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:

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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 Center Pastimes – September 16, 2022

Westborough’s Second Meeting House

The Inspired Origins of the New England Town Meeting

On Monday, October 17, Westborough will go to Town Meeting to decide some important issues, not least is the fate of the proposed renovation of the Westborough Public Library. As we engage, debatably, in one of the most democratic forms of governance ever to be invented—where we as individual voters have a direct, vocal say in decisions affecting our town—we may want to thank Native Americans for inspiring it.

Many European colonists came to North America to escape the oppressive rule of their government back in the “Old World,” but that does not mean that they arrived with the intention of creating an egalitarian state. In 1630, John Winthrop led seven hundred people across the Atlantic—the largest group of colonists to come to America to date—to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His vision was to create “a citty upon a hill,” where the Puritans that he led would live according to the strict principles of their God. But that did not mean that everyone would have an equal role to play in this new society. Winthrop writes,

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

Winthrop’s vision for his new society contrasted sharply with how the Native people he encountered here organized theirs. Native Americans enjoyed a level of personal autonomy and individual freedom that was unknown, and indeed practically unthinkable, to Europeans at the time. Paul Le Jeune, a Jesuit missionary, remarked in 1637, “There is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes of America. All these barbarians have the law of wild assess—they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit.” To this Jesuit’s mind, humans need limits on their behavior and must follow the rule of God’s law; that Native people enjoyed so much individual freedom meant to him that they were little more than wild animals.

Along with individual liberty, Indigenous people highly prized social equality, and these attitudes informed the way that they governed themselves. When the Five Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) came together to form an alliance, they created rules to govern themselves, rules that became known as the Great Law of Peace. In order to minimize any differences among the tribes—rich-poor, small-large, etc.—they mandated that all decisions that came out of this league had to be unanimous. This need to reach consensus also meant that each member who attended these councils felt intense pressure not to disrupt proceedings or impede progress with frivolous objections. Imagine if at Town Meeting we all had to agree unanimously on issues rather than vote Yea or Nay!

The rules spelled out in the Great Law of Peace were just as concerned with setting limits on the great council’s powers as they were in granting them, which has echoes in our own governmental system of checks and balances. Even more, the organization of the Five Nations had strong feminist principles, where women—who owned title to all the land and its produce and who served as clan heads—chose the men who served as sachems, or war chiefs. Even though these two social domains were distinctly separated along gender lines, one was not subordinate to the other. The female-led clan councils set the agenda for the meetings of the Five Nations, and the men could not discuss or consider any matter that was not sent to them by the women. Furthermore, the women could vote down any decision made by the male leaders and demand that the issue be reconsidered.

European and Indigenous people interacted more with one another than we tend to think, at least early on. Of course, that would be the case! We are curious, social creatures. The large presence of both people meant that knowledge and ideas easily moved back and forth between them, and sometimes this exchange resulted in people physically “switching sides.” Even though many Europeans came overseas to convert Indigenous people to their “more cultured” ways, the opposite often happened: many colonial settlers crossed the cultural divide to join Native Americans, even under the threat of punishment. Rarely did the reverse occur. The pull of liberty and freedom is strong!

Winthrop’s ideal of creating a society that adhered to religious-inspired authority went against any notion of democratic self-rule among his people. But it turns out that the Puritans he led had other ideas: they ended up inventing the ultra-democratic New England Town Meeting, where all voters could directly participate in their own governance rather than having laws dictated to them from above. This political system sounds a lot more like those practiced by Native Americans than by one that was divinely ordained by an authoritarian God, so it is quite possible, if not likely, that the Puritans borrowed at least some of their ideas about how to organize themselves democratically from their Native American neighbors.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

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Attend Westborough’s Town Meeting

Now that you have learned about some of the historical origins of the New England Town Meeting, make sure to attend Westborough’s next Town Meeting!

Westborough’s Fall Town Meeting will be held on Monday, October 17 at 7:00 p.m. at the Westborough High School. At this meeting the town will be making decisions about the Library Renovation Project and whether or not to change the Town Seal. All registered voters can participate.

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New Exhibit: The Library’s Story (Plus Add Your Story to the Westborough Archive)

Stop by the Westborough Center to see The Library’s Story – A Westborough Public Library Exhibit. This exhibit explores the history of the Westborough Public Library, which goes back to 1773, and how the library has served as an integral hub to the Westborough community throughout its history. The exhibit starts in the Westborough Center and then continues in and around the rest of the library. The exhibit is also available online.

And once you have learned about “The Library’s Story” tell us yours! We are starting a new annual feature called, “Your Westborough Story.” This year, share your thoughts and memories by answering the question: “Why did you move 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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Upcoming History Events

The Fall has brought with it a host of history-related programs. Make sure to add them to your calendars.

“Stories in Stone: Explore Our Graven Images,” Sunday, September 25, at 1:30 p.m. in Memorial Cemetery. Discover the secrets told by the Puritan gravestones in Memorial Cemetery (next to Forbes Building on West Main Street). Join local historian Kris Allen as she wanders through and talks about Westborough’s first burial ground, which was founded in 1704 when 5-year-old Nahor Rice was buried there. Learn how carved gravestones constitute the earliest form of Puritan folk art, their fascinating symbolism, the history of our first and most prominent settlers buried in the cemetery, plus the benefits of the Community Preservation Act for this historical gem. This program is hosted by the Unitarian-Universalist Congregational Society of Westborough (UUCSW) and is free.

“A Stroll Down Memory Lane,” Monday, October 3 at 7:00 p.m. in the Westborough Public Library. Town Moderator John Arnold will lead a panel of long-time residents and graduates of Westborough High School in years past who will respond to questions such as, “When you were young, who served the best soda in town?” or “Where did you take your first date?” Get a sense of what Westborough was like in the past through the experiences of your neighbors! This event is sponsored by the Westborough Historical Society and is free and open to the public.  For more information, contact Kris Allen at krisallen2@verizon.net.

“The Truth Behind the Tales: The Nipmuc Presence in Westborough, MA,” Monday, November 7 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom. 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 registration through Zoom will be announced at a later date.

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Photographs from the Westborough Archive Featured on RI PBS

Rhode Island PBS Weekly recently ran a story on the Boston Strangler that featured photographs from the Westborough Archives. The story is about Albert DeSalvo, who attended the Lyman School for Boys here in Westborough before eventually becoming known as the Boston Strangler.

You can view the story here, and if you simply want to jump to the photographs they used from the WPL’s Robert Cleaves Collection of Lyman School Records, they appear at 3:26 and 3:58, although the story is so interesting that you will want to watch the whole twelve minutes of it. The reporter featured in the story discovered a group of archival records created by two Harvard professors, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, who tracked Lyman School students as part of their study of juvenile delinquency and resulted in their book, Delinquents in the Making. The WPL owns a copy of their book as part of its Lyman School archival collections. Stop by the Westborough Center to see it if you are interested.

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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 – July 15, 2022

Columbus landing on Hispaniola, Dec. 6, 1492; greeted by Arawak Indians – ca. 1594 (Library of Congress)

The Documentation of Westborough History

I often assert that Westborough is the best town for studying rural life in eighteenth-century New England. Why? Because Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, who served as Westborough’s first minister from 1724 until his death in 1782, kept a detailed diary of his life and interactions with people in town throughout that time. And when we combine the information in his diary with his thorough church records and Westborough’s near-complete town records, no other rural New England town offers the depth of documentation that we do during this time period.

But documentation of Westborough’s other historical periods isn’t too shabby either. As a bustling industrial town in the nineteenth century, Westborough attracted numerous photographers to its downtown, who naturally turned their cameras to the streets and buildings when they weren’t aimed at families seeking family portraits. The library has a collection of newspapers that go back to 1849, and even though we have occasional gaps, the long run of the Westborough Chronotype from 1871 to 1965 ensures that these gaps are relatively minimal. And we have a complete run of the Bay State Abrasive Products company newsletter, among other resources in our library, not to mention the great historical collections in the Westborough Historical Society and the Westborough Historical Commission.

But what if this deep documentation of our town’s history didn’t exist? How would we figure out how the people of Westborough lived back in history and how their lives changed over time?

Lately, I have been reading histories of indigenous people in the Americas before and during the first moments of contact with Europeans, because if we truly want to understand why you and I live in Westborough today, we need to learn how and why people came to inhabit this area in the first place. But the problem in researching this information is that the native people who first lived here during that time did not have a form of writing, so we have no documentation about what they ate for dinner, what they thought about their neighbors, or what major events affected their lives.

Until relatively recently, the only way we could learn about the lives of the people who lived here before European contact was from accounts written by the first Europeans who saw them. As Charles C. Mann, the author of the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, puts it, “Paradoxically, [my] book about life before Columbus spends more than a little time discussing life after Columbus” (xi), because that is when we have the very first written documentation of the lives of indigenous people who actually lived before Columbus landed. Of course, the challenge in using these records for historical purposes is that the accounts are from a decidedly European perspective, so we have to read between the lines and look closely at how these chroniclers describe both the life and the reaction of native peoples to their sudden presence.

With this insight in mind, I decided to look at how some of Westborough’s early histories, which mainly date from the 1890’s, portray Native American life. What can we learn from these resources about the lives of the people who first inhabited the land where we live now, keeping in mind, of course, their limitations and European perspective? In months to come, I will have more to say about what I discovered, but if you want to take a look and see what you can conclude from these histories yourself, the bibliography at the end of this article contains links to the ones I have consulted so far.

Today, as Mann goes on to point out, new disciplines and new technologies can add to and give us a better understanding of the historical period before European contact beyond these early histories. They include, “Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs” (17). All of these methods are radically changing our understanding of pre-Columbian America.

While looking for early Westborough histories on the reference shelves in the Westborough Center, I also came across a book by Curtiss R. Hoffman called People of the Fresh Water Lake: A Prehistory of Westborough, Massachusetts. The book is an archaeological survey of “the lifeways of the prehistoric peoples of the town of Westborough, Massachusetts over the past 9000 years” (back cover). Hoffmann published his book in 1990, and in the Introduction he claims, “Writing the prehistory of a town is not nearly as simple a task [as writing a history based on historical records and previous histories], and this is undoubtedly one reason why it has never before been attempted in Massachusetts, or, to my knowledge, anywhere else in New England.”

I have yet to read Hoffman’s book, but a quick search for similar books seems to verify that his claim that his is the only attempt to write about the prehistory of a New England town still holds true. Once again, Westborough may very well be the best town to study life in a rural New England town, only this time before European contact and before our town was even a town.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Building the new library addition, brick by brick, Spring 1980.

We Got the Grant for Our Library Renovation!

On July 7, 2022 the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners awarded $9.4 million to the Westborough Public Library to put towards its library renovation. Final approval for the project will go to Town Meeting this fall.

This building project is extremely important to the Westborough Center for History and Culture, because it will help us to continue to collect and save Westborough’s historical records and documents for years to come. (Did you read the article above about documentation and the difficulty of piecing together history without it?) Right now, we have basically run out of room to house our important historical records in the current library structure. The library renovation will allow us both to house current and future collections in updated, climate-controlled conditions and to communicate their significance through display, exhibits, and programming.

I urge you to learn more about this building project. Attend the Public Forum for the Library Building Project on Tuesday, July 19 at 7 p.m. at the library or visit the Building Project website.

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Image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, with images of galaxies seen for the very first time (NASA)

How Local Is Local?

You can ponder this question as you view the latest images from NASA’s newly deployed James Webb Space Telescope. The new telescope will enable astronomers to look further back in time and space than they ever have before, practically back to the universe’s first origins 13.8 billion years ago. One image already gives us a view of light emanating from distant galaxies that is 13.1 billion years old (and consequently 13.1 billion light years away). Suddenly, even World History seems very local!

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Baltimore oriole (Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes: July

The Boston Red Sox are a dreadful 0-9 in series against American League East teams this year. But let’s not hold their poor performance against the Baltimore orioles that make hanging nests around this time in our area. Learn more about how to spot these special nests and other natural wonders in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for July.

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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 – June 17, 2022

America, from “Europa, Asia, America, Africa” (Library of Congress, n.d.)

We Are More American Than We Think

Liberté, égalité, fraternité (“Liberty, equality, fraternity”)

E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”)

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

These famous mottos from France and the United States succinctly embody and convey our idea of democracy. They all came out of revolutions—the French Revolution of 1789 and the American Revolution of 1776—that overturned long-held European beliefs about social order and placed political power in the hands of the people as opposed to monarchs and heredity.

The very idea that people could determine their own fate and take responsibility for installing their own form of government is traditionally associated with the Enlightenment, a period when a group of French and British writers in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to challenge political orthodoxy and philosophize about new ways to think about what it means to be human. These ideas turned out to be so powerful that they continue to set the standard for how we measure political systems and social life today. The United States was the first Western country to manifest Enlightenment thought into a working political system, with France following close behind, so many of these ideas are closely associated with America. Even so, we generally do not recognize how truly American the origin of these ideas are.

Ideas about liberty, social equality, and the ability of people to self-determine their common future together did not simply spring out of the heads of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and David Hume—and just happened to do so all at roughly the same time. If they did, the authorities most likely would have quickly recognized their radical nature and put down the individuals who came up with them. Instead, these ideas circulated widely in European salons, coffee houses, and staged debates over a long period of time. And the true origins of these ideas go back even further in time, to when Europeans first came into contact with the indigenous people who populated what we now call America.

This convincing claim is made at the beginning of David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a mammoth book that seeks to reframe the standard narrative about humanity’s political origins. This standard narrative generally traces civilization back to our supposed evolution from hunting and gathering to farming and agricultural, which in turn supported the growth of complex cities. The two authors question the use of many of the terms in this narrative—such as evolution, complexity, and the linking of agriculture to the growth of cities—and they show how this overarching narrative tends to infantilize early people, people who in reality were fully-developed human beings just like ourselves. Once we abandon the storyline that agriculture was a necessary pre-condition for the development of cities and civilization, we begin to see the true complexity of early political systems. These systems not only took on many different forms over time—as if humanity has been engaged in one political experiment after another—but in some cases the forms changed from season to season within a given year, with a strong, centralized rule during parts of the year when it was needed and a decentralized one at others.

Back in the seventeenth century, French Jesuit missionaries had long conversations and debates with indigenous Americans about their differing worldviews, and the accounts of these conversations became bestsellers back in Europe (and were later read by Enlightenment thinkers). Europe’s highly stratified social hierarchy was so rooted in the minds of the Jesuit missionaries that concepts of liberty, freedom, and equality expressed by indigenous Americans were completely new to them and considered dangerous. In the debates, the Jesuits did not question that these native people generally lived in freer societies—they clearly did—but they did question whether such freedom and individual liberty was desirable. From these debates emerged the indigenous critique of European culture, a critique that not only influenced Enlightenment thought but was a precondition for such thinking even to take place. In other words, fundamental concepts of Enlightenment thought, concepts that we take for granted today, did not exist in Europe until European contact with indigenous Americans.

In fact, Graeber and Wengrow claim that if you and I, as Western thinkers, read the multi-volume accounts of these seventeenth-century debates today, the ideas of indigenous Americans, which include personal freedom, equality between the sexes, the importance of the environment, and even depth psychology, would be more familiar to us than those of the Europeans. Seventeenth-century Jesuits saw individual liberty—an idea that we, who live in a liberal democracy, now hold as a sacred value—as animalistic and a threat to social order, so perhaps contrary to our expectations they are the ones who would come off to us as alien creatures from another planet if we read the debates today.

France will soon be celebrating Bastille Day on July 14 and the United States the Fourth of July. But none of the events that these days commemorate would have taken place without exposure to the worldviews of Native American and their ideas about freedom, equality, and sovereignty. Our American idea of who we are as a country, it turns out, is more American than we even thought. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the complex politics and social structures of indigenous Americans to understand who we truly are as a people and how we may want to move forward in the future.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Read All About Westborough

Want to know more about Westborough history? Read a book! You can find a list of books about Westborough on the Westborough Archive website, many of which are available online. They may not qualify as summer beach reading, but they can teach you more about your town and its history.

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Nature Notes: June

A rabbit recently ate the flowers off the perennials I newly planted this spring. But did an Eastern cottontail eat them or a New England cottontail? I don’t know, but Annie Reid’s article on cottontail rabbits may help me figure out the true culprit. You can learn the difference between these two kinds of rabbits and more about Westborough’s fauna and flora in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for June.

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Westborough Center Pastimes – April 22, 2022

Diorama at the American Museum of Natural History

Rewriting History

When people complain about “erasing” history, what they often mean is that the fixed historical frame of reference that they normally carry with them is being challenged. In these cases, history is not really being erased but is being rewritten to incorporate new evidence, previously neglected evidence, and the addition of new perspectives that shed even greater light on events of the past. (Note the emphasis on evidence here!) History is always being rewritten in this way.

Last month, I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for the first time in years. One diorama caught my attention, because it illustrates the need to rewrite history and then goes about doing so in an intriguing way.

The diorama (see the picture above) appears in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall and was created in 1939 to celebrate the Dutch ancestry of the Roosevelt family, who helped found the museum. The scene takes place on the southern tip of Manhattan and is meant to represent a diplomatic meeting in 1660 between Lenape leaders and the Dutch, the first Europeans to settle in this area of New York.

The display is problematic in its use of Native American stereotypes that commonly circulated at the time of its creation. Mind you, the diorama was created in consultation with some of the top historians in the country at the time. Today, the museum creatively takes these misrepresentations head on by adding glosses directly to the window of the diorama in order to highlight individual components of the display that are misleading and wrong. Here are some examples.

I can’t think of a better physical illustration of how and why history requires rewriting than in the way the original diorama and the glosses interact with one another here. In some cases, the distinctions being made are subtle; others, like the lack of clothing on the Lenape, are more blatant. Working together, these elements of the scene both valorize and validate the cultural and political power position of the Europeans. The glosses counteract this effect by pointing out the mechanisms that work to create this implicit assumption of cultural superiority.

Let’s imagine a diorama that incorporates the new evidence and different perspectives that the glosses highlight. We see a multicultural community, even at this early stage of European settlement in North America; women have a more prominent presence in the scene; and the Native Americans in the display are shown to have a cultural and political life that is just as rich and complex as the Europeans. With the addition of these elements, we not only end up with a diorama that represents better history, but this history is much more interesting.

Even more, the diorama raises more interesting questions. When I used to view similar displays as a kid, the question that would immediately come to mind is, “Aren’t the Indians cold walking around with hardly any clothes on?” In our new, hypothetical diorama, better questions emerge: If the Dutch control this area of New York, why are there non-Dutch people and how did they get there? Why are women present in the Native American diplomatic party and absent in the European one? What did the two sides talk about, and how did the Native Americans feel about a fort suddenly appearing on land they freely used to use? These questions, and the answers to them, lead to a more dynamic, more realistic, display of the historic meeting between two different cultures. We end up with a display that better illustrates the human drama of the situation, rather than a simplistic dramatization of the inevitable European conquest of an inferior culture that does not even know how to dress properly for the weather.

Today, the Lenape are located in Kansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario, CN. Imagine being forced off our land here on the East coast and relocated to various parts of the Midwest by another group of people! Such a thought is not that difficult to imagine because we are witnessing first-hand something similar today in Ukraine. I think we can all agree that the human drama playing out there does not call for simplistic stereotypes of the Ukrainians, even though Putin is doing his best to employ them in order to justify the incursion. So if, it turns out, the way we have commonly represented history rests on simplistic stereotypes, we have a moral imperative to rewrite that history. The American Museum of Natural History recognized that the history it was presenting in the case above indeed needed to be rewritten. And the benefit to doing so is better, more accurate, and more interesting history!

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Nature Notes: Signs of Spring

You don’t need to travel to New York like I did to learn about natural history! All you have to do is read Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for April and then head outdoors to look for the early signs of spring here in Westborough.

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Mapping Social Justice in the Environment

The Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library has a new exhibit that you can visit both in-person and online that looks at questions of social justice and injustice that necessarily arise when we consider the environment and humanity’s place in it.

More or Less in Common: Environment and Justice in the Human Landscape presents posters, maps, and images of the American landscape to show how decisions about the environment often affect groups of people in different ways.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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.