The Algonquian and English Roots of Natick

Rev. John Eliot, undated, unknown artist (courtesy of Huntington Library)

Rev. John Eliot, undated, unknown artist (courtesy of Huntington Library)

The familiar story is that the town of Natick was founded in 1651 by Reverend John Eliot, a Puritan Minister, supported by English missionaries to establish “praying towns” with the endeavor to dislocate the Natives from their traditional lifeways and immerse them in an Anglicized way of life, including modes of dress, Christian worship, and labor. For more than 20 years, Eliot taught and preached in Natick to the Algonquian people—representing several tribes, including the Nipmuc, Massachusett, and Wampanoag.

In the spring of 1651, Eliot collaborated with Waban, an Algonquian leader in Nonantum (now Newton), 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 learned the Algonquian language to pursue his missionary efforts, and two talented men helped him. Cockenoe, a Montauk, who lived in Eliot’s home, became fluent in English and taught Eliot his Algonquian language. Job Nesutan, a Massachusett, served as 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 Natives to access the Christian Scripture in their own language.

In addition to the Algonquian 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 Wowaus, a Nipmuc—known as James of Hassanamesitt, had primary roles in the translation and printing work. Eliot recalled that James who worked as a “press man”, was the only one who was able to “compose the sheets and correct the press with understanding.”

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.

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.

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

DeLucia, Christine M. Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast. Yale University Press, 2018.

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.

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

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

EliotBibleTitlePage_1685edition_150zoom.jpg

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