Natick’s Beginnings

Hand axe, Woodland culture (Natick Historical Society collections)

Hand axe, Woodland culture (Natick Historical Society collections)

Long before Natick was established as a Praying Town in 1651, Algonquian and Eastern Woodland people lived in this local area. In the collections of the Natick Historical Society, there are gouges, chisels, axes, projectile points, and other stone tools that tell us about the people who lived here thousands of years ago.

In 1651, Puritan missionary John Eliot established Natick as the first “praying town” on a bend in the Charles River (now South Natick). Today, scholars debate the meaning of the word “Natick,” which has been said to mean: “place of searching,” “place of many hills,” “my home,” and “my land.” The Algonquian people who already lived in the area represented many local tribes, clans, and families, which included the Nipmuc, Massachusett, Montauk, and Wampanoag.

The endeavor of many “praying towns” that were established at the time was 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. The “Praying Indians” who lived in Natick assented to following the Puritan faith and lived under English law. They also followed many English customs, including cutting their hair in English fashion, wearing English-style clothes, and assuming English gender roles. A school was set up, a village government was established, and some of the people of Natick worked to convert to Puritanism. The indigenous people who where converted to Christianity were known as the “Praying Indians”.

Natick’s “Praying Indians” built a wooden bridge with a stone foundation that was 80 feet long and 8 feet high across the Charles River, and they established farms on both sides. Streets were laid out along the north bank (now Eliot Street) and on the south side of the bridge (now Pleasant Street). They also built a meetinghouse with the help of an English carpenter. This two-story building was used as church, school, and warehouse. Eliot, who lived in Roxbury, stayed in the meetinghouse when he visited Natick every two weeks. The meetinghouse was erected right about where the present Eliot Church stands, at the intersection of Union Street and Eliot Street.

“John Eliot preaching to the Indians” (from Indian History for Young Folks, 1919, Wikimedia Commons)

With the help of many Algonquian people, including Cockenoe (Montauk), Job Nesutan (Massachusett), John Sassamon (Massachusett) and James Printer (Nipmuc), Eliot led a translation of the English Bible into the Algonquian language. Together, they created the first alphabetic writing system for an American Indian language, and the Bible they produced in 1663 was also the first Bible printed in British North America. A second edition of the Bible, printed in 1685, is held in the collections of the Natick Historical Society.

Natick’s prosperity suffered with the outbreak in 1675 of King Philip’s War, or Metacomet’s Rebellion. English lawmakers restricted Algonquian people to their villages, making it difficult for them to farm or tend to livestock. Despite Eliot’s protests, in October 1675 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered Natick’s “Praying Indians” to Deer Island near Boston. Many of them did not survive due to the lack of food on the island over a long, harsh winter. Those who did survive and returned to Natick found their village and homes destroyed.

Before he died in 1690, Eliot ordained an Algonquian minister, Daniel Takawambpait, who was the leader of the church until his death in 1716. John Neesnumin and Thomas Waban Jr., successively, led the church for five years before the New England Company sent two Puritan ministers, Rev. Oliver Peabody and later Rev. Stephen Badger, to fill the Natick church pulpit.

Algonquian people held much of the land in Natick in common until 1719, when 20 men of the town, including members of the Speen and Pegan families, were named as Proprietors to oversee any division of land. By 1725, most of the original Algonquian landowners had been driven into debt and were forced to sell their land. Over the course of the 18th century, Natick changed from a predominantly Algonquian settlement into a town run by English and other European colonists. The Massachusetts government officially incorporated Natick as a town in 1781.

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.

Copplestone, J. Tremayne. John Eliot and the Indians: 1604-1690. The Estate of Eleanor D. Copplestone, 1998.

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

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.