Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
Introducing Praying Towns, Puritan Settlements for Christianized Indians, 1630-1674
Below is a summary of the Praying Towns closest to Boston (for Pennacooks and affiliated bands), followed by a summary of the Praying Towns in Worcester County (where the tribe was the Nipmucks).
It is from “Biography and History of the Indians of North America: From Its First Discovery” by Samuel Gardner Drake (1848). The reference to Gookin was to Major-General Daniel Gookin, Commissioner of Praying Towns from the 1650s through the 1670s.
“Natick, the oldest praying town, contained, in 1674, 29 families, in which perhaps were about 145 persons. The name Natick signified a place of hills. Waban was the chief man here, "who,"says Mr. Gookin, "is now about 70 years of age. He is a person of great prudence and piety : I do not know any Indian that excels him."
Pakemitt, or Punkapaog ("which takes its name from a spring, that riseth out of red earth,") is the next town in order, and contained 12 families, or about 60 persons. It was 14 miles south of Boston, and is now Included in Stoughton. The Indians here removed from the Neponset.
Hassanamesit is the third town, and is now included in Grafton, and contained, like the second,60 souls.
Okommakamesit, now in Marlboro, contained about 50 people, and was the fourth town.
Wamesit, since included in Tewksbury, the fifth town, was upon a neck of land in Merrimack River, and contained about 75 souls, of five to a family.
Nashobah, now Littleton, was the sixth, and contained but about 50 inhabitants.
Magunkaquog, now Hopkinton, signified a place of great trees. Here were about 55 persons, and this was the seventh town.
There were, besides these, seven other towns, which were called the new praying towns. These were among the Nipmucks. The first was Manchage, since Oxford, and contained about 60 inhabitants. The second was about six miles from the first, and its name was Chabanaktongkomun, since Dudley, and contained about 45 persons. The third was Maanexit, in the north-east part of Woodstock, and contained about 100 souls. The fourth was Quantisset, also in Woodstock, and containing 100 persons likewise. Wabquissit, the fifth town, also in Woodstock, (but now included in Connecticut,) contained 150 souls. Packachoog, a sixth town, partly in Worcester and partly in Ward, also contained 100 people. Weshakim, or Nashaway, a seventh, contained about 75 persons. Waeuntug was also a praying town, included now by Uxbridge; but the number of people there ill not set down by Mr. Gookin, our chief author.”
The Praying Towns were largely abandoned following King Phillips War, 1675-78, the first large-scale violence between English settlers and natives. Growing up I went to Littleton a lot, as well as Tewksbury. Never heard of Praying Towns even though the little ski area in Littleton, Nashoba Valley, bears the name of one of them.
Below is a closeup of the Merrimack Valley section of an amazing map printed in London in 1670. Two cool features: First, it shows “Old Norfolk” County, the old county of Norfolk that extended from the Merrimack River north to the Piscataqua River. It existed from around 1640 to around 1680. Of note, Haverhill and Salisbury, being north of the Merrimack, are in Old Norfolk not Essex County where they later ended up, and so is all of what is now coastal New Hampshire. New Hampshire as a concept didn’t exist yet and Massachusetts Bay Colony asserted jurisdiction. Second, the map shows the Indian “praying town” of Wamesit, in modern-day East Chelmsford. The puritans (naturally) attempted to Christianize the natives. They - led by reverend John Eliot -went through great effort to translate the native Algonquin language into English so they could provide the Indians with a bible, called Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God. They also had to teach the natives to read this new book written in Algonquin, a hitherto oral language. The Algonquin bible is a fascinating topic to which I hope to dedicate future blog entries. I can't decide whether to take it seriously. Some of the translations in generated are so absurd on their face as to call into question the validity of the whole endeavor. For example, Elliot translated "our lusts" (an important word no doubt for the puritans as "Nummatchekodtantamooongannunonash" which cannot possibly be a word. He translated "our loves" as Noowomantammoonkanunonnash, and "our questions" as Kummogokdonattoottammooctiteaongannunnonash, which might be the longest word I have ever seen.
Some of the natives who converted were settled in so-called Praying Towns. I will write a separate blog post on the Praying Towns. After the first war between the English colonists and the natives in 1675 (which basically launched fifty years of intermittent Indian attacks on settlements like Haverhill and Andover), the Praying Towns were abandoned. Also a topic for a future blog post.
The towns of Andover and Haverhill are visible, along with places like Salisbury downriver and Chemsford upriver. Present-day Lowell is called Pawtucket and present-day Newburyport is called Agawamin (not to be confused with present-day Agawam in Worcester County).