History of Cape Ann Preface

Agawam and Wenesquawam: A History of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, from the Last Ice Age to 1750


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 Native Americans 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 Indians 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 Native American artifacts are not exhibited) and a brief social studies unit on Native Americans 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 a mysterious virgin soil epidemic. 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, an Abenaki-speaking people of northern New England.

Yikes! Next, I obtained 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, all the other humanities—in fact, everything.

My little curriculum soon expanded to five notebooks filled with information from downloaded primary source texts and images; 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 Native 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 they expected, and I was not invited back.

More important, 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 Native life here.

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 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 14,000 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 Indians here on 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 Native American history, the history of contact, and the origins of English communities on Cape Ann. 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, which may not need all the notes and references I’ve carefully tried to include. 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 that 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) and contains contradictory timelines, factual errors, curious omissions, and debatable interpretations. Those stories have been repeated, conflated, and compounded over the generations and, where there is any awareness at all, seem to have set like concrete in the collective mind. This is too bad but not surprising. National, ethnic, civic, class, political, religious, intellectual, and personal pride or conviction are known to have distorted historical interpretations in all times and places. The story of Cape Ann is no exception.

Essex County’s old 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 Period. 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 campaigns—for example, Rockport after his Turkish slavemistress Tragabigzanda, and the Turks’ Head Islands after the three heads he 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 Cape Ann Indians 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 little modern paleoanthropology, archaeology, ethnohistory, or historiography has been done for Cape Ann 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 didn’t want to be an audience of just one.

Mary Ellen Lepionka,  April 1, 2018

CHAPTER 1  What do our Algonquian place names really mean?


CHAPTER 1  What do our

Algonquian place names really mean?

 The Native Americans who lived on Cape Ann most recently, known as the Pawtucket, were also called the Agawam and the Wamesit by colonists and early historians. All three names refer to places—villages—rather than to people or territories, however, and they were all the same people. Confusion over group names arose partly because the Algonquians of New England usually referred to themselves simply as belonging to a village, or as “the people”(Ninnu) or “the real/original people” of whatever place or landscape they were in at a given time (Ninnuock, “the people here”). Place names usually were not unique, furthermore, but could apply to any location where the landscape had the same geographic or ecological features. There are other places called Agawam and Pawtucket, for example. People understood from local context the particular place of the same name that was being referred to. Another source of confusion in Algonquian place names is European observers’ mistakes in hearing, transcribing, and translating the words.1

In Essex County, most translations of Pawtucket place names we have today are not correct. One reason is that linguists have theorized on the basis of the wrong languages—John Winthrop’s notes on Pokanoket, for example, or Roger Williams’s dictionary of Narraganset, John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Massachuset, John Trumbull’s dictionary for Natick, and later linguists’ work, for example on Delaware and Wampanoag. However, the Pawtucket of Essex County originally came from New Hampshire and southern Maine and spoke a different language, a dialect of Western Abenaki. Abenaki-derived languages thought to have become extinct include Nipmuc and Pennacook, known as Loup languages (Loup A and Loup B) in French ethnographic terms. It is unlikely that the Pawtucket knew the languages of southern New England except as needed for trade and alliance. Early explorers observed as much.2


  Another reason that we have incorrect translations is that in writing Algonquian words Europeans not only did not understand the intricate grammar but also had difficulty speaking and transcribing phonetically the unfamiliar sound combinations they were hearing. Algonquian word order is object-subject-verb, Yoda-like, and pluralization is accomplished by a k sound in the middle of a word for singular, and g sound for plural (e.g., wikwam, wigwam). Algonquian languages are highly nasalized and include glottal stops, for example, which French, Dutch, and English speakers transcribed variously and inconsistently as /qu/, /k/, /g/, or /’/, making it difficult to know from transcriptions exactly how Algonquian speakers pronounced words. (A chapter appendix offers a pronunciation guide for saying Algonquian names.) In using present-day reconstructions of Abenaki dialects to analyze Pawtucket words and introduce new translations, my work departs from a large body of earlier linguistic research.3

Colonial observers who met “the people” at Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River between Lowell and Lawrence, where they gathered in spring in large numbers to harvest river herring, or alewives, called them the Pawtucket. This history chooses that term to refer to the Native Americans who occupied Cape Ann and the rest of Essex County during the last thousand years or so. Pawtucket or Pautukit means “At the falls on the tidal river”, in this case referring to the Merrimack (Abenaki Molodemak). The people fished there in April en route from the winter village of Wamesit to their summer camps and villages on the shores of Essex County. Pawtucket is a place name in other areas as well, notably Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which topographically is also on the Atlantic fall line. (Pawtuxet, with the diminutive /s/ sound in the middle, referring to another site in Massachusetts, means “At the falls on the small tidal river”).4

Pawtucket Falls near Lowell, MA

The fall line marks the drop in elevation between the Appalachian piedmont and the coastal plain all along the Atlantic seaboard. To Native Americans the fall line represented the place on tidal rivers and streams where fresh water and salt water meet, an optimal site for fishing and the location of many villages. In New England topography and Pawtucket place names, the histories of Native Americans and Europeans intertwine, and these intertwined stories move forward and backward together in time. River sites had economic importance for both groups. River junctions where natives camped or erected villages became the sites of the first colonial trading posts, for example, and falls where the people fished became the sites of the first watermills.5

The Atlantic Fall Line

Cities of the East are located along the Atlantic Fall Line, which extends from Alabama to the Canadian Maritimes. Native American villages and the earliest European settlements also were sited on falls, which often required portages to travel further inland by water. On the North Shore of Massachusetts the fall line is near the ocean, with the coastal plain broadening to the south.

Colonists who encountered “the people” in their permanent winter village of Wamesit (Wah me sit) in what is now Lowell at the junction of the Merrimack and Concord rivers, (which was part of Chelmsford, Billerica, and Dracut in colonial times), called them the Wamesit after the name of their village of around 2,500 acres. Wamesit (also Wamoset) was said to mean “Here is space for all”, referring to all the people who otherwise lived on the coastal saltmarshes. Wam (or wamph) was the root for “submerged land” or “land overflowed with water”. Agawam, referring both to a Pawtucket village on Castle Neck River in Ipswich and the larger territory of which it was a part, means “Other side of the marsh,” and WenesquawamWonasquam on old maps and the name from which Annisquam is derived—means “End of the marsh.”6

Wamesit Village Today

Today, the site of the Pawtucket village of Wamesit is partly buried under a Home Depot but otherwise remains largely undeveloped, framed by rock piles and overgrown with new forest.






The marsh referred to is the Great Salt Marsh that stretches down the Gulf of Maine from Hampton, NH to Cape Ann. In present-day reconstructed Abenaki, the “End of the marsh” name for Cape Ann would be written as Wanaskwiwam. Because of the nature of Algonquian place name construction, places are purely descriptive of the environment or its resources and thus are not uniquely named. There are other places named Agawam, for example, and Wamesit is also a present-day place name for a neighborhood in nearby Tewksbury, a street in Billerica, and a town near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.7

The village of Kwaskwaikikwen (Newbury, West Newbury, and Newburyport) was in the north of the area outlined in red. The village of Agawam was in Ipswich on the other side of the marsh, and the village of Wanaskwiwam was in Gloucester at the end of the marsh.

The English settlers who encountered the Pawtucket in Ipswich, Essex, and Cape Ann in the summers called them the Agawam Indians, a term still used today. Agawam is also a place name on colonial maps for an area that encompasses Gloucester and Rockport and the rest of eastern Essex County, including Manchester, Beverly, Essex, Ipswich, Hamilton, Wenham, Rowley, Georgetown, Topsfield, Boxford, Newbury, and Newburyport. The last recorded Contact-era sagamore of Agawam, whom the colonists called Masconomet or Masconomo and later Sagamore John, and his descendants signed over the deeds to these towns. This history thus is incomplete without the local histories of these other towns and beyond, for they were all part of the Pawtucket story.8