing Westborough as its own political entity. The abduction of the Rice Boys occurred in between the filing of these two petitions.

Title page to Rev. Ebenezer Parkman’s account of the capture of the Rice boys

Unlike the other two Native American stories that we often treat as Westborough history—the Story of Jack Straw and the Legend of Hoccomocco—the “Story of the Rice Boys” offers firmer historical documentation. On August 8, 1704, members of the Rice family were spreading flax in the field where the Westborough High School is today when seven to ten Native Americans descended from the wooded hill and grabbed five boys from the work party. Before leaving the area, they killed the youngest boy, Nahor (age 5), by smashing his head in with a rock, and they took the other four—Asher (10), Adonijah (8), Silas (9), and Timothy (7)—with them north to what is now Canada. The rest of the family escaped to the safety of the house. Needless to say, the event was traumatic for both the family and the community.


Caughnawaga, Canada, ca. 1893.

The abductors were members of the Caughnawaga Mohawks (now known as the Kahnawá:ke) who lived between fur trading posts in Quebec City (French) and Albany (British) and who were part of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Five Nation League. Not only were the Iroquois often at war with the Algonquins (the Nipmuc were members of the latter), but they had a trading relationship with the French, who were in competition with the English during the 17th and early 18th centuries for control of North America. The Caughnawaga often used both their diplomatic skills and the rivalry between the two European powers to their political and economic advantage.

We know from archaeological, linguistic, and folkloric evidence that Native Americans conducted war before European arrival, but their form of warfare was different from that of Europeans. War between Native Americans, at least in the Northeast, mostly involved random and periodic raids against enemy tribes and the taking of captives, who were then either adopted or enslaved. Characterized as more tit-for-tat engagements, this form of warfare rarely involved death and centered more on performing acts of bravery and on gaining the prestige that came with them. The “total war” that Europeans brought with them to North America horrified Native Americans. Europeans, on the other hand, were puzzled over why Native Americans did not take more lives during their wars. In their view, Native American warfare tended to draw out violent engagements over long periods of time rather than end them quickly with a decisive blow one way or another. (However, the names of many European conflicts during this time period seem to belie this point, such as The Eighty Years War, 1568-1648; The Thirty Years War, 1618–1648; The Seven Years War, 1756–1763, to name a few.)

The practice of taking captives and adopting them into a tribe became more important to Native Americans after European arrival. As disease decimated the Indigenous population, tribes, villages, and families had to recombine and reinvent themselves in order to survive. Even more, as the natural resources that Native Americans used to trade with the English—such as beaver—dwindled, competition among rival tribes for these resources increased. Maintaining a viable community became more and more difficult, to the point where, as historian Daniel K. Richter contends, “people were the scarcest resource of all in the Indians’ new world.” Richter goes on to argue that the Native people’s continual fight to rebuild their communities after their decimation by European arrival is one of the great American stories involving the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

Was the raid that the Caughnawaga carried out that day in 1704 in Westborough a desperate attempt to strengthen the numbers of their tribe? This explanation may have been a factor, but the motivations behind the event are more complicated because it took place during and as part of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). I often argue that local history is necessarily embedded within a larger context, a context that at times can be global. In this case, the politics of European powers overseas and their common desire to take control of lands in North America had as much, if not more, to do with why the Rice boys were abducted and taken north.

European Wars

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Native American tribes aligned with either the English or the French conducted raids along the contested and undefined border of New England and New France. Captives taken during these raids were often held for ransom from the European communities where they were taken. Others were adopted into the Native American tribe that took them. Attacking enemy settlements was a common feature of colonial warfare in the Atlantic Northeast. The English regularly employed this strategy against Native American villages as well. They burned down Indian homes, farm fields, and food stocks with the main goal of depriving Native Americans of shelter and starving them into submission. Needless to say, European writers at the time focused more on recounting settlement raids conducted by Native Americans than on those carried out by their own people.

Queen Anne’s War was the second in a series of French and Indian Wars that took place in North America. It was part of a broader war involving European nations struggling for power both over the Atlantic world and other parts of the globe. Outside of the United States—where the war was named after the queen who reigned in England at the time—historians refer to the conflict as part of the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1715), and it involved nearly every great European power at the time. As part of this war, French and Indigenous forces conducted raids deep into New England with the main aim of taking captives and securing ransoms for their return.

On February 29, 1704, fifty French along with 250 Abenaki and Caughnawaga Mohawks raided Deerfield, MA, where they killed 53 settlers and took 111 captives back with them up north. Most of the surviving children from this raid were adopted by the Mohawks. Some of the adults were ransomed or exchanged for prisoners taken by the English. In response to this event, the English sent 500 men in June up to Acadia (Nova Scotia), where they spent three days destroying towns, crops, dikes, and other settlements before returning back to Massachusetts. The abduction of the Rice boys on August 8 was either conducted in retaliation for the raid on Acadia or was part of a planned series of raids on the part of the French and the Caughnawaga.

After the abduction, Thomas Rice, one of the fathers of the boys, sold his house to raise money to ransom his sons back. After four years he was able to redeem his oldest son, Asher, who reportedly never recovered from the shock of the event and remained fearful of Native Americans throughout his life. The rest of the boys remained up north. Adonijah eventually married a French woman and settled into farming, while Silas and Timothy remained with the Caughnawaga and assimilated into their new way of life.

Continental Definitions and Ethnic Mixing

In her book, The Hundredth Town, Harriette M. Forbes tells an earlier story of how “an old Indian living in the forests around Westborough” named Graylock, and “who occasionally made raids on the settlers,” one day abducted Edmund Rice. As Graylock forced Rice down a trail, the captive managed to commandeer a heavy stick along the way and at an opportune time used it to kill Graylock. He then “ran back lightly over the fresh trail, and went on with his morning’s work.” Forbes goes on to speculate that this episode took place before 1704, since, by her account, the Rice Boys raid was conducted in revenge for the death of Graylock. Never mind that Graylock was most likely Nipmuc and that the raiders from far up north belonged to a rival group.

Forbes makes a common error here by thinking of Native Americans continentally rather than tribally. (As a side note, African-Americans also tend to be identified continentally and rarely by individual country when it comes to their ethnic origins.) In contrast, European Americans are mainly defined by distinct countries. My ethnic background may be a mixture of German, Scandinavian, Polish, and Italian (if my family heritage and DNA results are to be believed), but I have never been referred to as “European,” even though such a designation would more accurately describe the span of my family background across almost all of that small continent. Forbes’s assumption that a tribe over 300 miles away had any interest in avenging the killing of a Nipmuc Indian and member of the rival Algonquin tribe is just one manifestation of the tendency to conflate all Indians as being one and the same. How common is it to make similar assumptions that, say, Germans, Scandinavians, Polish, and Italians are all the same, or that someone in, say, Munich would have any interest in avenging a death in Milan?

Colonial histories are full of accounts of settlers captured by Native Americans choosing to stay with their new families rather than returning to their biological ones. Conversely, stories of Native Americans who became a part of European society and then chose to escape or return to Indigenous society—even when they lived what was considered to be wealthy and educated lives in their European setting—are also numerous in the historical record. Contrary to usual assumptions, most people who were given a choice opted for the advantages that Indigenous lifestyles offered them. Many of those who assimilated into Native American life even rose to take prominent positions within their communities. Such was the case for Timothy Rice, who was adopted by the Caughnawaga chief and later as an adult became a sachem of the Six Nations of the Iroquois. In 1740, he returned to visit Westborough, and even though he recognized his childhood home, he could no longer speak English.

Descendants of Edmund Rice of Westborough in Caughnawaga, ca. 1893.

Today, due to the history of adopting European captives into their tribe, many of the Kahnawá:ke (Caughnawaga) have mixed ancestries, so they identify culturally as Mohawk yet have European surnames, including Rice.

Next month, we will finally conclude this long series on the meeting of two cultures in Westborough with a brief look at the status of the Nipmuc today and draw some conclusions by reflecting back on what we have learned.

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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The Bowman Conservation Area (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Take the Nature Notes Quiz

We are in the middle of winter, so our inclination is to hibernate in our warm homes rather than head out into nature. Luckily, Annie Reid has created her annual Nature Notes Quiz for 2023 to give us something to do while we sit in front of a fire with our hot chocolate. And if you ace this quiz in short order, there are plenty of other quizzes to test yourself from her past Nature Notes for January.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – December 15, 2023

Hoccomocco Pond (Westborough Center for History and Culture, Westborough Public Library)

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Native Americans in Westborough History, Part II: The Legend of Hoccomocco and Native American Water Use

Third graders in Westborough are quite familiar with the Legend of Hoccomocco, a Disneyesque story about a pond here in town that eventually became a Superfund Cleanup Site. The fanciful story seems to be tailor-made for “teaching” young students about the Native Americans who once inhabited the land where our town now sits, so it often holds a central place in the third-grade local history curriculum of the Westborough schools.

In a nutshell, the story is about two Indian warriors vying for the hand of an Indian maiden, but before she marries her chosen suitor, the rival, in a fit of jealousy, drowns her in Hoccomocco Pond. However, the Hobomak, an evil spirit that inhabits the waters, annually rises up in a flame to taunt the murderous rival until the third year when it finally avenges the maiden’s murder by dragging him down into the depths of the waters where he disappears. This story was first published in 1838 by Horace Maynard in Horae Collegianae, an Amherst College undergraduate publication. Maynard claims that he faithfully reproduced the story as it was told to him by “an old Indian, the last of his tribe,” who used to visit his family’s house when he was very young and tell “strange legends of his people, more or less embellished as he drank his cider,” in the evenings around a fire.

Rearing its head once again here is the myth of the “last Indian,” which we already looked at in relation to Jack Straw in last month’s newsletter. In her 1889 book, The Hundredth Town, Glimpses of Life in Westborough, 1717-1817, Harriette Merrifield Forbes further perpetuates this myth when she claims, “More than two hundred years have passed away since the Indian, unmolested, roamed through the wilderness of Wabbequasset—land of the Nipmucks—the Whetstone country. Nearly every trace of him has disappeared” (9). Yet, in the same book she contradicts herself when she speculates that Andrew Brown, an Indian who lived in town, was the person who told the Legend of Hoccomocco to the Maynard family and goes on to provide details about Brown and his family. She then proceeds to include information about other Native American families and their offspring who were still living in Westborough at the time she wrote her book.

Curtiss R. Hoffman notes in his book, People of the Fresh Water Lake: A Prehistory of Westborough, Massachusetts, that southern New England hosts several low-lying, glacial ice-block lakes with place names of “Hoccomocco” or “Hobbamock” or similar variations. The pond in Westborough itself has other spelling iterations, such as “Hocomonco” or “Hocomoco.” Hoffman goes on to relate that a colleague of his, who is a cultural anthropologist and folklorist and has studied this legend in some detail, discovered that the story is repeated in almost every community in New England that has a lake or pond with such a place-name. The source of all these legends, it appears, are members of local Chambers of Commerce in the late 1800s who were trying to enhance the image of their towns. The tell that ties them all together is the inclusion of a preposterous side-story that Captain Kidd buried his treasure on the shores of these lakes or ponds—a side-story that also appears in Maynard’s published story in 1838. Most likely, Maynard’s story served as the original source for the legends told by these various Chamber of Commerce groups. Maynard never specifically locates the story he wrote in Westborough, which is probably why it was able to spread to other places that had lakes or ponds with similar names.

But is the story authentic? If we are to believe that Andrew Brown (or perhaps some other Indian) told the legend under the influence of hard cider (at another point in her book Forbes accuses Brown of being a drunk [pp. 171-172]), such family gatherings around the fire would have occurred in the 1820s or perhaps the 1830s, given Maynard’s age when he wrote the legend. According to Forbes, Brown and his family lived on Flanders Road, so they more or less had assimilated into a more European mode of living by “making baskets” and, according to Maynard, re-bottoming kitchen chairs. Was Brown intending to tell an “authentic” Native American legend around the fire, or was he using one or more tales from his background as inspiration to create a new story that would appeal to the Maynard family? Even Maynard indicates that the more cider his visitor drank, the more embellished the stories became. How accurately did the Amherst student reproduce the story from memory? And at any event, was accuracy his true objective in publishing the story, or was he himself embellishing it for the college publication, much like Brown supposedly did around the fire, despite Maynard’s insistence that “one of his [visitor’s] tales I have here faithfully recorded”—a common trope in tall tales or urban legends?

I am not a folklorist, nor an expert in Native American life and mythology, but every time I read the Legend of Hoccomocco, it rings hollow to me. Even if the kernel of the story is truly Native American—although I have my doubts—Maynard clothes it with descriptions and words that are distinctly European. He describes the Indian maiden in sexualized terms—as “the belle of her tribe, and, like all belles, an incorrigible coquette”—and in no way does he portray in his story the more egalitarian relations between the sexes in Native American life. He uses the language of European royalty to describe the status of the main characters within their Native American social organization. He depicts the impending wedding ceremony as though it will take place in a Western church, complete with a “priest” who will bind the two lovers. Descriptions of the warriors’ attire always include “human scalps.” Direct communication between humans and animals who occupy the same space and learn how to coexist with one another—a common feature in most Native American tales and legends—is entirely absent. In fact, throughout the story the animal world only appears as though it is in confrontation with the human world. And the only magic that occurs—again a common theme in Native American legends—is the appearance of the evil Hobomok at the end.

Just like we did with the story of Jack Straw, we may ask: after we eliminate all the ambiguities that surround this tale and the circumstances under which it was related, what are we left with? Not much. But the feature of the story that does ring true is the importance of water and swamps to Native American life in our area and the evil spirit that is associated with them.

“Nipmuc” literally means “people of the fresh water,” which demonstrates the importance of water to the Nipmuc’s livelihood and being. Swamps were both an important food source and a sacred place for Native Americans before European arrival. According to Hoffman, these waters “were associated with Hoccomock/Hobbamock, a trickster figure who was nevertheless responsible for the fertility and productivity of the local group, as well as shamanistic powers for individuals. That he was unreliable and capable of bringing famine and bad fortune is perhaps an analogy to the uncertain ground to be found in his domain.” Hoffman goes on to note that during the Contact Period with Europeans, as the relationship between the two groups became more fraught, the Hobbamock begins to take on characteristics of an English gentleman.

As we saw earlier in this series, while European settlers had no use for swamps—better to drain them to make farmland—they were crucial to the life of Native Americans in our area. Swamps provided connecting waterways that allowed Native Americans to move around and take advantage of seasonal food sources. They provided food, wood, water, and refuge. During King Philip’s War, Native Americans would burrow deep into swamps to find asylum, so several battles in the war took place in them.

The importance of swamps for Native Americans continued here in Westborough into the nineteenth century. Hoffman says that Jack Walkup—who owned a large amount of property adjoining Cedar Swamp and died at the age of 90 in 1978—claimed that when his grandmother was a child in the mid-nineteenth century, their family would put milk out on the doorstep for Indians who would emerge from the swamp during the winter to beg for food. An archaeological survey of the Cedar Swamp area by Hoffman revealed a small stone foundation along with clap pipe fragments, pieces of redware drinking mugs, glass, and nails from the mid-nineteenth century. Since no historic houses were ever recorded so deep in the swamp, the structure was most likely inhabited by Native Americans who harvested cedar as a cash crop to sell to townspeople to make shingles and clapboards. The shelter was most likely seasonal and sat unoccupied during the winter months. Hoffman contends that at the time he wrote his book in 1990, few cedar trees existed in the swamp anymore due to this logging, although Annie Reid in her Nature Notes series seems to indicate that by 2005 the Atlantic White Cedar had made a small recovery.

Rather than continue to tell a story that is of dubious value in learning about early Native American life in Westborough, more of a focus on the central role that the Cedar Swamp and other waterways in our town played in the lives of the people who lived here in town before European arrival would not only be more interesting, but more accurate. The Westborough Community Land Trust notes on its website that in 2003, Russ Cohen, “New England’s premier wild edible plant expert,” led a walk along the edges of Cedar Swamp. During his program, he identified an extraordinarily long list of edible plants, including choke cherry, day lily, dandelions, arugula, crabapple, acorns, and many others. No doubt, the Native Americans who lived and visited this area were well-aware of these edible plants and regularly gathered them for consumption.

A program that involves a visit to Cedar Swamp like the one conducted by Cohen—along with a discussion of the Hobomak who embodies the spirit of the swamp by bestowing fertility but also potential harm on those who encounter it—would be far more educational—and fun!—for third graders than listening to what is essentially an Indian princess story full of stereotypes. Afterall, “Nipmuc,” literally means, “People of the Fresh Water Lake,” so a discussion of why water is so central to their identity and existence is crucial to understanding them as people.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Oriental bittersweet (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes

Christmas is fast approaching, so many of us are decking out our living spaces with holiday decorations as we settle in for winter. Some of us look to bring natural items into our homes—Christmas trees, holly, sprigs of evergreens—to lighten up our interiors and remind us that a budding spring is in our future. We may even find Oriental bittersweet or American bittersweet with their bright red berries to add to our wreaths.

But alas, as Annie Reid points out in one of her December Nature Notes, the former berry has a bittersweet relationship to our environment, as it is an invasive species. Learn more about the difference between these two plants and about other natural phenomena in and around Westborough at this time of year in her December list of nature articles.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – November 17, 2023

Jack Straw Monument, Westborough, at the corner of Bowman Lane and Olde Coach Road. Click here to read the inscription.

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Native Americans in Westborough History, Part I: Jack Straw

Six years ago, Westborough celebrated its 300th anniversary, an impressive milestone for a North American town. But this time span looks puny when put next to the 10,000+ years that Native Americans have lived on the land we now inhabit. In this context, I appear to be justified in devoting more than a full year to writing a series for this newsletter on Native Americans in Westborough history.

Even though I have been writing about the meeting of two cultures—Native American and European—with Westborough firmly in mind, the result repeatedly fell more on New England as a whole than on Westborough specifically. The difficulty in limiting such an inquiry to Westborough has to do with having to write a history where one of the cultures in question was primarily oral, so there are few records to consult. I addressed this problem at several points in the series. But Westborough is luckier than most New England towns, because Curtiss Hoffman, a New England archaeologist, devoted time and effort to researching Nipmuc life specifically in Westborough, which resulted in his book, People of the Fresh Water Lake: A Prehistory of Westborough, Massachusetts. Some of the people who had worked with him on his archaeological digs in town continue his work and education on this topic today.

But we are finally at the point in this series where we can squarely focus our full attention on Westborough, only now we are armed with what I hope is a new and broader context for understanding Native American life in New England and what happened to it after Europeans arrived here. This new context can help us build a better, more accurate, and more interesting way of understanding the continuity between the past and the present and the role of the Nipmucs in the broader history of our town.

Traditionally, when we address Native American history here in Westborough, we return to three stories: Jack Straw, the Legend of Hoccomocco, and the Rice Boys. We recount one or all of these stories, congratulate ourselves on checking off the Native American box of our town history, and then move on to the topics of original town settlers and the American Revolution. I, myself, have been guilty of treading this tired path many times. Now I hope that we are in a position to place these three stories within a better historical context than we have in the past—if not allow one or more of them to recede into the background—and begin to develop a more accurate and well-rounded means of addressing Native American history in Westborough.

This series has been a start in that process. Now let’s see what happens when we use the information in this series as a springboard into taking a closer look at how we have addressed Native American history up until now and what that history really tells us about Westborough, both before and after European arrival. The next few newsletters will conclude this long series by addressing each of the three traditional stories we tell about Native Americans here in Westborough.

Jack Straw and Native American Legacy in Westborough

According to local tradition, Jack Straw’s Hill—now home to a housing division off of Bowman Street with a similar name—belonged to a Native American who was associated with Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1584, two Indians were taken from Virginia to England, where Raleigh presented them to Queen Elizabeth. One of them was named Manteo, and because he was reported to be the first Indian to be baptized a Christian, the Queen supposedly granted him 300 acres of land that would eventually become part of Westborough. Reference to an actual record of such a land grant never appears in any account of this story. How or why Manteo was tagged with the name Jack Straw, an English rebel who led the Peasant’s Revolt in England in 1381, is also never fully explained, nor why a Native American strongly associated with Virginia would be granted land far up north in Massachusetts.

Other stories claim that Jack Straw was a local Indian originally named Waunuckow, who was impressed into Raleigh’s service and then returned here. I cannot track down any reference to this specific Indian or story, however, beyond what Carroll M. Dearing wrote in the 1967 Commemorative Booklet for Westborough’s 250th anniversary.

A reference to Jack Straw also appears in Governor John Winthrop’s journal. In this account, a Native American named Jack Straw helped to negotiate a treaty between a Narragansett tribe from Rhode Island/southern Connecticut and the Massachusetts Bay Colony on April 4, 1631. In a 1901 journal article, William T. Forbes claims that “an historian” says that the delegation picked up Jack Straw and another Indian while traveling along the Old Connecticut Path to help with translation and the negotiation. (Forbes never names this historian.) If true, and this Jack Straw is the same person as Manteo, he would have been at least 67 years old, if not more. Winthrop’s diary entry, however, gives no indication about where Jack Straw came from and why he was a part of this delegation team. Forbes also cites references to “Jack Straw’s Hill” in early land grants, with the earliest one being in the 1670s, which gives land to the “relict and children of ‘Capt. Richard Beers, who lost his life in the country’s service, by the Indians, in Deerfield, in 1677’”—except that Beers died two years earlier in 1675 during King Philip’s War near Northfield, MA.

To muddy the waters of this history even more, Prof. Hoffman conducted a reconnaissance survey of Jackstraw Hill and could not find any evidence of prehistoric cultural material, nor find evidence that a Native American had ever occupied the hill. Even more, after learning all that we have about how Native American life tends to be highly socially oriented, a Native American living by himself during this time on top of a hill seems difficult to imagine, let alone one who came from a different part of the country and who had spent time in England. If Jack Straw had “turned Indian again” after having served Raleigh in England, as Winthrop claims, why would he now take up a secluded, sedentary life that falls well outside the semi-permanent villages that characterize Native American social life at the time? Not to mention that Native American life in our area gravitated towards water, not rocky hills.

Once we clear away all the doubt, we are not left with much of this story beyond the hill that bears the name of an English rebel from the Middle Ages, an Indian with that name joining a delegation to see Gov. Winthrop, and the land grants that refer to this geographical place more than forty years after that meeting. But based on what we have learned in this series and on skeptical rejection of details that cannot be verified, we also see an important theme emerge from this story: the erasure of Native Americans from the land in Westborough.

Indian geographical names emphasized a place’s natural, and hence sacred, function. Most of these names have since disappeared, save for a few like Hoccomocco Pond here in Westborough (more on this body of water in a future newsletter). Today, many of the land forms and streets that run through Westborough are instead named after the new settlers who moved in and founded our town. Even though Jackstraw Hill, Brook, and Path continue to bear the “name” of a Native American, his name is Anglicized and the man’s history is surrounded by ambiguity.

The story of Jack Straw also plays into the myth of the “last Indian” who lives by himself and represents the last vestige of Native American life before Europeans took total control of the land. As we have already seen in this series, some Native Americans reacted to European settlement by assimilating into this new culture and even took European names; others moved northwest, where they were better able to continue their traditional lifestyle. But Native Americans never completely disappeared from our area.

In his comprehensive survey of Native American tribes in Massachusetts in 1861, John M. Earle asserts that he could not find “one person of unmixed Indian blood.” Every time he researched the ancestral lineage of a Native American family, at least one member had intermarried with someone who was white or black. By the time Earle conducted his study, many of the Nipmucs who lived in the Hassanamisco reservation in Grafton (a former John Eliot praying town) had moved to Worcester and were mainly living in its African-American communities. Yet Earle also noted that most of the Native Americans he encountered remained proud of their heritage and worked hard to maintain it. In 1938 in the Westborough Chronotype, Charles H. Reed maintains that Native Americans “also married into the families of the white settlers and many of their descendants occupy high positions in society and the world.” Paralleling Earle, Reed goes on to say, “There are many now living in Westboro who are proud of the native blood that flows in their veins.”

Historical records are full of accounts of the “last Indian” only to have subsequent records continually demonstrate that Native Americans still exist and live in our local communities, albeit in much smaller numbers than they once enjoyed. Not surprisingly, this “mixing of blood” was also used as yet another sign of the disappearing Indian, when a “pure” Indian was not conveniently around to serve as proof of diminishing numbers and, consequently, the increasing irrelevance of Indigenous people. Native Americans today rightfully take umbrage at such a characterization.

The importance of land grants as a tool for displacing Native Americans from their land also appears in the story of Jack Straw. Now that we know the differing philosophies and epistemologies held by Native Americans and Europeans about property rights, we can make an argument that the summary of early land grants that appears merely as an Appendix at the end of Heman DeForest and Edward Bates’s The History of Westborough, Massachusetts (1891) should play a more central role in any discussion of Native Americans in Westborough history than a story about a lone Indian, perhaps the last one in Westborough, living on top of a hill that lacks detail and is full of inconsistencies.

Along with land grants, other mechanisms under which Indigenous lands were absorbed by the English merit a closer look. The Hassanamisco “Praying Town” reservation in Grafton—a mere four square-mile tract of land where in 1675 some of the Nipmucs were confined to live after King Phillips War—was further reduced over time starting in the 1730s to a measly three and one-half acres after the commission appointed to govern and oversee it sold or rented out much of the land over time to settlers. Captain Stephen Maynard of Westborough, a leader in the American Revolution, served as Treasurer of this commission after the war. At one point, Maynard was considered to be the richest man in Westborough until he eventually went broke and used $1,300 of the funds that had accumulated from the sale of this Nipmuc land to help pay his personal debt. Maynard eventually moved away from Westborough and never paid back the amount he took from this fund. During more flush times, he had also enslaved a small family—a man, woman, and daughter—before he sent all of them down South to be sold.

If we are to hold on to the story of Jack Straw and his supposed role in Westborough history, such a tale requires more nuance than we have given it in the past, if only to acknowledge the story’s participation in a double-edged erasure of Native American presence in Westborough: the erasure of present-day Native Americans based on the nineteenth-century myth of the disappearing Indian and over time the erasure of Indian place-names from the landscape in favor of European ones.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Fisher (Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes

Over the last few weeks as I have entered my neighborhood in the evening, I have spotted two coyotes hanging out together on a front yard and what I believe is a fisher crossing the street and heading into the woods. Sure enough, both creatures show up in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for November, so now I can learn all about them. What have you seen in your backyard lately?

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

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Westborough Center Pastimes – October 20, 2023

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Land Use, Part II: Settler Colonialism and the Case of the Pig

[O]ur fathers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, and of turkeys, and our coves full of fish and fowl. But these English having gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved.

—Miantonomo, a Narragansett sachem, 1642

Last month, we learned about the contrasting philosophies and epistemologies between Native Americans and Europeans towards land and property. This month, we are going to look at the real-world consequences of these differing thought systems on the New England ecology and environment as these two human ways of living in, and belonging to, an ecosystem came head-to-head.

Early descriptions of the natural abundance of the New World were fueled by the belief that returns on human labor would be greater here than in England. Written accounts of North America with their long lists of animals, fish, fowl, fruit, and edible plants that could be found here for the taking were aimed at wealthy merchants who were eager to put up money to extract these resources and turn them into commodities. But these written accounts presented a false picture of the reality here in New England, because they were mainly  written in the spring and summer. The settlers who arrived here with the promise of “laborless wealth” soon realized that the New England climate was similar to their own back in England and that they would need to account for the natural rhythm of the seasons. Life in the New World, it turns out, was going to be a struggle until they could recreate the annual agricultural cycles that they were familiar with back in England.

Europeans who settled in New England tended to occupy high ground, whereas Native Americans generally rejected this land as suitable for their villages due to its rocky composition and instead gravitated towards what might be considered more out-of-the-way locations, such as swamps. Swamps were vital to Indian life by providing year-round food resources, wood, water, and transportation routes. Indeed, accounts of late interactions between Westborough townspeople and Native Americans in the nineteenth century all take place around Cedar Swamp.

While Native Americans moved throughout the land in a patchwork of communities guided by the principle of finding maximum abundance through minimal work during each season, the English imposed order on the land with permanent settlements, even if doing so required much more work. Such fixity—with its cleared fields, pastures, buildings, and fences—directly clashed with Native American mobility. This difference created a struggle between two incompatible ways of living on the land and served as a central conflict between the two groups.

Agricultural production by Native Americans put its European equivalent to shame. Corn yields per acre were roughly the same for both Native and European people, but the former did so using far fewer corn seeds, which provided more space to grow beans and squash concurrently on the same plot of land. In order to produce the same yields as Native Americans, Europeans had to plant their corn more densely and use much more effort. The “Three Sisters”—corn, beans, and squash—also provided a more balanced diet than the European single crop provided on its own. Contrary to the myth about using fish to fertilize corn, Indians did not fertilize their fields. Such a practice was unnecessary and required too much work. Once a field’s fertility was used up, they simply moved on and planted their seeds in another space. But Europeans, because they “owned” their land, had to spend extra effort fertilizing their fields every year to keep them productive.

The very first European settlements were established on land that had already been cleared by Native Americans (who either had abandoned fields for others or had died off due to disease), by beavers (before they were hunted to near extinction), and by annual river floods. But eventually farmers needed to move into the New England forests and clear their trees in order to increase their land-holding. Such work was brutal, so enslaved Africans and indentured servants were brought to New England to clear forests and “improve” the land (enslaved local Indians, because the risk of them rebelling on their home turf was too great, were shipped off to the West Indies). The English used the downed trees to build ships, houses, and fences to keep livestock out of their fields. These fences severely limited Native American movement and disrupted migration routes of deer and other game that served as important food sources for them. By 1830, settlers had completely cleared 60 to 80 percent of New England’s forests, which radically altered the ecosystem. Over the now-clean expanses, Europeans sowed a single crop per field, allowed livestock to consume any stubble, and planted crops repeatedly until the soil was depleted. This soil was now more subject to erosion, and the monoculture planting encouraged specialized weeds and insect pests to take hold.

The English, however, had one major agricultural advantage over Native Americans: domesticated animals that could be used both for food and food production. While Native Americans relied solely on seasonal hunting and fishing for their animal protein, Europeans mainly controlled the source of their animal protein throughout the year. In the early years of European colonization, livestock were generally allowed to roam free and forage for themselves. Horses, cattle, and sheep grazed in pastures and would eat the meadows clean. But pigs were the most destructive. Because their sole role was to provide meat and did not require regular milking or other tending, pigs were allowed to roam at will. Colonists notched their ears so that they could be identified later and then set them free, where they ate up food sources that normally would have gone to wild deer, elk, and other forest animals. The pigs also invaded the un-fenced crops of Native people, ate their corn, beans, and squash, and dug up food storage pits with their snouts and consumed their contents. In the fall, the pigs were recaptured, butchered, and used as a winter meat supply. Oxen were not used for meat but provided crucial power for clearing the land, plowing, and other heavy farm work, which enabled English farmers to till more land than Native Americans could.

Native Americans and Europeans lived together in a single world, but fences and land ownership turned out to be too powerful to allow both groups to continue living together in the way each was accustomed. By the second half of the seventeenth century, Native Americans in southern New England had lost most of their land through war, trickery, or sale to obtain European goods. Without traditional food resources that had sustained them for thousands of years, Native Americans increasingly succumbed to disease and malnutrition. Some moved westward in an attempt to hold on to their traditional lifestyle. Others adapted to the new circumstances. They learned to use and repair European weapons, hunted in order to supply European markets (as opposed to doing so for food), raised livestock, and adopted the new agricultural practices. Still others formed new tribal alliances to resist as much as possible the colonial intrusion. But eventually, those who remained in New England were confined to reservations that sat on inferior farmland.

Starting in 1600, the rich forests that had covered New England were completely replaced within a mere 200 years. Instead, miles of fences now enclosed open land; wildlife was severely diminished; a system of country roads had been put in place; and domesticated animals fed on fields covered with clover, grass, and buttercups. The expansive global economy that the Europeans brought with them to America resulted in a total transformation of the New England landscape.

The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony originally scoffed at how Native Americans neglected to exploit and take full economic advantage of the land on which they lived, and they used this supposed deficiency as one of their excuses to justify taking land from them. But they never considered that there could be good ecological reasons to use the land judiciously or that the seemingly unlimited resources could at one point be depleted. The radical change that they ultimately wrought on the New England landscape demonstrates the folly of this thinking. In the nineteenth century, New Englanders started to abandon the depleted soils that had succumbed to erosion on their farms and go west to take advantage of the richer soils in the Midwest. White pine trees began to replace the open fields, that is, until around 1910 when their value as timber was recognized and they were clear cut by loggers, once again transforming the New England landscape. Unfortunately, similar environmental narratives can be found in many times and places throughout the world.

Indeed, the case of the pig in colonial American serves as an apt metaphor for the treatment of the New England environment since the arrival of Europeans. Perhaps the time has come to reevaluate the philosophies and epistemologies that keep leading us into such devastating environmental practices and results.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler


October Nature Notes

I know all about Green Eggs and Ham, but green bees? Yes, and they aren’t even wearing costumes for Halloween! Annie Reid will tell you all about these unusual and fascinating insects in her latest Nature Notes. And while you are at it, check out her other articles about the flora and fauna of Westborough in October: https://westboroughlandtrust.org/nn/nnindex?order=month#October.

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What Am I Reading Now?

I recently finished reading Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, where the narrator, Charles Marlow, signs up to become a steamer captain for a Belgian company to travel up a river into inner Africa to find an ivory agent named Kurtz, who has “gone native.” If the plot sounds a lot like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it’s because the movie is based on Conrad’s story. The novella itself comes out of Conrad’s own experience on a steamer that traveled up the Congo River and into the Belgian-owned colony of the Congo Free State, which was privately owned by King Leopold II. If you think that Coppola’s movie is disturbing, creepy, and odd, wait until you read Conrad’s story!

I know little about African history, so reading Conrad’s novella prompted me to learn more about this place and time. I am now in the middle of reading King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. So far, the book is fast moving and covers a lot of history that had been murky for me, such as the famous meeting of Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone. The book takes us back to a time when African explorers were treated like celebrities. It forces us to face tough questions about how we think about people who live in unfamiliar places and how the Western world has historically used such places and people to its own economic advantage.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – September 15, 2023

United States Department of the Interior advertisement, 1911.

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Land Use, Part I: Contrasting Philosophies and Conceptions of Property

The Native Americans and Europeans who met in North America starting in the fifteenth century held contrasting philosophies and epistemologies (theories of knowledge that form the basis of what counts as truth), especially when it came to ownership and land use. These contrasting belief systems were not simply a matter of disagreement or pointless rhetorical mind-games but had real-world consequences in how these two groups ultimately related to one another.

Under the banner of Western Civilization, which traces its lineage back to the Ancient Greeks, Europeans tend to divide their perceptions of reality into separate categories and then measure them, an epistemological practice that continues to this day. Europeans divide history into various historical periods that serve to characterize the social development of the specific people under consideration. They create complicated systems of classification to identify plants and animals by their biological and evolutionary relationship to one another. Even in spiritual matters, they divide up the days into weeks and then use one of those days to worship their god in a church that is designated for that practice. Then everyone goes back to their lives and works at their jobs for the rest of the week until the next day of worship rolls around.

For Native Americans, though, everything is related to the sacred, and so their reality cannot be divided up into bits and pieces. Because every single person, place, and thing is a manifestation of the Great Spirit and is thereby related to one another, inclusion and holism characterize the reality of indigenous Americans rather than division and categorization.

These two divergent epistemologies affected the exchange of material items. Under the European paradigm, material objects are separated from the spiritual world, which allows every item to be reduced to an expression of monetary value, where money serves as the main currency in most exchanges. But under the Native American paradigm, such exchange theoretically cannot happen because the material value of an object can never be divorced from its sacred value. In this case, the currency that governs the exchange of material objects always has a spiritual element. We cannot define wampum by simply comparing it to European money; rather, the intricate collection of patterned beads represents spiritual good faith on the part of both its giver and its receiver. Wampum is more an expression of personal reputation and one’s ability to follow through on promises of exchange than of any inherent value possessed by the wampum beads themselves.

These two approaches towards value and exchange also manifested in differing epistemologies relating to property and property rights—a philosophical difference that perhaps had the most consequential outcome regarding relations between the European and Native American groups.

“American Progress” (1872) by John Gast (Autry Museum of the American West).

Europeans arrived in North America holding an “international legal principle” known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Rooted in ethnocentric ideas of European and Christian superiority, the doctrine held that Europeans automatically acquired property rights—which included governmental, political, and commercial rights—over the lands of any indigenous people by virtue of simply showing up and claiming to have “discovered” the land.

The concept of property is important here, because Europeans see it as forming the basis of civil society, where government’s central role is in securing and protecting a marketplace where value can be accumulated by individuals through their labor on the property that they hold. John Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government (1690), essentially codified this premise philosophically, and he used Native Americans as an example of people who fail to combine their property with labor to create value:

There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several Nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in Land, and poor in all the Comforts of Life; whom Nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of Plenty, i.e. a fruitful Soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, rayment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the Conveniencies we enjoy: And a King of a large fruitful Territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England. (Chapter 5, Paragraph 41)

Locke mused that if these (Native) Americans only had money and commerce, which create incentives to work, then they would be rich and could take in all the comforts enjoyed by Europeans.

Except that Native Americans did not see themselves as poor or lacking in comfort. In fact, quite the opposite, because the land provided all that they needed, and in many ways they lived better lives than most Europeans, both in North America and back in Europe.

As we have already seen in this series, the Nipmuc annually moved to different parts of New England to take advantage of the seasonal offerings of its various landscapes. In this context, the concept of owning property does not make any sense. Sachems did claim sovereignty over areas controlled by their tribes, but these territories were more a symbolic possession tied to economic subsistence than any ownership of real estate. Any indigenous group passing through such lands could do so without worry, because the land was not something that could be owned and therefore controlled in such a way.

Possession of property for Native Americans was essentially defined by the use of land, land that could easily be abandoned for a better one if it no longer produced what the village needed. Ownership of personal property was defined by what people could make from the land using their own hands, and since women and men produced different things, they owned different objects: women owned baskets, mats, kettles, and hoes, whereas men owned bows, arrows, canoes, and tools. If any of these goods ceased to be useful, they would generally be given away to someone who could use them. Theft was rare, because there was no need or context for such an act.

Europeans, on the other hand, loved property and organized their lives around it, and since it held no sacred associations, the General Court (i.e., government) oversaw land transfers to individual or corporate owners. We can easily see the conflict here in the “exchange” of land between Europeans and Native Americans. The latter thought that they were essentially granting gifts of access to the land they occupied to the former—which is why many areas were “sold” to Europeans several times over—whereas the former thought that they were buying up land that they would own in perpetuity at ridiculously cheap prices.

By the time the Native Americans began to understand the philosophical differences that informed what was happening, it was too late. The epistemology of the colonizers and the mechanisms used to enforce it had already redefined the landscape under its own terms. From now on, the owners of this land could forbid trespassing, by force if necessary, with the full power of the government standing behind them. And since Native Americans did not technically claim ownership over any single piece of land, the Europeans could use the Doctrine of Discovery to justify the taking of the land. In fact, this doctrine continues to be upheld today under ten elements defined by the United States Supreme Court, by virtue of a unanimous decision in the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh.

These different conceptions of property can be seen in the very way that the two groups named their landscape. Whereas the English generally used arbitrary place-names that either harkened back to places in their homeland or named the (new) owners of a property, Native Americans identified places according to how the land could be used. What kind of place-names can you find in Westborough today? How do they fit into this naming pattern?

The philosophical differences held by Native Americans and Europeans regarding property and property rights had real world consequences. The European division of the land into individual units that could be measured, bought, and sold reflected a different kind of land use from that of Native Americans. English use of land under this framework had devastating consequences both for Native American life and for the ecology in New England. We will look more closely at these consequences next month.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Learn about Harry Baker on the “Wicked Westborough” Tour.

Take the “Wicked Westborough: Crime, Murder and Mayhem” Tour

Back this year is the “Wicked Westborough: Crime, Murder, and Mayhem” tour, which will take place on Thursday, October 5 from 6:00-8:00 p.m. Join us for a twilight walking tour of downtown Westborough where we will visit scenes of crime, murder, and mayhem that took place in our town. Wander the streets as you hear tales of Westborough’s seedy underbelly, with a cast of criminals and events that are sure to put a chill down your spine.

Due to the nature of the content and the walking distance, attendance is limited to young adults and older. Attendees should wear comfortable shoes and bring a flashlight. This event is co-sponsored by the Westborough Center for History and Culture in the Westborough Public Library, the Westborough Historical Society, and Leduc Art & Antiques, LLC.

Pre-registration for this highly popular event is required. Registration for this event opens Thursday, September 21 at 9:00 AM.

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Hassanamisco Indian Fair and Powwow

The Hassanamisco Indian Fair and Powwow will take place on Monday, October 9 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with a Grand Entry at noon. The event will take place at 80 Brigham Hill Road in Grafton and is open to the public.

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Photo Courtesy of Garry Kessler.

September Nature Notes

According to Nature Notes writer Annie Reid, it’s mushroom season! Reid tells us how to find them, but be careful: most mushrooms are not edible, so unless you really know what you are doing, don’t eat them!

Find out more about mushrooms and other seasonal features of Westborough in September’s Nature Notes.

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Boys at the Lyman School playing football, ca. 1910.

Westborough Football!!!

Stop by the Westborough Center to see the new mini-exhibit on Westborough football through history. See pictures of football players, band members, and cheerleaders from 1903 through to 2018, plus a cartoon celebrating Westborough winning the state championship in 1943.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – August 18, 2023

Metacom – “Philip King of Mount Hope” by Paul Revere – Yale University Art Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14571036

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Early Relations, Praying Towns, and War

“Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs.”

—Benjamin Franklin, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America” (1784)

Benjamin Franklin recognized that when two cultures judge one another, each one brings its own attitudes and perceptions about human behavior to its assessment. What makes contact between Native Americans and Europeans so fascinating is that for the first time in human history, two groups of people who had no contact with each other or with any other neighboring group for thousands of years suddenly came face-to-face. If we ever want a real-life example outside of science fiction of what could happen when two completely different civilizations suddenly confront one another, this is it!

Around 5,000 to 6,000 Nipmucs were living along rivers and streams connected to the Blackstone, Quaboag, Nashua, and Quinebaug Rivers when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620. First contact between the Nipmuc and the English probably occurred in Sterling, MA in 1621, and their relationship with one another was initially friendly. Any recording of Nipmuc activity or behavior by the English, though, was piecemeal. The English never really developed any true understanding of the motives or experiences of their indigenous neighbors—they just weren’t that interested—and so such insight is lost to us as well.

We do not know how centralized political leadership was among Native American tribes in Massachusetts before European arrival. The Wampanoag Nation may have been created after local Native Americans, who up until this time had lived separately next to one another, saw a need to coalesce together in response to European disease and encroachment on their land. In 1675, Metacom (also known as King Philip) led a rebellion against English occupation by banding together several major tribes in and around Massachusetts—a rebellion that became known as King Philip’s War (1675-1678). Metacom was born around 1640, so unlike his grandparents who faced disease and European advancement on their land head on in the 1610s, he never experienced a world without Europeans. He lived in relative material prosperity and considered himself the equal of any Englishman. Metacom had always lived in, and hence had learned to navigate, the bicultural world of the mid-seventeenth century.

Conflict at this time was not solely between Native Americans and European colonizers. Until recently, our tendency in recounting this time and place in history is to put Europeans at the center of the narrative and pretend that the central drama was in how Indians progressively lost their land to these new arrivals. The construction of this narrative is perhaps understandable, since the historical sources we have do not provide much detail about Native American life before or during this time. But with a little reflection, we can easily see that this story does not adequately cover the way these actors experienced their times. As human beings, Native Americans of course had their own patterns of historical dynamics, population movements, politics, and cultural change—patterns that had been at play well before European arrival. Once Europeans landed, the newcomers automatically became players in Native American inter-tribal dramas, where many tribes tried to use the appearance of these outsiders to their own advantage.

Native Americans continually reached out to the English to acquire their goods and to tap into any power they may possess that could prove to be useful. They also constantly tried to form alliances with the English—despite their alien ways and manners—to help throw any balance of power their way in tensions with other tribes. But if in these alliances Europeans proved to be more dangerous than advantageous, Native Americans would just as easily encourage them to go and bother their neighboring rivals instead.

To use the implication of our science fiction analogy from above, the situation in North America is as if aliens descended on earth and then the U.S. and other Western nations tried to court them into an alliance against Russia and China to bolster our political position (and vice versa)—yet in the end the aliens end up taking over the entire planet. From the alien’s perspective, planetary conquest is the main story line in such a history because they would have had little interest in the squabbles between earthly nations before their arrival. But for we humans, our historical narrative would instead focus on the insertion and role of the aliens in the geopolitics of our time before they ended up taking control of the world. To return to our real-world scenario, the alien Europeans were more interested in how North America could suit their own needs than in understanding the history of Native American relations before their arrival, and since this history was never recorded, we are left to speculate on what it was based on the scant evidence available to us today.

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John Eliot

Not long after John Eliot arrived in Natick, MA in 1651 to recruit members of the Nipmuc tribe to form “praying town” communities, native people in New England were already living alongside 60,000 English colonists. Eliot’s towns were designed as tightly controlled environments that regulated Christian morality and encouraged Indians to adopt a European work ethic, raise livestock, become sedentary, and follow the Christian God. Eliot educated them to read the Bible, and recruited preachers and teachers among the Nipmuc to help bring more people from the tribe into their fold. In short, he wanted to turn the Nipmucs into Europeans, as well as to turn them into productive laborers for colonial markets. Some of the Nipmucs went on to attend Harvard Indian College where they mastered English, Latin, and Greek. James Printer, one of these Nipmuc scholars, set the type on the first Bible published in North America.

Title page of the Eliot Indian Bible (1663), the first Bible printed in North America. The type was set by James Printer, a Nipmuc scholar.

By the time King Philip’s War broke out in 1675, around 2,300 Native Americans were living in Eliot’s praying towns, which were spread throughout Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. Some of the Nipmuc joined Metacom’s forces, while Eliot’s praying Indians became fighters and scouts for the English. Nonetheless, the colonial government feared that the praying Indians would join Metacom, and so they confined them to five plantations: Natick, Nashobah (Littleton), Punkapoag (Canton), Wamesit (Tewksbury), and Hassanamesit (Grafton). If any of these praying Indians were found outside of these limits, they would be subject to jail or death.

The intricacies of King Philip’s War are too complicated to cover in this newsletter (you can consult the Native American Resources in the WPL for book suggestions if you are interested), but here are a few notable observations. Even though Native Americans fought against the English with the aim of kicking them out of the territory, the war was not between two groups of strangers, but between neighbors. By this point, the two groups had been trading, working, negotiating, and, in some cases, attending school and church together. Leading up to the war, Native Americans had sought cooperation and coexistence on shared land; they were not interested in forming a frontier that kept the two groups apart from one another. In fact, Metacom thought he could use the presence of the English to build on his tribes’ unprecedented wealth accumulation. The notion that Native life was incompatible and opposed to English interests was a belief held by the colonists, not the Native Americans, who instead sought flexibility in living together side-by-side.

Metacom was killed in 1676, and the war named after him ended in 1678. Nipmucs who had fought against the English were either killed, sold into slavery, or went into hiding with tribes in the north and west of where they used to live. Others returned to their praying town sites to resettle, but many of them left or were forced out as more English settlers moved in. Some among this group adopted English habits and dress and made a living by selling baskets, brooms, and herbs to settlers.

The wars among the British, French, and Spanish powers in North America in the seventeenth century were not simply European. They were also Native American and involved Inter-Indian as well as Indian-colonial rivalries where Native Americans had just as much at stake as the Europeans. Taken together, these wars were a complex process of working out an equilibrium among European imperial powers and among various groups and alliances of Native Americans. Loyalties ebbed and flowed (and sometimes conflicted) in figuring out control and coexistence in eastern North America.

After the War of the League of Augsburg (a.k.a., “King William’s War,” 1689-1697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (known in the U.S. as “Queen Anne’s War,” 1702-1713)—wars that are usually lumped together now as the “French and Indian Wars”—British America became remarkably politically stable between 1720 and 1750. Relative economic prosperity through this time certainly helped, as the expanding British Empire brought tea, coffee, sugar, rum, dishware, and other luxury goods that were normally confined to the aristocracy into the colonies. This new prosperity also attracted new immigrants from Germanic principalities, Ireland, and northern Britain.

In a way, competition in North America among European powers within the context of Native American interests and rivalries created conditions where both European and Native peoples could potentially live next to one another. If one group became too powerful, a shift in loyalty by one of the groups could put the balance back in order. But British victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) reoriented geopolitics throughout the world, and the effect on North America was no exception. Now, complete British victory in this global conflict put North American power mainly in England’s hands. Devoid of competition from any other European nation, this situation eventually made the British-American people so confident in their ability to govern themselves that they claimed the right to secede from the British Empire and started the American Revolution. Consequently, Indian and European coexistence in the colonial world that was the norm for over two hundred years was erased from historical memory. Going forward, the historical narrative would instead focus on the alien invaders, in this case the English, and their triumphal formation of a new American nation.

Lest we forget, though, as historian Pekka Hämäläinen points out, America remained “overwhelmingly Indigenous well into the nineteenth century.” Control over the North American continent was essentially a four-centuries-long war against Native Americans who fiercely resisted it. Gone were the days when Native Americans and Europeans could potentially have learned how to live next to one another peacefully.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Square-stemmed monkey-flower. Photo courtesy of Garry Kessler.

Nature Notes

We sure have had a wet summer!

According to Annie Reid, we also had a wet summer back in 2013, when we experienced a proliferation of the square-stemmed monkey-flower, a native wildflower that enjoys wet areas. I’m guessing that this wild flower is running rampant this year! Put on your galoshes and see if you can find it, and while you are at it, discover even more about Westborough’s natural surroundings during this time of year in Reid’s Nature Notes for August.

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History Corner

Look for me and other Westborough residents with an interest in history at Westborough Connects’ “Westborough for Life!” program on Sunday, September 10 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Westborough High School. We will be putting together a “History Corner,” where you can stop by to learn and ask questions about Westborough’s past.

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