Westborough Center Pastimes – April 21, 2023

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Dec. 22nd 1620 (Currier & Ives, 1876) – Note the presence of the Native American on the left, which is not factual.

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.

First Contact and Population

When discussing Native American history, both before and soon after European arrival in North America, we need to note an irony: in order to piece together the history of Native Americans before European contact, we need to rely on European sources after contact.

Native Americans did not have written language, and consequently they did not have recorded history in the way that Europeans did. Instead, their histories were handed down orally, and as such they were intertwined in their mythologies and belief systems—much like early Greek history was at one point handed down orally: think The Iliad and The Odyssey and their mix of history and mythology. By the way, Homer’s two epics about the historical Trojan War (which took place in the 13th century B.C.) were captured in print in the 8th century B.C., right around the time that the Greeks (re)invented their writing system. Eventually, the Greeks also invented history as we conceive of it today, with Herodotus being considered the first historian, followed soon after by Thucydides. This Western concept of history requires written language, so that we can describe and record events, reflect on and attempt to verify them, and construct a narrative of those events that itself is constantly open to reevaluation and revision.

With the absence of a written language, our knowledge of early Native American history, then, is essentially dependent on two major sources. One is archaeology—a practice of ascertaining how people lived during times of prehistory that was invented much later in time in the eighteenth century. The second source is documents about Native American life that were written around the time of contact and were created by Europeans and written for European consumption back home. Naturally, these early records and descriptions of Native American life have a heavy European bias, and so we need to “read between the lines” of these early accounts to try to arrive at a better and more truthful understanding of Native Americans both before and around this time of early contact.

Some of these early works include accounts by French Jesuit missionaries, records of negotiations between Native and European imperial governments in Albany, and documents relating to the praying towns in Massachusetts first led by John Eliot. Historian Daniel K. Richter contends, “Read carefully, each [of these bodies of records] in its very different way reveals Indian people trying to adapt traditional ideals of human relationships based on reciprocity and mutual respect to a situation in which Europeans were becoming a dominant force in eastern North America.” The implication here is that we need to be just as, if not more, attentive to the Native American perspective when reading these documents if we are to ascertain properly their motives and positions when interacting with Europeans.

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I hope that you have found my explorations of Native American life before European contact over the last several months to be as compelling as I have found them to be. But now we are to the point in my investigation where things become really interesting, because we get to see what happened when two entirely different cultures, European and Native American, came into contact and how their differences informed their relations with one another.

When Columbus landed in what is now the Bahamas in 1492, or when Vikings established a small colony in Newfoundland in 1021—pick whichever narrative you prefer—and first encountered the Indigenous people living there, the meeting marked the full circling of the globe by human beings. This odyssey first started in Africa 60,000 years ago when human beings fanned upward and out of Africa, encountered Neanderthals, who had separated from our common human lineages 500,000 years ago, and then moved east across Asia and west across Europe until each genetically identical strand finally met up in eastern North America. Talk about an epic journey!

We will never know exact statistics, but the population of the area of North America east of the Mississippi at the time of Columbus’s arrival may have been more than 2 million Native people. These numbers soon shrank rapidly due to the diseases that European explorers and settlers brought with them and to which Native Americans had no immunity. As for the number of Europeans, by as late as 1700 their total population only amounted to around 250,000, and they were mainly confined to the coasts along the Atlantic seaboard. By 1750, however, a decisive shift had taken place, where European populations and their enslaved African workforce exploded to 1.25 million people while the Native population shrank to 250,000. By the time of the American Revolution—more than 280 years after Columbus’s landing—the number of European and African Americans finally brought the population of this eastern part of the continent back to where it was before at 2 million.

In 1600, just before the Pilgrims’ arrival, the total Indian population of New England was between 70,000 and 100,000. But when the Mayflower landed in Plymouth in 1620, a recent outbreak of disease had killed nearly ninety percent of the Wampanoags who were living there. The tired and hungry colonists were overjoyed to discover a vacant Native village and interpreted the cleared land as a reward for their biblical exodus. While exploring the village, they discovered, and promptly took, a deposit of corn that the Wampanoags had hidden away for themselves. For Native Americans who lived in southern New England, grain made up one-half to two-thirds of their diet, and it could be stored during the winter months so as to stave off starvation and be used in the spring as seed. In taking this stash of corn, then, the Pilgrim’s first decisive—and foretelling—action upon landing in North America was an act of theft.

When Europeans first entered North America, there was no part of the continent that was not inhabited and ruled by a sovereign Indian regime. The notion of “unsettled wilderness” that was ripe for the taking was a convenient myth first created by the Pilgrims. This myth helped them justify to themselves the taking of the Native American village and its land and ever since has informed the view of many historians interested in justifying European expansion on the North American continent. More recent historical evidence, however, does not support this notion of free and uninhabited open space.

If disease had not ravaged the Wampanoags before the arrival of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ landing would certainly have played out a lot differently. Next month, we are going to take a closer look at how the spread of disease among Native Americans impacted other elements of first contact between the Indigenous and European peoples.

—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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New Native American Resource

To accompany my Westborough History Connections series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough,” I have created a new bibliography: Native American Resources in the Westborough Public Library.

This bibliography lists primary and secondary sources relating to Native American history in both Westborough and New England, so if you are interested in learning more about the issues and ideas that I have been exploring in my series, this list of resources is a great place to start.

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A Major Parkman Publishing Announcement

I am just about to finish reading Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner. In his book, Puchner argues that culture by definition is created through sharing and incorporating information both from the past and from other cultures that are not our own. While making this argument, he describes the many ways that knowledge is passed down to future generations and influences other cultures—from monuments, to oral story-telling practices, to writing on papyrus, to libraries and archives, etc. But he also shows how precarious all of these information transmission systems really are and how easily systems that we often take for granted can easily disappear. Central to this transmission of information is the humanities, which is the prime driver of knowledge and human civilization.

To this end, the Westborough Public Library is an important transmitter of knowledge and information, not only to our community but to the world. One of the library’s initiatives that I have written extensively about is the Ebenezer Parkman Project (EPP), which makes available both the works of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, Westborough’s first minister, and related Westborough town records. Taken together, these documents provide the fullest picture of colonial life in a rural, New England community that is available anywhere. Now, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (CSM) will be formerly publishing much of the EPP material on their website. My co-directors of the EPP—Prof. Ross W. Beales and Dr. James F. Cooper—and I have already started working with the CSM on converting and organizing this content for publication.

The importance of the Parkman and Westborough records will become even more apparent once they are published on the CSM website (we do not have a set publication date yet). But it is possible that the content of this project would never have made the light of day had it not been for the Westborough Public Library. Prof. Beales, whose scholarship forms the content of the project, recently admitted to me that if our other co-director and I had “not envisioned the EPP, most of what I’ve been doing would have ended up in a digital graveyard.” The Westborough Public Library provided Prof. Beales with the means to make his extensive scholarship on Parkman and Westborough available; otherwise, it would have sat on his computer and, at some point, probably disappeared. Now, with its publication through the CSM, this monumental project will find a long-lasting home where scholars and anyone else will freely be able to access and read it.

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A New COVID History Podcast

Mary Botticelli Christensen has been tirelessly collecting stories from Westborough residents about their experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Now, in conjunction with Westborough TV, she has gathered them all together into an engaging podcast series called, When the Pandemic Came to Town: How a Small New England Town Survived with Resilience and Kindness. You can learn more about this project and access links to listen to the podcast on Amazon, Spotify, or Apple platforms by visiting this Westborough TV page: https://westboroughtv.org/when-the-pandemic-came-to-town/. (BTW, I make an appearance in the first episode, if you are interested.)

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April Nature Notes

A section of my vegetable garden has been giving me disappointing results in recent years, probably due to insufficient sun, so I’m toying with the idea of turning this bed into a local plant and wildflower garden. Perfect timing, then, to read Annie Reid’s latest Nature Notes essay on whitlow grass and the first wildflowers of spring!

And you can read more of her essays about the natural goings-on on in Westborough during April here: https://westboroughlandtrust.org/nn/nnindex?order=month#April.

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Protecting Open Space in Westborough

Speaking of Westborough nature, next month’s Westborough Historical Society program will celebrate a quarter-century of preserving open space and creating trails by the Westborough Community Land Trust on Monday, May 8, at 7:00 on Zoom. WCLT leaders will describe the history of the organization and all that it has accomplished over these years.

This program is FREE, and you can register for it through this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZErcumoqjIvHNQu1LnSSWnAJXIzA2im_3ID.

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Travel Back in Time . . . By Unplugging

Even those of us who lived before the era of cell phones and computer screens have a hard time remembering what it was like to live without them. Now, for one week, you can return to those times (or, if you are younger than I am, get a feel for what life was like back then) by participating in Westborough Connects’ “Westborough Unplugs: Screen-Free Week” from April 30 to May 6.

To help us unplug for one week, Westborough Connects has a host of fun, computer-free, programs lined up to help get us through this admittedly difficult challenge, including a community bike ride, a “Book & Seek” here at the library, an exploration of Nourse farm, and a nature walk hosted by the Westborough Community Land Turst. Click here to find a complete list of events with links to more information, as well as details about their “Spring into Wellness” program on May 7.

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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 17, 2023

Algonquian Language map

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.

Connection in Native American Organization and Interaction

Connection lies at the center of Native American organization and interaction. Under their cosmogony, we are all connected to the spiritual world, which itself is intertwined with the natural world. Use of the natural world in turn forms the patterns of interaction needed within the village to support its subsistence, and these patterns of behavior within the village carries over into how the group relates to other villages, groups, and tribes. Let’s take a closer look at how all of these levels interact and connect with one another.

The Great Spirit gifts use of the land to Native Americans. From this beginning premise, land is something that cannot be owned, and the rights to use it is conferred on the group, not any individual. Significant landforms—mountains, lakes, swamps—are imbued with spiritual meanings given their connection to the Great Spirit. Tribal ancestors, who protect the tribe and who are buried in the land, additionally strengthen the connection to the land. Sachems, as leaders of the group, are vested with the responsibility of using the land wisely so as not to violate the gift of the Great Spirit, and with the help of the shaman, they worked to ensure the fertility and productivity of the land. Before Europeans took control of the land in the Americas, sachems were empowered to negotiate with other sachems over boundary disputes, but these disputes were not over ownership of the land but rather over usage rights of shared land. When we later turn to examining early contact with European settlers, understanding this relationship between Native Americans and the land will be crucial.

For Native Americans living in eastern North America, the universe was morally neutral, with potentially hostile or potentially friendly spiritual forces all around them. In this cosmology, some of these spiritual forces are human; most of them are other-than-human. Everyone—people, animals, and spirit forces—have to work together. Humans need to bond with one another in families, clans, and villages, and the individuals in them all need to work together and within nature for the greater good of the group. In order to live, animals and plants need to offer themselves voluntarily as food. And powerful forces like the sun or the wind need to be placated to work on everyone’s behalf. To make this entire interconnected system work, the exchange of goods and obligations among all of these entities needed to be reciprocal and carried out with respect, so ceremony was employed to ensure that it did.

People who lived from the Chesapeake, up the eastern coast, over present-day Canada, and back down to the Ohio River (forming a vast inverted U: see the map above) all spoke Algonquian languages (including the Nipmuc). These languages were more loosely connected than the Germanic and Romance language families in Europe, and each language had myriad dialects, because each community was fairly independent from the others. But that does not mean they were disconnected. The great river systems throughout this region enabled trade routes and communication channels that have existed for millennia. Neighboring peoples exchanged food, raw materials, tools, knowledge, and weapons. Long-distance trade tended to involve more exotic materials, such as marine shells and beads to make wampum.

Major disputes between groups were handled with highly structured diplomacy. The Iroquois, neighbors to the Algonquians, employed an elaborate nine-stage diplomatic process when handling major disputes. After initiating a formal invitation to meet, the visitors arrived at the site of the council in a ceremonial procession. Upon arrival, the host offered rest and comfort to the visitors, who are presumed to be tired after having conducted a long journey. The two sides exchanged “Three Bare Words” of condolence in order to clear any grief-inspired rage that could prevent clear communication, and then everyone rested at least one night. The next day, after performing a more extensive Condolence ceremony to cleanse the minds and wipe away any lingering ill feelings, the sides then recounted the history of the two peoples’ relationship with one another, their peaceful interactions, and the manners taught to them by their ancestors. After all of these preliminaries, the work of negotiating the treaty would begin to take place.

Chiefs of the Six Nations at Brantford, Canada, explaining their wampum belts to Horatio Hale September 14, 1871.

Through the course of the negotiation wampum was exchanged to give the words validity. Wampum was more than a valuable commodity. The carefully woven patterns of beads and shells served as mnemonic devices to help the negotiators remember the messages they were empowered to deliver by the group, and they served as reminders of promises made years before. One’s reputation, in essence, was embodied both in the beads and in their exchange, so when Europeans jokingly tell stories about how the island of Manhattan was “purchased” for a handful of trinkets, more was going on in the exchange, at least in the minds of the Native Americans, than the story normally reveals.

Wabanaki Wampum Belts

During the negotiations, both sides were required to listen politely to the other side and not respond with anything of substance until the following day. Immediate replies were taken to mean that the speaker did not have the authority to speak on behalf of the group and that the proper wampum had not been prepared. Such exchanges could go on for days if not weeks. Negotiations mainly focused on compensating victims rather than punishing the perpetrator, whereas the reverse is true today. When a final outcome was agreed upon, the conference was concluded with a huge feast and an exchange of material gifts, such as food, cloth, tools, and weapons.

The effect of such elaborate ceremonial negotiations was to lower tensions, hear out everyone’s grievances, and empower the proper people to negotiate an acceptable solution to the problem. The negotiations took place in front of dozens if not hundreds of men, women, and children to give evidence that their representatives had broad political support. The people also served as witnesses to the continuity of these decisions to the past, to the need to remember the covenant that was just created, and to continue to live as good, peaceable neighbors. In other words, connection and harmonious balance were the primary concerns of all involved.

—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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Janet Parnes presents Dolley Madison

On Wednesday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m. in the Galfand Meeting Room at the Westborough Public Library, learn about one of our country’s transformative First Ladies when Janet Parnes presents “Quaker Girl Takes Washington’s Center Stage: The Influence of Dolley Madison.”

In her presentation, Parnes will take on the role of Dolley Madison, who softly stepped outside the social norms of Washington’s high society to establish new standards of decorum, introduce women into the politics of the day, and earn the respect of both military and civilian populations.

This free event is funded by the Westborough Cultural Council, and you can register for it here: https://westborough.assabetinteractive.com/calendar/janet-parnes-presents-dolley-madison/.

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Take a Westborough Architecture Tour (from the Warmth of Your Own Home)

As part of the 300th Anniversary celebration of Westborough in 2017, R. Chris Noonan and Luanne Crosby conducted a series of architecture tours around town and recorded them. With the help of Westborough TV, the two of them have now been working on editing the recordings and the second of these tours is now available online: https://westboroughtv.org/architectural-cultural-walking-tour-series-walk-2-archeology-primer-westboroughs-pre-history/.

This tour centers around Cedar Swamp, which was filmed on a frigid winter day, and explores the pre-history, environmental protection, and importance of the area. The guest speaker on the tour is Michelle (Kamala) Gross, owner of Westborough Yoga and a trained archeologist who worked on this site back in the 80’s.

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Nature Notes

I recently attended the Worcester Art Museum’s annual “Flora in Winter” event where one of the floral displays used pussy willows. Seeing them reminded me how come spring when I was growing up, these twigs carrying hairy buds that felt as soft as cat’s fur always seemed to find their way into our house from the large, thriving bush in the corner of our backyard—one of the few plants we seemed to be able to grow successfully.

Learn more about pussy willows and other early signs of spring in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for March: https://westboroughlandtrust.org/nn/nnindex?order=month#March.

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New Cabinets, New Look!

The Westborough Center has just added a new row of shelving to its room, which increases storage capacity for our town’s growing collection of historical records and documents.

You can learn more about the collections that are stored in the room by visiting the Westborough Archive catalog: https://catalog.westborougharchive.org/. If you spot anything that you would like to see in person, ask me or another librarian to pull it out for you. We are always happy to do so.

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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 17, 2023

A recreation of a wetu.

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.

Seasonal Life in Nipmuc Villages and Westborough

Village life formed the center of social, economic, and political life of the Nipmuc, the Indian tribe that inhabited Westborough and its surrounding area. Unlike villages today, Nipmuc villages moved from place to place in order to exploit seasonal diversity of food sources. A few hundred people organized into extended kin networks lived in a village, and they all worked together to support the community.

The Nipmuc lived in structures consisting of wooden frames that were covered in grass mats or bark called wetus. These houses could be taken apart in a matter of a few hours, so that they could be transported to the next site where the village would settle. Depending on the season, they would also change shape: small houses for one or two families were prevalent in the summer, whereas longhouses that could house many families were common during the winter. If there were any additional food left over before a move, it could be stored in underground pit-barns, where it could be retrieved later if needed.

The Nipmuc tended to inhabit Westborough in the Fall and then move on to some other place or places during other times of the year. They were drawn to Westborough to take advantage of the area’s lakes and swamps. No evidence exists to indicate that the Nipmuc occupied Westborough during the winter, but it is possible that they may have settled here at different parts of the season during different times of prehistory. Places where seasonal camps in Westborough have been archaeologically excavated were likely visited repeatedly over a number of years by a fair number of people engaged in short-term foraging expeditions in nearby woods.

Prehistoric people living during the Late Archaic period (4,000-6,000 years ago) mainly visited Charlestown Meadows in the western part of Westborough during the Fall, where they gathered hickory nuts, acorns, and hazelnuts, and then charred them in fires. These nuts could be stored and provided protein and fats during the winter. The Nipmuc also hunted deer and processed their kill by extracting marrow from the bones, curing the meat, and making deerskin clothing for the winter months. While in Westborough, they took advantage of its mineral resources to make stone tools and flakes. The time they spent in Westborough, though, was relatively short.

In general, food gathering resources within Westborough included hunting and trapping animals, such as rattlesnakes, deer, bear, turkey, and small mammals. Opportunities for gathering berries and nuts from hazel and oak trees were also available. Quartzite boulders could be used for tool-making. The lakes, ponds, and swamps in Westborough offered fish, waterfowl, turtles, and water snakes, and the shores of these waters provided edible greens and rich, deep soils that could have been used for farming.

Yes, farming. In my last entry to this series, I talked about some of the misnomers we hold about the life of hunter-gatherers, but I neglected to mention another one, that hunter-gatherers did not engage in horticulture. True, they did not farm the land in the way that Europeans did, with long rows of monoculture crops, but they did manipulate plants, usually within their natural environment, to shape food production to fit their needs better.

Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash.

Grains, especially corn, may have made up one-half to two-thirds of the diets of Native Americans in southern New England. These crops could also be stored during the winter, which made starvation less likely. Corn is a difficult grain to grow–it requires constant weeding–which is why Native Americans raised other crops right alongside it to keep weeds at bay. Inter-planting beans (which grew up the stalks of the corn), squash, pumpkin, and tobacco among the corn prevented weeds from growing and lessened considerably the amount of labor needed to tend the crops. The result looked messy to the Europeans, who were used to planting monocultural fields, but the approach (which became known as the “Three Sisters” with the planting of corn, beans, and squash) yielded much more food per acre.

Women conducted most agricultural activities. They were also in charge of housing, owned most of the household goods, and made decisions about moving at appropriate times during the year. Men went out from these bases to hunt and fish. Food productivity reached its height in the fall months. During this time, women harvested their crops and gathered nuts and edible wild plants. Harvest festivals, where eating, dancing, and rituals took place, marked a celebration of the bounty. As part of the festivities, wealthy people gave away much of what they owned to increase their reputations, establish reciprocal relationships, and form allies and followers. (Note the entirely different attitude towards wealth here than in Western societies, where amassing capital in itself is the higher value and what one does with it is that person’s personal business.) At the end of harvest celebrations, the camps stored the harvested food and moved on to hunting grounds, where the men took over food production while the women butchered and processed the kill.

The activities of Nipmucs and other Native Americans were all focused on getting as much out of the land with as little labor as possible. In addition, each season brought different economic activity, which provided a greater variety of mental stimulation than perhaps our singularly focused jobs do today. If happiness comes from getting more from less labor, then Native Americans certainly tipped the scales in their favor.

—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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Take the Nature Notes Quiz!

Every year in January, Annie Reid and Garry Kessler create a Nature Notes quiz. The idea is to use the quiz as a memory-refresher for what we all might expect to see as we experience nature in Westborough throughout the year. You can take the quiz here: https://westboroughlandtrust.org/nn/nn303.

And if you fail the quiz, like I did, don’t despair! Get out into the woods with February’s Nature Notes open on your phone to learn about our town’s flora and fauna and prepare for next year’s quiz. Or, if you prefer to lie around the house, check out the most recent Nature Notes article on Penicillium mold, which can be found in our ordinary refrigerators.

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All Aboard!

The building of the railroad in 1834 turned Westborough from a serene farm town into a bustling Industrial powerhouse, a transformation that continues to influence the character of our town today. Learn all about this transition on Monday, March 6, at 7:00 p.m. at the The Willows (1 Lyman Street) when the Westborough Historical Society presents a talk by historian Phil Kittredge called, “All Aboard! The Train and Industry Pull into Town.”

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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 20, 2023

Ice Age Animals – Cleveland Museum of Natural History

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.

Hunter-Gathering, the End of the Ice Age, and the Nipmucs

You most likely have seen at least one reality television show where people are dumped in the middle of the wilderness and then try to survive for a period of time. Survivor, my personal favorite, has been on T.V. the longest, but others include Alone, Man vs. Wild (and other shows starring Bear Grylls), and the embarrassing Naked and Afraid, where strangers are paired up and have to battle the elements without wearing any clothing. Most people on these shows do not last more than a few weeks in such conditions, even if they are wearing clothes.

This survival genre first began with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), an early novel that tells the story of a man who finds himself shipwrecked alone on an uninhabited island and slowly builds the rudimentary foundations of civil society. All of these narratives highlight the struggle of the protagonists in their fight against nature and in doing so valorize the more comfortable lifestyle that modern life affords us. While we watch or read, we believe that we are gaining insight into what it must have been like to be a hunter-gatherer, where starvation is a constant threat, and we thank our lucky stars that we do not have to live that way.

Except that this characterization of what it must be like to live as hunter-gatherers is entirely false and misleading.

The narratives I cite above all tend to focus on what hunter-gatherers lack, as opposed to what they have or had. One key element that is missing is a functional society where people work together to provide food, shelter, and other necessities for the group as a whole. Another is hundreds, if not thousands, of years of knowledge—knowledge gained through careful observation, experimentation, and ingenuity—about how the environment around them works and how it can best support subsistence. Yet another missing element are the sets of behaviors and belief systems that reinforce this knowledge about the environment and facilitate its passing down to future generations.

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Starting around 8,000 BC, the giant mammals that inhabited North America during the Ice Age—which included mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, and giant beavers—began to die out. For many hundreds of years, indigenous people had been hunting these huge food sources using a combination of spears and fire. Some scientists say that environmental changes taking place not only led to the melting of the massive glaciers that covered much of the continent but also resulted in the extinction of over three dozen species of these giant animals. People kept hunting these animals throughout this period—with evidence of overhunting and leaving whole carcasses to rot—so other scientists say that humans caused the extinction, if not helped bring the process to a faster conclusion. Even though the warming of the climate was potentially catastrophic to these animals, it also led to diversification both of the natural environment and, consequently, of the diets of Native Americans going forward.

After having lived on the land for over 10,000 years, Native Americans living just before European contact were aware of almost every detail and facet of their environment. Much like today, they sought ways to utilize the entire landscape available to them to support their existence—the difference being that our present economic system is geared towards a single endpoint, i.e., money, whereas theirs was focused on long-term subsistence.

If you are a hunter and gatherer, the best strategy is to seek out diversified food sources; that way, if one resource falls short one year, a greater supply of another resource can offset the impact of the other. Such a strategy means moving around the landscape to locations where resources are readily available at different times of the year. (People with a more sedentary lifestyle tend to specialize in a narrower range of food resources, and so they require different technologies both to grow their food sources and to bring resources that they do not have in their immediate surroundings to them.)

The Nipmuc, or “fresh water people,” were hunter-gatherers who inhabited the interior of Massachusetts (including Westborough), as well as parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut. They lived in scattered villages in wetus, structures that could easily be moved to other encampments when the cycle of the season demanded it. When we talk about Native American history today, we tend to focus on tribes and confederacies, but these villages—which were tied together by kinship ties, trade alliances, and common enemies—formed the true centers of activity and interaction with the environment. Unlike villages today, these villages were not geographically fixed and were continually moved to places where the Nipmuc believed they could find the greatest number of natural food supplies.

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I began this essay discussing the misnomers that we normally hold about the life of hunter-gatherers and how they are perpetuated in reality shows and other narratives involving “primal” survival scenarios. But there is one misnomer that I have not yet covered. All of these narratives involve intense struggle, starvation, and seemingly endless amounts of work. But numerous anthropological studies of the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers show that they enjoy far more leisure time, more diverse diets, and in many ways a more comfortable existence than what we in Western society do. We pay a heavy cost to support our more sedentary lifestyle, which today includes long work hours, heavy commutes, and a more isolated existence. We will explore this facet of Native American life a bit more in the next newsletter, when we take a closer look at village life of the Nipmucs.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Special Note: To learn more about about Westborough’s pre-history (and the importance of Cedar Swamp), watch the second part of R. Chris Noonan and Luanne Crosby’s Architectural/Cultural Walking Tour #2: Archaeological Primer; Westborough’s Pre-History.

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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Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, ca. 1910

Who Was Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller?

On Monday, February 6, 2023 at 7 p.m., the Westborough Historical Society will celebrate Black History Month with a program titled, “Who Was Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller?” As the first Black psychiatrist in the U.S., Fuller worked at the Westborough State Hospital from 1899 to 1933 where he did ground-breaking research in Alzheimer’s Disease and other mental diseases. This program will be presented by Dr. Edith Jolin of the Boston University School of Medicine.

This Historical Society program is free on Zoom. Click here to register for the program in advance: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZAkceqqqTsuG9EvyPX-N5iEVm3X0orI06Wy.

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A photograph taken by Nancy Engberg for the WPL’s Millennium Project in 2000.

Check Out the Photography of Nancy Engberg

You probably recognize Nancy Engberg. She was a member of the library staff for 26 years before she retired in October of 2022. But did you know that she is also an accomplished photographer?

Visit the Westborough Public Library to see a collection of photographs Nancy has taken over the years. Together they demonstrate her innovative experimentation with photography, including her use of infrared photography, pinhole cameras, oil paint on printed works, and even toy cameras. She produced all of her photographs in her own darkroom. This exhibit will be displayed on the main floor of the library over the next two months, so make sure to stop by to see it.

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Esther Forbes at her typewriter

Learn About Five Famous Women of Westborough

After checking out the photography of Nancy Engberg, take a look at the display case outside of the Westborough Center and learn about five famous women, a display inspired by Kristina Nilson Allen’s recent talk on this topic for the Westborough Historical Society. You can also learn more about these women in Allen’s online exhibit, Famous Women of Westborough Across the Centuries, which includes a link to a recording of her talk.

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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 16, 2022

This essay is part of a 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.

Geography, Geology, and Early Human Presence in Westborough

Eighteen thousand years ago, Westborough sat under a sheet of ice that was a mile and a half high.

In fact, at that time much of the North American continent sat under glaciers that were formed during the last ice age, which started 2.5 million years ago. The ice prevented human beings (who emerged from Africa 300,00 years ago) from entering the Western Hemisphere. Only in 11,000 BC, when enough of the ice caps had melted after the earth had begun to warm up, were groups of people able to migrate through the Bering Strait (between current day Russia and Alaska) and into North America. Lately, this narrative has been complicated a bit after human presence has been detected both in southern Chile going back to 16,500 BC and in the American Southwest dating back 23,000 years. These earlier people most likely traveled down the Pacific Rim’s “kelp highway” that ran along the western coasts of the Americas.

The Western Hemisphere, unlike the Eastern, has a pronounced north-south orientation, so people spreading throughout the Americas had to learn how to live in or travel through numerous climates and ecologies. Such conditions promoted a broad range of human diversity and resilience throughout the continents. By 10,000 BC, people appeared in every part of the Western Hemisphere.

As the ice retreated in Westborough, a huge lake, Lake Assabet, came to cover the entire town except for a few of the area’s highest points. Eventually, the lake separated into three parts: the SuAsCo Reservoir (Mill Pond), Chancy Lake and Crane Swamp, and Cedar Swamp. Around 9,000 years ago, vegetation and animal life returned to Westborough and made it possible for human beings to occupy Worcester County.

Westborough is lucky to have had Curtiss R. Hoffman, an archaeologist and Professor of Anthropology at Bridgewater State College, devote so much time digging around and studying our town’s prehistory. At the time he wrote his book, People of the Fresh Water Lake: A Prehistory of Westborough, Massachusetts, 73 prehistoric sites had been found in Westborough, making it, in his words, “one of the best-known prehistoric areas in Massachusetts.” Hoffman’s work challenges the common belief that the interior of Massachusetts was sparsely populated during prehistoric times. We will see later in this series how and why this misguided belief came to be.

The earliest evidence of human beings within the borders of Westborough are projectile points that were made during the Paleo-Indian period, 9,000-12,000 years ago. At least one of the points was made with stone not normally found in Westborough, which indicates travel and perhaps trade throughout New England. The Paleo-Indians who originally owned the points were possibly hunting megafauna, like mastodons and other large game, in the swampy western section of Westborough and probably only came to the area sporadically as they followed the flow of rivers.

People started to occupy the area of Westborough more regularly 4,000-6,000 years ago when the climate had finally stabilized and now resembled our current environmental conditions. Westborough has significantly more archaeological sites from this period than any other, which indicates that these years marked a time of peak human population during the town’s prehistoric era. Indeed, such was the case not just in New England but in the entire Eastern Woodlands, due to the diverse environmental resources that had begun to appear. People learned to take advantage of these resources and thrived, so their populations grew and spread throughout the area.

The best places for hunter-gatherers to live are in ecotones, regions where two or more environmental types meet. New England enjoys a high degree of environmental diversity due to its complex patchwork of ecological niches, so it has a high number of ecotones. Westborough sits in one because it is on the edge of the Worcester Plateau and is connected to three river systems: the Sudbury, the Assabet, and the Mill River (a tributary of the Blackstone). Even more, Westborough has ten sub-areas with differing environmental characteristics. All of these sub-areas were likely used by hunter-gatherers for some purpose or another throughout the prehistory of Westborough. Next month, we are going to take a closer look at the life of hunter-gatherers and specifically the Nipmucs, the Native Americans who inhabited Westborough and its surrounding area during this early time.

When we talk about Westborough history, it is important to put the timelines of the people who lived here in perspective. I am necessarily compressing thousands of years of human existence and experience into a single blog post because we are talking about prehistory, a time when we lack written records and need to rely mainly on archaeology to fill in the gaps. People of European descent have occupied Westborough for roughly 350 years, less than four percent of the entire time that human beings have inhabited the land here if we use 9,000 years ago as a starting point. Our own sense of history is necessarily distorted, mainly because the records and documents that were created within that 350-year time range provide a more complete picture of life during this time period, whereas for the 8,650 years that preceded it, we lack such documentation.

—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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Kristina Nilson Allen and Nikki Stone

Famous Women in Westborough History

Westborough women have been ingenious, powerful pioneers since the town began. Learn about their trials and triumphs in the Historical Society’s program, “Famous Women of Westborough across the Centuries,” on Monday, January 9, 2023 at 7 p.m.

This program will feature entrepreneur Betsy Fay (1700s), beloved teacher Annie Fales (1800s), prize-winning author Esther Forbes and horticulturist Bee Warburton (1900s), and Gold Medal Olympian Nikki Stone (2000s). Presented by historian Kristina Nilson Allen, this free event will be held in the Meeting Room of the Westborough Public Library.

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Learn about Westborough’s New Monument

Westborough has a brand-new monument in Minuteman Park along the Westborough Reservoir on Upton Road. Thanks to the tireless efforts of David Nourse, the monument replaces the old one and greatly expands the list of participants from Westborough who responded to the call to alarm at Lexington on April 19, 1775, the event that popularly marks the beginning of the American Revolution.

The reports and documents that were created and used to reassess the old monument are now available online: https://www.westborougharchive.org/minuteman-park-monument-2022/. Together, they provide a deep look at this important moment in Westborough history, so check it out.

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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 18, 2022

“First Landing of Christopher Columbus” by Frederick Kemmelmeyer (ca. 1800) – Which culture is being valorized in this painting?

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.

Some Preliminaries

Before I dive into the history of the meeting of Native Americans and European settlers in and around Westborough, I need to explain some terminology and my approach to this topic.

As I stated in the inaugural essay to this series, my goal is to bring more nuance and sophistication to the way we talk about the pre- and early history of Westborough. Rather than rely on tales involving Native Americans that have questionable origins as a go-to means for acknowledging the presence of Indigenous people here in Westborough before European arrival, I have instead been seeking out sources that treat this history in more serious ways.

I am not an expert in this history. In this series, I will merely be reporting my findings after researching and thinking about this topic for many months. My hope is that my essays move us towards being able to talk about Native Americans in more human, three-dimensional terms by recognizing their cultural sophistication as well as their faults and contradictions. The same goes for the European settlers. Human beings are complicated creatures, and our history should reflect this fact.

One of the many things I have learned while researching this topic is how much the systems of thought that privilege colonial settlement continue to shape thinking about this early history. Some of these effects are easy to spot—the cartoonish “cowboys and Indians” framework in old movies easily comes to mind—but many of them are nuanced and require rigorous self-reflection to identify them. Over and over again while talking with people who are more knowledgeable about this topic than I am, they would point out how I would at times easily fall into implicitly valorizing European culture over that of Native American, oftentimes simply in the way that I phrased my point. I may inadvertently display similar biases in this series of essays, and I apologize in advance if I do. I am happy to own up to these moments, though, because they demonstrate how deeply embedded in history we all are, and I would rather risk displaying my own ignorance than not address this important period of Westborough history. My intentions in exploring this topic are sincere, but I am also human and thus susceptible to contradiction and to the thought systems that have been handed down to me through history.

Up until this point, I have mainly used “Native American” as the term to identify the ancestry of people who lived here in North America prior to European settlement. Not surprisingly, use of this term and others (“Indigenous people,” “American Indians,” “Natives,” etc.) can be controversial. Many people with indigenous ancestry prefer “Indian”; others have other preferences. People often disagree with one another when selecting terminology to identify them as a group, and Native Americans are no different. The Nipmucs, however, are the people who inhabited the area in and around Westborough before and after European settlement, so I will use their tribal name when I am specifically referring to them. I will be using “Native American” and other generic terms interchangeably when speaking about Indigenous people more broadly and in comparison with Europeans or when I cannot identify a certain practice as being specifically Nipmuc.

Westborough, of course, did not exist until 1717, so to talk about Native American history in the context of our town, as I am doing here, automatically privileges the European thought system over the Native one. The Nipmucs did not call this area Westborough nor did they define its borders; the English did. So we are left with a contradiction: to talk about Native American presence through the lens of Westborough local history works to continue the erasure of the former in the very name of the latter. That is, if we are interested in examining how the Nipmucs used the land in and around Westborough, we are stuck using a term that signifies ownership of the land as defined by Europeans rather than meeting the Nipmucs on their own terms, or somewhere, somehow, in the middle. As we will later discover, different philosophies and approaches to land use by these two cultures go to the heart of this contradiction.

And finally, whenever we as Americans discuss the history of Native American life and culture, politics quickly enters the picture given the horrendous treatment of Indigenous people by European settlers. Those events, and many of the belief systems that underlie them, continue to shape Native American politics today, land restitution and tribal sovereignty being two such issues. I will say up front that I have no dog in this fight and have no intention to advocate for one policy position over another in the current political spectrum. People are free to draw their own conclusions. My sole interest is to examine what happened when Native and European cultures encountered one another, and how this encounter play out in and around Westborough. In doing so, I hope to treat both cultures with respect, interrogate their motivations, and see how their differences played out historically.

—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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Hoccomocco Pond

“The Truth Behind the Tales: The Nipmuc Presence in Westborough”

Did you miss this excellent Westborough Historical Society program? If so, you are in luck, because it is now available to view on Westborough TV: https://westboroughtv.org/the-truth-behind-the-tales-the-nipmuc-presence-in-westborough/.

In her talk, Cheryll Toney Holley, Leader of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band in Grafton, discusses Nipmuc tribal oral history, especially Westborough’s Nipmuc stories, and uncovers the historical basis and Nipmuc perspectives behind each story.

Want to read other Nipmuc stories? Then check out Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, edited by Siobhan Senier and others. The anthology contains a whole section on Nipmuc stories. I also just placed an order for Drumming & Dreaming by Larry Spotted Crow Mann, which Holley mentioned in her talk. You can either put in an ILL request for it now or keep an eye out for the Westborough library’s copy to come in.

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Tell Us Your Westborough Story

We are starting a new annual feature that we will add content to the Westborough Archive called, “Your Westborough Story.” This year, share your thoughts and memories by answering the question: “What Brought You to Westborough?” (and if you never left Westborough, tell us why you have stayed!).

Click on the link to tell your story or stop by the Westborough Center and fill out a paper form. It only takes a couple minutes, so do it now! You don’t even need to sign your name. Your contribution will go into the Westborough Archive and become a part of Westborough history.

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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 – October 21, 2022

The following essay inaugurates a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.”

Seasonal Change and the Meeting of Two Cultures

The shocks of short-lived color in the trees, the sudden appearance of refreshingly cooler breezes, the noticeable decrease of sunlight in the evenings, and the quick rush to prepare for hibernation before winter truly sets in. Fall in New England makes me think about the rhythms of seasonal change more than any other season, perhaps because it is a brief, but decisive, end to the rich greenery that we have been enjoying for so long.

I grew up in the Midwest and have always seen seasonal change as an important marker of time. How odd it must be, I would wonder, to live in a place where the leaves on the trees did not turn color or where snow never hit the ground. How would people know that time is moving along if they didn’t have such annual markers to remind them? But then a friend from southern California once remarked to me while we were both graduate students on Long Island that, for her, the seasons in the Northeast made time stand still. The seasons created boxes of time, where behaviors during that particular time-span were repeated over and over again each year to the point where time never seems to move forward. (“Didn’t we just go apple-picking last year?”) She missed a lifestyle that is not regularly upended by seasonal change, where the ever-distant time horizon seems to open up endless opportunities.

In many ways, seasonal change makes New England, well, New England. Over the years, we have developed certain behaviors that track along with the changing environment in which we live. Today, we tend to think of such behaviors in semi-nostalgic terms. We engage in apple-picking, pumpkin carving, and “leaf-peeping” (a term that for some reason makes me slightly uncomfortable) more because they connect us to our environment and to our ideas of the past than out of necessity—and because they are fun. But if you are living off the land itself, tracking seasonal change and adapting behaviors accordingly becomes imperative.

In Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon nicely sums up this idea, an idea that becomes rather complicated once necessity enters the picture:

A central fact of temperate ecosystems like those of New England is their periodicity: they are tied to overlapping cycles of light and dark, high and low tides, waxing and waning moons, and especially the long and short days which mean hot and cold seasons. Each plant and animal species makes its adjustments to these various cycles, so that the flowing of sap in trees, the migration of birds, the spawning of fish, the rutting of deer, and the fruiting of plants all have their special times of the year. A plant that stores most of its food energy in its roots during the winter will transfer much of that energy first to its leaves and then to its seeds as the warmer months progress. Such patterns of energy concentration are crucial to any creature which seeks to eat that plant. Because animals, including people, feed on plants and other animals, the ways they obtain their food are largely determined by the cycles in which other species lead their lives. Just as a fox’s summer diet of fruit and insects shifts to rodents and birds during the winter, so too did the New England Indians seek to obtain their food wherever it was seasonally most concentrated in the New England ecosystem. Doing so required an intimate understanding of the habits and ecology of other species, and it was this knowledge that the English discovered they lacked (37).

When the English first arrived here in New England, they assumed that they could simply set up life as they knew it back in England; in other words, they brought with them the adaptations that they had developed over time in Europe and assumed that they would work here in North America. Their ideas about agriculture and food production were premised on changing the land to suit their own European diets and needs, rather than on taking advantage of the bounty that the environment naturally offered and adapting their behaviors to it. Native Americans had learned how to make nature work for them; their behaviors and lifestyles were designed over time to follow the rhythms of seasonal change. Their situation was not unique: it is how human beings have generally lived throughout our time here on earth, no matter where we happen to live. Such adaptations, however, take time.

I find the meeting of Native Americans and the English—two cultures with different sets of ideas about how to interact within the environment that they were given—to be fascinating. In this regard, Native Americans had the advantage over Europeans by having lived in North America over thousands of years. The English, however, were determined to imprint the structures they had developed in Europe onto the North American landscape. Doing so turned out to be more challenging than they had imagined. My friend from California discovered when she moved to the Northeast that she could not bring with her a notion that seems so basic as the experience of time; since I was from the Midwest, which has similar seasonal variation as the Northeast, I had an easier time adjusting to my new environment.

The organization of our material environment—both ecologically and the structures we create to function within that natural system—work to form our social behaviors. We cannot understand the meeting of Native Americans and Europeans without a knowledge of how each structured their material environment and how those structures created different social attitudes and behaviors. These two differing frameworks guided the actions and reactions of the respective groups here in New England as they struggled to find an equilibrium for living together over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Needless to say, they never found such an equilibrium, and we still feel the repercussions of that outcome today.

In upcoming newsletters, I am going to be exploring this meeting of two cultures, a meeting that created as much of a fundamental shift in how human beings populated North America as the seasonal turning point from Summer to Winter. My ultimate goal will be to bring more nuance and sophistication to our understanding of the early history of the area in and around Westborough.

—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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Downtown Architectural Walking Tour with Music

Sunday, October 30, 1:00 p.m. starting on West Main Street in front of Westborough TV by preservationist Chris Noonan, folk singer Luanne Crosby, and special guests. FREE.

This walk will cover culturally important and historic areas downtown—buildings, landscapes, structures, monuments, and cemeteries—that were planned, designed and/or constructed before 1970. Along the tour, the three basic categories of the Community Preservation Act (CPA)—affordable housing, historic preservation and open space/recreation—will be discussed and viewed from the public way. Site-specific potential projects will be visited using visioning techniques, where we will imagine what might be possible at each site. Various Town officials will share their expertise and experiences in the three areas along the route.

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Hoccomocco Pond

The Truth Behind the Tales – The Nipmuc Presence in Westborough.”

Monday, November 7 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom.  Sponsored by the Westborough Historical Society.

Cheryll Toney Holley, Leader of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band in Grafton, will talk about Nipmuc tribal oral history, especially Westborough’s Nipmuc stories, and will uncover the historic basis and Nipmuc perspectives behind each story.  Free on Zoom.

Please register using this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMucOioqD4iG9QwD6l5GVSscMkAfgbi-tGG

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Tell Us Your Westborough Story

We are starting a new annual feature that we will add content to the Westborough Archive called, “Your Westborough Story.” This year, share your thoughts and memories by answering the question: “What Brought You to Westborough?” (and if you never left Westborough, tell us why you have stayed!). Click on the link to tell your story or stop by the Westborough Center and fill out a paper form. Your contribution will go into the Westborough Archive and become a part of Westborough history!

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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 History Connections: History and the Westborough Seal

As the Local History Librarian at the Westborough Public Library, I have recently received requests for information about the history of the Westborough town seal, given recent discussions about replacing it due to its depiction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The controversy centers on the cotton gin’s role in making cotton production in the United States much more profitable, which consequently preserved and prolonged slavery throughout the American South right at a time when it was beginning to wane.

Beginning in 1899, every city and town in Massachusetts was required to have a seal after the General Court of Massachusetts passed Chapter 256, and town clerks were given the responsibility of maintaining their custody. Westborough’s first town seal began to appear on its Annual Town Report in 1913. The design is fairly generic, although to my modern eye it has an antique charm to it.

The original Westborough town seal as it appears on the 1913 Annual Town Report.

As part of the celebration of its 250th Anniversary in 1967, Westborough decided to change its town seal. According to the Commemorative Booklet for the celebration, art students from Westborough High School were invited to submit drawings for a new seal design. The Anniversary Committee ended up selecting four drawings to be used as a composite for the official seal: a sketch of the tower on Town Hall, an outline of a map of Westborough proclaiming it as the 100th town in Massachusetts, a “pie crust” edge around the seal, and a drawing of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin based on his patent.

The new Westborough seal design, as it appears on the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

The new seal appeared on the front cover of the Commemorative Booklet and was used to create a commemorative coin. On the reverse side of the booklet and the coin is another drawing by a high school art student depicting an “Indian lad in a deep forest setting.” The Westborough Center for History and Culture in the Westborough Public Library has one of the coins in its collection. (I am happy to show it to anyone who is interested once the library opens up again.)

The back cover of the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough in 1765 and left the town for good in 1789 to attend Yale College. He received a patent for his cotton gin in 1794. Cotton gins had been around before Whitney’s invention, most notably in India, which dominated the world’s cotton market well before the American South began producing and exporting cotton. But the particular strain of cotton that grew in the South had fibers that were tightly attached to its seeds, and the Indian cotton gins could not separate the two. 

Whitney never realized the profits he expected to gain from his invention. Instead of selling cotton gins directly to cotton growers, he and his partner decided to charge farmers to clean their cotton for them, much like grist mills charged to grind corn or wheat. The simplicity of his cotton gin design, however, made it easy to copy, so the two ended up using all of their profits to fight patent infringements and the company went bankrupt in 1797.

Whereas one person could clean about a pound of cotton a day, Whitney’s cotton gin increased cotton production by 4,900 percent. With great profits to be made, this increased production capacity prompted cotton growers in the American South to expand their operations and created increased demand for arable land in the West. Since these growers relied on slaves to cultivate and process their cotton, the institution of slavery greatly expanded as well, and slaves were required to work longer and harder to meet production capacities.

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During the course of researching the history of the Westborough seal and the role of the 250th anniversary celebration in its creation, I came across some pretty offensive cultural content given today’s standards. I highly doubt that the people who produced the content intentionally meant to be offensive at the time, but the reaction that this content elicits today illustrates how attitudes change with historical perspective.

One of the events that was held as part of the anniversary celebration was a “Minstrel Show,” which as far as I can tell was basically a talent show. Judging by the character of other events held during the celebration and by pictures I came across of people dressed up in 19th-century costume, the Anniversary Committee probably selected “Minstrel” for the title of the talent show in order to sound“old timey.” A similar example of 19th-century inspired nostalgia, for example, was a beard and mustache growing contest. People got so into it that they held a ceremony to bury a few beard whiskers and three of the razors used in a “shaving of the beards” ritual. Later, the tombstone marking the burial site was stolen, which caused newspaper headlines. In selecting “Minstrel” for the title of their talent show, the Anniversary Committee members failed to take into account the racism that structures this specific form of entertainment. Subsequent historical scholarship on the history of minstrel shows would now make such an oversight neglectful.

I also came across a picture and article about the “Hoccomocco Indians” that appeared in the “Hoccomocco Herald” (the newsletter for the anniversary). A word of warning, some people may find elements of the article to be offensive and upsetting.

“Hoccomocco Indians” from The Hoccomocco Herald.

The use of Native American racist tropes (“pretty squaws,” “fierce braves,” “smoke signals,” and “scalps”) certainly jumps out, as well as the apparent need at the end of the article to draw intentional attention to the use of “color” as a pun, where it refers both to a common term used to designate behavior outside of the norm and to the tone of Native American skin, by putting it in quotation marks.

But also notable is the article’s perpetuation of colonialist attitudes and ideologies in its characterization of interactions between native people and European colonizers. European contact with people who lived in North America was inevitable, but such contact could be approached in one of two ways: as a meeting of two civilizations with the aim of sharing cultures, engaging in trade, and respectfully recognizing the sovereignty of the people who already inhabited the land; or as an act of conquest with the aim of exploiting both the people and land they encountered. The Europeans landing in North America decided to go with the latter option. (Note that when it came to exploring and meeting civilizations in Asia, these same countries generally went with the former option. See the Westborough Connections series on Westborough-India for more on the reasons why such a difference existed). As a means of justifying their conquest of North America, Europeans ideologically flipped the combative relationship between the two civilizations on its head, and the 1967 article continues to reproduce such an ideology by positioning the Native Americans as the (potential) aggressors and “the white man” as innocent victims. (Did you also catch the reference to the beard contest in the first paragraph?)

What is clear in the article is that the people involved in making the costumes believe that they are honoring Native Americans and their culture through careful research and design of their clothing. Unfortunately, there is no mention one way or another of the group reaching out to or involving Native Americans in their efforts. But if they had done so, it is possible that they would have found a more sensitive way to honor the first inhabitants of where we live now.

History never fossilizes. Our picture of the past is always shaped by our evolving perspectives over time. As we move further away from an event, we are better able to see the ideologies—both good and bad–that unconsciously informed the actions and thoughts of people living during that particular time. The irony is that the further we move away from a historical moment–both in time and in ideology–the better our position is to understand the social, economic, and cultural processes that were at play. Current events swirl around us, and we make the best decisions we can at the moment they happen given the circumstances, but we can only come to a true understanding of what that moment means through time and distance.

I hope that the Westborough Center for History and Culture is a place where we can explore these difficult issues in a non-threatening way based on the historical materials and resources available to us. That’s hard to do. The people who put the cotton gin on our seal, or called a talent show a minstrel show, or dressed up in Native American costume and wrote about it were not bad people. They simply did not have the historical tools that now inform our standards today to see the implications of their actions–in the same way that we today do not have the proper historical tools at our disposal to see how future generations will judge us. Others may disagree with my assertion here and believe that these people in the past should have known better. Still others may believe that what was good for people living in the past should be good for us living today. I welcome the dialog.

Respectfully respond in the Comments, drop me an e-mail, or stop by the Westborough Center to chat when I am around once the library reopens. I promise that if you do, I will give your ideas respectful consideration and will provide a safe space to explore them together.



The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Westborough: An Online Exhibit

Women won the right to vote in elections across the United States in 1920, but the fight for women’s suffrage was drawn out over many years before then.

The issue of women’s suffrage first appeared in a Westborough newspaper on November 16, 1867, and arguments both for and against women’s suffrage were published off and on in the Westborough Chronotype up until women finally won the right to vote.

The first mention of women’s suffrage in a Westborough newspaper: Saturday Evening Chronotype and Weekly Review, November 16, 1867.

When it came to women’s suffrage, Massachusetts and other Eastern states lagged far behind Western states, where women earned full voting rights in local and state elections years before those in the East did. When women in Massachusetts finally earned the right to vote in 1892, they could do so only for candidates running for school committee.

Three women became the first to vote in a Westborough election after winning that right in 1892:

  • Abbie M. Fay of Ruggles St.
  • A. B. Harvey of South St.
  • Esther M. Howell of Cross St. (Source: a handwritten “true copy” note by E. E. Dunlap, Clerk Assessors added to the library’s copy of the 1892 Westborough Assessors report, p. 40).

Given the limited voting power that they received, few women exercised their right to vote in Massachusetts during this interim period, so the fight for women’s suffrage continued.

Debates in the Westborough Chronicle

Proposed Meeting Warrant

Beginning in 1880, the women’s movement in Massachusetts lobbied for the right to vote in municipal elections by seeking to include petitions in town meetings that encouraged the Massachusetts Legislature to grant women the right to hold town offices and vote in town affairs. Most of these petitions were rejected by voters.

One such attempt seems to have occurred in Westborough.

Westborough Chronotype, March 17, 1883

Note: No article regarding Women’s Suffrage appears in the Westborough Town Records for the March town meeting in 1883.

Woman Suffrage Convention in Westborough

The Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association was founded in 1870 by suffrage activists Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and Henry Browne Blackwell, among others, and was active up until 1919. In 1884, Westborough held a convention as part of a series of programs across the state that were sponsored by the association.

Phoebe Couzins, the featured speaker, was one of the first female lawyers in the United States, and at the time she was engaged in traveling across the country lecturing on women’s suffrage. Later that same year, she testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on the legal status of women.

Phoebe Couzins (Published in History of Women’s Suffrage by Susan B. Anthony, et. al, Rochester, NY – https://archive.org/details/historyofwomansu03stanuoft; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19172989.)
Westborough Chronotype, January 12, 1884
Advertisement for the National Woman Suffrage Convention in Westborough, 1884 (Kristina Allen Papers, LH.032).

The Chronotype covered the activities of the convention in detail.

Description of the convention and Phoebe Couzins’s lecture. Westborough Chronotype, January 19, 1884

One Westborough suffragist objected to the coverage of the convention in the Chronotype.

Letter to the Editor, Westborough Chronotype, January 26, 1884

Anti-Suffrage Speaker

On November 2, 1915, men living in Massachusetts voted by referendum whether to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to give women the right to vote. Debate across the state was intense, but the amendment was soundly defeated. Tewksbury was the only town in the state that voted to pass the referendum (with a vote of 149 for and 148 against), and only 35.5% voted in favor. Three other states voted on similar referendums at the time—New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York—and all three joined Massachusetts in defeating the measure.

Charles L. Underhill (Who’s Who in State Politics (1918) page 313; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47515213)

Leading up to voting on the referendum, Charles L. Underhill spoke against women’s suffrage in Westborough. Hill served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and later went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Westborough Chronotype, June 18, 1915

One writer took issue with at least one of Underhill’s points about Kansas and prohibition.

Westborough Chronotype, July 2, 1915

Pro-Suffrage Speaker

Frances Kellogg Curtis was the Chief Marshall of the first Massachusetts Suffrage Parade and was on the Executive Board of the Massachusetts Equal Suffrage Association. She lectured on women’s suffrage–at times on a soap box set up on the street–and as a member of the Americanization Committee of the Boston Equal Suffrage Association, she taught English to Italian immigrant women in Boston’s North End.

Westborough Chronotype, August 27, 1915

A follow-up report appeared in the Chronotype a week after Curtis’s talk.

Westborough Chronotype, September 17, 1915

Debates in and around Westborough

At Town Hall

Westborough Chronotype, February 18, 1882
Westborough Chronotype, May 21, 1915

In People’s Homes

Westborough Chronotype, March 24, 1888

The Chronotype regularly reported meetings of the Westborough chapter of the Women’s Suffrage League, which took place in various people’s homes, between 1866 and 1888.

In Churches

Westborough Chronotype, March 6, 1914

House-to-House (and at Fenway Park)

Westborough Chronotype, August 6, 1915
Westborough Chronotype, October 29, 1915

At the Library

Westborough Chronotype, November 13, 1914
Westborough Chronotype, March 5, 1915
Westborough Chronotype, February 16, 1917


Massachusetts finally became the eighth state to ratify the 19th Amendment on June 25, 1919, and women across the United States officially gained full suffrage after Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920.

How Does History Connect Westborough and India?: Separation

Note: The following is the eleventh and final post in a series that presents my attempt to answer the question, “How does history connect Westborough and India?” See the Introduction for an overview of the series and to start reading it from the beginning.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian, Westborough Public Library


The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India ultimately failed due to a lack of organization and institutional structures to sustain it. But the American colonies were well positioned to carry out rebellion against the British government and rule themselves once they separated from England. Westborough and other towns in Massachusetts had their own sets of laws, self-rule in the form of town meetings, elected representatives to the House of Representatives, and their own militias. During the American Revolution, more than a hundred Committees of Correspondence were set up, including one in Westborough, which served as an informal shadow government to carry out rebellion and ultimately revolution. After both the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Americans on July 4, 1776 and British defeat in the resulting war, England turned its attention to defending its colonial interests in India and other colonies throughout the world.

In 1885, the Indian National Congress was formed to advocate for Indian home rule, and when Mahatma Gandhi became its leader in 1920 he began to mobilize it into a body of resistance under a doctrine of “non-cooperation.” Gandhi and other Indian nationalists studied the tactics and read the treatises that led to the American Revolution for inspiration when they organized boycotts, shutdowns, demonstrations, and tax protests.  Mahatma Gandhi’s famous “salt march” to the sea to collect salt in protest over its taxation by the British was one such protest. Gandhi also used the symbolism and economic significance of cotton to galvanize nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment by both writing a history of cotton in India and practicing the spinning of cotton on a wheel as a means of publicizing India’s potential to reclaim its dominant position in the global economy from its British oppressors.

In the end, the strains of World War II on Great Britain ultimately led to India’s separation from the British Empire and its independence. During negotiations over the future of Indian rule in 1947, the two dominant political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, could not agree on a common future. The League insisted on carving out part of India to create a separate Muslim nation, which ultimately became Pakistan. The inability to keep India together as one nation resulted in mass displacement, plunder, and revenge killings with over 1 million people dying and more than 12 million being forced from their homes before it was all over.

The Declaration of Independence copied into Westborough’s Town Records, 1776
(Westborough Town Clerk, http://repository.westborougharchive.org/files/original/700d82def53c4ac7be6098193541cdf0.jpg)

The Boston printing of the Declaration of Independence was circulated to towns across Massachusetts and included an order at the bottom for town clerks to copy the content of the document into their town records. Above is Westborough’s hand-written copy.

Gandhi during the Salt March, 1930
(Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gandhi_during_the_Salt_March.jpg)

In an act of civil disobedience against the heavy taxation of salt by the British, Gandhi organized a widespread protest march to the sea to collect salt through evaporation in violation of the salt laws.

Gandhi Spinning Cotton, 1940’s
(Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gandhi_spinning.jpg)

As a reminder of India’s history of once being the dominant producer of cotton cloth throughout the world, Gandhi held cotton spinning demonstrations and encouraged others throughout India to take up the practice.

* * *

Social and political tensions created during British rule in both India and the United States continue to be felt today. In India, violent conflict played out almost immediately during the partitioning of the country into India and Pakistan in 1947, and struggle between the two countries over control of Kashmir continues to this day. In the United States, tensions over slavery lingered for decades until they finally came to a head with the outbreak of the American Civil War. But the social, political, and cultural differences that initially led to this conflict in many ways remain unresolved. Westborough and India no longer fall under British rule, but the common history we experienced under that rule continues to reverberate and connect us, even though geographically we sit at opposite sides of the globe.

This concludes the series of posts on “How Does History Connect Westborough and India?”

Westborough-India Series Bibliography

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Bunker, Nick. An Empire on the Edge. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Collingham, Lizzie. Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Darwin, John. Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.

Eacott, Jonathan. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2016.

Frankopan, Peter. Silk Roads: A New History of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

Freeman, Joshua B. Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Schama, Simon. Civilizations. PBS television series, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/civilizations/home/.

Vaver, Anthony. The Rebellion Begins: Westborough and the Start of the American Revolution. Westborough, MA: Pickpocket Publishing, 2017.

Wilson, Jon. The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India. New York: Public Affairs, 2016.