The First Inhabitants Of Marblehead
by Donald A. Doliber

Algonquin groups of "slim, strong-limbed" Native American inhabitants first occupied Marblehead long before contact with the first European settlers. Excavations of the Devereux Beach-Gilbert Heights area and of the "Indian Hollow" area located near the Lead Mills (Marblehead/Salem line on Lafayette Street) indicate that those large locations were the sites of numerous Late Archaic (circa 3000-1000 B.C.E.) [Author's note: Historians today use B.C.E. to represent "Before Common Era" and C.E. to represent "Common Era" instead of the older B.C. or A. D. terminology.] Native American encampments. A realistic estimate of the local Native American population for that period is roughly one to two thousand people. Projectile arrow points, flat fire stones, and rough stone tools which have been unearthed tell us that the hunting of deer and large land mammals plus the gathering of wild plant foods occupied the daily life of those early settlers. The Atlantic Avenue excavations in the field near the Glover Farm uncovered the small burned human bone fragments of at least forty inhabitants plus stone artifacts. Those cremated remains reflect the open air or cremation, burial customs of that early era.

In the Woodland period (1000 B.C.E. -- 1500 C.E) the depletion of large game and the forests for firewood caused those tribes to develop seasonal rounds in order to survive. Summer villages in Marblehead focused around an agrarian life of maize and squash hoe cultivation, the harvesting of ocean fish and shellfish, and the hunting of waterfowl. The search for larger animals required hunting parties to go inland at other times of the year. Their weapons included bows and arrows and spears. William Wood (New England's Prospect) recorded in 1634: "It grieves them more to see an Englishman take one deere, than a thousand acres of land." In the fall, lands were burned over to encourage better growth of crops the next season and as the winter approached, the tribes moved fifteen miles to the heavy forests populated by large animals.

Further excavations of the earlier areas as well as locations at Waterside Cemetery, Legg's Hill, Naugus Head, Wyman Woods (the location of fifty to sixty foot long shell heaps), the Atlantic Avenue hills, Village Street, Maverick Street, and the Pond Street areas have produced clay pottery sherds, fluted points, stone celts, sinkers, hatchets, awls, spear points, bone implements, shell bracelets and rings, and polished and grooved axes. A most rare and unusual three-inch "boatstone" shaped like a small canoe carved with serpentine designs was uncovered at the Devereux site. Many of these artifacts are housed at the Amherst College Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, and at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The rocky gray hornblende granite and diorite coast of Marblehead Neck provided the quarrying of stone weapons and tools. Many of these Marblehead implements were traded with other Massachusetts tribes.

In the contact period with the early European settlers (1000-1650), Native American orderly life was permanently changed by tribal warfare and by disease. By that time, the tribes were formed into the loose Massachusetts Confederation under the "Great Sachem" Nanepashemet. A disastrous war with the Maine Tarrantine tribe (1615-1619) led to Nanepashemet's death at Saugus in 1619. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, an early colonizer of New England, described this slaughter as "too horrible to be spoken of." To protect the remaining Marblehead villages, two large palisade stockades (one at Waterside Cemetery of twenty-five acres and the other at the area of the Glover School-fifty-two feet long) and smaller stockades located on the Pond Street hills were constructed as defense from coastal attack.

A massive decline in tribal population came after the epidemic of 1615-1619. It is believed that it was caused by smallpox. The area's few European settlers, having developed immunity, were untouched by the disease. Some historians feel that as many as eighty to ninety per cent of the local tribes died in that one epidemic. Village members were unable to bury the dead or feed the living. Early explorers described the Salem-Marblehead area as one of deserted bark houses, unharvested fields, and scattered human skulls and bones.

Shortly after Nanepashemet's death, his widow "The Squaw-Sachem" divided the area among her three sons: Wonohaguaham (later called Sagamore John), Sachem of Winnisimet, controlled what is now Charlestown, Revere, Winthrop, and Chelsea; Montowampate (later called Sagamore James), Sachem of Saugus, controlled the Saugus, Lynn and Marblehead areas; and Wenepoykin (later called Sagamore George), Sachem of Naumkeag, controlled the Salem-Beverly area. Because of need for protection from their enemies and a clear desire for friendship, these tribes welcomed and lived in peace with the English settlers for many years.

In 1631, a coastal invasion by the warring Maine tribes led to an attack on the North Shore tribes, wounding and killing many inhabitants. According to oral tradition, Montowampate was wounded during this invasion while visiting his cousin, Masconomo, Sachem of Agawam. Another smallpox epidemic, this one in 1633, further diminished the remaining Native American tribes in the area. Samuel Roads in his History and Traditions of Marblehead, indicated that that year, Moses Maverick gave "Christian burial to at least thirty in one day." Montowampate, Sachem of Saugus, and Wonohauguaham, Sachem of Winnisimet, both died in that plague. Most of the burial excavations at Village Street, Waterside Cemetery, Naugus Head, and the Gatchell Farm areas were remains from that time period. The remaining son, Wenepoykin, Sachem of Naumkeag, and his wife, Ahawayet (daughter of Passaconaway, the mighty Sachem of Pawtucket), consolidated the lands and tribes into one group.

By 1640, Wenepoykin sold title to the lands at Wakefield, Reading, and North Reading for fifty pounds. In 1651, he requested unsuccessfully that the General Court of Massachusetts grant him payment for all lands taken from his tribe. In King Philip's War of 1675, Wenepoykin moved his family for their protection to the "Indian Praying" village at Wamesit (Chelmsford) and then he joined King Philip's army. Because of his involvement in the war, his capture led to enslavement in Barbadoes from 1675 -1683. After his return to Massachusetts in 1683, he lived with his nephew Muminquash (called James Rumneymarsh or James Quannapowit) in Natick until his death in 1684.

Upon his uncle's death, all lands belonging to Wenepoykin passed to James Quannapowit. At a meeting of the commoners and proprietors of Marblehead on July 14, 1684, he laid claim to all lands in Marblehead and argued that the town was giving out land that rightfully belonged to him. A committee composed of Moses Maverick, John Devereux, Captain Samuel Ward, Theodore Riddan, William Beale, Thomas Pitman, Richard Reed, and Nathaniel Walton plus the Selectmen found in favor of James Quannapowit's title claim. The committee empowered Ward and Devereux to negotiate "reasonable terms" and to obtain a lawful deed of sale. Developing poltical problems with the English government over the colony's charter, claims of royal land ownership, Quannapowit's seemingly clear legal claim, and memories of the all-too-recent war with King Philip were excellent reasons to enter into a rapid settlement. On September 16, 1684, a deed of sale was marked and signed by the rightful heirs of Nanepashemet: James Quannapowit (his grandson); Ahawayet (his daughter-in-law); Sarah and Susannah Wenepoykin (his granddaughters); Israel and Joan Quannapowit, David Nonoponowgo, and Jonathan Tonotuoughoqione (his great-grandchildren). The township of three thousand seven hundred acres was sold for sixteen pounds, current money of New England, and the deed was duly registered in Essex County. Except for the occasional migratory Native Americans, Marblehead never again saw the proud descendants of Nanepashemet.

Don Doliber, a tenth generation Marbleheader, is the Assistant Principal of Masconomet Regional High School in Boxford. In 1982 he was named Outstanding American History Teacher in the United States. He served on the 350th Anniversary Committee celebration commemorating the founding of Marblehead (1629-1979). In 1999, he served as Co-Chairman for the 350th Incorporation Anniversary Committee commemorating Marblehead's incorporation as a town in 1649.