Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
If you have read my biography, you’ll know my genealogical story. Some ancestors of mine showed up from England in the early 1630s, settled briefly at the mouth of the Merrimack River in Salisbury, Newbury and Ipswich, then quickly moved to the (then) frontier towns of Haverhill and Andover about twenty miles upriver. Then they stayed there…for centuries.
Later, those towns got divided into other towns: Andover into North Andover and the south part of Lawrence; Haverhill into Methuen and the north part of Lawrence as well as a bunch of New Hampshire border towns – Plaistow, Hempstead, Atkinson, Salem. Please see my chart about the division of Merrimack Valley towns.
Other ancestors of mine kept showing up over time – Irish, Scandinavians, Scots – and they also stayed and mixed with each other and the general population. Based on extensive genealogical research, the vast majority of ancestors of mine who were born in the United States or the colonies seem to have been born in Haverhill or Andover or in a town set off from them.
In genealogy there are always surprises. And I’m not even getting into the “surprises” made possibly by the very latest genealogical tools, DNA testing. (“What do you mean grandpa’s not really my grandpa??”)
Never in a million years did I expect to find that family members possibly owned a slave.
The setting for coming across this information is quite dramatic: the Indian raid on Haverhill on August 29, 1708, which was part of Queen Anne’s War between the English and the French and their respective Native American proxies. See Glossary for more on Queen Anne’s War.
I was researching Samuel Ayer, my eighth great grandfather, born 1654 in Haverhill. He was a yeoman, a man of property. He succeeded his father as a member of the committee for the control of the common lands of the town. He was killed while trying to free prisoners taken by Indians after the attack on Haverhill on August 27, 1708.
On that day, Haverhill, then a compact village of about thirty houses, was attacked and almost entirely destroyed by well over two hundred Algonquin, St. Francois and Penobscot Indians under the direction of the French forces from Arcadia (Arcadia was the French-controlled area that was renamed New Brunswick when the English took it).
Sixteen of Haverhill’s inhabitants were massacred with swords and tomahawks, including Rev. Benjamin Rolfe and family [being a puritan Reverend was a big deal in those days]. However, Rolfe’s female African slave, named Hagar, and two of Rolfe’s children survived by hiding under barrels in the cellar. When the Indians and French retreated, they were followed by Captain Samuel Ayer with a company of twenty men who, though out-numbered thirteen to one, attacked them, killing nine of their number and retaking several prisoners. The Captain was shot in the groin and died just as his son reached the scene with reinforcements.
Interesting story. Attacks on frontier towns by Indians and their French manipulators was common enough, though, although now mostly forgotten. The Maine frontier was particularly hard-hit in the late 1600s: Kennebunk in September of 1688, Salmon Falls – now Berwick Maine – in March 1690 (in which about 90 English villagers were killed or imprisoned for ransom), Wells in June 1691, and York in January 1692 (in which 200 English villagers were killed or imprisoned for ransom).
So: Indian raid, schmindian raid. The detail that jumped out at me was rather: the minister had an African slave??
I am not a relative of Rolfe’s, as far as I can tell. However, the slave detail got me focused on whether any of my Haverhill ancestors from this time also owned slaves.
It turns out that in 1705 there were about 550 African slaves in Massachusetts, mainly received in exchange for Indians sent into slavery in the West Indies after being captured in war by the English colonists starting at the time of King Philip’s War in 1675.
Slaves in Haverhill
Chase’s History of Haverhill (which should be required reading for all residents of Haverhill and its offspring-towns) says the following about slaves:
We believe that the earliest distinct allusion to “servants” we have met with in the records or traditions of this town, is the record of the death of “Hopewell, an Indian Servant of John Hutchins,” in 1668.
The next, is found in the account of the remarkable preservation of Rev. Mr. Rolfe's children, by his "negro woman," Hagar, in 1708. Hagar "owned the covenant, and was baptized," with her children (two sons and one daughter) by Rev. Mr. Gardner, in 1711.
In 1709, the house of Colonel Richard Saltonstall was blown up, by “his negro wench,” whom he had previously “corrected.”
In 1723, Rev. Mr. Brown had an Indian servant, as may be seen from the following entry in his book of church records: — “Baptized Phillis an Indian Girl, Servant of John & Joanna Brown.”
In 1728, Mr. Brown baptized “Mariah, negro servant of Richard Saltonstall.”
In 1738, Rev. Mr. Bachellor baptized “Celia, Negro child of John Corliss.”
In 1740, he baptized “Levi, Negro child of Samuel Parker.”
In 1757, he baptized “Dinah, negro child of Samuel Haseltine ;” and, also, “Lot & Candace, negroes belonging to Richard and Martha Ayer.”
In 1764, he baptized “Gin, negro Girl of Peter Carleton.”
Mr. Bachellor had himself a negro servant, as we find, in the church book of records of the West Parish, under date of March 24, 1785, the following entry among the deaths: — “Nero, servant to ye Revd Mr Bachellor.”
There is a tradition that he had a negro named “Pomp,” who is said to have dug the well near the old meeting-house. As the story goes, just before setting out for an exchange with a distant minister, Mr. Bachellor set Pomp at work to dig the well, and gave him positive instructions to have it done by the time he returned. Pomp labored diligently, and with good success, until he came to a solid ledge. This was too hard for his pick and spade, and poor Pomp was greatly perplexed. His “massa” [cringe] had directed him to have the well done when he returned, but how to get through the solid rock was more than Pomp could tell. While in this dilemma, a neighbor happened along, who advised that the ledge should be blasted with powder, and kindly instructed Pomp how to drill a hole for the blast. The latter, much pleased at the prospect of getting his job finished in season, worked vigorously at his drill, and soon had a hole nearly deep enough, when he suddenly struck through the ledge, and the water commenced rushing up through the hole with such force, that he was obliged to scramble out of the well as fast as possible, to escape drowning. It is said that the well has never been dry since. [Pomp seems to have been a popular name of African slaves – Pomp’s Pond in Andover was named after one…see below.]
From Rev. Mr. Parker's book of church records, in the East Parish, we find that, in 1750, he “baptized Jenny, the Servant child of Joseph & Mary Greelee;” in 1758, “Phillis, the negro child of Ezekiel and Sarah Davis;” and, in 1764, “Meroy, the negro child of Seth & Hannah Johnson.”
From the official census of 1754, wo find that there were then in this town sixteen slaves, “of sixteen years old and upwards.” In 1764, the number was twenty-five.
From a partial file of the town valuation lists, from 1750 to 1800, we learn that the following persons in this town owned slaves. It is worthy of note, that with the very few exceptions noted, but one negro was owned by each person: — 1753. John Cogswell, John Dimond, Benj Harrod, John Hazzen (2), Col Richd Saltonstall (2), Wm Swonten (2), John Sawyer, Saml White. These were all in the First Parish.
1754. In the East Parish, Joseph Greelee, Wm Morse, Amos Peaslee, Timothy Hardey.
1755. In the First Parish, John Cogswell. In the West Parish, John Corlis.
1759. In the First Parish, Moses Clements, Samuel White, Samuel White Esq, Thos West. In the West Parish, Joseph Haynes.
1761. In the West Parish, Samuel Bacheller, Joseph Haynes,
1766. In the First Parish, Moses Clements, Nathl Cogswell, James Methard, Samuel White, Samuel White jun (2), John White. jun
1769. In the East Parish, Dudley Tyler.
1770. In the First Parish, Moses Clements, James Methard, Samuel Souther, Saml White, Saml White jun (2), John White.
1771. In the First Parish, Jona Webster, Saml Souther, John White, Saml White Esq.f James Methard, Moses Clement, Enoch Bartlett. In the East Parish, Dudley Tyler.
1776. In the East Parish, Wm Moors, Dudley Tyler.
This is the latest date we find "negroes," or "servants," entered in the valuation lists in the town. In one list, the date of which is lost, but which was apparently somewhere between 1750 and 1760, we find the following : — Robert Hutching, Moses Hazzen (2), Robert Peaslee (2), John Sanders, John Sweat, Saml White, Saml White jun, Christ; Bartlett, John Clements, Joseph Harimin, Joshua Harimin, Eadmun Hale, Daniel Johnson, Jona Roberds, Wm Whitiker.
We are informed by Mr. James Davis, that his father, Amos Davis, of the East Parish, owned two negroes named Prince and Judith, whom he purchased when young, in Newburyport. The bill of sale of them is still preserved in the family. Prince married to white woman, and, after securing his freedom, removed to Sanbornton, N.H., where he has descendants still living. Judith remained in the family until her death.
Deacon Chase, who lived in the edge of Amesbury, not far from the Rocks' Village, also owned a negro, named Peter, who is remembered by many persons now living [Chase’s History was published in 1861].
After the death of his master, he passed into the possession of a Mr. Pilsbury, with whom he lived until his death. William Morse, of the East Parish, had a negro servant, named Jenny. We also learn of one in the family of Job Tyler in the same Parish.
So ends Chase’s summary of the slaveholdings in Haverhill over the years.
Slaves in Andover
There were also slaves in Andover at the same time, although I can’t presently find such a comprehensive investigation as the one above for Haverhill.
According to Bill Dalton in an article for the Andover Townsman in 2013,
“The often repeated tale of Andover slaves Pompey Lovejoy and Rose Foster is a relatively pleasant one, as slave histories go. So, let’s start the story of slaves in Andover by visiting their legend.
Pompey, shortened to “Pomp,” was born a slave in 1724, and he was owned by Captain William Lovejoy, who gave Pomp his freedom upon his death in 1765. Pomp married Rose Foster, a freed slave, and the two of them were granted land near a pond, which today is named after him. Well into middle age, Pomp served on the Colonialist side in the Revolutionary War, and he was granted a pension for that service. Pomp and Rose were well-liked in town. Rose’s served election day cakes and other refreshments during town meetings and any other elections, and Pomp played the fiddle while white folks danced.
Neither Pomp nor Rose were allowed to vote as they were Negroes.
When Pomp died at age 102, it was said he was the oldest man in Essex County. His epitaph in the South Parish Burial Ground reads: “Born in Boston a slave/ Died in Andover a Free Man/ February 23, 1826/ Much respected and a sensible amiable upright man.” Rose died not long after at age 98. By all evidence, they lived the good life and were well-loved by townspeople and Phillips students who frequently visited them.
Another slave named Pompey didn’t fare so well. In 1795 he was hanged for murdering his master, Capt. Charles Furbush. This Pomp is said to have suffered from insanity that occasionally required him to be kept under guard. Historian Sarah Loring Bailey said of Furbush’s murder, “...the community was [so] shocked at the act and its circumstances of horror [that] the negro was sentenced to the extreme penalty of the law.”
Dalton also writes that Reverend Samuel Phillips, founder of Phillips Acadamy, owned slaves. He and his wife each had a personal attendant (this last detail is from Sarah Loring Bailey’s history of Andover).
Here are some other details from his article:
In the Old Burying Ground near North Andover Commons, there is a headstone that reads: In Memory of Primus/ Who was a faithful servant of Mr. Benjamin Stevens Jr/ Who died July 25, 1792/ Aged 72 years, 5 months, 16 days.
In the South Parish Burying Ground is the grave of the last slave born in Andover, Rose Coburn, wife of Titus Coburn. The stone says she died at age 92 in 1859. Historian Bailey, who must have known Rose, says of her, “She was a slave born in Andover and the last survivor of all born here in that condition. A pension was paid to her as the widow of a soldier of the Revolution. She was a person of great honesty, veracity, and intelligence and retained all her facilities in a singular degree to the last.”
Sometimes a passing sentence in a book reveals a lot, and leaves more questions unanswered.
In Sarah Loring Bailey’s history of Andover, she says about the South Parish Church, “In 1766 it was voted that ‘All the English women in the Parish who marry or associate with Negro or Melatto-men be seated in the Meeting-House with the Negro-women.’
Fascinating for so many reasons: (1) the meetinghouse/church still maintained the puritan practice of separating men and women for worship almost on the eve of the American Revolution; (2) seating was also segregated based on race; and (3) there were mixed race marriages.
So What About my Ancestors?
Now that the stage is set, what about my ancestors? I’m afraid that the record is still ambiguous. A website called olddeadrelatives.com has an entry for Captain Samuel Ayer, slaveowner. However, it has as parents for this Samuel Ayer “Coronet Peter Ayer” and “Hannah Allen” whereas I have the following people as the parents of the Samuel Ayer who was killed in the 1708 raid: Robert Ayer and Elizabeth Palmer. So it might not be the same Samuel Ayer, although perhaps a cousin. More investigation is needed. The sole citation given by olddeadrelatives.com is A Genealogical Dictionary of The First Settlers of New England Before 1692; Savage, James (Little, Brown and Co, Boston, MA. 1862). I will have to track down this book, which apparently does have a description of slave ownership in Massachusetts at this time.
I also note the name Peaslee among the list of Haverhill slaveholders in the Chase book, as well as other Ayer slaveholders (Richard and Martha). Then there is the surname Lovejoy attached to the slave for whom Pomp's Pond is named. I am descended from a Peaslee of Haverhill and a Lovejoy of Andover, so these slaveowners might be relatives of mine. Something else to investigate...
That’s the thing about genealogical research: you can never finish, there is always another question to answer.
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?
Book Review of H.P. Lovecraft in the Merrimack Valley (Hippocampus Press, New York, 2013) by David Goudsward
Photo below: Howard Phillips Lovecraft, 1934. Source: Wikipedia
“Now that time has given us some perspective on his work,” says Stephen King, “I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” (quoting a 1995 article on H.P. Lovecraft in American Heritage Magazine)
Who was H.P. Lovecraft? From Providence, R.I., he was a weirdly eccentric amateur author of outlandish horror tales. In 1936, Lovecraft died of cancer at age forty-six, barely known outside of the fans of the United Amateur Press Association, of which he was president. A few of his stories were published in Weird Tales and other pulp publications of supernatural horror tales, but he died basically penniless and unknown.
“Lovecraft explored [his] sense of cosmic alienation in the loosely connected stories composing what would later be called the Cthulhu Mythos. ‘All my tales,’ he wrote in 1927, ‘are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large.’ The universe as revealed by modern science had no place for ghosts and vampires, the stuff of pagan legends and traditional supernatural fiction. But Lovecraft saw room enough for other horrors in the great gulfs of time and space.”
“‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and the other stories in the mythos deal with races of beings from other worlds and other dimensions who once ruled the earth, warred with one another, and now bide their time until they can regain ascendancy. Lovecraft created an elaborate fictional New England for the Cthulhu stories, including the eerie coastal town of Innsmouth [based on Newburyport], the accursed village of Dunwich [based on the western Massachusetts town of Athol], and “crumbling, whisper-haunted Arkham,” [based on Haverhill] home to the unwholesomely curious scholars of Miskatonic University [supposedly Haverhill’s Bradford College, founded 1803 closed 1999].
(From the American Heritage Article)
Since the time of his death, H.P. Lovecraft has developed a huge following of fans, called Lovecraftians. They obsessively comb over Lovecraft’s stories, manuscripts, memorabilia and any other document or place that can link them to the object of their obsession, Mr. Lovecraft himself.
Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer. In his lifetime, he wrote 100,000 letters totaling around ten million words!! His correspondence, which survives as a collection at Brown University in Providence, R.I., allows his fans to trace his every step.
His travels often took him to the Haverhill area, because one of his first editors lived there. This was a colorful character named Charles William Smith, publisher of an amateur fiction magazine called Tryout. A number of Lovecraft’s first published stories appeared in Tryout, which unfortunately had a minuscule circulation. Whenever Lovecraft was Haverhill in the 1920s, he made trips to the surrounding towns, including Amesbury, Newburyport, Salem, Marblehead, Ipswich and Portsmouth, N.H., among others.
Because of Lovecraft’s significant travels in the Lower Merrimack Valley, and the propensity of fans to want to retrace his steps, the librarian of the special collections at the Haverhill Public Library sought a guide to the local Lovecraft sites. David Goudsward, Haverhill-born historian and genealogist who is apparently most famous for a book about mysterious Neolithic stones in North Salem, New Hampshire, stepped in and wrote this book.
“[W]e were originally envisioning a 6- to 8-page booklet” says Goudsward in his preface, but “we both underestimated the number of locations in the Merrimack Valley that merit mention.”
His 192-page [!] book provides a blow-by-blow account of Lovecraft’s travels in the region along with significant contextual explanation about developments in Lovecraft’s personal life and writing career, as well as a number of helpful appendices. I learned for example that Lovecraft made exactly one trip to my hometown of Lawrence, on August 24, 1934, when he left his valise on the Haverhill trolley and had to go to the lost-and-found office in Lawrence.
Rather than summarize Lovecraft’s ramblings over the area, however, I will instead try to convey to vision and understanding of the region propounded by his stories and his correspondence.
He is completely enamored by anything related to colonial America, and resolutely hates urban areas (although he lived in New York for much of his adult life) and immigrants, including Jews (even though his wife for six years, Sonia Haft Greene, a department store manager who supported him financially, was Jewish).
He also apparently was highly squeamish about sexual intercourse, which might explain his numerous stories involving frightened men descending into cold rocky caverns and crypts, the walls teeming with slime.
He also had a low estimation of the residents of many of the economically depressed areas he visited, from rural Athol to inner-city port Newburyport.
For his story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft bifurcated the things he liked about the place from the things he detested, collecting the latter in a made-up town called Innsmouth that exists next to Newburyport. In his story, “Newburyport is epitomized by the library, the historical society and High Street,” explains Goudsward. “Innsmouth is represented by abandoned shipyards and rotted docks along the Merrimack and ramshackle clam digger huts of Joppa Flats.”[Now Plum Island]
The plot synopsis of Shadow over Innsmouth in Wikipedia is this: The narrator has a hard time getting any information about Innsmouth from the Newburyport residents, or even getting to Innsmouth. Finally, the narrator finds Innsmouth to be a mostly deserted fishing town, full of dilapidated buildings and people who walk with a distinct shambling gait and have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, starry eyes.
The narrator meets Zadok, who explains that an Innsmouth merchant named Obed Marsh discovered a race of fish-like humanoids known as the Deep Ones. When hard times fell on the town, Obed established a cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which offered human sacrifices to the Deep Ones in exchange for wealth in the form of large fish hauls and unique jewelry. When Obed and his followers were arrested, the Deep Ones attacked the town and killed more than half of its population, leaving the survivors with no other choice than to continue Obed's practices. Male and female inhabitants were forced to breed with the Deep Ones, producing hybrid offspring which have the appearance of normal humans in early life but, in adulthood, slowly transform into Deep Ones themselves and leave the surface to live in ancient undersea cities for eternity.
He is told to leave immediately and is warned that government investigators who pry too deeply disappear. He dismisses the story. However, he is then told that his bus is experiencing engine trouble, and he has no choice but to spend the night in a musty hotel. While attempting to sleep, he hears noises at his door as if someone is trying to enter. Wasting no time, he escapes out a window and through the streets while a town-wide hunt for him occurs, forcing him at times to imitate the peculiar walk of the Innsmouth locals as he walks past search parties in the darkness. Eventually, he makes his way towards railroad tracks and hears a procession of Deep Ones passing in the road before him. Against his judgment, he opens his eyes to see the creatures and faints at his hiding spot. He wakes up unharmed. Over the years that pass, he researches his family tree and discovers that he is a descendant of Obed Marsh, and realizes that he is changing into one of the Deep Ones. As the story ends, the narrator is accepting his fate and feels he will be happy living with the Deep Ones. He plans to break out his cousin, even further transformed than he, and take him to the Deep Ones' city beneath the sea.
This short synopsis gives you a pretty good idea of how weird Lovecraft’s stories were! His later story, The Shadow Out Of Time, based in Haverhill, is equally weird and ominous. The narrator is possessed by ancient, powerful beings and witnesses marvels of the distant past.
Lovecraft fills his correspondence about the Lower Merrimack Valley with references to local authors. For example, although poet John Greenleaf Whittier of Haverhill is best known for his nostalgic poetry about rural New England and his abolitionist works, Lovecraft looks to him for his collections of supernatural New England ghost stories and tales. Lovecraft is also enamored with the highly eccentric wealthy Newburyport resident “Lord” Timothy Dexter, who died in 1806.
“You might have heard of Dexter & his lucky speculations,” writes Lovecraft, “attempts to enter society, freakish extravagance, grotesque house & grounds [Dexter’s mansion, which was still standing when Lovecraft visited, was lined with wooden figurines depicting historical personages such as John Jay and Napoleon Bonaparte], ridiculous escapades, hilarious pretensions to titled aristocracy…”
According to Lovecraft, one of Dexter’s statues was “of himself, labelled ‘I am first in the East, first in the West & the greatest philosopher of the Western World.’”
Lovecraft also references Dexter’s “absurd book called a Pickle for the Knowing Ones” which is the best name I have heard for a book in a long time.
Lovecraft writes to a friend: “That book was misspelled & unpunctuated & when people objected to the latter feature, ‘Lord’ Dexter published a second edition (1796) still unpunctuated, but with a page of assorted punctuation at the end of the book, plus the note:
'master printer the Nowing Ones complane of my book the first edition has no stops I put in A Nuf here & they may peper & solt it as they please’
Goudsward’s book is a fascinating tour of the region’s forgotten history, of which Lovecraft was enamored, visiting ancient puritan graveyards all over the region and getting inspiration from the headstones and the names. He makes a passing reference to the Peaslee Garrison House, for example, which I mentioned in another blog post, and other garrison houses such as the Hazen one built in 1720. He is also into other things that interest me, such as Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
This book would be worth the read just for introducing me to Lord Timothy Dexter and his saltbox and pepper grinder of punctuation [!], for readers to liberally spread over the words in his book as they see fit. I will have to look into Dexter and give him his own blog entry. I also intend to do a piece on John Greenleaf Whittier, to whom I am related and whose epic poem about Pennacook Princess “Weetamoo” is one of my favorites.
Goudsward has done a good job, via his exploration of Lovecraft’s travels, of conveying the richness of the history of the region that lies right before our eyes and that was very visible to an eccentric observer like Lovecraft.
Above: Hampton Beach along the seawall near Concord Avenue, circa 1946. My father is on the far left. Grandfather standing right.
Hampton Beach, N.H. holds a central role in my family's history. My maternal grandparents owned hotels and roominghouses there into the early 1960s, such as the SeaCoy right on the boardwalk (now the main branch of Blink's Fried Dough), and the Sunrise Motor Court, New Hampshire's first actual motel built circa 1920; and on my father's side, numerous uncles and grandparents had cottages that were the locus of much family activity every summer, on Concord Avenue just off the beach. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, visiting uncles on both sides who had family cottages there.
Above: Steetcar to Hampton Beach, circa 1910
Even though the streetcars started to disappear in the 1930s, replaced by automobiles, the travelroutes had been established between the mill towns of the Merrimack Valley and these beach resort areas, leading to a particular culture of the area.
Whether you went to Salisbury or Hampton depended on a variety of factors, sometimes outside of your control. Italians almost universally went to Salisbury, as did most French Canadians. This was partially due to a prejudicial attitude held by the fathers of Hampton Beach, who did their best to exclude certain groups. (See the report http://www.hampton.lib.nh.us/hampton/history/randall/chap3/randall3_2.htm). Hampton's town fathers apparently tolerated the Irish, although only the "better sort."
In any case, by the early 1960s, Hampton had the view that "Salisbury is inclined to be classed as a honky tonk by Hampton's advocates, who have always prided themselves on keeping Hampton Beach a family resort, free from liquor, ferris wheels, roller coasters and the other gimcracks which can clutter and choke a vacation community." (Report of the Hampton Beach Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Development on the 1964 Riot).
Yet this snooty, "middle class" attitude of Hampton Beach did not prevent a series of increasingly serious youth riots from breaking out each year starting in 1960, culminating in the 1964 Labor Day riot. In that event, between 2,500 and 10,000 youth clashed with "40 local police, 68 auxiliary police and 85 state police, ultimately assisted by the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department, the New Hampshire National Guard and a contingent of Maine state police."
Below: Newspaper coverage of the riot. Source: Hampton Historical Society
"Miraculously, no one was killed, although both police and rioters sustained extensive injuries. The expressed desire of the youth to burn the Hampton Beach Casino was thwarted, but two small buildings were burned down by Molotov cocktails, and approximately 155 youths were arrested."
As the report in the riot noted, on an average summer day there may be 25,000 to 30,000 persons at Hampton Beach. And at peak crowd periods, such as holiday weekends, there may be 100,000 persons at Hampton Beach.
Furthermore, "Of the total population, probably 75% of those at the beach center and 50% of those in the entire Hampton Beach area are under the age of 25. Thus there may well be 10,000 to 15,000 young people at the resort at any given time during the summer, or up to 50,000 or possibly more on holiday weekends."
The part that interests me: Most of these youth were presumably from the mill towns of the Merrimack Valley: Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill.
Was their boisterousness related to local culture? Or were the riots more about "youth culture", the first hint that the "Baby Boomers" were going to be different, were going to expect to do things their way. How different was this riot from the Lawrence, Mass. riot of 1984?
One of the most interesting aspects of the post-riot report is the very detailed assessment of the various youth cliques that prevailed at Hampton Beach in the summer of 1964.
"1. The "C" Street gang" - young patrons and employees of the Patio Restaurant at the Ashworth Avenue end of C Street and of the Tiki Restaurant (in 1964 the Troll Bridge) near the Ocean Boulevard end of C Street. Probably 25 to 50 young people from this group were on the beach at all times through the summer; another 250 to 300 would come and go during various periods, with the peak on weekends. When a special party or outing - frequently a luau away from the Hampton Beach area - was held, nearly everyone from this group would be on hand. Of the various cliques on the beach it was the most cohesive, the most happy-go-lucky, probably the most casual in its attitudes towards sex and liquor.
Around this group - probably to a greater extent than with the other groups - there clustered a collection of hangers-on, particularly around the Tiki Restaurant. Of all the cliques on the beach the C Street gang was most "in." Perhaps "clannish" would be an appropriate term to apply to this clique, for on the occasion of its parties attendance was by invitation only; those not thoroughly accepted were pointedly omitted. Perhaps some of the hangers-on gave the C Street gang a worse reputation than it deserved, for although the Tiki and the Patio were never centers of trouble from a police viewpoint, it should be noted that some of the tougher kids of the beach did hang out there.
The C Street gang - and indeed all the other home-based groups on the beach - took a rather conspicuous stance against riots and rioters. These people came to Hampton Beach for a good time, and primarily they wanted to be left to their own devices. Specifically in the 1964 riot they had taken an active part in defending their own territory against the rioters and had prevented damage for the length of their street. Throughout the summer, many members of the C Street gang were on excellent terms with the police and the rapport was mutual.
2. "The Renwood Group", based around the employees of the Renwood Dining Room and Gift Shop, the Moulton Hotel and the Carrousel luncheonette, all properties of the Downer family. In this group there was a similar cohesive spirit. The individuals in the group were probably a little older - more of a college age - than those on C Street, and their behavior and attitudes a little more conventional. Of all the factions on the beach this one was least active in its participation in CAVE" (the Committee Against Violent Eruptions, which had been formed by the Hampton Beach police in response to the less severe 1963 riots, often referred to rumbles).
3. The Dunfey group, employees of Dunfey's Restaurant and various other beach enterprises and their friends. Through the years as the Dunfey enterprises have expanded and the Dunfeys themselves have had less opportunity to participate personally in their beach enterprises, their employees have become a less close-knit group. Nonetheless, this was a distinct faction in the beach society, both overlapping and in competition with the C Street group. For instance, during the summer of 1964 there was considerable horseplay over the "kidnapping" of the Dunfey piano by the habituees of the Troll Bridge and its subsequent recovery.
4.Casino employees - a distinct group in itself, especially around the employee domicile known as the Gink, but also fragmenting and taking part in the affairs of the various other cliques.
The remainder of the beach society was considerably more amorphous, composed of day visitors who came and went and smaller groups looking for beach outings or dates. As a rule there was very little cohesion along home-town lines. In some few instances there is contact between various members of these several groups during the winter season, but for the most part it centers around the beach itself, starting about mid-April and ending rather abruptly after Labor Day.
To some small extent there were some cultures around the few places of teenage entertainment on the beach. For instance, the Seagate Ballroom, running rock and roll bands four nights a week, consistently attracted a crowd of 14 to 16-year old youngsters who may have had other contacts during daytime hours. The Onyx Room, a teenage nightclub a mile to the north of the beach center, also had its own following, although here again there was overlapping, since much of its clientele obviously came from the C Street group."
Such an elaborately detailed, fine differentiation between and among the different youth cliques suggests that this "exuberance" was a youth-based event, rather than a class-based event. In fact, many of the reports emphasized that youth who came to Hampton dropped their hometown allegiances and did not run in cliques based on what town they were from. The post-riot study noted "it was quite clear that Lowell, Massachusetts, far outstripped any other community in its representation of young people at Hampton Beach." (Lowell being the biggest mill town.)
Cover of the guidebook listing my grandparents' properties in their heyday
"Kids roamed the neighborhood like dogs. The first week I was sitting in the sun on our steps, I made the mistake of watching them go by as they walked up the middle of the street, three or four boys with no shirts... the tallest one, his short hair so blond it looked white, said, 'What're you lookin' at, fuck face?'
There he was on the bottom step. He pushed me hard in the chest and kicked my shin.
'You want your face rearranged, faggot?'"
It is the early 1970s. A 10-year-old Andre Dubus has moved into the rough, working class part of Haverhill, known as the Avenues. He quickly sets the tone with descriptions like these of his interactions with neighborhood youth.
He lives on “a narrow hill street of tin-sided houses behind chain-link fences."
"Plastic children’s toys would lie on the cracked concrete among cigarette butts and empty nip bottles, and on their sides here and there would be shopping carts for when the car wouldn’t start and the welfare checks came in and usually the mothers and wives or girlfriends would push the carts a mile and a half away to DeMoulas and load up with cans of Campbell’s soup, eggs and milk, bags of potato chips and cases of Coke and Budweiser, bottles of Caldwell’s vodka.
Halfway down Seventh Avenue was a cluster of yellow apartment buildings, two rows of them three-deep back from the street, each three stories high. The ground around them was packed dirt worn smooth and there was a gravel parking lot scarred from rain and in the back of it, up against a field of weeds, was a green dumpster I’d never seen empty; it was full of babies’ diapers and old mattresses."
A local gang of young men run an extortion racket of sorts, "men in their twenties or thirties who earned their rent by collecting it from everyone else, two or three going from door to door on the first of the month each demanding cash. Some of them were with the motorcycle gang, the Devil's Disciples..."
He becomes a fighter, a lieutenant, an instigator. What ensues is four hundred pages of violence, bravado, thuggery, petty bickering, intimidation, sadism, hooliganism. He is not an outsider, rather he is simply breathing the air around him, swimming in his ocean. Dubus becomes acculturated to violence, using the metaphor of a membrane that has to be punctured by an act of will. "This was different from sex, where if you both want it, the membranes fall away, but with violence you had to break that membrane yourself, and once you learned how to do that, it was easier to keep doing it."
His summary of his school captures the prevalence of violence, even in this supposed sanctuary from the street: "The slam of a locker, the slap of feet over the hard floor, the soft thudding of a fist thrown again and again into someone's face, like waxed wings flapping, then a joyous shriek of someone yelling "Fight," and we'd all all be running to them, crowding around the two or three bodies flailing away at each other in the center. In a school of over two thousand students, this happened once or twice a week."
The part of Townie that most resonated with me, in what was a hard slog through 400 pages of numbing descriptions of beat-downs and delinquency, was this: Although the story takes place in the rough part of Haverhill, it could just as well have been in almost identical neighborhoods of Lowell, or Newburyport (before it was renovated) or Lawrence. Post-industrial, worn out, working class, "inner city" (white inner city) mill town. The descriptions of the chain link fences, the dilapidated triple-deckers, sounded like, for example, the streets in Lawrence down by the Spicket River, Erving Avenue, or the lowest part of Tower Hill, along the train tracks west of Broadway. And the descriptions of the rebelliousness, the anti-authoritarian punkishness, the roughness, the chip-on-the-shoulder masculinity...I knew this from kids at the Bruce School who would "see you in the schoolyard after school" at the littlest slight, who ran in gangs, whose fathers ran in more organized gangs, like the ones that congregated the Calumet Bar and ran numbers and hookers.
Luckily for me, this kind of culture was usually at the periphery growing up, down the hill, in other neighborhoods...but I knew it was there. It's full of tribalism, group loyalties and animosities, even though everyone's white and probably "white ethnic", still living the vestiges of immigrant culture three or more generations in: Irish, Italian, French Canadian, Polish, whatever.
Why communities of people get like this, or why they seem to have been so prevalent in places like Lawrence and Haverhill (where in some neighborhoods disagreements were settled by rumbles)...I will leave this to the sociologists. However, I think an awareness of this culture is necessary to understand things like the Lawrence riot of August 1984. From one perspective, that riot was a big rumble, except that the counterparty, as it were, wasn't another gang of white ethnic milltown punks; it was fresh-off-the boat immigrant youth from Puerto Rico (some via NYC), and the Dominican Republic, who got provoked into engaging with this kind of local culture.
Statute in Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Mass. depicting Passaconnaway
The town of Haverhill was founded by charter of the General Court of Massachusetts in 1640 but title was not transferred until November 15th, 1642, when the great chief of the Pennacooks, the native inhabitants of the entire valley of the Merrimack from Pentucket (later called Haverhill) up to the river’s highest headwaters, transferred twelve miles of land along the river to form Haverhill.
Pasaconnaway had been an impressive leader with magical powers. According to one early English account, “Hee can make water burne, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphise himself into a flaming man. Hee Will do more; for in Winter, when there are no green leaves to be got, hee will burne an old one to ashes and putting these into water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see but substantially handle and carrie away; and make a dead snake's skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt, and heard.”
Under his leadership, the Pennacooks, whose name aptly means ‘rocky place’ tribe, subsumed the neighboring tribes, the Wachusetts, Agawams, Wamesits, Pequawkets, Pawtuckets, Nashuas, Namaoskeags, Coosaukes, Winnepesaukes, Piscataquas, Winnecowetts, Amariscoggins, Newichewannocks, Sacos, Squamscotts, and Saugusaukes.
Alas, the sale of Pentucket (Haverhill) to a group of Englishmen was one of the last historical acts of the Pennacooks. In the devastating war between the English and the natives in 1675– called King Phillip’s War after the Anglo nickname of native leader, Metacom, a Wampanoag from south of Boston – the Pennacooks sought to remain neutral. For safety during the conflict, they largely retreated to their mountain fastness near the headwaters of the Merrimack river high in the White Mountains.
The Pennacooks came under suspicion and, upon their return to the lowlands at the end of the war, hundreds of their braves were captured en masse in a treacherous maneuver orchestrated by Captain Richard Waldron. This occurred at the Indian trading post in Dover, New Hampshire, known by the natives as Cocheco. Some of the Pennacook men were hanged for insurrection and the rest were sold into slavery in Barbados.
The few remaining members of the tribe began to abandon Passaconnaway’s leadership. They retreated far to the north, to the mouth of the Saint-François River at its confluence with the St. Lawrence, to the reservation established by the French in Quebec, called Saint Francis in English. Today it is still a reservation, called Odanak, home of four hundred Abenaki with whom the Pennacooks merged.
The great king Passaconnaway, a.k.a. Papisseconeway, a.k.a. Saint Aspenquid, died in 1682. The few remaining Pennacook warriors bore his body to the summit of Mount Agamenticus, it was said, and laid him to rest in a rocky cave. The alternative and more compelling story is that he was buried at the summit of Mount Agiocochook, now called Mount Washington, the highest mountain in New England, near the headwaters of the Pemigewasset River, itself the northernmost tributary of the Merrimack. Or his body was not borne there at all; rather he ascended there himself like Jesus Christ, whom many of the Indians had adopted by that time as their great spiritual leader.
“There was to be a Council of the Gods in heaven and it was Passaconaway's wish that he might be admitted to the divine Council Fire; so he informed the Great Spirit of his desire. A stout sled was constructed, and out of a flaming cloud, twenty-four gigantic wolves appeared. These were made fast to the sled. Wrapping himself in a bearskin robe, Passaconaway bade adieu to his people, mounted the sled, and, lashing the wolves to their utmost speed, away he flew. Through the forests from Pennacook[modern-day Concord N.H., his royal seat]and over the wide ice-sheet of Lake Winnepesaukee they sped. Reeling and cutting the wolves with his thirty-foot lash, the old Bashaba, once more in his element, screamed in ecstatic joy. Down dales, valleys, over hills and mountains they flew, until, at last, enveloped in a cloud of fire, this ‘mightiest of Pennacooks’ was seen speeding over the rocky shoulders of Mount Washington itself; gaining the summit, with unabated speed he rode up into the clouds and was lost to view―forever!” Charles Edward Beals, Jr., Passaconnaway in the White Mountains, 1916.
Thus basically ends the story of the Pennacooks, except for the place names they gave. Mount Passaconaway (4,043 ft.) is named for their leader. Mount Wonalancet (3,200 ft.) is named for his son. The Nanamacomuck Trail is named for his other son. The Kancamagus Highway is named for Passaconnaway’sgrandson, son of Nanamacomuck, who in 1689 led a brief and final Pennacook rebellion against the English. It was mainly fought not by Pennacooks but by “a throng of restless and vengeful Androscoggins.”
Their crowning accomplishment was to murder the elderly Captain Waldron, who had sold so many of their kinsmen into slavery four decades earlier. The Pennacooks also left us with the names of most of the various tributaries of the Merrimack River: Contoocook (Near the Pines), Squannacook (Green Place), Suncook (Place of Villages), Piscataquog [or Piscatacook] (Great Deer Place), Souhegan (Waiting and Watching Place), Shawsheen (Serpentine), Quinepoxet (Pebbled Bottom).
“The great, numerous, and powerful Pennacooks, where are they? Two hundred years have effaced every vestige of the race; they are rubbed out like a chalk mark on a black-board ; every trace of the blood is obliterated; no scion remains; they have withered as the grass beneath the pavement, and the places that knew them once shall know them no more forever. The few fragile and broken remnants of the race, dispirited, and dimly realizing their ultimate doom, long since turned their backs on old· familiar scenes, on the conqueror, and their faces to the setting sun, where year by year his domain is curtailed, and himself more closely environed, until, at no very distant day, he will be totally and finally obliterated from the face of this broad land, and become as much of a myth or tradition, as the centaur, the mastodon, or the sphinx.”
J. W. Meader, The Merrimack River: Its Source And Its Tributaries (1869)
His son Wonalancet, his daughter Wenunchus and his grandson Kancamagus have their own interesting stories covered in other blog entries.