QP Nipmuc

QP Nipmuc

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The Indians

The Nipmuc

The early Nipmuc, their customs, homes and social organizations

The Nipmuc were from the Central plateau of Massachusetts extending south into northern Rhode Island and northeast Connecticut.

Nipmuc Indians are the original people of central New England and are among the Eastern Woodlands or Algonquian Indians of the Eastern United States. All southern New England Indians spoke languages related to the Eastern Algonquian family. Speakers of one eastern Algonquian dialect could generally converse in the one spoken by their neighbors. The native language of the Nipmuc people was a dialect of the Massachusetts .

The word Nipmuc translates into English as Fresh Water People. The Nipmuc generally lived along rivers or on the shores of small lakes and seem to have occupied the area for as far back as can be told. Nipmucs did not live along the coastline of southern New England , but rather set up their villages along interior rivers, lakes and large swamps. Overland travel and communication were more difficult between areas removed from the coast or off the main waterways, but interior groups were not faced with the fierce territorial competition of coastal Tribes. Among the highly organized Tribes like the Pequot, Mohegan, Niantic, Narragansett, and Wampanoag, there was strict defense of traditional shell fishing beds and other coastal resources due to European contact . It is not surprising that the Nipmuc and other interior groups would develop a unique social and political relationship, different from coastal groups. It is likely that the Nipmuc were organized into a loose confederation or alliance of related villages. Villages or bands probably acted politically as a unit, making major decisions as a tribal unit when faced with situations on a regional scale, but these villages were predominantly independent in their daily lives and subsistence activities.

Nipmuc people lived in a dome-shamed lodge called a wetu, called wigwam by other Algonquian speaking peoples. A wetu is constructed from a frame of criss-crossing saplings bent in a u-shape, which is then covered with woven cattail mats or sheets of pealed hardwood bark, leaving a smoke hold at the top. A wetu was complete with low sleeping platforms and was big enough for an extended family to live in. Nipmucs were never exclusively nomadic hunters. Even their ancestors arranged themselves on the landscape according to a very deliberate and calculated seasonal schedule. It requires an intimate knowledge of the regional environment to know exactly when and where to move to the most abundant resources. Although large game animals were a very important food resource to Nipmucs and their ancestors in Connecticut , they were also gatherers and fishermen. In addition to the meat procured from deer and other large animals, the Nipmucs relied equally on small game and perhaps more heavily on plant and fish resources. By the time Europeans invaded, the Nipmucs were living in semi-permanent villages ( at least for a season) and were planting fundamental maize, beans, squash, etc.

The social organization of life among the Eastern Woodland Indians included the band. Bands were comprised of the people occupying a particular area who took a name and shared common interest. A tribe consisted of several bands and was a cultural as well as a political unit. Often, tribes also contained clans, whose members might include people from other communities or tribes. This was not a sophisticated system of government. Few villages were fortified, so what little warfare there was had to have been low-level. Their leaders were chiefs or sachems – positions that were often inherited. Often problems were settled at lengthy councils.

The English during the early years were careful to acquire native lands by formal purchase. The Lancaster Purchase (1643); the Tantiusque Deed (1644); and the Eliot and Brookfield Purchases (1655) steadily eroded the Nipmuc land base, but unregulated settlement (squatters) took even more. The colonists took the best farm lands in the river valleys leaving the Nipmuc – who depended heavily on agriculture – with serious problems feeding themselves.

In 1675, most of the Nipmuc joined King Philip and other hostile Indians in a war against the colonists. At the close of the war, they fled to Canada or to the Mohican and other tribes on the Hudson River .

Today there is no single organized Nipmuc Tribe. There are however, several Nipmuc groups (such as the Hassanamisco (Grafton) and Chaubunagungamaug (Webster) Bands in Massachusetts and the Wabaquasset which have survived the centuries and remain active in the Native American community.

Sources: Electronic and “Atlas of the North American Indian”, Carl Walderman

Copyright 2001 West Brookfield Historical Commission Last modified: March 15, 2008