Published on April 1, 2012 by Amy
The earliest human inhabitants of the Massachusetts area lived about 10,000 BC, after the glaciers had retreated. Archaeological sites indicate several other cultures developed in the millennia that followed. For centuries before Europeans arrived in the area it was inhabited by Algonquian-speaking groups of Native Americans.
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When European colonization began in the early 1600s, seven major groups lived in the area. The Wampanoag and the Nauset were on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Island; the Massachuset had settlements along Massachusetts Bay; the Nipmuc were in central Massachusetts; the Pocomtuck lived in the northwest; the Pennacook were near the New Hampshire border; and the Mahican were in the Berkshire area.
A group of Native North Americans of the Algonquian branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock. Although of the Eastern Woodlands culture area, they depended to a large extent on seafood. In the early 17th cent. they occupied NE Massachusetts, SE New Hampshire, and SW Maine. They then numbered some 2,000, but by 1674 smallpox and wars had reduced them to some 1,250. Most of the Pennacook remained neutral in King Philip’s war (1675), but when 200 of them were treacherously seized (1676), the remainder fled to Canada and to the West; the survivors of the western group settled with the Mahican. The Pennacook in Canada first settled near Quebec, but in 1700 this group moved to St. Francis, where they joined the exiled Abnaki. The two tribes became bitter enemies of the British.
Four principal groups of Algonquian-speaking native peoples inhabited New Hampshire just before European settlement. By far the largest was the Pennacook, the name given both to the tribe centered in the Merrimack River Valley near the present site of Concord and to a larger association consisting of the central tribe and several smaller bands stretching north and south in the Merrimack Valley. The Pennacook lived in villages surrounded by cultivated fields, living by agriculture and hunting during much of the year but moving to the seacoast for fishing and gathering shellfish during the summer.
Other groups, also of the Algonquian culture, included the Sokokis north of the White Mountains, whose hunting grounds extended into what is now western Maine; a westward extension of the Maine-based Abenaki, known as the Pigwackets, in the upper Saco Valley on the southeastern edge of the White Mountains; and the Pocumtucks of western Massachusetts, whose hunting grounds extended into the lower Connecticut Valley of New Hampshire.
Because the native peoples had no written language and early contact with Europeans was limited, information about the native inhabitants is scarce and sometimes confusing. The total native population of the New Hampshire area was estimated at more than 12,000, but their numbers were sharply reduced in the early 1600s by warfare with the Mohawk people to the west and by epidemics that swept New England.
The native people lived cooperatively with the early European settlers, whose numbers were too small to pose a threat. The native groups taught the whites many skills that were essential to their survival: how to cultivate corn, tap maple trees for syrup, make canoes and many kinds of garments, and to locate the best trails. The Native Americans, in turn, sought to trade with the settlers for metal tools and utensils, blankets, and weapons, both for hunting and for resisting Mohawk attacks.
By 1726 they were a single village near Concord with only five men, and before they “rode off into the sunset,” the “Last of the Pennacook” saved some of the colonists from starving that winter. All of which was probably true regarding this one group, but the Pennacook themselves had not disappeared. For that matter, neither had the Pocumtuc, the Nipmuc, the Abenaki, or the other tribes that New England history has found convenient to declare extinct. They continued as the St. Francois Indians, the Bcancour Abenaki, and the Vermont Abenaki. Although often thought of as Canadian Indians and French allies, they were, in fact, the original residents of New England.
Originally, there may have been as many as 12,000 Pennacook and 30 villages, but after the devastating epidemics just prior to English settlement of Massachusetts in 1620, there were about 2,500. Smallpox began along the Merrimack River in 1631 and spread into a major epidemic in New England 1633-35. It returned in 1639, followed by influenza in 1647, smallpox 1649-50, and diphtheria in 1659. By 1675 the Pennacook population had fallen to 1,200, and by the end of the King Philip’s War two years later, the Pennacook had been halved again. Despite these losses, the Pennacook were an important member of the Abenaki Confederation and a major component of the New England Algonquin who merged with the Sokoki to become the St. Francois Indians in Quebec. Besides those at St. Francois in Quebec, other groups of Pennacook were absorbed by the Abenaki in Maine. By 1726 the last remnant of Pennacook in New Hampshire was living near Concord. Within a few years, they too were gone, but there are currently many descendents of the Pennacook among the Vermont Abenaki and the St. Francois Indians.
Pennacook (Penicoke, Penikook) comes from the Abenaki word “penakuk” meaning ” at the bottom of the hill.” They were also called Merrimac (Merrimack) from the name of the river along which most of their villages were located. Although an alternative form of Wamesit, Pawtucket was commonly used for all Pennacook on the lower Merrimack, while Saco could sometimes mean the Pennacook on the upper river (as well as Pigwacket, Kennebec, and Androscoggin of the eastern Abenaki). Other names for Pennacook were: Nechegansett, Opanango, Owaragee (Iroquois), and after 1680, St. Francois Indians (St. Francis).
The Pennacook Confederacy included the following tribes and villages: Accominta, Agawam, Morattigan (Monchiggan), Nashua (Nashaway) (sometimes said to be Nipmuc), Natticook, Naumkeag (Amoskeag, Naimkeak, Namaoskeag, Namaske), Newichawawock (Newichawanoc), Pennacook (Merrimac), Pentucket, Piscataqua (Pascataway, Pinataqua, Piscataway), Souhegan (Souheyan, Nacook, Natacook, Natticook), Squamscot (Squam, Squamsauke, Wonnesquam), Wachusett, Wamesit (Pawtucket), Weshacum, Winnecowet, and Winnipesaukee (Wioninebesek, Maunbisek, Muanbissek).
The native peoples lived largely by hunting deer, catching fish and shellfish, and growing corn, beans, and squash, migrating from forest to coastal areas to take advantage of seasonal resources. Approximately 30,000 native people inhabited Massachusetts in 1614, but epidemics of disease brought by whites soon greatly reduced the population.