Thomas Waban Sr.
Thomas Waban Sr. (1604-1684), a principal Algonquian leader in the early years of the Natick “Praying Indian” town, probably was born at Musketaquid (now Concord) in 1604. No one in his clan could have imagined that the little boy would become a man who played a key role in the creation of Natick, working with another man who was born in the same year: Rev. John Eliot.
Waban was well-connected. He married Tassunsquaw, a daughter of Tahattawan, the Pawtucket sachem of Nashoba ( now Littleton). Waban himself was a Massachusett Indian leader in the village of Nonantum ( now Newton). He was an active trader (the English colonists would have thought of him as a merchant), handling Indian furs and English goods, and was well respected.
On October 28, 1646, Waban had a visitor who would change his life. John Eliot, the eager young Puritan minister who joined the Great Migration of Puritans to Boston in 1631, had responded to the Puritans’ calling to “Christianize” the American Indians. He preached, without success, at Neponset (now Dorchester) in 1646; Eliot noted that his Algonquian listeners “gave no heed unto it, but were weary and despised what I said.” He got a better reception on his second effort when he visited Waban.
Waban is believed to be the first Algonquian who adopted the Christian faith and supported those of his people who welcomed conversion to Christianity under the tutelage of Eliot. The two worked together to set up a protective environment in Nonantum, where Waban and the clans he led could embrace the Christian faith and keep their community intact while changing their lifestyle to adopt more European ways.
On November 4, 1646, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to grant ownership of land in Nonantum to Waban and his community, forming the legal prototype of what would become the “Praying Indian” towns. However, this visionary plan did not succeed. The growing European settlements were too close, colonists sought to gain control of Indian lands, and the interactions between Algonquians and colonists were destructive.
Eliot, with the help of Waban and others, sought a new site for an independent Algonquian community that could thrive economically and embrace Christianity without trouble from the land-hungry colonists. A peaceful site on a bend in the Charles River appealed to them, and the General Court allowed 2,000 acres (later increased to 6,000 acres) for the establishment of Natick as the first “Praying Indian” town. Waban led his people from Nonantum to Natick, where they were joined by others (total estimated up to 150) to found the town in 1651.
Eliot turned to his bible for guidance in setting up a governing structure in Natick: Waban was one of the men chosen as a “ruler of 50” to run the town. In 1660 Waban and 14 other Algonquian converts were accepted into the full communion of the Natick church. Waban was known as “a person of great prudence and piety, held in high esteem of both Indians and English.” He was a respected leader in Natick, serving as a justice of the peace and town clerk, before his death in 1684.
Waban’s last words as he died were recorded by Daniel Gookin (1650-1718), “who many years preached the Indian Lectures at Natick,” and translated by Eliot. (Some scholars have suggested that Gookin and Eliot may have edited the collection of “Dying speeches” to increase their impact on an English audience). Here is an excerpt of the words recorded for Waban:
“…I desire not to be troubled about matters of this world, a little I am troubled…do not greatly weep and mourn for me in this world…I give my soul to thee Oh my Redeemer Jesus Christ: Pardon all my sins & deliver me from hell…and when I dy, Oh helpe me and receive me.”
Selected sources and additional reading:
Natick Historical Society collections.
Macewen, Florence Lovell. Natick: A Town With Character. Natick, MA: Morse Institute Library, 1997, 8.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. John Eliot: “Apostle to the Indians.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968, 198-199.
Evans Early American Imprint Collection/University of Michigan. “The Dying speeches of several Indians/John Eliot, 1604-1690.” Accessed July 12, 2019, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=evans;cc=evans;rgn=main;view=text;idno=N00266.0001.001