We Live On Native Lands

by | Mar 1, 2023 | What I'm Thinking | 1 comment

[By Swampyank – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108207618]

Raecently, while taking a walk with a neighbor on a street not far from my own home, I was astonished to come across this rather impressive monument. This pillar is about ten feet tall and the boulder (my friend thought it might be a meteorite) about thirty-six inches around.

This monument bears a plaque: To Sagamore John and those Mystic Indians Whose Bones Lie Here. According to the sources I found on the internet, the monument was erected after workers digging a cellar hole found “the remains of 18 Indians in a sitting position along with pipes and weapons of war. These remains were believed to be those of Sagamore John and some of his followers, who had died [of smallpox] in 1633.” (Note that both accounts I found stated that the discovery was made in 1888, but the monument is dated 1884. I believe I saw elsewhere that the discovery was made in 1882, but I could not find that source when I sat down to write this post.)

Sagamore John’s given name was Wonohaquaham. He was the son of illustrious parents: his father was Nanepashemet, the “great leader” of the Pawtucket Confederation of the Abenaki peoples who lived in much of present-day New England before the Pilgrims arrived and his mother, who we know only as Squaw Sachem of Mistick, who ruled Pawtucket lands after the death of Nanepashemet. The term “sagamore” referred to the chief of a single band while the term “sachem” referred to the chief of a group of bands. Squaw Sachem’s three sons were all sagamores. Wonohaquaham was the leader of people living on lands now occupied by present-day Charlestown, Medford, Revere, Winthrop, and Chelsea.

While the monument is dedicated to Sagamore John, there is some speculation that his mother is buried in this spot. She was known to have spent her final years in Medford and is believed to be buried in Medford, though the location of her burial is unknown. One account of the “tale of Sagamore John,” says that “It was not uncommon for the Medford farmers to dig up various Native American artifacts, like arrowheads, axes and stone drills, while tilling the soil,” an observation that strikes me as poignant or even tragic.

Every year, people in our region mark the federal holiday of Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, by gathering with native people in Plymouth (location of Plymouth Rock). It may be that some of us will begin a practice of walking to or gathering around the “Monument to Sagamore John.”