Native Peoples In New EnglandThis print version free essay Native Peoples In New England.
Category: American History
Autor: reviewessays 09 January 2011
Words: 1583 | Pages: 7
Native American history spans tens of thousands of thousands of years and two continents. It is a multifaceted story of dynamic cultures that in turn spawned intricate economic relationships and complex political alliances. Through it all, the relationship of First Peoples to the land has remained a central theme.
Though Native Americans of the region today known as New England share similar languages and cultures, known as Eastern Algonquian, they are not one political or social group. Rather, they comprised and still comprise many sub-groups. For example, the Pequots and Mohegans live in Connecticut, the Wampanoag reside in southeastern Massachusetts, while the Pocumtucks dwelt in the middle Connecticut River Valley near today's Deerfield, Massachusetts.1
Like the elders of other Native communities, Algonquian elders have traditionally transmitted important cultural information to the younger generations orally. This knowledge, imparted in the form of stories, includes the group's history, information on origins, beliefs and moral lessons. Oral tradition communicates rituals, political tenets, and organizational information. It is a vital element in maintaining the group's unity and sense of identity.
Creation stories, for example, help to define for the listener a sense of how human beings relate to the Creator and to the world. A creation story of the Pocumtucks explains the origin of the Pocumtuck Range, located in present-day Deerfield, and Sunderland, Massachusetts. The story tells of a huge lake in which lived a rapacious giant beaver. The people complained to the god Hobomok that the beaver was attacking them and consuming all of the local resources. Hobomok decided to kill the beaver. Following a titanic struggle, Hobomok vanquished the beaver with a club fashioned from an enormous tree. The body of the beaver sank into the lake, turned to stone, and formed the Pocumtuck Range.
Such stories and their settings establish the Native American presence on this land from time immemorial by relating how the Creator placed the First Peoples in their traditional homelands. Homelands are stable and permanent cultural and physical landscapes where Native nations have lived, and in some cases, continue to live to the present day. (Handsman 13). Creation stories thus reflect the central place their relationship with the land occupies in the culture and history of Native peoples. Certain sites within a homeland might hold special meaning and thus serve as important gathering places or focal points. For example, in the Pocumtuck homeland, Peskeompscut Falls (today known as Turners Falls) served as an important fishing area and meeting ground. Wequamps (Mt. Sugarloaf) is the focal point of the creation story that describes the origin of the Pocumtuck range.
The Connecticut River Valley was a vital crossroads for Native peoples of the Northeast. Today, the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts lies at the heart of the Pocumtuck people's homeland. Pocumtucks were part of a network of Algonquian communities in the middle Connecticut River Valley. Settlements lined the middle Connecticut River. In addition to the Pocumtuck, the Norwottuck homeland lay near present-day Northampton and Hadley, the Sokokis near Northfield, the Agawams around Agawam, Woronocos near West Springfield, and the Nipmuc homeland lay in central Massachusetts. These peoples were linked culturally, linguistically, politically, and through kinship.
These Algonquian communities together constituted a formidable power in Southern New England (Melvoin 32). Numerous trails and waterways connected these settlements with each other, facilitating intricate and extensive trade networks. Algonquians also traded with other peoples living to the west, north and south. The fertile soil and plentiful game fostered a prosperous society that enjoyed a robust economy and a stable political structure.
Eastern Algonquian people resided in different parts of their homeland at different times according to their needs. (Handsman 13). They often lived in smaller groupings connected by a network of trails or waterways. Environmental rhythms, kinship networks and ceremonial requirements together formed a calendar that regulated their movements. For example, a group might move to a location nearby to clear new land for their fields once agricultural land became exhausted. They also often located near good hunting or fishing areas. Groups at times might break up into smaller family units that would leave a village to hunt in other parts of their homeland. People also relocated to more protected areas with the colder weather.2
Agriculture flourished in the milder climate of Southern New England, supporting larger concentrations of Native people than the harsher northern region. Archaeological evidence suggests that Native people of Southern New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) began growing corn over one thousand years ago. In addition to this staple, they cultivated many other plants, including kidney beans, squash, Jerusalem artichoke, and tobacco. The shorter growing season of northern New England led Algonquians living in this region (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) to trade with groups to the south to supplement their food supply.
Like their counterparts in many Native nations throughout the continent, Algonquian women worked together to cultivate common fields, as well as harvesting, preserving and preparing food. They also helped to construct their homes and produced many household accessories. Algonquian men hunted, fished, made tools and protected their communities. Working communally and dividing responsibilities along age and gender lines enabled Native groups to accomplish many necessary tasks such as building canoes and homes. Significantly, a good deal of children's work and play revolved around activities that helped them to develop the communal and physical skills they would need as adults. Such activities included keeping crows out of the cornfields and gathering nuts and berries.
Sustained contact with Europeans beginning in the fifteenth century subjected lifeways established over centuries or even millennia to severe stress. Native Americans have struggled over the last several centuries to retain and sustain their relationship with the land in the face of changing economic relations, rapidly changing political alliances, demographic catastrophe, and warfare.
Much of the early contact between Europeans and Native peoples revolved around trade. By 1600, French, Dutch and English traders frequented the northeast coast of North America trading metal, glass and cloth for beaver pelts. A reciprocity-based system of exchange characterized initial trade relations. Successful trade depended on good relationships between traders and Native groups. These practices superficially resembled pre-existing exchange patterns among area Native peoples. It quickly became apparent, however, that these new relationships did not really replicate traditional trading practices. They lacked the social and cultural assumptions that provided structure and meaning to the old exchange patterns.
The presence and agenda of these new trading partners generated far-reaching consequences. Native groups heavily involved in trade with Europeans altered their living patterns to better position themselves to deal with the newcomers. That trade placed disproportionate attention on hunting for lucrative beaver pelts in place of traditional subsistence hunting. Native traders became increasingly reliant on European trade goods, adapting them to their own traditional uses. Competition among groups for a rapidly diminishing beaver population increased. The power balance shifted in favor of groups and individuals with connections to traders and European goods (Salisbury 57).
Trade with Europeans generated demographic as well as economic and political consequences. Native people used preexisting trade routes and communications networks to acquire the beaver pelts European traders prized. They received in exchange desirable trade goods such as textiles, various metals and firearms. In this way, European traders' goods penetrated far into inland North America. Old World diseases traveled with those goods, triggering what one historian has termed a "demographic catastrophe." Before European contact, the peoples of the Western Hemisphere lived isolated from many Old World diseases. They thus did not develop immunities to diseases such as measles and smallpox that plagued other parts of the world. European contact through trading set off widespread epidemics. Old World diseases reduced Native populations in some areas by up to ninety percent. (Salisbury 23, 25). The cultural consequences of this demographic disaster were no less devastating than its economic or political effects. Astoundingly high mortality rates seriously compromised the oral transmission of collective wisdom and culture.
Early and seemingly limited coastal trade contacts with Europeans thus weakened and depopulated many Native nations years before European settlers arrived. The arrival of the English settlers in Massachusetts by 1620 brought into play another element into Native/European relations: colonization. As with earlier trading ventures, the Companies that funded colonizing ventures like the one at Plymouth also sought to establish lucrative trade relations with Native peoples. At the same time, English assumptions surrounding colonization introduced a new and ultimately incompatible component into European/Native relations. Unlike individual traders, English families came to establish communities and settle permanently on Native lands. The relatively positive relations that characterized early trade relations between European traders and Native Americans quickly deteriorated. Cultural clashes and disputes over land escalated as English towns grew and population pressures intensified colonists' demand for more land.
The English settlement of Springfield is an example of how first European trader and then settlement affected pre-existing Native American trade networks and political relations. Settled in 1636, Springfield was the first English settlement in the middle Connecticut River Valley. Englishman William Pynchon and his son John quickly established a lucrative fur trade with local Native peoples. Native hunters traded furs for European products, while the English sold their furs back to England for high profits. By the 1650s, however, hunters had exhausted the fur supply of the region. Tensions between Native communities flared into open hostility as hunters traveled further into territories outside their homelands to find beavers. Warfare between the Kanien'kehaka (Mohawks) of the Haudenosaunee from Eastern New York and the Pocumtucks in 1664 pushed many Pocumtucks from the central area of their homeland.