The First “Praying Indian” Village

 

The Algonquian Indians and Rev. John Eliot who created the first “Praying Indian Town” in Massachusetts already knew the name of the river that flowed through their chosen location. The site itself, with gentle hills at a bend in the Charles River, had no name until they made their choice.

The Algonquian people who had lived along the river for thousands of years called it Quinobequin River, signifying its “meandering” or “circular” course during its 80-mile run to the ocean at the place that would become Boston. The English adventurer John Smith explored the Massachusetts Bay in 1614, and he named it Charles River in honor of King James I of England

The river was used for fishing and transportation for thousands of years, and it was a valuable asset on the site of the new settlement.

Artist’s conception of the layout of the original “Praying Indian Town” in South Natick. By F. C. Detwiler (date unknown).

Artist’s conception of the layout of the original “Praying Indian Town” in South Natick. By F. C. Detwiler (date unknown).

 

In a 1650 letter, Eliot wrote “I propounded unto [his Algonquian Indian friends] that they should look out some place to begin a towne…to search for a fit place…the Lord did by his speciall providence [guide us to] the place where we are at Natick.” That is the first documented reference to the name of our town, first given to the small farming settlement established in 1651.                                         

One popular local tradition suggests that “Natick” means “a place of hills,” but this is not accepted by some language specialists who have proposed “my land” and “a corner” and “a clearing” as alternative meanings. A more direct interpretation is that the name is derived from the Algonquian dialect words “nat” (“searching” or “seeking”) and “ick” (“a place”). The original village site became known as South Natick.

With their leader, Waban, about 100 Algonquian Indians, many of them from an earlier settlement in Nonantum (now Newton), established the new Christian village on fertile land both north and south of the river, with ready access to the water and nearby woodlands. They quickly built a bridge across the Charles River at the same site now occupied by the Pleasant Street bridge—the original 1650 structure was of wood on a stone foundation, about 80 feet long with a 9-foot arch in the center. The modern bridge, built in 1861 and widened in 1903, is the latest of the structures that have spanned the river at that spot for almost 370 years.

The Natick “Praying Indians” next constructed their first meetinghouse inside a log palisade “fort,” north of the river at the location now occupied by the historic Eliot Church. The white, two-story church that now stands at the intersection of Eliot, Union, and Pleasant streets was erected in 1828. It is the fifth church-meetinghouse built on the site, which has been used continuously for nearly 370 years for worship services.

The colonial General Court initially granted the “Praying Indians” a parcel of 2,000 acres in 1651 (expanded in 1658 to 6,000 acres—today the town of Natick has 10,300 acres). Algonquian people owned the land and worked the farms exclusively until the beginning of the 18th century, when English colonists started buying lots. In 1651 English-style agriculture got under way, with corn crops on fenced-in farms worked by Algonquian men and women who lived in both English-style and traditional “wetu” houses. Apple orchards were planted, and fish weirs (traps) were built on the banks of the river. The first school for children, with a “Praying Indian” schoolmaster, was established in the meetinghouse.

 

Selected sources and additional reading:

Natick Historical Society collections.

Crawford, Michael J. Natick: A History of Natick, Massachusetts. Natick, MA: Natick Historical Commission, 1978.