Moving on from the Masconomet name

This article originally appeared in The Salem News.

Dear Masconomet Regional District School Committee,

Because the high school student body is 90% white, it may be difficult for you to see the problem. It’s time to remove the name Masconomet from the high school.

Your argument that “The names are always treated respectfully and viewed with respect” by the community does not inspire the kind of “Masco Pride” you sought to instill in my graduating class.

Where and how is this respect paid? Are you so attached to Native American imagery that you prefer misrepresentation over truth? Think of the 10% of non-white students and what they think of how you consider non-white history and heritage.

Martha Clark, Boxford archivist, said the reason Masconomet was chosen for the name was simply because he was a historical figure with a connection to Topfield, Boxford, and Middleton. But it’s not that simple.

The story of Chief Masconomet, the sagamore of Agawam — or chieftain of roughly today’s eastern Essex County — is usually distilled into a rosy narrative: Masconomet, the story goes, welcomed John Winthrop at Salem Harbor on friendly terms and sold his land to Winthrop’s son at bargain prices.

“Most settlers assumed that Indians had the same cultural standards and expected that any conflicts would be settled in colonial courts.”

Daniel Mandell

This narrative is largely based on the works of historians like Joseph Felt, Sidney Perley, and George Francis Dow, which are, historiographically, questionable. Colonists accustomed to European thought and action generally looked at Native Americans as though they too were European — also informing future historians’ interpretations. Historian Daniel Mandell wrote “Most settlers assumed that Indians had the same cultural standards and expected that any conflicts would be settled in colonial courts.” We view the narrative too often from the perspective of the colonists than of the Agawam.

In 1630, Masconomet introduced himself to Winthrop. Smallpox had already killed 90% of the local native population; his tribe numbered less than 100. Winthrop wrote sparingly of their meeting. Dow and Perley described Masconomet as “peaceably disposed,” but the only example they cite of Masconomet’s peaceable disposition is when, eight years later, Masconomet sold all his land to John Winthrop Jr. for “the sum of twenty pounds.” Masconomet confirmed the deal in court testimony — a document written in the hand of Winthrop Jr.

That eight-year span was a slow burn. The Agawam were caught between feuding French and English colonies, ravaged by disease, and picked off by rivals. In 1631 a band of Tarrantines raided Agawam and killed seven people. In 1633, Winthrop received word of a new French colony in Nova Scotia. To ensure the fertile farmland of Agawam would not fall into enemy hands, he sent his son there to start a plantation.

Though weakened — and, so we’re told, friendly, to the colonists — the Agawam were still considered a threat. They were forcibly disarmed; according to Felt, their firearms “having been taken from them because it was suspected that they intended to rise against the English.” He makes no mention of the intelligence that raised the suspicion in the first place.

By 1634, overcrowding around Boston prompted Winthrop to send more men to farm at Agawam. Masconomet even encouraged the English to settle his land, desperate for protection from Tarrantines, Pawtuckets, and others.

Four years later Masconomet deeded over his land. But whereas the English likened a sagamore to a monarch, he was more of a spokesman than a sovereign. He signed the deed in the legal custom of the English, to whom “The signature of one sagamore was taken as license to wrest the land from various bands,” wrote historian David Stewart-Smith. “This satisfied the English sensibilities of land ownership but may not have been in harmony with the previous native system of territorial guardianship.”

“The spirit of a person is called back when his grave is desecrated, and must roam the Earth looking for his bones.”

Gordon Harris

Finally in 1644, Masconomet submitted to colonial rule and converted to Christianity. Did he have a choice? In 1680 Rev. William Hubbard recorded that local Native American subservience “was thought to proceed more from fear of some other enemies than any love to the Christain religion.” Accepting the Christian God was merely a survival tactic.

Masconomet died in 1658 and would have had a peaceful afterlife had his skull not been dug up and carried on a pole around town, according to Ipswich historian Gordon Harris; “The spirit of a person is called back when his grave is desecrated, and must roam the Earth looking for his bones.” Only after a proper reburial can the spirit be put to rest, which for Masconomet wouldn’t be for 355 years.

His people were squeezed, exploited, and debilitated by attrition. His name on the school is a shameful reminder of how Native Americans were treated by colonists, forced to assimilate, and mocked for their traditions. Most shameful of all is the name Masconomet is used as a prop to uphold a false historical narrative by citizens who see it instead as a source of “profound pride.”


Nick DeLuca
Class of 2007

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