In 2010, while browsing in Dogtown Bookstore on Main Street in Gloucester, Massachusetts, I happened upon a 48-page booklet called The First People of Cape Ann: Native Americans on the North Coast of Massachusetts Bay, by writer and researcher Elizabeth Waugh (Dogtown Books, 2005). The cover caught my eye—A 1911 painting by illustrator N.C. Wyeth of two Native American youths cavorting in a New England salt marsh—and the subject interested me. My careers have spanned anthropology and archaeology, high school and college teaching, and educational publishing, and I have lived on Cape Ann at least half of my life. Like so many others who live here, I am in love with the place.
In Waugh’s book I saw pictures and stories about local archaeological finds, useful lists of sources and collections, and excerpts from the accounts of European voyagers and colonists. Then, on page 28, I saw Samuel de Champlain’s map of Gloucester Harbor, first published in 1607, edifying proof that Native Americans had indeed lived here. There were their wigwams, smokehouses, flake yards, and gardens. Furthermore, there was a wigwam where my street is today. I was electrified. I had always been told that Indigenous People did not live on Cape Ann but only came occasionally to hunt. I did not know they were farmers! I did not even know they had a name—the Pawtucket (aka the Agawam Indians)! Growing up on Cape Ann, I had never been told anything at all about Indigenous People here. Why was that?
My first thought was that my grandchildren should know about this—on Champlain’s map there is a wigwam at their house too on Beacon St. I think we all should know intimately our time and place in the context of history, local as well as global. I discovered that aside from a field trip to a local museum (where Indigenous artifacts are not exhibited) and a brief social studies unit on Indigenous People in general (for which there rarely is time), local history is not taught systematically at any grade level in Gloucester. What local history is offered is about the Pilgrims and Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the development of Cape Ann’s fishing and shipbuilding industries, granite quarries, and artist colonies.
Local histories and librarians have long assured us that “the Indians” went extinct before the English settled here—that they had killed each other off in internecine warfare or had all died of disease in mysterious virgin soil epidemics. Cape Ann’s “Indians”, if they are mentioned at all, are described erroneously as Massachuset, Nipmuc, Wampanoag, and/or Iroquois, when they actually belonged to none of these groups. I learned from authoritative sources that they were Pawtucket, a branch of the Pennacook from New Hampshire. They spoke Abenaki.
Yikes! Next, I bot permission to enlarge and laminate copies of Champlain’s map, thinking I would develop a little curriculum around it for my granddaughter Willa and her classmates, then in third grade. Maybe other teachers in the district would find it useful too. What could be more exciting than the way of life of the people who made a living on your street three thousand years ago, following earlier people whose ancestors hunted mastodons on Jeffrey’s Ledge and swordfish in Gloucester Harbor? What a great context, I thought, for teaching science, math, engineering, technology, language arts, history, and all the other humanities—in fact, everything.
My little curriculum soon expanded to five notebooks filled with information from downloaded primary sources; activity kits for making wigwams, cast nets, fish weirs, atlatls, baskets, pots, and wampum; stones for pecking tools and grinding corn; samples of heirloom corn cobs, dried venison, and smoked herring; map-making and solar calendar-making supplies; and other discoveries—and I was nowhere near done! I embarked on a campaign to see and document all the collections of Indigenous artifacts I could find and began more scholarly investigations into the literature.
In the spring of 2011, I attempted to present some of my discoveries to a group of nine children, ages eight to ten, in a five-week after-school enrichment program at the West Parish School in Gloucester. I told them I was learning new things and we were in a group investigation together and that we would ask and answer our own questions. “Cool,” they said. “Way cool.” But it was too much to do in the little time we had, field trips were not permitted in the after-school program, and some of the questions I had, along with some of the answers I was finding, were more for older students and adults. In one of my presentations to Middle School students, the story I had to tell about Native Americans on Cape Ann diverged from the received story the teachers had expected, and I was not invited back.
More importantly, some answers I was finding were quite different from those in the 19th century histories that had become ingrained in common belief. I developed a series of slide lectures based on my research and began giving presentations to adult audiences. I also began photo documenting all the collections of “Indian” artifacts taken from Cape Ann that I could find in museums, historical societies, and private stashes. There was so much! The archaeological evidence bespoke a long and rich history of Indigenous life here, dating back more than 10,000 years.
It was then that I decided to abandon developing curriculum for students in favor of writing a book for general readership. I would reach out to everyone and anyone who might support the idea of reshaping our ideas about the past based on actual evidence and who might be willing to weave more local and regional history—the real story—into the education of our children. I would write a succinct, illustrated history for the general public about the people who were here before us and the ways they and their world changed between 10,000 years ago and the War of Independence.
This is that book—although, alas, not so succinct after all. There is just too much to tell. It’s like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, his opus spun from a single question he asked about the causes of differences between have and have-not human societies. In like fashion, I start by asking and then attempting to answer my own questions about the past. Who were the Indigenous Peoples of Cape Ann really? Where did they come from and when? Who came before them? How did they live? How did they use and change the environment? How did they adapt to European contact and settlement? How did colonists relate to them? What happened to them? Where are they now? How does their legacy affect us today?
I’ve found more to the answers than I thought possible—about Indigenous history, the history of Contact, and the true origins of English communities on Cape Ann and beyond in Essex County. Each chapter has moved farther away from classroom lesson plans and more into serious scholarship and historiography. I’ve tried to be scrupulous with source citations and references, but these are by no means impeccable. Academic scholars may cringe, but they are not my true audience, who probably do not need all the notes and references I’ve carefully included. My audience is the people who live here or come here and love the place as I do.
The more I study, the surer I am that much of what we think happened isn’t really true, and that a lot happened we don’t know about. The local historical canon is inaccurate and often misleading. The official history is based largely on the works of Victorian Era historians (e.g., Thornton, 1854; Babson, 1860; Hurd, 1888; Pringle, 1892, and others). There are contradictory timelines, factual errors, curious omissions, and debatable interpretations. But those stories have been repeated, conflated, and compounded over the generations. Where there is any awareness at all, they seem to have set like concrete in the collective mind. This is too bad but not surprising. Because history is never really true. National, ethnic, civic, class, political, religious, intellectual, and personal pride or conviction or fashion distort historical interpretations in all times and places. The story of Cape Ann is no exception.
Our town histories barely mention “the Indians”, except as victims of epidemics, signers of deeds, and subjects of uprisings or fears thereof. But they were here throughout the Contact and Colonial Periods. English historians of the 19th century barely mention Champlain and French precedence here in favor of Sir Walter Raleigh and other Elizabethan adventurers, who were never here, and Captain John Smith, who visited Maine but sailed past Cape Ann on his way to Jamestown. The Victorians embraced Smith’s swashbuckling Jamestown story and colorful naming of places on Cape Ann after his foreign military service as a mercenary. He named Rockport after his Turkish captors Greek slavemistress, Tragabigzanda, and he named the Turks’ Head Islands after the three heads he claimed to have severed while making his escape. The early historians also were far more interested in the fiction of buried Vikings on Cape Ann than in the fact of Basque and Breton trade with the Indigenous People of Cape Ann even before the time of Columbus. And they certainly did not want to acknowledge a hundred years of state-sponsored genocide carried out by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, if they even knew about that at all. Through archival power, state secrets can run pretty deep.
Taking old biases and new evidences into account, we can legitimately question the transmitted story of Cape Ann. I believe we should try to make that story whole and get it right. So, to the extent possible—for very little modern paleoanthropology, archaeology, ethnohistory, or historiography have been done for this area since World War II—I aim to set the record straighter. My main reason for writing, nevertheless, is simply to share the answers I have found to my questions—those that arose when I first saw a wigwam on my street in Champlain’s map and those that came up in the course of my research. For this kind of enlightenment, I don’t want to be an audience of just one.
Mary Ellen Lepionka, April 1, 2018
Postscript, November 2022
It’s twelve years later, and now this book has expanded far beyond Cape Ann to other cities and towns in Essex County. Every time organizations in other towns have asked me to speak about local Indigenous history, I have felt duty bound to research their particular histories to customize my presentations. This process has continually expanded and enriched my knowledge base. I have now given slide presentations to dozens of groups in communities from Reading MA to Tamworth NH. Although my most comprehensive work still pertains to Cape Ann–my home (to the extent that a history-minded anthropologist can truly belong in any one place or time)–this work is more and more becoming an Indigenous History of Essex County. Also as time has gone on, Indigenous voices, literatures, and other media have contributed vital facts and revelatory perspectives that were altogether missing from conventional histories. I have come to know Indigenous people who discovered my published work, attended one of my presentations, or responded to my queries. I acknowledge their help, grateful for their understanding and appreciation for what I am trying to do.