Telling the story of the indigenous people of the place now called Chelsea is limited because it relies on 17th century colonial historical records. For the Pawtucket Confederation of Abenaki Peoples who held this territory, there is even confusion on the proper name of the group. They are variously referred to in European documents as Pawtucket, Naumkeag, Wamesit, or Mystic Indians, or by the name of their current sachem or sagamore.
In the years immediately prior to English settlement of Chelsea, the leader of the Pawtucket Confederation was Nanepashemet (New Moon) (1580-1619). His territories were bordered by the Charles River, the White Mountains and the Concord River. The areas included Winnisemet with Rumney Marsh and Pullen Point (Chelsea), Saugus or Swampscott (Lynn), Naumkeag (Salem), Agawam (Ipswich), Pentucket (Haverhill), and from the coast going up the Merrimack. Perhaps also Piscataqua (Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Eliot, Maine) and Accominta (York, Maine), Mishawum (Charlestown), Mistic (Medford), Musketaquid (Concord, MA) and Pannukog (Concord, New Hampshire). Sagamore Hill (today known as Mount Washington in Everett) was likely a primary fort.
Across the territory, individual bans of 30 to 40 people lived, moving seasonally to take advantage of areas for fishing, hunting and farming as well as trade and visiting with kin and other tribes.
European fishermen, using temporary stations on the coast to process their catch, sparked epidemics among tribes, especially those living along the waterways. This caused political turmoil between tribes. To the north, the Tarratine tribe (present day Maine) raided the neighboring Penobscot tribe (present day New Hampshire). In 1615, Nanepashemet sent his Pawtucket warriors to assist their Penobscot allies. When the Tarratines turned their ire on Nanepasemet, the leader and his family took shelter in a fort on the Mystic River.
This period of hiding proved to be fortuitous for the family. Between 1614 and 1619 three epidemics of European diseases struck the Pawtucket. The death toll was staggering. Some contemporary historians believe the mortality rate among the Native people was as high as 90%. The family's period of seclusion served as a kind of quarantine and they survived unscathed.
But the Tarrantines eventually secured their revenge. In 1619, New Moon, the great Sachem Nanepashemet, was killed by the Tarratines.
Leadership fell to his widow, Saunkskwa Mysticke (also called “Squaw Sachem” of Mistick) (c. 1590-1650 or 1667). She was the primary authority among the native people of the area now called Chelsea when Samuel Maverick builds his fort on the shores of Winnisimmet. (Saunkskwa Mysticke should not to be confused with Saunkswa Weetamoo/Namumpum, wife of Conbitant, who was the leader of the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe.)
After the death of Nanepashemet the Confederation fractured with some of the bands in extended territories breaking off. Nevertheless, Saunkskwa Mysticke oversaw significant areas along the Charles and Mystic Rivers and up the North Shore. Through a time of extraordinary upheaval, Saunkskwa Mysticke led her people, building alliances with other tribes through the marriages of her children and with the English settlers through the strategic deeding of land.
Saunkskwa Mysticke and Nanepashemet had three sons, Wonohaquaham (John) (1608-1633), Montowampate (James) (xx - 1633), and Wenepoykin (George) (1616 or 1620 - 1684), and one daughter, Yawata (Abigail) (1614 - 1685).
Eldest son Wonohaquaham was known as Sagamore John of Mystic and sometimes, in recognition the place that was his primary home, Sagamore John of Winnisimmet. He was just 16 years old in 1624 when the colonial settlers arrived. He married a woman called "Joan," the daughter of a Sagamore of the Agawam, that same year and went on to father at least two sons. He became particularly close with the English settlers and learned their language.
Second son of Saunkskwa Mysticke and Nanepashemet was Montowampate. He was also known as Sagamore James of Lynn and Saugus. His mother brokered a strategic marriage for him to the daughter of Passaconaway, the Chief of the powerful Penacook tribe.
Youngest son Wenepoykin was primarily known to the colonists as Sagamore George Rumney Marsh of Salem. He would have not remembered his father, Nanepashemet, who was killed either just before his birth or when he was only a toddler. Wenepoykin married Ahawayetsquaine or Ahawayet (also known as Joane) of Nahant. She was the daughter of Wuttasacomponom (aka Captain Tom) who lived at “Mistick” and then Patucket. Wenepoykin had four children, including daughters Petagunsk (aka Cecily), Wattaquattinusk (Sarah), and Pentagoonaquah (Susannah) and son Poquanum.
The colonists were important allies for the Pawtucket as they remained embattled against the Tarratines. Indeed, in this early colonial era, the English and Pawtucket fought side-by-side against raiders in Winnisimmet. Colonial records describe one such encounter on August 8, 1631: "The Tarentines, to the number of one hundred, came in three canoes, and in the night assaulted the wigwam of the sagamore of Agawam, by Merimack, and slew seven men, and wounded John Sagamore, and James, and some others, (whereof some died after,) and rifled a wigwam where Mr. Cradock's men kept to catch sturgeon, took away their nets and biscuit, etc."
In 1633, the three sons of Saunkskwa Mysticke fell gravely ill with smallpox. Wonohaquaham (Sagamore John) was only aged 25 and had already witnessed waves of European diseases that killed his kinfolk but left the colonists mostly unscathed. Like some other Native people of this time he came to associate surviving these new illnesses with the power of the Englishman's god. On his deathbed Wonohaquaham converted to Christianity, prayed his sons might be spared and put them into the care of the colonists. Montowampate (Sagamore James), like his elder brother, perished. Teenaged youngest brother Wenepoykin (Sagamore George) survived but was left with a horrible facial disfigurement. He was thereafter saddled with the nickname of George No Nose.
Not long after the deaths of her two sons, Saunkskwa Mysticke married Webcowet (or Wompachowet) in 1635. He was, reportedly, the medicine man of the Musketaquid Indians. Musketaquid primary territory was in the area of present day Concord.
Like his eldest brother before him, in the wake of tragedy Wenepoykin (Sagamore George) took on a leadership role in his late teens to guide what remained of the Pawtucket Confederation with his mother, Saunkskwa Mysticke.
At this time, the primacy of colonial authority of the area was asserting itself. In 1634, the court of the Massachusetts Bay colony ordered that the areas of Winnisimmet, (present day Chelsea) Rumney Marsh and Pullen Point (present day Revere) to be part of Boston and the borders of these places were fixed. Two ferries were now operating to carry people and cargo across the waterway from Winnisimmet to the port of Boston. A year later, in 1635, Richard Bellingham, the newly elected Deputy Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, purchased Winnisimmet from Samuel Maverick.
The Pawtucket remained in this area and their relationship with the English settlers deepened. Many, perhaps all, of the Pawtucket converted to Christianity. Their fluency in other indigenous dialects facilitated their ability to master English. The children of Saunkskwa Mysticke and Nanepashemet were able to navigate within and between Native and English cultures. Their grandchildren were among the better educated in the colonies, learning both Indigenous and European traditions. Of all their children, the one to most closely integrate with the Europeans was their daughter, Yawata (Abigail).
Yawata (Abigail) married John Awassamug, a member of a prominent Nipmuc family. Yawata (Abigail) and Awassamug were living in Mistick (Medford) when Awassamug became one of missionary John Eliot’s earliest Christian converts. Sometimes called "the apostle to the Indians," Eliot oversaw the creation "Praying Towns" where Indian converts among the different Algonquian tribes lived together in what Eliot envisioned as a new Christian society. Among the Indian Praying Towns were Natick, Nashoba (Littleton), Hassanamerrit (Grafton), Wamesit (Lowell), and Punkapoag (Canton).
The eldest son of Yawata (Abigail) and John Awassamug was born in Winnisimmet in 1636. Quannapohit (1636-1701) was known by a number of names including James Rumney Marsh, Muminquash, James Wiser and James Awassamug. He was particularly well educated and was a recognized leader when the family established themselves in the Praying Town of Natick. Yawata and John's other children were Joshua (1641-1736), Amos (1643-1737), Thomas (c 1645-1740), Samuel (1644-1682), and John, Jr. (1647-1742).
In 1639, in late midlife, Yawata's mother, Saunkskwa Mysticke, and her husband Webcowet, deeded to the colonist Jotham Gibbons most of the territory along the Charles and Mystic Rivers. These areas included modern day Cambridge, Watertown, Newton, Arlington (Menotomy), Somerville, Malden and Charlestown. Following this, colonial records show various court orders of payments to her and the people under her care. For example, Cambridge was ordered to provide Saunkskwa Mysticke a coat every winter for life (1640), 35 bushels of corn and additional coats (1641), as well as gunpowder (1643). She lived the rest of her life just west of the Mystic Lakes (Arlington, Winchester). At the end of her life she was in declining health, losing her sight and then was felled by a paralyzing stroke. She died sometime between 1650 and 1667. (Read more on Sankskwa's later years from the perspective of present day Winchester here.)
As the decades wore on the numbers of settlers increased. By 1660, there were 40,000 non-Native people living in the Massachusetts Bay colony and their numbers were growing at a rate of 1,000 each year. The pressure to gain access to desirable agricultural land and control waterways was growing. Wenepoykin (Sagamore George) and his band of the Pawtucket people were forced north to Lowell. In 1651, records show he sought help from the colonial courts for the return of lands he said were wrongly claimed by the English. Despite a strong case, the courts ruled against him, fearing it would open the door to a rash of additional claims against the bountiful, shaky deeds to formerly indigenous property held by settlers across the region. Wenepoykin was perceived as “trouble for landowners of Rumney Marsh.”
While there were tensions, the Pawtuckets remained clearly allied with the colonialists. Their close relationship with missionary John Eliot set them apart from many other Native people.
This relationship meant that in 1675, at the start of the Indian revolt led by Metacom of the Wampanoag tribe in Plymouth called King Philip's War, the Pawtuckets in Massachusetts Bay sided decisively with the colonial settlers. Two of Yawata's sons, James and Thomas, served as scouts in service of the English.
But allegiance was not mutual and the trust fractured, right at the start of the war.
Metacomet's initial disagreement with the English was comparable to the ones faced by the Pawtuckets and other indigenous people across the colony. The English settlers were lax, leaving their livestock to trample Native people's farms and invade food stores. Indians were pushed out of their traditional land for hunting and fishing. Indigenous spiritual traditions were denigrated with a strict observance of Puritan Christianity. The English enforced the law unjustly and compensated Indians for land and goods unfairly.
Metacomet and the Wampanoag launched raids on colonial homesteads and villages. Other tribes, even those trying to stay neutral, were swept up. Among them was the father-in-law of Wenepoykin (Sagamore George), Wuttasacomponom (Captain Tom). Wuttasacomponom was a Hassanamesit Christian Indian convert who held the position of magistrate at the Praying Town of Wabquissit (present day North Woodstock, Connecticut.) Wuttasacomponom (Captain Tom) had pledged that he would not take part the in the Indian rebellion but in summer of 1675, when Hassanamesit fell to Metacom's Nipmuck allies, Wuttasacomponom and 200 of his men were forced to go along with them or be killed. Wuttasacomponom and some of his family were captured in June of 1676 and brought to trial. Yawate's son, James Quannapohit, reporting to the colonists of the activities of his kin in Winnisimmet, Natick and elsewhere attested to his loyalty. Missionary John Eliot's directly appealed to the governor. Nevertheless, Wuttasacomponom was convicted and hung.
Battles, raids and massacres occurred all across New England. The colonists' retaliation against the region's indigenous people was swift and indiscriminate. As one historian put it, for the Native people, “Extermination, if not the law, was the fact.”
Decades-long allegiances were broken. Hundreds of Native People were rounded up and imprisoned at Deer Island in Boston Harbor, including the Nipmuk and Chelsea's Pawtucket people living in the Praying Towns. Quannapohkit (Thomas Rumney Marsh) who served as a scout for the colonists was held, as was Wenepoykin (Sagamore George). Through a long winter they suffered starvation and exposure and half did not survive.
The violence raged for just over a year, ending in 1675 with more than half of New England's towns attacked by Natives and twelve of the region's towns destroyed.
With the excuse of the Indian Revolt, the desire for captives formed a "central preoccupation" for the colonists. The colonial demand for labor in this era was intense as settlers sought to subdue the land and its people. Thirty years before, Massachusetts was the first colony to authorize slavery by legislation with the passage of the “Body of Liberties.” This provided the framework to legally enslave those taken as captives in war.
Hundreds of captives, both combatants and non-combatants, were taken as slaves by the colonial militia, sold to Massachusetts households, or shipped abroad.
The Native people on Deer Island that successfully endured their confinement, including Wenepoykin (Sagamore George) and his wife, were sold as slaves and shipped to Barbados. The revenue from the sale of the Native people settled the debts of the war, including payments to the mercenaries who had captured those Native people.
An array of colonial laws back-up the erasure of Native people. Among them was the Indian Imprisonment and Exclusion Act that bans Indigenous residents from living within Boston’s city limits. (Though unenforced in modern times, it was not formally stricken from the books until 2004.) Over the next ten years, while fewer Native people were formally enslaved via capture, colonial courts would liberally sentence indigenous residents in the colony to terms of involuntary servitude for alleged thefts, a failure to pay debts, or committing acts of violence. Abuses were common, terms were long, and involuntary servants with terms over two years could be sold and exchanged around the region.
By 1685 the colonist version of history reported, “The Indians about Boston were few and were neither useful nor respectable.”
After the war Yawate and her family sought the release of their kin from bondage. Colonial records in 1684 and 1685 show a number issues related to the family in a short amount of time. In 1684 James petitioned Massachusetts authorities to sell parcels at Marlborough. That same year Thomas sells 2000 acres of land on behalf of his father, John Assassamug, reportedly to cover the elder man's medical expenses. Meanwhile, after eight years of appeals by James, his uncle, Wenepoykin (Sagamore George) and his wife were able to return to their homeland.
Histories record that Wenepoykin died within the year, at the age of 68, in the Natick home of his nephew James Rumneymarsh. The death Wenepoykin's sister, Yawate, and husband John Awassamug are also recorded before the close of 1685.