We The Petitioners: Rewriting the History of Massachusetts's Native Americans

The Harvard Crimson
October 6, 2016
By Ben Cort

A grey concrete bastion looms large over Boston Harbor. Built to resemble a naval fortress, the Massachusetts State Archives sits on a quiet jut of land by the sea. Inside its vaults lie a trove of government documents dating as far back as the colonial era.

The centerpiece of the archives, open to the visiting public, is the reading room. Its architecture feels modern, but its contents range from old to ancient. The white concrete ceiling slopes to a gentle dome above the heads of the researchers, most of whom are busying themselves with yellowed scraps of paper. The walls on the first floor and the balcony above are lined with card catalogues, cabinets full of microfilm canisters, and the machines required to read the film.

In the darkest corner, tucked away from the quiet ruffling of old paper and the soft scratching of pencils, you’ll likely find Nicole Topich, her eyes glued to the screen of a microfilm machine. Her hand turns the crank, flicking from one page to another, until she finds one that catches her fancy. The script on the paper, a bright white against the film’s deep blue background, is nearly illegible, but she seems to understand it. She briefly pauses to take a flurry of notes, and then resumes her search.

Topich is an archivist for the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. In January 2016, Topich’s boss, Dan Carpenter, the Director of Social Sciences at the Radcliffe Institute, received a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to digitize petitions written by and concerning Native Americans in Massachusetts.

Carpenter sees the petition as a unique intersection between the lives of ordinary people and the lives of the elite. Petitions not only document the grievances of often-marginalized peoples, but also show those people engaging directly in the democratic process.

As many Massachusetts tribes passed on their history through oral, rather than written, records, the accounts of white colonists (including Harvard University ministers Cotton Mather and John Eliot) have long dominated the historical record. This imbalance of sources has led to a particular retelling of Massachusetts’ Native American history that often excludes native voices.

These petitions, constituting a vast archive of native perspectives, have the potential to transform our understanding of an era. They record the voices of native peoples who were active participants in the American democracy, even as that democracy robbed them of land and rights. In fact, although he is not ready to put numbers to his hunch, Carpenter believes that Native Americans were the most prolific petitioners of the 19th century, “perhaps more than any other population or subpopulation in the United States at the dawn of the Republic.”

Carpenter and his colleagues want to restore the ownership of this historical narrative to native hands. An integral aspect of this project lies in partnering with local tribes to curate the digital archive of petitions.

“[The Mashpee-Wampanoag] are considered a tribal nation, and as a nation, just like any other nation, they should be able to steward their own history,” Stephen R. Curley, the archivist for the Massachusetts Mashpee-Wampanoag tribe, says. “An archive is really making history possible.”

What Archivists Do

A petition includes two parts: the “prayer” (a grievance or request) and a list of signatures. Before beginning their current endeavor, Carpenter worked with Topich to collect and digitize anti-slavery petitions. For that project, they created the website yourhumblepetitioners.com, which contains a “dataverse” where researchers can sort through petitions by date, keyword, and geographical location.

While trawling through the archives, Topich and Carpenter noticed a wealth of petitions concerning Native American rights and property. While the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP) and Radcliffe collaborated this year on studies of Native American politics, Carpenter and Topich set out to collect and digitize these documents. 

The project is concerned with petitions contained within the Massachusetts Archives Collection. Unfortunately, researchers cannot simply look up “Native American Petitions” in the card catalogue and ask Nick, the gangly archives intern, to pull the indicated boxes from the vault. Relevant material is scattered throughout all of the collection’s 328 volumes, and Topich must scan through each one with a fine comb. “She has really been able to pull things together, in a way that we’ve tried, over the year,” Martha L. Clark, the curator of the Massachusetts State Archives, says. “We haven’t had the resources to allow one person to sit and just spend the entire day reading the Mass Archives.”

“Entire day” is no exaggeration. While she maintains a scant office in Radcliffe Yard, Topich rises at 4 a.m. most days to get to the archives, which are a bus ride away from the JFK/UMass Red Line T Station. She arrives by 6:40 a.m., and works until the building closes at 4:30 p.m.

“When I go to late events at Harvard, I have to be like, ‘I’m really tired. Please let me go home,’” she says, rarely speaking without a smile gracing her lips, regardless of topic. Eminently helpful, she recently spent eight hours on a Saturday to answer an email request, sending a researcher every document she could find about people of color in the Plymouth area. She did not receive a thank-you in return.

Some of the petitions that Topic has unearthed had remained hidden in the archives since the colonial period. “We thought we were... making materials available that people had already studied,” says Topich. “Actually, there were tons of documents that people hadn’t studied.”

Hear Their Voices

Topich perches on a stool in the basement of Widener, outside of the main floor of the Harvard Library’s digitization lab. The walls are lined with open cubicles, where stoically focused technicians pilot sleek black machines with gas-powered foot pedals. With impressive efficiency, they press documents under plates of glass and snap photos with cameras mounted high above them.

Topich is performing quality control. She checks the scans of the documents against the originals, verifying that they have captured the full text of the petitions. Today, she reviews a batch of documents from King Philip’s War, a conflict between the English and the Wampanoag tribe that lasted from 1675 to 1676.

At the time, the Puritans were aggressively expanding into the tribe’s land and assimilating the natives into the fold of Christian and English culture. In 1675, three Wampanoags were hanged for the murder of John Sassamon, a Harvard graduate and Christian Indian who tried to warn the governor of Plymouth of the tribe’s intention to wage war. Shortly thereafter, Wampanoag warriors razed the town of Swansea, thrusting the colonists and natives into a bloody conflict.

Though the war was devastating for both sides, it had profound and long-lasting consequences for the Wampanoags and other tribes. The Wampanoag lost 40 percent of their population; following the war, the English aggressively repressed Massachusetts natives, even those who had fought alongside them. They relocated their Christian Indian allies and sold many of the defeated Wampanoags into slavery.

The majority of surviving records of King Philip’s War are the accounts of the English victors. Gory tales of battle and savagery were popular back in Europe, and many newspapers gobbled up settlers’ accounts of the war. These accounts relished the so-called brutality of the Native Americans, both allied and enemy, describing vicious acts of war and ritual executions. When Nathaniel Saltonstall, a colonial judge, reported the losses the colonists had suffered, he wrote that “many have been destroyed with exquisite torments and most inhuman barbarities; the heathen rarely giving quarter to those that they take.” Following this is a list of gruesome specifics.

Many of the documents Topich peruses today are military records, such as requests from frontier towns for additional garrisons of soldiers or aid for captured prisoners. Such documents may help scholars understand the nature of the war, but more importantly, Topich says that the cache of records contains writings from Native Americans themselves.

These documents will hopefully be able to shed light on the native experiences that have previously been absent in the retelling of this narrative. “I don’t know where another archivist can find so many men and women of color and hear their voices,” Topich says.

A Cultural Investment

Carpenter is conscious that, in the past, many scholars of Native American history have ignored the needs and desires of the tribes they studied. This is why he wants to ensure that he works closely with tribal colleagues over the course of the project. So far, he’s established a working relationship with the Mashpee-Wampanoag tribe, which was federally recognized in 2007, and plans to meet with other local tribes as the project progresses.

“They want input; they want to be guiding us as we do this,” Carpenter says. “I think there are certain things that we need to be very careful about putting out in the public domain.” For example, tribes might not want the location of burial grounds widely disseminated. The tribes also aid in the interpretation and translation of the documents, some of which may be written in ancient tribal languages.

Curley, the first official archivist of the Mashpee-Wampanoag tribe, has helped Carpenter’s team navigate these issues as he develops the tribe’s own archive.

Curley notes that practical challenges have prevented some tribes from establishing archives. “They have to worry about other things, worry about political issues that are more tentative, and an archive is just a long-term investment which doesn’t have any sort of immediate returns.” Curley and his colleagues have pushed to establish and expand tribal archives out of the belief that they are a vital means of preserving history.

Curley himself looks forward to seeing the scholarly work that may follow the petitions’ dissemination. “Just the whole idea of the project is very progressive,” Curley says. “It’s very nuanced in terms of the historical narrative we’re used to.” Curley also believes that the petitions may help instill a sense of pride in young native people.

Small Stories

Back at the archives, Topich pulls some of the petitions on her list of notes that she has marked as particularly interesting.

The first is a request from an elderly native man for a pension from the Commonwealth. On behalf of a Revolutionary War veteran no longer able to work, a tribe member requested that the man receive an allowance. A white friend of the tribe wrote a letter of support, and on the back, he did some scratch math to check that the veteran could have indeed served in the war. 63-18=45, 1824-45=1778. He confirmed that the man’s account was indeed “veritorious [sic].” Because there was no official documentation of the man’s service, his request was denied.

The next is a petition signed by members of the Mashpee tribe, a subset of the Wampanoag that were not forced to relocate after King Philip’s War. After the Revolutionary War, roughly 100 years later, the Commonwealth revoked the tribe’s right of sovereignty, bringing in government-appointed guardians to control the tribe’s fiscal and political needs.

The guardians turned a blind eye to their concerns. Their white neighbors desired the tribe’s land and resources, and pillaged both without consequence. Missionaries, funded by the Harvard Corporation, supposedly sent to educate Christian tribespeople, largely ignored their religious mission and acquisitioned large portions of the tribe’s land for private use.

In 1833, the Mashpee launched a “peaceful revolt,” demanding to have their self-governance restored. This event is most famously recounted by William Apess, a prominent Native American writer and preacher. Apess had visited the Mashpee tribe and, sympathetic to their plight, helped the tribe’s members organize and present their grievances to the state legislature. In response, the governor of Massachusetts threatened the Mashpee with military action, and jailed Apess for a month when he helped to stop two white men from stealing the tribe’s lumber.

The petition, written by members of the Mashpee tribe, is positively scathing. It claims that public officers have misused and stolen the tribe’s land and property, and notes that the officers sent to maintain order “have for many days together been engaged in drinking frolicks.” Finally, the Mashpee accuse the officers of draining their treasury for their private use.

The petition was written in 1838, a full five years after the revolt. Clearly, the Mashpee did not regain their sovereignty.

The archives hold countless petitions both like and unlike this one, ranging from portrayals of complicated legal scenarios to simple demands for the return of land. They are isolated instances that point to much larger narratives: the history of Native American military service, the role of white government officials in the business of tribes, the misuse and theft of native lands, and more.

“What Nicole is focusing on is these petitions, but they’re just one piece among many,” J. Michael Comeau, the executive director of the State Archives, says.

“I sort of see what I’m doing as the very beginning,” Topich says. “I’m hoping that more and more will be done.”

Breathing History

As she flips through a pile of documents, Topich describes a petition that details colonial living conditions. “It mentioned someone breathing in the next room. Well, of course people in the colonial period were breathing,” she laughs. “It’s what humans do! But to see that in the record, them saying that, it’s like: Wow.”

Topich likes to trace individual people and families through their paper trails. She recently tracked a single family in the Gay Head tribe through years and years of documents. She is uncertain if her findings can be published, however. “I think people try to come up with simplistic narratives for their books or articles,” she remarks, a little sadly. “It doesn’t really fit any of those.”

For historians, it may be easy to fit these petitions into existing narrative frameworks, ones that scholars have been developing for some time. Some of those frameworks crave the addition of a native perspective, and the petitions will provide a valuable means of fleshing these out.

These petitions also contain stories seemingly less significant, but often deeply personal. In one, a mother begs to have her son returned from war; in another, a native family claims their right to land to build a house upon. All of the signatories were living, breathing citizens of this country, and the petition serves as a window into not only their concerns and desires, but also the lengths they would go to make their voices heard.

“You could write so much with this material,” says Topich as we leave. “There are thousands of stories here.”

Rewriting Native American history doesn't stop at the archives. Many students and professors are involved in fighting for Native American rights on campus. Hear their stories:

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Living the Culture: Damon J. Clark '16

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