Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
Below: John Greenleaf Whittier. Source: Wikipedia
I'm supposed to do 52 profiles of ancestors in 2018 and I'm falling behind! So here is #8: John Greenleaf Whittier.
He's a nearly forgotten poet who in his day was a household name. This was back before radio or TV, when people read (to themselves and to each other) for entertainment.
John Greenleaf Whittier is not my ancestor. He can't be. He never had children. We are however, related...his great grandfather Joseph Whittier (1669-1717) of Haverhill is my eighth great grandfather. This makes us second cousins seven times removed. Say that ten times fast!
Because he has been an important source for me in learning old stories of the area, I decided to include him in the 52 ancestors list.
Below: John Greenleaf Whittier birthplace, Haverhill, Mass. (Source: Hampton N.H. Historical Society)
Above: John Greenleaf Whittier Home and Museum, Amesbury, Mass., where he lived for over fifty years. Source: museum website
So who was this guy, famous enough to have two historical museums in the area, one in Haverhill (where he was born) and one in Amesbury (where he lived when he was famous)?
Basically, he was a self-educated farmer who lived in an ancient farmhouse in Haverhill - it was already well over a century old when he was born there in 1808 - that had been built by one of the founders of Haverhill. He wrote a lot of poetry, and was involved in the movement that wanted to abolish slavery in the United States. This activity got him into the circle of famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was editor of a newspaper in Newburyport for a time. This newspaper started publishing Whittier's poems, and later when Garrison got more famous and began running in literary circles, he was able to promote Whittier. He became famous as a result of his poem Snowbound, about being snowed in. It starts like this:
"The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon."
Based on his literary fame for this and other poems, he eventually received an honorary degree from Harvard.
Whittier himself barely left the area around Haverhill, other than a couple years in Philadelphia and New York when he was a young man. He complied lots of the historical stories of the Merrimack Valley area into poems. I have written blog posts about some of these topics, such as the story of Captain Waldron's deceit of the Indians and their revenge upon him; and the story of the Pennacook Indian princess Wenunchus, who drowned in the Merrimack as a result of a squabble between her father Passaconnaway and her husband Winnepurkett of Saugus.
Back in Whittier's day, poems were sometimes epics, running thousands of lines. People would read them outloud to each other in the evening by lamplight or by the fire. I recorded myself reading The Bridal of Pennacook (in part), to get a feel for the language. That poem also provided a good geography lesson about upper reaches of the Merrimack River, which was the heartland of the Pennacook indians. The poem mentions Turee's brook, Contocook, "the Crystal Hills to the far southeast", Sunapee, Snooganock, Coos, Umbagog Lake, Ammonoosuc, Chepewass, "the Keenomps of the hills which throw/Their shade on the Smile of Manito"; Kearsarge, Babboosuck brook, Otternic, Sondagardee, Squamscot, Piscataquog...does anyone know these places??
Native American History and Poetic License
(a long read)
Once upon a time, so the story goes, about 1628 – right when the English puritans were beginning to arrive to claim their promised land around Massachusetts Bay – there was a wedding of a native princess.
She was the daughter of Passaconaway, the great Bashaba of the Pennacooks. The Pennacooks were the natives of the Merrimack Valley. Their domains extended from present day Haverhill all the way up to its headwaters along the Pemigewasset. The Bashaba made his home at a curve in the river, called Pennacook, site of present day Concord N.H.
The tribe and affiliated bands of natives – Wachusetts, Agawams, Wamesits, Pequawkets, Pawtuckets, Nashuas, Namaoskeags, Coosaukes, Winnepesaukes, Piscataquas, Winnecowetts, Amariscoggins, Newichewannocks, Sacos, Squamscotts, and Saugusaukes – also met at prescribed times at various sites along the river, usually to fish: for example, at the falls at Amoskeag, later the source of waterpower for the mills at Manchester, N.H.; Pawtucket, later the source of waterpower for the mills at Lowell; and at Pentucket, later called Haverhill.
According to a 1981 book on the Forgotten Salmon of the Merrimack, there were fourteen sets of falls on the mainstream of the Merrimack River, including on the Pemigewasset, where natives could have fished for salmon. The natives also met each year at the Weirs, fish traps designed to catch a bountiful harvest flowing out of swollen Lake Winnipesauke.
This is where she met her groom, known as Ahquedaukenash (meaning "dams" or "stopping-places"). In the present day it’s called Weirs Beach.
The groom was Montowampate, son of the “Squaw Satchem”, the female leader of the coastal Saugus Indians who took over when her husband Nanepashemet was killed battling their rivals, the Tarrantines, on August 8, 1619 in present day Ipswich, Massachusetts.
How do we know any of this? From written records of English settlers mainly, and retellings of the story.
The English settlers tell the stories of the Indians
Passaconnaway and Sagamore James, as he was known to the English, were undoubtedly historical figures who signed deeds and, in the case of the latter, sought redress from English authorities to protect his interests and who is described as wearing English clothes.
“Sagamore James went to Governor Winthrop on March 26, 1631, in order to recover twenty beaver skins of which he had been defrauded by an Englishman named Watts.” I hope to write more on the historical record left by natives in English colonial society, particularly the descendants of Nanepashemet who regularly tried to use the English courts to protect their land rights, in another blog entry.
The first telling of the wedding story of this (yet unnamed) princess, daughter of Passaconaway, was by Thomas Morton, founder of the ill-fated Merrymount Colony.
“The Sachem or Sagamore of Saugus made choice, when he came to man's estate, of a lady of noble descent, daughter to Papasiquineo [another name for Passaconnaway], the Sachem or Sagamore of the territories near Merrimack river, a man of the best note and estimation in all those parts, and (as my countryman Mr. Wood declares in his prospect) a great Necromancer; this lady the young Sachem with the consent and good liking of her father marries, and takes for his wife. Great entertainment he and his received in those parts at her father's hands, where they were feasted in the best manner that might be expected, according to the customs of their nation, with reveling and such other solemnities as is usual amongst them. The solemnity being ended, Papasiquineo causes a selected number of his men to wait upon his daughter home into those parts that did properly belong to her Lord and husband; where the attendants had entertainment by the Sachem of Saugus and his countrymen: the solemnity being ended, the attendants were gratified.
Not long after the new married lady had a great desire to see her father and her native country, from whence she came; her Lord willing to please her, and not deny her request, amongst them thought to be reasonable, commanded a selected number of his own men to conduct his lady to her father, where, with great respect, they brought her, and, having feasted there a while, returned to their own country again, leaving the lady to continue there at her own pleasure, amongst her friends and old acquaintance, where she passed away the time for a while, and in the end desired to return to her Lord again.
Her father, the old Papasiquineo, having notice of her intent, sent some of his men on embassy to the young Sachem, his son-in-law, to let him understand that his daughter was not willing to absent herself from his company any longer, and therefore, as the messengers had in charge, desired the young Lord to send a convoy for her, but he, standing, upon terms of honor, and the maintaining of his reputation, returned to his father-in-law this answer, that, when she departed from him, he caused his men to wait upon her to her father's territories, as it did become him; but, now she had an intent to return, it did become her father to send her back with a convoy of his own people, and that it stood not with his reputation to make himself or his men too servile, to fetch her again.
The old Sachem, Papasiquineo, having this message returned, was enraged to think that his young son-in-law did not esteem him at a higher rate than to capitulate with him about the matter, and returned him this sharp reply; that his daughter's blood and birth deserved more respect than to be so slighted, and, therefore, if he would have her company, he were best to send or come for her.
The young Sachem, not willing to undervalue himself and being a man of a stout spirit, did not stick to say that he should either send her by his own convey, or keep her; for he was determined not to stoop so low. So much these two Sachems stood upon terms of reputation with each other, the one would not send her, and the other would not send for her, lest it should be any diminishing of honor on his part that should seem to comply, that the lady (when I came out of the country) remained still with her father; which is a thing worth the noting, that savage people should seek to maintain their reputation so much as they do.”
So when Thomas Morton “came out of the country” in 1629 (a euphemism for “getting expelled by puritans”), the bride apparently was still stuck up the Merrimack away from her groom, because nobody would escort her back down to Saugus.
Later tellings of the story give her a definitive identity, Wenunchus. Alonzo Lewis, in his 1829 history of the town of Lynn (including Lynnfield, Saugus, Swampscott and Nahant, all of which were set off from Lynn), gives her this name… and also completes the story, sort of:
“My lady readers will undoubtedly be anxious to know if the separation was final. I am happy to inform them that it was not; as we find the Princess of Penacook enjoying the luxuries of the shores and the sea breezes at Lynn, the next summer. How they met without compromising the dignity of the proud sagamore, history does not inform us; but probably, as ladies are fertile in expedients, she met him half way. In 1631 she was taken prisoner by the Taratines, as will hereafter be related. Montowampate died in 1633. Wenuchus returned to her father; and in 1686, we find mention made of her grand-daughter Pahpocksit.”
Parts of the historical record of the English are very clear. According to the diary of John Winthrop, Montowampate and “almost all of his people” died of smallpox in September 1633.
Below: Montowampate on the seal of the Town of Saugus, Massachusetts
However, other historians have Wenunchus married to the younger brother of Montowampate, named Wenepoykin, a.k.a. Winnepurkett, called Sagamore George, who lived for many years, dying in 1684. Yet, even though he outlived his brother by half a century, his life was probably even more tragic. He was sold by the Puritans into slavery in Barbados in 1676 after being deemed a belligerent in King Phillips War...only to miraculously return like some lost prophet.
After his return, he retired to Wamesit, the Praying Town for settled Indians, where he lived out his days, dying in 1684. As the recognized leader of the Saugus Indians and thus owner of the land from Salem to Saugus, immediately after his death the townspeople of Marblehead descended upon his “heirs”, including his elderly wife (not Wenunchus), obtaining a deed for their town on September 14, 1684. The deed was signed by Ahawayet, and many others, her relatives. She is called "Joane Ahawayet, Squawe, relict, widow of George Saggamore, alias Wenepawweekin." (Essex Reg. Deeds, 11, 132.) I suppose you can still go down to the land records office in Salem and look at her signature!
The townspeople of Lynn and Salem soon followed suit, obtaining deeds from the heirs of Wenepoykin on September 4, 1686 an October 11, 1686 respectively. (Source: History of Essex County Massachusetts, 1888, by Duane Hamilton Hurd)
But what if Wenunchus married Wenepoykin, not Montowampate, but also didn’t survive the shuttling between husband and father?
This is the narrative tack taken, with some apparent poetic license, by one of the most famous poets of the mid-nineteenth century, and certainly the most famous poet until Robert Frost to be claimed by the lower Merrimack Valley region. (Robert Frost being claimed, rather surprisingly, by Lawrence because he graduated from Lawrence High School.)
I am talking about John Greenleaf Whittier.
The Story of Wenunchus in the Hands of John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whitter was born on an ancient farm in Haverhill in 1807. It was built by his first Whittier ancestor in Haverhill almost a 150 years earlier. Although Whittier was self-educated, by the time he died in 1892, he was the author of one of the most famous poems of the day, Snowbound. This long piece, published in 1866, describes being stuck in the farmhouse on a snowy day, and it made him well-off financially. He ran in literary circles, mainly on account of being mentored in his younger days by an earlier publisher of his works, William Lloyd Garrison, in Garrison’s Newburyport newspaper. Garrison introduced him to the abolitionist cause, and to many literary lights of his day. Through these connections and the recognition he received for Snowbound, the self-educated Whittier received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1877.
For his entire life, except for a spell of about three years working in New York and Philadelphia, he barely left the Haverhill-Amesbury-Newbury area. When Whittier did finally manage to see a bit of the world, it was mainly just places like the White Mountains and the Isles of Shoals. Whittier’s extreme provincialness, despite his involvement in the abolitionist movement and his honorary Harvard degree, is to me what gives his poems their authenticity. He is, to me, the voice of the historic lower Merrimack Valley. Snowbound is not just about being stuck indoors on a snowy day, it is about Haverhill and its history and setting. And one of his earlier epic tales, the Bridal of Pennacook, which tells the tale of Wenunchus and her marriage to [in Whittier’s version] Wenepoykin, whom he calls Winnepurkit, the poem is a vehicle for glorifying the entire Merrimack River, from the coastal sand dunes right up to the river’s highest headwaters.
About his poem, “The Bridal of Pennacook”
The poem was apparently written in 1844 but not included in any book of poetry for many decades. It is long – twenty five pages. It employs a conceit that the poem is composed spontaneously for entertainment by five hikers staying in a lodge near Mount Washington while the youngest of them recovers from her cold.
The five characters who together compose the poem for their entertainment are the narrator, a writer and a poet; a city lawyer, “Briefless as yet, but with an eye to see /Life's sunniest side, and with a heart to take/Its chances all as godsends”; his brother a student training to be a minister, “as yet undimmed/By dust of theologic strife, or breath/Of sect”; a shrewd sagacious merchant, “To whom the soiled sheet found in Crawford's inn, /Giving the latest news of city stocks/And sales of cotton, had a deeper meaning/Than the great presence of the awful mountains/Glorified by the sunset”; and the merchant’s lovely young daughter, “A delicate flower on whom had blown too long/Those evil winds, which, sweeping from the ice/And winnowing the fogs of Labrador.”
Whittier thus sets the scene:
So, in that quiet inn
Which looks from Conway on the mountains piled
Heavily against the horizon of the north,
Like summer thunder-clouds, we made our home
And while the mist hung over dripping hills,
And the cold wind-driven rain-drops all day long
Beat their sad music upon roof and pane,
We strove to cheer our gentle invalid
After the lawyer tells her stories of his (mis)adventures fishing in the Saco River, and the divinity student, “forsaking his sermons”, recites poems to her from memory, the narrator rummages through the musty book collection at the inn, where he finds “an old chronicle of border wars and Indian history.”
From this book the narrator reads aloud a summary of the story of Wenunchus and Montowampate, except in this version she is called Weetamoo (actually the name of a wife of a prominent native chief in Rhode Island) and, instead of marrying Montowampate, she marries that man’s brother Wenepoykin, whom he calls Winnepurkit.
Our fair one [i.e. the girl], in the playful exercise
Of her prerogative,—the right divine
Of youth and beauty,—bade us versify
The legend, and with ready pencil sketched
Its plan and outlines…
The self-taught Whittier tries to show his knowledge of classical Greek poetical forms, which I suppose was de rigeur for professional poets of the era. He does not say which character “versifies” which part of the Wenunchus story, but it might be possible to hazard a guess based on their supposed personalities.
In the first section, the poem sets the scene, describing the pre-contact Merrimack River itself, “ere [before] the sound of an axe in the forest had rung, Or the mower his scythe in the meadows had swung.” This section is in so-called Alexandrine meter, twelve syllables per line with a stress on the sixth and last, in simple A-A B-B rhyme.
Among other things, it takes the listener through the geographic features of the river: “Amoskeag's fall”, the “twin Uncanoonucs” stately and tall, the Nashua meadows green and unshorn, etc., all before “the dull jar of the loom and the wheel,/The gliding of shuttles, the ringing of steel” had invaded the river in the form of mills and waterworks.
In the next section, the poem describes the stern character of The Bashaba, i.e. the great chief Passaconaway, in a more complex format: paired quatrains, rhyming aaab cccb, with 7-7-7-5 syllables, while the first stanzas are longer, nine lines for the first, ababbaddd.
The character telling this section – the lawyer, perhaps? – weaves a tale of the awe inspired by Passaconaway:
Here the mighty Bashaba
Held his long-unquestioned sway,
From the White Hills, far away,
To the great sea's sounding shore;
Chief of chiefs, his regal word
All the river Sachems heard,
At his call the war-dance stirred,
Or was still once more.
In the third section, the poem describes The Daughter, Weetamoo. The description focuses on her mother’s death giving birth to her (a detail certainly conjured up with poetic license), and the joy she ultimately brings to her stern old father, who decides not to take another wife. The meter and rhyme for this section is rather simple, likely the work of the merchant character; for the rest of this blog piece I’ll refrain from detailing the rhyming scheme of each section.
The fourth section describes The Wedding itself:
The trapper that night on Turee's brook,
And the weary fisher on Contoocook,
Saw over the marshes, and through the pine,
And down on the river, the dance-lights shine.
For the Saugus Sachem had come to woo
The Bashaba's daughter Weetamoo,
The fifth section describes Weetamoo’s New Home with her new husband, in the coastal marshes of Saugus far from her mountain homeland. Whoever tells this part of the tale is rather uncharitable about the coastal terrain of Essex County:
A wild and broken landscape, spiked with firs,
Roughening the bleak horizon's northern edge;
And later, an equally dreary scene, it is contrasted with the mountain home of Weetamoo:
And eastward cold, wide marshes stretched away,
Dull, dreary flats without a bush or tree,
O'er-crossed by icy creeks, where twice a day
Gurgled the waters of the moon-struck sea;
And faint with distance came the stifled roar,
The melancholy lapse of waves on that low shore.
No cheerful village with its mingling smokes,
No laugh of children wrestling in the snow,
No camp-fire blazing through the hillside oaks,
No fishers kneeling on the ice below;
Yet midst all desolate things of sound and view,
Through the long winter moons smiled dark-eyed Weetamoo.
There is an oblique reference to Weetamoo's sexual awakening as a wife ("o'er some granite wall/Soft vine-leaves open to the moistening dew"). However section ends with her husband sending her back home to assuage her homesickness, escorted by soldiers:
Young children peering through the wigwam doors,
Saw with delight, surrounded by her train
Of painted Saugus braves, their Weetamoo again.
The sixth section describes her time back at Pennacook, at first enjoyable but then fraught with anxiety when her husband does not summon her back:
The long, bright days of summer swiftly passed,
The dry leaves whirled in autumn's rising blast,
And evening cloud and whitening sunrise rime
Told of the coming of the winter-time.
But vainly looked, the while, young Weetamoo,
Down the dark river for her chief's canoe;
No dusky messenger from Saugus brought
The grateful tidings which the young wife sought.
The clash of egos between her father and her husband overtakes the situation and she is forced to spend the winter up in Pennacook. The section ends with her fixing to leave as soon as the river thaws, by herself, down the Merrimack.
The seventh section, the Departure, describes her planning then and her actual flight. The river is swollen with rain and snowmelt, full of iceflows.
At first, she appears to be managing despite the danger:
Down the vexed centre of that rushing tide,
The thick huge ice-blocks threatening either side,
The foam-white rocks of Amoskeag in view,
With arrowy swiftness sped that light canoe.
However, things start to go wrong:
The small hand clenching on the useless oar,
The bead-wrought blanket trailing o'er the water…
It ends dramatically:
Sick and aweary of her lonely life,
Heedless of peril, the still faithful wife
Had left her mother's grave, her father's door,
To seek the wigwam of her chief once more.
Down the white rapids like a sear leaf whirled,
On the sharp rocks and piled-up ices hurled,
Empty and broken, circled the canoe
In the vexed pool below—but where was Weetamoo?
The final section of the poem, the Song of Indian Women, is a coda of sorts, sang by “the Children of the Leaves beside the broad, dark river's coldly flowing tide.”
The Dark eye has left us,
The Spring-bird has flown;
On the pathway of spirits
She wanders alone.
The song of the wood-dove has died on our shore
Mat wonck kunna-monee! We hear it no more!
You can read all of The Bridal of Pennacook by John Greenleaf Whittier online.
The poem should be read out loud for its full impact. I tried to do just that. You can watch my efforts reading the entire poem (which takes about an hour) at these videos below. Someday I’d like to replace the awkward video images of my contorted mug reading, with a slide show of the New Hampshire landscape to accompany the poetry.
Poetic license and appropriation of “other people’s stories”
John Greenleaf Whittier applied poetic license to the story handed down by Morton and others. He embellished it and added details for dramatic effect.
Should he be telling the story of Wenunchus at all?
Current cultural sensitivities caution against “cultural appropriation.” Because Whittier was not a Pennacook Indian, should he be writing poetry about Pennecooks? How about the fact that he sets up the poem around discovery of “an old chronicle of border wars and Indian history”? Does this make the poem about something likely to be found in old New England of the 1840s, when the memory of French and Indian wars was fresher, and the sight of actual Native Americans along the Merrimack could still be something of living memory?
And what if there are no Pennacooks left to tell the story? Can someone else tell the story? Should only native Americans tell the story? Some natives were enemies of the Pennacooks. For example, the Mohawks were fierce warriors who would raid Pennacook lands periodically from beyond the Hudson River and steal their grain stores. A huge battle between Mohawks and Pennacooks apparently occurred in 1615, when the Mohawks attacked Pennacook itself. Other tribes with which the Pennacooks sometimes battled included the Abenaki and the Taratines. I would argue that the inheritors of these tribes, some of which still exist, have no direct claim to the stories of the Pennacooks.
Do the current inhabitants of the Merrimack Valley region have a right to appropriate the stories of the Pennacooks? It is probably true that the settlement by the English starting in 1620, and the diseases they brought, followed by war and appropriation of land, led to the extinction of the Pennacooks. Does that mean the descendants of actors in the 1600 and 1700s are barred from telling these stories? How about the fact that many “tribes” arrived in the Merrimack Valley only after the Pennacooks were long-extinct: the Irish, the Italians, the French-Canadians, the Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans…do they have less or more of a right to tell these stories about the history of their present-day land?
My own belief is that artists can interpret any story, and whether it is offensive or not depends on specific presentation. It is never categorical based on some construct of the artists “tribe” versus that of his subject matter.
The poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier is largely forgotten, even among people who read poetry. A lot of it is sentimental and cliched, and comes across as long-winded and maudlin to me. But within his oeuvre, there are nuggets everywhere about the Merrimack Valley and his home. People can get reacquainted with the old stories of their home, simply by reading his works. The Bridal of Pennacook is one story that is worth retelling.
Maybe someday it will be turned into a musical?