Deer Island: A History of Human Tragedy Remembered

Julianne Jennings

In October, 1675 (Just five months after the start of the King Philip’s War, 1675-1676) some 500 Nipmucks from what is now South Natick were forcibly removed to Deer Island, a barren strip of land off Boston Harbor, as a concentration camp for Indians (later it would become a holding area for Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine (1800s), a major hospital (1847), a prison (c. 1882-1988), and now a wastewater treatment facility and national park), was established by the Massachusetts Council that same year. King Philip’s War, or Metacomet’s Revenge, as it came to be known, was the first large-scale military aggression in the American colonies and the bloodiest conflict between settlers and Indians in 17th century Puritan New England. Without adequate food, clothing, shelter or medicine, the pro-English Algonquian coverts, who had been converted to Christianity by the zealous Congregationalist minister from Roxbury named John Elliot, half of the Indians confined on the Island died of starvation or exposure during their imprisonment; when John Eliot visited them in December, he could only report with horror, “The Island was bleak and cold, their wigwams poor and mean, their clothes few and thin.” These were the same Indians who once welcomed the English in 1621 with their Sachem, Massasoit.

In the years prior to King Philip’s War, Eliot worked with his devoted teacher (and servant of 35 years) Job Nesutan to learn the language. Later, Eliot worked with Nesutan and other Indians in translating the Holy Bible into the local Natick dialect of Massachusett or Massachusêuck (first published in 1663 at Harvard University); had taught hundreds of Indians to read and write; and had established fourteen “praying towns,” Indian settlements built as Christian communities.

The first and largest was Natick, Massachusetts. Eliot took seriously his goal of conversion. He was convinced that only by being able to communicate with Native people in their own language could he achieve the goal of spreading Christianity; prompting greater migrations of English to come to New England’s rocky shores as Indians were becoming more “civilized” as a result.

However, from the very start of the war, the new English colonists became fearful of Eliot’s converts joining Philip’s reign of terror. Convinced of these fears, the Massachusetts Council ordered all Christian Indians to be barged down the Charles River in shackles and incarcerated on the island for the duration of the war. It was also known that slavers came to steal Indians off Deer Island to engage in the lucrative trade of human trafficking in Barbados or Jamaica.

But after enduring decades of fraudulent land deals, Massasoit’s son, Philip, determined to wage war to oust the colonists from New England and push them back over the sea from whence they came. He nearly succeeded. Beginning in June of 1675, not only Wampanoags, but Narragansetts, Nipmucks, and Pocumtucks rallied behind Philip to destroy the English.

To Puritan minister Increase Mather it seemed that the Indians had “risen almost round the country,” torching one town after the other. Before the final shots were fired over half of all the English settlements in New England—everything west of Concord—had been laid waste. As Boston merchant Nathaniel Saltonstall explained in a letter to a friend in London, “Nothing could be expected but an utter desolation.” Philip’s Indians attacked and destroyed 25 frontier settlements: Andover, Bridgewater, Chelmsford, Cumberland, Groton, Lancaster, Longmeadow, Marlborough, Medfield, Medford, Millis, Plymouth, Portland, Providence, Rehoboth, Scituate, Seekonk, Simsbury, Springfield, Sudbury, Suffield, Warwick, Weymouth, and Wrentham, including what is modern-day Plainville.

The war ended with Metocomet’s death, August 12, 1676 with 600 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans dead, including several hundred native captives who were tried and executed; others were enslaved and sold in Bermuda and elsewhere. The Deer Island prisoners were released, and over half of the Indians confined to the Island had died, others too sick to enjoy their liberty for long.

Almost 400 years have passed as we remember this tragic point in our collective history. The Deer Island Memorial Committee, headed by Executive Director Jim Peters, Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, along with other committee members, had issued an RFP to create a memorial commemorating the Nipmuc Indians who died there. Lloyd Gray (Mohawk) has been contracted to create the memorial. It is anticipated that there will be a ceremony as part of the unveiling during the last weekend in October, 2013. It will be a time for reflection, commemoration and healing. In the language of Eliot’s Praying Indians, “Ayeuhteáüash,” we stand firm (strong); and will continue to do so.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.










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