Peter Golden
On the thousands of acres surrounding the Sawin House, the Praying Indians of Natick farmed on land reserved for their exclusive use.

A House Divided in Praying Indian Town

Christina Rose
1/10/14

A house on the site of the first Praying Indian Town, in Natick, Massachusetts, was built on the original homelands of the Nipmuc. Today, different parties, many non-Native, are debating the future of the house, each for their own reasons.

In 1651, Thomas Sawin was the only white man invited by local tribes to live in Natick to build and operate a gristmill. George Sawin, his descendant, believes the ancient sycamore trees were planted around the house by the Natives who welcomed him.

In continuous operation from the last decade of the 17th century until 1927, the Sawin Mill dam still holds back the waters of Indian Brook in South Natick. (Peter Golden)

Natick was the first Praying Indian Town established solely for Natives of the area who chose to take on the ways of the English, which required dressing and acting like British subjects, cutting their hair and following Christianity.

At the time, Metacomet, also known as King Philip, sachem of the Pokanoket and grand sachem of the Wampanoag, had grown tired of seeing his way of life being pushed aside. The local tribes were being forced to sell their land, and many had already died from diseases brought by the Europeans. As the population of pilgrims grew, they began to impose their laws on the tribes, completely disregarding the sovereignty of the Natives.

From 1675 to 1676, he launched a series of attacks against the Euro-Americans, and he was highly successful. Of course, the English retaliated.

The Praying Indians of Natick fought against King Philip, but mistrust filled the heads of the settlers who feared the Praying Indians would switch their alliances. On October 30, 1675, the Praying Indians were rounded up and shipped out to Deer Island in the Boston Harbor without provisions. Many perished in the winter from cold and starvation, and of the 500 brought to the island, less than half survived.

Pam Ellis, Tribal Historian and Preservation Officer for the Natick Nipmucs, feels that to preserve the Sawin property only honors a colonized perspective, and she believes it is time to reframe the narrative. “The Sawin house is not about the Native community. The Sawins were invited to come and establish a mill there. There may have been an early interest in establishing friendships with English, but it is only one piece of the story.”

Across an old meadow and surrounded by ancient sycamore trees, the Sawin House still stands in South Natick. (Peter Golden)

For the Nipmuc tribe, the story of Natick is about racism, genocide, and dispossession of the land, Ellis said. “During King Philip’s War, they were shackled, taken by horse cart to Watertown and loaded into canoes. Then they were loaded onto three ships and left on Deer Island even though they swore they would not participate in King Philip’s War,” she said. “About 500 were sent out without food, clothing, medicine, or any means to take care of themselves, and during the harsh winter months, more than half died.”

RELATED: New England’s Second Colonial Armed Conflict: King Philip’s War Remembered

Today the future of the Sawin house, the last standing structure from the Praying Town of Natick, is teetering on the edge. “The Audubon owns the house and want to tear it down,” said Adam Shipman, of the Natick Historical Society. “It is not in their mission and it is a lot to keep up. As a historic property and from a preservation point of view, there are better properties in town.”

For Peter Golden, Natick historian, there is more to the story than meets the eye. “I think about it almost everyday,” Golden said. “That house is a gateway into memory. It represents the relationship, and the breaking of the relationship, and the outcome for the Praying Indians as a result of King Philip’s War.”

Peter Golden is a local historian who seeks to protect the Sawin house and feels the house is a critical reminder of the events that took place for the Natick Praying Indians. (Peter Golden)

The consensus of the Natick Nipmuc Indian Council is: “We wish them well in their efforts to preserve this house. The reason we have not embraced or actively supported this issue is because it doesn’t line up with our preservation history or interest,” Ellis said, adding that current preservation efforts include repatriation of ancestors remains and stolen cultural objects, physical and cultural survival, and reclaiming their language.

“For us, we seek to entirely reframe historic preservation to one that values the history of Natick people,” Ellis said, adding that even the name “Praying Indians” is somewhat offensive. “We believe our people were prayerful before the missionaries came. We believe moving into the English-type towns was an experiment for their safety and survival.”

While everyone interviewed agreed that Massachusetts history has largely ignored Native input, Naticksqw Chief Caring Hands, a descendant of those sent to Deer Island, felt there was an aspect she cannot ignore.

“Two years ago, I was given a tour of the property by George Sawin,” Caring Hands said. “Here he was, the descendant of Thomas Sawin and here I was, descendant of the Praying Indians. I walked on a path along the water and he showed me where my people ground their corn. There were big discs, and one of the grinding stones. I could feel the land greeting me—I could feel my people. I could close my eyes and feel I was there with my people. I could feel what had happened, the link between the starving and the abundance. Here we have the man and his homestead, and we have the people with the relationship with the land who are able to stand and see that. It is Sawin’s response and my response to see that. For whatever else people think it is, it is deeper.”

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