By 1667, white English settlers took control over all the land around the Muddy River, leaving no land for the original Indigenous settlers of Brookline. (CONTRIBUTED BY BROOKLINE HISTORICAL SOCIETY)
By 1667, white English settlers took control over all the land around the Muddy River, leaving no land for the original Indigenous settlers of Brookline.


A hidden history: Indigenous peoples in Brookline

December 13, 2022

At every town meeting, a historical land acknowledgement is read, recognizing the historical inhabitants of Brookline.

“This is the unceded land of the Massachusett people, whose traditions, language and stewardship continue today through their lineal descendants, the Massachusett Tribe of Ponkapoag,” the acknowledgement reads.

Although much of the history of Indigenous people in the town is unknown, research that contributed to the land acknowledgment helped to uncover some of this past. The Hidden Brookline Commitee, which shed light on Brookline’s history of slavery, helped to conduct the research. Barbara Brown, chair of the Hidden Brookline Committee, led these efforts.

Brookline’s Original Settlers

According to Brown, 90 percent of Native Americans in New England died from plagues brought by European traders between 1615 and 1620. Upon English arrival in the region, “there was almost nobody here.”

Town resident and Civil War veteran Carleton Shurtleff Francis wrote in an essay published in 1929 annual Proceedings of the Brookline Historical Society that in 1628, the town of Brookline “conceded that the Indians had the prior right to the land.”

According to Francis, Native Americans who lived in Brookline utilized the surrounding area’s natural resources.

“Indians inhabited this land and hunted the wild beasts in the forests or … fished in the Charles River, Muddy River, or in the Charles River Bay where Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street are now situated,” Francis wrote.

According to First Parish Church member Ann Gilmore, members of Massachusett tribes lived in the town for thousands of years before the arrival of the English in New England.

“The lands and waters were shared by the community, with no concept of private ownership of land or people,” Gilmore said in a speech at the 2022 Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration. “Well worn trails connected their village here with nearby Massachusett villages and with larger kinship and trade networks throughout the region including with the Nipmuc to the West and the Wampanoag to the South. The main trail they created and maintained is now called Walnut Street and runs right in front of our church.”

On Aug. 30, 1632, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop wrote in his journal that Captain John Underhill, who would later own land in Brookline, ventured to the Muddy River to disband members of a Native American tribe, including leaders in the tribes known as “Sagamores.”

“Notice being given of ten Sagamores and many Indians, assembled at Muddy River, the Governor sent Capt. Underhill with twenty musketeers to discover,” Winthrop wrote.

Native Americans who lived in what is now Brookline established a village and burial ground at present-day Reservoir Lane, according to “A Guide to the Local History of Brookline, MA.”

Both Native Americans and English settlers built forts in the town, with one of the English forts being where the Longwood Mall is today. According to Francis, the Native American fort was built by a minor tribe and located where the Amos Lawrence house was later built.

President of the Brookline Historical Society Ken Liss said the fort was a large structure, spanning an eighth of an acre and “surrounded by a ditch about three [feet] deep and a parameter nearly three feet high.”

Brown said the presence of such fortifications deployed by both sides is an indication of the conflict and underlying tensions between the natives and settlers.

“You don’t have a fort unless you have an enemy or you believe you have an enemy,” Brown said.

In the 1873 proceedings of the dedication of town hall, former Brookline resident and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Robert Winthrop expressed his gratitude that there was no “massacre” in Brookline at the time of John Winthrop’s journal entry, since the town had not yet been occupied by white settlers.

“Let us thank God that our Brook was not destined to be called ‘Bloody Brook,’” the 1873 proceedings read.

Robert Winthrop also said he admired attempts in the 1630s to forcibly religiously assimilate Native Americans. He was particularly grateful that Puritan missionary John Eliot, whom he referred to as “a godly minister,” worked in Roxbury where, according to Winthrop’s record, tribe members relocated to from the Muddy River.

“We may all rejoice to remember, also, that within a few months only of the date of this record about the Indians at Muddy River, there arrived at Boston, and was immediately settled at Roxbury, where the first planters of this village so long went for their Sunday worship, a godly minister from England who made it his special mission, in the same spirit which had actuated those brave Jesuit-priests in Canada, to Christianize and civilize the natives; and who, during the next thirty years, had not only preached to many of them, and taught many of them to pray, but had accomplished the more than Herculean labor of translating the whole Bible into their language,” Winthrop said.

From 1636 to 1642, more than 100 land grants on the Muddy River were provided to English settlers, including to leaders responsible for the massacre of the Pequots south of Brookline, Gilmore said.

Brown said white settlers began to take over land in Chestnut Hill, where the Massachusett tribe already had established the aforementioned burial ground.

Maps show that by 1667, the entirety of the town was handed out to colonists with no land left for the native Massachusett people. Brown said this came shortly after the initial settlement of Boston. During this period, Gilmore said the Massachusett faced increasing pressures to move away from their Indigenous way of life in Brookline.

According to Brown, following the settlement brought on by these land grants, the remaining Native Americans became subject to harsh laws around the 1840s.

“It’s also when they instituted the Indian codes, which were like the Black codes, and restricted the movement of Native Americans in this area,” Brown said.

Brown said Natives often came back to visit their burial ground after they were forced out of the Chestnut Hill area.

“They would come back when they were no longer allowed to live here to visit their ancestors and pay respects. What is especially powerful about that story is that it personalizes, makes human, the abstractions of [losing] their land. Native Americans lost the ability to live near the cemetery where their ancestors were buried, but they came anyway to visit them after they’d lost the land,” Brown said.

Slavery of Native Americans

Beginning in 1675, English settlers in Brookline legally enslaved Native Americans. Hidden Brookline identified seven Native Americans – Tounnaguin, John Indian, George, William, Great David, Reube and Hawkins, who were sold into slavery by two Brookline residents, Lancelott Talcott and Joseph Smith.

“I never intended to research Native Americans in Brookline. Since the first slavery in this area were of Native Americans, if I wanted to look at slavery of Africans, I had to start with the slavery of Native Americans,” Brown said.

Talcott and Smith bought the seven men from the Crown during King Philip’s War between the English settlers and Native Americans in New England, Brown said.

“[White settlers had] been bothered by [Native Americans], scared by them, but now they were downright afraid because this was such a terrible war and so many people were killed. They saw that [the Native Americans] were much more powerful; it took several years for them to win,” Brown said.

Driven by this fear, the Crown determined that to resolve the risk associated with Native American presence in New England, they should send the enslaved out of the colonies, according to Hidden Brookline.

“Where was the best place to send them? Into slavery in the Caribbean, and so you would buy Native Americans from the Crown and then ship them and resell them in the Caribbean and make a profit,” Brown said.

For two enslaved Indigenous men in Brookline, their wives were faced with the decision of whether to be enslaved in the Caribbean with their husbands or remain in the colonies. One decided to go with her husband while the other chose to stay behind, Brown said.

“The one who chose to be enslaved with their husband probably didn’t know two important things. One, there was a good chance she would be sold separately. And the second would be that the average life expectancy for enslaved in the Caribbean was six, seven years, because the enslavers found that it was cheaper to buy more people than to care for the enslaved so they would live longer,” Brown said.

Also during King Philip’s War, Gilmore said the colony enacted the Indian Imprisonment Act, which prevented Native Americans from entering Boston (which included Brookline at the time).

“Although not enforced in modern times, the law was not repealed until 2004,” Gilmore said.

Hidden Brookline gathered records of Native Americans who lived in Brookline up until the 1800s, which included mixing between Native Americans and enslaved Africans. They also found multiple sources that affirm that three Native American children died in a fire on the Muddy River.

One example of Indigenous people and enslaved Africans mixing includes Mr. Cleveland, who Brown said was an enslaved ironworker in Dorchester when he bought his freedom, relocated to Brookline, married a Native American woman and raised children.

“When he moved to Brookline, he insisted people call him Mr. Cleveland,” Brown said. “No enslaved people had last names. They were known by their first names, and their first names were given by their enslavers.”

According to Brown, because the children of Native American women were seen as belonging to the woman, Mr. Cleveland’s children and grandchildren “ended up in an ambiguous status.”

Use of Native Names in Brookline

The Improved Order of Red Men, the oldest fraternal organization in America, founded its Brookline chapter, or “tribe,” in 1889. The group, which appropriated Indigenous words such as “Sagamore” to title its members, employed Charles A.W. Spencer as the Assistant Chief of Records. His son, Arthur Spencer, became the first editor-in-chief of The Sagamore.

The use of Indigenous words as titles within Brookline is not uncommon, as Brookline Today previously found that the Brookline street names Tappan, Cataumet and Hackensack are of native origins.

Felina Silver Robinson, a Native American town resident, Town Meeting Member and Chair of the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee said she was appalled to learn more about Brookline’s darker past.

“I was very angry because I always feel cheated out of things. I feel hurt about a lot of things, but I feel like our people have been enslaved and no one acknowledges that. They didn’t even want to put that in the acknowledgement. They were trying to say that that didn’t mean anything, that that didn’t matter. But it did,” Robinson said.

Brown said despite recent attempts, more needs to be done to atone for and recognize the past.

“I don’t know what should be done in Brookline, but I know it’s more than a Native American Day or renaming Columbus Day,” Brown said. “And it’s more than the land acknowledgement. And it’s more than my land acknowledgment every time I lead a walk, or give a talk.”

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