, Newburyport, MA

November 28, 2013

American Indians, as early Europeans saw them

As I See It
Tom McCarty

---- — This is part 2 of a Thanksgiving attempt to remind us of the Native Americans living in New England before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. The quotes that follow are of early Europeans describing, in short sound bites, the day-to-day world of the American Indians as they saw it.

“The houses were made with long young sapling trees, bended and both ends stuck into the ground. They were made round, like unto an arbor, and covered down to the ground with thick and well wrought mats, and the door was not over a yard high, made of a mat to open. … One might stand and go upright in them. ... Round about the fire they lay on mats, which are their beds … In the houses we found wooden bowls, trays and dishes, earthen pots, handbaskets made of crabshells wrought together … There was also baskets of sundry sorts, bigger and some lesser, finer and some coarser; some were curiously wrought with black and white in pretty works, and sundry other of their household stuff. We found also two or three deer’s heads ... deer’s feet stuck up in the houses, harts’ horns, and eagles’ claws, and sundry such like things there was, also two or three baskets full of parched acorns, pieces of fish, and a piece of a broiled herring. Some of the best things we took away with us, and left the houses standing still as they were.” Edward Winslow, describing the first Indian home the Pilgrims encountered on Cape Cod

[The houses,] deny entrance to any drop of raine, though it come both fierce and long, neither can the piercing North winde finde a crannie, through which he can conveigh his cooling breath. ... They be warmer than our English houses …These bee such smoakie dwellings, that when there is good fires, they are not able to stand upright, but lie all along under the smoake.” William Wood, 1634

Women, “In winter time they are their husbands Caterers, trudging to the Clamm bankes for their belly timber, and their Porters to lugge home their Venison. They likewise sew their husbands shooes, and weave coates of Turkic feathers, besides all their ordinary household drudgerie which daily lies upon them.” William Wood, 1634

Women “must dive sometimes over head and eares for a Lobster, which often shakes them by their hands with a churlish nippe …The tide being spent, they trudge home two or three miles, with a hundred weight of Lobsters at their backs.” Roger Williams, 1643

“They keep themselves well principally in Summer by the use of hot rooms and sweat boxes, and by the bath. They also use massage, afterwards rubbing the whole body with seal oil. Jesuit missionary, Maine, 1614

“They have great meetings of foot-ball playing, only in summer, town against town, upon some broad sandy shore…at which they have great stakings [gambling], but seldom quarrel.” Roger Williams, 1643

“I have known many of them run between fourscore or an hundred miles in a summer’s day, and back within two days.” William Wood, 1634

Canoes “Some I have seen will carry twenty persons, being forty or fifty feet in length, and as broad as the tree will bear.” Daniel Gookin, 1676

“For wiping their hands they use the shaggy back of a dog, also powder of rotten wood. The last-named is used by mothers, in the place of wash-cloths, to clean the dirt from their infants.” Jesuit missionary, Maine, 1614

“They think that he the Great Spirit made the earth and all that it contains for the common good of mankind; when he stocked the country that he gave them with plenty of game, it was not for the benefit of a few, but of all.” John Heckewelder, 1800

“They deny not that Englishman’s God made Englishmen, and the heavens and earth there; yet their Gods made them, and the heaven and earth where they dwell.” Roger Williams, 1634

“I passed alongst the Coast where I found some ancient Plantations, not long since populous now utterly void; in other places a remnant remaines, but not free of sicknesse. Their disease the Plague, … When I arrived at my Savages native Country finding all dead I travelled almost a daies journey Westward, to a place called Nummastaquyt.” Thomas Dermer, 1620, Coast of Massachusetts

Where they go “When they dye, they will tell you by pointing with their finger to Heaven beyond the White mountains.” John Josselyn, 1675


Tom McCarty lives in Newburyport.