Native American Tribes in Massachusetts

Indigenous people have lived in Massachusetts for 12,000 years. The first known inhabitants of Massachusetts were Paleoindians who moved into New England just as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the last ice age.

Over
thousands of years, the population of indigenous people greatly
increased and became more widespread throughout the region. These
indigenous people formed distinct tribes and bands that we now
recognize as Native-American tribes.

By
the 16th century, New England was home to 100,000 Native
people, with many residing in Massachusetts. Even today, there are
still 37,000 Native-Americans living in Massachusetts, according to
the 2010 Federal Census.

The
following is a list of Native American tribes that lived in
Massachusetts:

Mahican Tribe:

The
Mahicans were originally centered in New York but had bands or
sub-tribes that migrated to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont in
the late 17th century.

There
were at least five divisions of sub-tribes within the Mahican
confederacy: the Mahican proper, Wiekagjoc, Mechkentowoon, Wyachtonoc
and the Westenhuck (Stockbridge).

Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks map, William C. Sturtevant, Smithsonian Institute, 1967

In Massachusetts, the Mahican tribe lived in Berkshire County where they were mainly represented by the sub-tribe of the Stockbridge.

Prior
to colonization, in 1600, there were 4,000 to 5,000 Mahicans living
in Mahican territory in New York (Prtizker 425.)

The
Mahicans lived in large villages that consisted of about 20 to 30
communal longhouses, which were about 20 feet wide and sometimes as
long as 180 feet, made from planted hickory saplings tied together at
the top, to form a type of garden arbor, that was then covered in
reeds and bark (Hodge 787.) Their villages were fortified by palisade
walls and were located on hills.

The
Mahicans were hunters and gatherers but also practiced cultivation by
growing corn and other crops.

The
Mahicans frequently fought with a neighboring tribe, the Mohawks. In
the Hudson Valley, the Mahicans and the Mohawks became embroiled in a
war, from 1624 to 1628, which eventually drove the Mahicans east to
Albany.

During
another conflict with the Mohawks, the Beaver Wars in 1680, the
Mahicans were driven southeast, across the modern day border of
Massachusetts, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where they settled and
formed a sub-tribe of the same name.

Massachusett Tribe:

The
Massachusett tribe lived in the area of the Massachusetts Bay,
specifically between Salem and Brockton.

Both
the Massachusetts Bay colony and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
were named after the tribe.

The
early colonists often referred to the Massachusett tribe as the
Aberginians or Aberginny-men, for reasons unknown, although it’s
possible it was adapted from the word “aborigines.”

Prior to colonization, in 1600, it is believed that there were around 3,000 Massachusett Indians in the state (Hodge 816.)

From
1615-19, the Massachusett tribe became embroiled in a war with the
Tarrantine (Penobscot) tribe of Maine, during which they suffered
heavy losses, which greatly reduced their numbers.

From
1616-1619, the Massachusett were hit hard by an epidemic, possibly
smallpox, that further decimated their numbers.

Nauset Tribe:

The
Nauset tribe lived on Cape Cod and were also known as the Cape
Indians. Since they lived so close to the ocean, their diet consisted
mostly of seafood, although they also grew corn, beans and squash.

Prior
to colonization, in 1600, it is believed there were around 1,200
Nauset Indians in Massachusetts (Swanton 22.)

Their
close proximity to the coast meant that many first encounters between
Europeans and natives were with the Nauset tribe.

In
1606, French explorer Sieur De Monts had several encounters with the
Nauset and the tribe attacked De Monts and his crew on at least two
occasions, both times with deadly results.

In 1614, English explorer Captain Thomas Hunt captured seven Nauset Indians as well as 20 Wampanoag indians. Then, in 1620, the Nauset attacked the pilgrims in Provincetown, prompting them to pick up anchor and sail to Plymouth instead.

The
Nauset tribe lived in villages of what French explorer Samuel de
Champlain described as thatched-roof “cabins” that had a smoke
hole in the center of the roof.

The
tribe appeared to be unaffected by the epidemic of 1616, although
they were affected by later epidemics.

Nipmuc Tribe:

The
Nipmuc tribe lived primarily in the central plateau of Massachusetts,
particularly the southern part of Worcester county, but they extended
into Rhode Island and Connecticut. They survived mainly on game and
fish as well as crops like corn.

Prior
to colonization, in 1600, it is believed there were 500 Nipmucs in
Massachusetts (Swanton 23.)

Nipmuc
bands didn’t usually unite together politically and instead often
formed alliances with nearby tribes such as the Wampanoag,
Massachuset, Narraganset and the Mohegan.

Pennacook Tribe:

The
Pennacook tribe, sometimes called Pawtucket and Merrimack
Indians, lived in northeastern
Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

The
bands of Pennacook indians who lived in Massachusetts were the
Agawam, Nashua, Naumkeag, Pentucket, Wachuset, Wamesit and Weshacum.

Prior
to colonization, it is estimated there were originally 12,000
Pennacook living in New England in about 30 villages.

The
Pennacook were primarily fishermen, farmers, hunters and gatherers.
At first, the Pennacook lived in birch bark wigwams but eventually
began building fortified villages of longhouses due to an increase in
tribal warfare.

From
1616-1619, the Pennacook tribe was hit hard by an epidemic, possibly
smallpox, which greatly reduced their numbers.

Pocomtuc Tribe:

The
Pocomtuc tribe lived in western Massachusetts, near Connecticut, and
were therefore also known as the Deerfield Indians.

Prior
to colonization, in 1600, it is estimated there were 1,200 Pocomtuc
Indians in Massachusetts (Swanton 24.)

In
1660, the Pocomtuc became embroiled in a deadly war with the Mohawks,
which greatly reduced their numbers.

The Pocomtuc were allies of the Narraganset and enemies of the Uncas and the Mohegan, whom they also engaged in warfare with, particularly in 1648 when 1,000 Pocomtuc warriors invaded the Mohegan territory (Denevan 250.)

Wampanoag Tribe:

The
Wampanoag tribe lived in a large area that stretched from Rhode
Island to the edge of the Massachusetts Bay region. During the 17th
century, they were the leading tribe in New England.

Sub-tribes
of the Wampanaog include the Indians of Martha’s Vineyard and the
Nauset tribe on Cape Cod.

Prior
to colonization, in 1600, it is estimated that there were 2,400
Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts and a combined total of 50,000 to
100,000 living in all of the Wampanoag territory, which included
Massachusetts and Rhode Island (Swanton 27; Plimoth.org.)

The
Wampanoag lived in dome-shaped wetus (also called wigwams) and
longhouses that were covered in bark or cattail reeds.

The
Wampanoag were enemies of the Narragansett, the Pequots and the
Abenaki.

From
1616-1619, the Wampanoag tribe was hit especially hard by an epidemic
which nearly decimated their numbers.

With their own numbers dwindling and the Narraganset growing more powerful, the Wampanoag made an alliance with the Plymouth colonists in 1621 on the condition that the tribe would help the colony grow and thrive in exchange for the colonist’s military support against rival tribes.

Sources:
“Indian Affairs.” Mass.gov, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, www.mass.gov/service-details/indian-affairs
“Homesite FAQs.” Plimoth.org, Plimoth Plantation, www.plimoth.org/what-see-do/wampanoag-homesite/homesite-faqs
Landers, Jackson. “Five Lost Languages Rediscovered in Mass.” Smithsonian, 11 May. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/five-lost-languages-rediscovered-massachusetts-180959043/
“Indian History.” History of Norfolk County, Massachusetts, 1622-1918. Vol. 1, Edited by Louis Atwood Cook, The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918.
Orcutt, Samuel. The Indians of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys. Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1882.
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Denevan, William M. The Native Population of the Americas in 1492. University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture and Peoples. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Knight, Ellen. The Sachems of the Massachusetts Bay. Docplayer, docplayer.net/122655506-The-sachems-of-the-massachusetts-bay.html
Wood, William. Wood’s New England’s Prospect. Prince Society, 1858.
Johson, Edward. Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence, 1628-1651. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
Ruttenber, Edward Manning. History of the Indian Tribes of Hudson’s River: Their Origin, Manners and Customs; Tribal and Sub-Tribal Organizations; Wars, Treaties, Etc. J. Munsell, 1872. Hodge, Frederick Webb. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Government Printing Office, Part 1, 1911
Hodge, Frederick Webb. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Government Printing Office, Part II, 1912.
Swanton, John Reed. The Indian Tribes of North America. Government Printing Office, 1952.