The Algonquian and English Roots of Natick

The familiar story is that the town of Natick was founded in 1651 by Reverend John Eliot, a Puritan Minister, and a group of “Praying Indians.” Eliot led a remarkable life. So, too, did the many prominent Algonquian people—representing several tribes, including the Nipmuc, Massachusett, and Wampanoag—who worked with him in Natick and beyond.

In spring 1651, Eliot and Waban, an Algonquian leader in Nonantum (now Newton), collaborated to find a new, secure place to live. After fruitless searching, Eliot wrote, “the Indians in our company described a place to me.” That place would become Natick, a hospitable bend of the Charles River. Waban, a successful trader and Eliot’s first Christian convert, supported Eliot’s mission. Waban and Eliot were friends for life.

The General Court of Massachusetts eventually granted 6,000 acres to establish Natick as the first “Praying Town.” Eliot initially agreed on a land transfer from an Algonquian man named John Speen, who owned prime land at the site. Eliot also established good working relationships with the Pegan family who lived on the south side of the Charles River, led by Thomas Pegan Sr. Soon after the town was established, an Algonquian schoolmaster, Monequassun, was leading native teachers to educate the children of the first inhabitants.

Eliot decided he had to learn the Algonquian language to pursue his missionary efforts, and two talented men helped him. Cockenoe, a Montauk, lived in Eliot’s home; Cockenoe became fluent in English, and Eliot learned his Algonquian language. Job Nesutan, a Massachusett, was Eliot’s interpreter and co-translator in the great work of printing the Geneva bible in the Algonquian language—Puritan churchmen believed it was essential for Christians to be able to read the bible.

 
 

Besides the Algonquian (Eliot) Bible (two editions were printed, in 1663 and 1685), Eliot and several Algonquian men worked together to produce an Algonquian-language primer and catechism. John Sassamon, who had studied at Harvard College with Eliot’s son, and James the Printer, a Nipmuc, had primary roles in the translation and printing work: Eliot recalled that James was the only one who was able to “compose the sheets and correct the press with understanding.”

Title page of Algonquian (Eliot) Bible (1685, 2nd ed.) in the Natick History Museum.

Title page of Algonquian (Eliot) Bible (1685, 2nd ed.) in the Natick History Museum.

Natick initially prospered under the leadership of Waban and others. Eliot continued his bi-weekly preaching in the first meetinghouse, and he channeled continuing material support to the “Praying Indians,” but he never lived in Natick. He went on to help establish more than a dozen other “Praying Towns” in eastern and central Massachusetts, but his primary responsibility was in Roxbury, where he was first the teaching elder and then pastor of The First Church of Roxbury for almost 60 years.

Before he died in 1690 Eliot ordained Daniel Takawambpait as the first American Indian minister, and entrusted what remained of the Natick church to him. Takawambpait was revered by his congregation, who gave him a unique carved lectern that is a rare and early example of English-style furniture made by American Indian people (it’s on display in the Natick History Museum).

  

Selected sources and additional reading:

Natick Historical Society collections.

Also:

O’Brien, Jean M. Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Mandell, Daniel R. King Philip’s War: Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Brooks, Lisa. Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.

Bacon, Oliver N. A History of Natick, From Its First Settlement in 1651 to the Present Time; With Notices of the First White Families. Boston: Damrell & Moore, Printers, 16 Devonshire Street, 1856.

Morley, James W. From Many Backgrounds: The Heritage of the Eliot Church of South Natick. South Natick, MA: The Natick Historical Society, 2007.