Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
The Story of Wonalancet, son of Passaconaway. Or: The sad departure of the Pennacook Indians from Wamesit (modern Tewksbury, Mass.)
John Eliot, pastor at Roxbury in puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, developed an interest in saving native souls, apparently on account of his language skills. So in 1649 he petitioned Parliament back in England for support in the conversion of the Indians of New England. Parliament duly funded the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, with Eliot as its head.
The chief results of this enterprise were (1) production of an Algonquin language bible, which also required teaching hundreds of natives how to read; and (2) the formation of so-called Praying Towns, where Christianized Indians were supposed to settle. By 1674, on the eve of King Philips War, the first major conflict between natives and English colonists, the population of Eliot's praying towns numbered 4,000 Indians, according to Major Daniel Gookin, the first and only commissioner of Indian matters in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Native responses to Christianity varied widely. Some were hostile. For example, when Metacom, also known as Philip, the leader of the rebellion called King Philip's War, was preached to by Reverend Eliot, Metacom was disrespectful. He supposedly took hold of a button on Eliot's coat and said "I care no more for your religion than I do for this button" and yanked it off.
Other natives stayed ambivalent, while yet other Indians instead were persuaded by Catholic missionaries coming down from New France of the superiority of Catholicism. Passaconnaway, the great chief of the Pennacooks, politely listened to Eliot's preaching as far up the Merrimack River as Amoskeag, present day Manchester, New Hampshire.
His son Wonalancet, however, dutifully accepted Christianity fully. In May 1674, Wonalancet informed Reverend Eliot and his cohort of ministers:
"Sirs, you have been pleased, for years past, in your abundant love, to apply yourselves particularly unto me and my people, to exhort, press, and persuade us to pray to God; I am very thankful to you for your pains. I must acknowledge I have all my days been used to pass in an old canoe, and now you exhort me to leave and change my old canoe and embark in a new one, to which I have been unwilling; but now I yield myself to your advice and enter into a new canoe and do engage to pray to God hereafter."
At this time, Wonalancet and his followers apparently settled in Wamesit, present day Tewksbury although then called East Chemsford, which comprised 2,500 acres along the Merrimack River near its confluence with the Concord River. They picked a bad time to "enter a new canoe", however, because war was brewing. King Philip's War broke out in 1675. The Pennacooks strove to remain neutral, but even their Christianized members, known as "Praying Indians", came under English scrutiny.
They fled north into the wilderness, only to be accused of treachery for running away. So they came back, although Wonalancet stayed up in the mountains. During their absence, they were ministered to by one of Eliot's assistants, Symon Beckham. When questioned by colonial authorities what they did out there in the woods, Beckham replied that "We kept three Sabbaths in the woods."
"The first Sabbath," Beckham said, "I read and taught the people out of Psalm 35; the second Sabbath from Psalm 46; and the third Sabbath, out of Psalm 118."
Beckham's listeners, all being versed in the Bible, no doubt understood the intimations of this Christian friend of the natives. Psalm 35 begins "Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me./Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for mine help." Psalm 46 begins "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble/Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea." And Psalm 118 starts "O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever./Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever." (All quotes are the King James version, which would have been used by the Puritans.)
According to Major Gookin, on whose book this account is based, such Bible verses "were very suitable to encourage and support [the Wamesits] in their sad condition; this shows, that those poor people have some little knowledge of, and affection to the word of God, and have some little ability (through grace) to apply such meet portions thereof, as are pertinent to their necessities."
Alas, being preached to did not help them. The natives were immediately blamed for burning down a barn in Chelmsford. Upon their return to Wamesit, this led to a skirmish with Chelmsford settlers, who killed a native boy and wounded five natives.
Thereupon they wrote a pitiful letter to the government of Massachusetts:
"The reason we went away from the English, for when there was any harm done in Chlemsford, they laid it to us and said we did it, but we know ourselves we never did harm the English, but go away peaceably and quietly. [As for the land reserved for our use], "we say there is no safety for us[,] for many English be not good, and maybe they come and kill us, as in the other case. We are not sorry for what we leave behind, but are sorry the English have driven us from our praying to God and from our teacher, Mr. Eliot. We did begin to understand a little [about] praying to God."
No help came, so they left for the Pennacook headquarters, in present-day Concord, N.H.
"On [Thursday,] February 6, 1676, having taken to the woods in search of Wonalancet, having lost their way and many lives by hardship and starvation."
Even their retreat did not help. "[T]he English marched on Pennacook (Concord, NH). Wonalancet learned of their approach and led his followers into the swamps and marshes, where, from behind trees, they could watch every move of the whites. The soldiers destroyed their wigwams and winter's supply of dried fish. Wonalancet did not check the march of his refugees until the headwaters of the Connecticut River had been gained. Then only did they settle down, far from English wrong-doers, yet ever facing death, for the winter was a terrible one." (Charles Edward Beales, Jr. (pseud.), "Passaconaway in the White Mountains", 1916)
In September 1676, the band of Wonalancet's followers were lured into a peace treaty with the English representative, Captain Richard Waldron, at modern day Dover, New Hampshire. The upshot of Captain Waldron's deception, which will be covered in another blog entry, was that over four hundred Pennacooks were captured there and then were sold into slavery in Barbados to help cover English expenses for the war.
According to the Beales book, here is how Wonalancet then lived out his days:
"Many tribesmen now abandoned the unresisting Wonalancet and went to the French at St. Francis [the present-day Abenaki reservation Odanack, Quebec]. By order of the Court, the decimated Pennacooks were transferred to Wickasaukee and Chelmsford, where they were under the supervision of Mr. Jonathan Tyng of Dunstable. Of the later years of Wonalancet's life little is known, until 1685, when, upon report of his 'fierce and warlike' presence at Pennacook, [this being his nephew Kancamagus leading the Androscoggins in revenge against Captain Waldron], he came to Dover, where he assured the government of New Hampshire (which now had become a Royal Province) that there were at Pennacook only twenty-four Indians beside squaws and papooses, and that this paltry band had no intention of making war upon the English. His name is not affixed to the treaty of this year, which seems to prove that he was no longer the recognized leader. Four years later, in 1689, he repeated his assurances of peaceful intentions. He is said to have again returned to St. Francis shortly after. Nine years later, he was again living under the care of Mr. Tyng, this time at Wamesit. The old sachem is reported as having transferred his lands, the last of his once vast domain, to his keeper. Deeds bearing dates of 1696 and 1697 are found, made out to Mr. Tyng. Whether he went back to St. Francis or died in his own country is not definitely known; the time of his death also is unknown. He is believed to have been buried in the private cemetery of the Tyng family, in Tyngsboro, Mass."