Home   The Tribes and the States


The Rebirthing of American Independence

by Tracy Ann Robinson

Essex (MA) Life, Summer, 1984, 75 - 79.

        IPSWICH, this year celebrating its 350th anniversary, distinguishes itself as the "Birthplace of American & Independence." This proud tradition derives from the town's 1687 vote to withhold payment of a new tax levied by the unpopular regime of Governor Andros―a tax, these colonists insisted, that infringed upon their rights as Englishmen.

        While praising the spirit of liberty demonstrated by his High Street predecessors, one Ipswich resident, Dan Mahony, challenges the motto their actions inspired. "The fact that there is no 're' in front of 'birthplace'," alleges Mahony, points to a widespread misconception about the roots of American history. "The fact is," says Mahony, "the only truly democratic government in the history of the world already existed in this part of New England when the Pilgrims landed."

        Five years ago, when Mahony started researching Harvard's youngest graduate―William James Sidis, who was admitted to that Institution in 1909 at the age of eleven―he had no idea he would end up in Ipswich advocating for the Indians of the Penacook federation: "But that's where Sidis led me. After locating and reading a 600-page manuscript he compiled called 'The Tribes and the States' I became personally convinced that American histories and encyclopedias aren't giving credit where credit is due."

        In that manuscript (copyrighted in 1981 by the Wampanoag Nation and scheduled for publication by the Penacook Press, Scituate, Massachusetts), Sidis presents a startling view of this country's political development. This view is based on a theory that Sidis calls "the continuity of history." Sidis," clarifies Mahony, "says that the consciousness is in the space." As Sidis himself explains:

The history is. . . not a history from the point of view of ancestry, but rather of locality. The idea developed is that in each locality there is a certain continuity of traditions that persists in spite of the changing character of its population―not that the geographical characteristics compel this, as some have supposed, but rather that each successive wave of invasion or immigration acquires the traditions from the previous inhabitants of the region.

        According to this theory then, what happened subsequently in United States political history was due to a concept of federation developed over a period of ten thousand years among the native inhabitants of New England. Those nations, Sidis writes, attained a degree of liberty and democracy such as no other people have ever reached, and which was most irreconcilably opposed to the monarchical and aristocratic institutions brought from Europe by the white invaders. This was especially characteristic of the group of , Algonquin nations living in the coastal region protected by the high barrier of the Agiochook (now White Mountains) and Quinnitucket (Connecticut) River. These nations were fairly well isolated from attack by others who might endanger their liberties, but not so isolated that they did not have many occasions to defend their liberty. They were excellently located for developing in a militant form that spirit of liberty, equality, and democracy, as well as concerted national endeavor, for which that part of the country has always been prominent.

        Although several northeastern nations, including the Iroquois, the Lenape and Wabanake, federated, Sidis attributes democratic federation only to the Penacooks, whose leaders, elected by the men and women of their tribes, served not as rulers but as the "trusted advisors and councillors of the people":

Among the Penacook peoples, there was nothing known which could even remotely correspond to, or give inkling of, any division of caste, class, or rank―probably the only completely democratic governments that ever existed in the history of the world. This was a true democracy and equality which might well prepare their country (now known as New England) for being, at all times down to the present. the cradle of the spirit of liberty.

        Because the area was long imbued with the traditions of liberty and democracy, the Europeans who settled in Penacook territory were bound to inherit those strong values, Thus, rather than bringing the seeds of independence with them from Europe the Puritans and Pilgrims, "well-meaning but slow-witted pupils of the Indians," reaped their destiny here.

        Certainly, if the consciousness of liberty was always in this space, the original inhabitants of Essex County and the surrounding area had ample opportunity to tune in. Carbon dating of artifacts from over four hundred sites throughout the county establishes habitation here from about 8000 B.C. (see Essex Life, Summer 1983). The tribes that populated this part of New England during European exploration and settlement―Sidis groups them into v the Saugus nation―were the Naumkeags, of what is now Salem (prosperous, numerous and powerful before the 1617 small pox epidemic that decimated seventy-five percent of the entire region's population); the Squamscotts, from which both Swampscott and Annisquam get their name; the Agawams, who ranged from the tidewater on the Merrimack around to Cape Ann; and the Wamesits, or Pawtuckets, whose land included the lower valley of the Merrimack east to the Atlantic.

        Sidis lists three main meeting places for the Penacook councils: Penacook (in New Hampshire, adjacent to Concord), Pawtucket (at the mouth of the Pawtucket River, now on the boundary between Connecticut and Rhode Island) and the site on the Shawmut peninsula now known as Boston. Colonial Indian magistrate Daniel Gookin reported Pawtucket Falls to be another important gathering place; for the Merrimack Valley Indians, it was the "ancient and capital seat" of the area. Each spring, after wintering in relative isolation in woods that broke the force of New England's bitter winds, tribes of the surrounding area would gather at the falls for fishing and other activities. There, according to a Lowell history, "they caught the salmon, sturgeon, alewives and eels which then filled the river. These they cleaned, smoked, and cured. In the evenings they attended to tribal business: treaties, declarations of war, religious ceremonies, and the arrangement of marriages."

        Their waterside villages and encampments (many of which subsequently developed as European settlement towns) were strategically located; the river provided the Indians with a moderate climate, easy access to fish and game, and a convenient system of transportation. Although regular brush burning kept woods cleared for easier foot passage, the native Americans here often used birchbark and dugout canoes for long distance travel.

        According to Dracut's historian Joseph M. Wilson, however, the fact that the natives needed these rivers for transportation proved a flaw in their character: "They located near a river which was a natural highway for journeying in their canoes," Wilson claimed, ''as their natural indolence caused them to be adverse to the labor of walking."

        That judgment illustrates a serious problem with local white historical records. It is not difficult for us to gain a sense of how Essex County's Indians lived from the documentation provided by their European successors in the area: most town histories contain a chapter or two on the original inhabitants, describing their villages (frequently stockaded), housing (wigwams and longhouses), foods (seasonal but well-balanced diets), tools, household appliances, and sports. It is another matter, however, to construct from these sources an accurate picture of the Indian character. Our forebears were burdened by prejudice against a culture they neither admired nor accepted, and certainly did not understand. One particularly glaring misconstruction was that of the native inhabitants' work style: frequently applied descriptives include "idle," "slothful," "indolent" and "lazy." Clearly, such assessment cannot hold up against more recent evaluations of Indian society, such as Howard Russell's description of it, in Indian New England before the Mayflower as "well ordered, socialistic. . . depending on cooperative labor."     

        Apparently,  their approach toward a day's work was just too foreign for those early Puritans. 'You have to understand," explains Mahony, "the Indians didn't believe in a forty-hour work week for the sake of a forty-hour work week. If it took them two hours to do what needed to be done that day, they took two hours to do it." Indeed, such an approach might better be appraised as intelligent, rather than slothful.

        Another local history, that of Haverhill, exemplifies the heavy-handed and misinformed judgments white settlers typically dealt their predecessors:

The aboriginal inhabitants of New England held a low place in the scale of humanity. They had no civil government, no religion, no letters, no history, no music, no poetry. The French rightly named them Les Hommes des Bois―"Men Brutes of the Forest." Except a power of enduring hunger and weather acquired by their hunting habits, they were tender and not long-lived; and though supple and agile, they always sank under continuous labor. In them, the lymphatic temperament predominated. They scarcely ever wept or smiled. Their slender appetites required small indulgence, though at times a gormandizing rage seemed to possess them. Though no instance is recorded of their offering insult to a female captive, it must be credited wholly to their natural coldness of constitution, Their grave demeanor, which has so often been interpreted as an indication of self-respect, was rather an indication of mere stolid vacuity of emotion and thought, in constitution of body and mind, they were far below the negro race.


        Perhaps the most effective counteraction of those misconceptions is the documented words of one of Essex County's most prominent leaders: Masconomet, sagamore of Agawam, His replies to white questioners, probing the extent of his commitment to Christian beliefs, in which he had agreed to be instructed, significantly clarify the philosophy on which his and his people's lives were based:

1st. Will you worship the only true God, who made heaven and earth, and not blaspheme? Ans. 'We do desire to reverence the God of the English and to speak well of Him, because we see He doth better to the English, than other gods do to others.' 2d. Will you cease from swearing falsely? Ans. 'We know not what swearing is.' 3d. Will you refrain from working on the Sabbath, especially within the bounds of Christian towns? Ans. "It is easy to us,―we have not much to do any day, and we can well rest on that day." 4th. Will you honor your parents and all your superiors? Ans. "It is our custom to do so,―for inferiors to honor superiors." 5th. Will you refrain from killing any man without just cause and just authority? Ans, "This is good, and we desire so to do.' 6th. Will you deny yourselves fornication, adultery, incest, rape, sodomy, buggery, or bestiality? Ans. "Though some of our people do these things occasionally, yet we count them naught and do not allow them." 7th. Will you deny yourselves stealing? Ans. 'We say the same to this as to the 6th question.' 8th. Will you allow your children to learn to read the word of God, so that they may know God aright and worship him in his own way? Ans, 'We will allow this as opportunity will permit, and, as the English live among us, we desire so to do.' 9th. Will you refrain from idleness? Ans. 'We will'.


        Sixteen hundred forty-four, the year Masconomet made those statements, is a landmark in the history of Penacook country. In that year, as historian C. E. Potter explains, Passaconaway, the "acknowledged head of the most powerful Indian confederation east of the Mohawks," signed a document drawn up by the English that "voluntarily & without any constraint or persuasion, but of our own free motion put ourselves our subjects Lands and estates under the Government and protected by them according to their just laws."

        Strange as this action―which effectively terminated the independent Indian federation―seems for the inspired leader of a freedom-loving people, it arose from that leader's singular depth of wisdom and perception. As Mahony points out, "The history of the relations between the whites and the reds in New England is not a series of massacres and wars at all; it was one of many good-faith deeds and treaties and good relations between the people. This," he claims," is probably the direct result of Passaconaway's politics of pacifism." In the early 1620s, that visionary―who reputedly stood seven feet tall and was able to "make the trees dance and the rocks move, turn water into ice or flame, bring dead serpents to life and make himself a burning fire-had an insight about the ultimate European domination over Penacook territory. For the next forty years, this president labored steadily to convince his people to avoid self-destructive resistance to that inevitability. When in 1660, believing himself close to death (actually, he lived about twenty years more), he abdicated the presidency in favor of his son Wonnalancet, he gave the assembled Penacook tribes the following farewell advice:

Take heed how you quarrel with the English The white men are the sons of the morning. Never make war with them. Sure as you light the fires the breath of heaven will turn the flame upon you and destroy you. Listen to my advice. It is the last I shall be allowed to give you. Remember it and live.

        The federation over which Passaconaway presided, states Sidis, formed in response to an invasion threatened in early 1621 by the neighboring Iroquois league. (Sidis also notes that individual Iroquois tribes had presented a threat to Penacook tribes since the 1400s and in fact were "the sort of enemies from whom much could be learned that could be used for the development of the ideas of liberty.") As a coalition, the twelve Penacook tribes succeeded in discouraging the Iroquois from attacking; and so―fortunately for us―it was the democratic Wampanoags under Massasoit, rather than the oligarchic Iroquois, who greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth and taught them not only the basics of surviving New England winters but also the rudiments of the future United States government.

        One of Massasoit's most-renowned students, alleges Sidis, was the Salem minister and founder of the "First Church Born in America" (as commemorated on a plaque attached to the Daniel Low & Company on Essex Street). When Puritan leaders threw Roger Williams out of town for advocating freedom of worship, it was to Massasoit that he turned; it was also Massasoit who persuaded a band of Narragansets to move off their most fertile land in order to give Williams a place to continue preaching liberty―the land Williams named Providence. And when another dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, was similarly run out of Boston, Massasoit allegedly performed the same service for her. 

        In the foreword to The Tribes and the States, Sidis introduces his account as "a sort of story. . . in which verified historical facts and dates are merely used to weld the whole together." He also writes, "But let us hope that the new point of view will make the reader 'think it over'―that it will excite his interest, and make him reconsider much that he has taken for granted about his country."

        That may be a lot to ask of the skeptical descendants of the Puritans. But Mahony, following his own excursions to the libraries, gravesites, and historical repositories of this area―"and listening to the knowledge that already existed inside me"―has become convinced of the significance of that "story." His objective now is to spread the word.

        And spreading it is. "The oral tradition is alive and well," affirms Mahony, whose own enthusiastic advocacy is certainly sustaining that tradition. This individual would like nothing better than for us to put aside genealogy charts for a time and cultivate instead our understanding of the people whose land and tradition of independence we inherited; as an active member of the Committee to Found the Penacook Museum, he is working to facilitate such endeavors.

        Mahony may have a long road ahead to set us straight in our understanding of American history―but, nonetheless, given the state of the planet two and a half centuries after our ancestors landed on these consciousness-laden shores, it might not be a bad idea to tune into the spirit that gave birth to our independence. With due respect to the patriots of Ipswich, we could certainly give it a try.