A Mill River History Part 4: Contact: The Nonotuck and the English

John Sinton © November 2014

Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.”  — Jeremy Denk

Part 4: Contact: The Nonotuck and the English

            Prior to William Pynchon’s arrival in the Connecticut River Valley to trade for beaver pelts, Native Americans had already had at least 25 years of contact with European trade goods and diseases.  We have historic accounts of “plagues,” chiefly smallpox epidemics, that decimated coastal Native populations from 1615 to the 1640s, and we can assume that similar calamities occurred in the Middle Connecticut Valley.[i]  By the time colonists claimed land at Nonotuck in 1654, overwhelming change was underway, particularly for Native Americans.

            In comparing English and Native American subsistence strategies, Peter Thomas suggested that “a colonial town of 250-300 utilized nearly identical amounts of farm land (1,700-2,400 acres) as did an Indian village of 400 (990-2,320 acres).”[ii]  The English used the wet meadows for grazing, while Indians used them for basketry and mats.  Colonists cleared and logged uplands, which altered them dramatically for hunting, and the open grazing of cattle and pigs in marginal areas around the town produced competition between domestic and wild animals for the same resource, further reducing hunting opportunities.  Free-range animals wreaked havoc in Indian corn fields.   

            Colonists and Indians interacted continually, using one another to whatever advantage they could.  Maize helped the English survive, while trade in wild game, furs, beads, and wampum (wampum was regarded as legal tender in the mid-17th century) provided income for the Natives.[iii]  Nonotucks served as messengers, guides, and haulers, while settlers granted Indians credit and a judicial framework to redress grievances, such as corn lost due to the depredations of cattle.[iv] 

            As Peter Thomas noted, however, “the rapid influx of some 20,000 English immigrants by mid-century intensified inherent New England Indian rivalries.  Dutch, French and Iroquois pressures were also felt.  The resulting picture is a maze of confusing actions and of individuals fighting to maintain an existence in the shadow of change.  No Indian group can be understood either historically or anthropologically unless considered in an ever-broadening perspective of challenge from within and without.”[v]

            The first 25 years of Northampton’s settlement brought chaos to the Nonotucks’ lives.  Even as they recovered from small pox epidemics, alcohol devastated their family relationships and inter-tribal warfare drove many of them north, while the burgeoning population of English reduced their hunting lands.  Beaver were extirpated, and the fur trade evaporated, but the Nonotucks persisted, many joining the Abenaki when King Philip’s War (1675-76) drove them to settle in New York and Canada, while a few others remained in and around Northampton.  

            Historical sources state that the Nonotucks obtained permission from William’s son, John Pynchon, and the Northampton settlers to build a fort on Fort Hill, probably near the southern end of it, and we know that several Nonotucks stayed on in Northampton to do domestic work and chores for some European settlers.[vi]  With King Phillip’s War, however, Nonotuck presence in the Valley was reduced to a few families.

Original deed of Nonotuck lands to the English. By permission of Historic Northampton

Original deed of Nonotuck lands to the English. By permission of Historic Northampton

This is a copy of the original land deed from Trumbull’s History of Northampton.  “On September 24, 1653, title to the land known to the Native Americans as Norwottuck or Nonotuck (in Algonquin, “the place in the middle of the river”) and subsequently became the English town of Northampton, was conveyed to John Pynchon of Springfield by “Chickwallop, alias Wawhillowa, Neessahalant, Nassicohee, Riants, Paaqualant, Assellaquompas and Awonusk the wife of Wulluther all of Nanotuck” for the “consideration of one hundred fathum of Wampum by Tale and for Tenn Coates.”

            Marge Bruchac suggests that the tribal traditions of Native families persisted even after the families relocated outside the Pioneer Valley.  The Northampton historian, James Trumbull, tells of early 18th-century visits from Nonotucks who “always came when Clapp’s corn was green, and would devour it in large quantities,” whenever they visited Mrs. Clapp, formerly Mary Sheldon, who was captured by Abenaki in the 1704 Deerfield raid and ransomed back to the Valley in 1706.[vii]

            The English, on the other hand came from a radically different world. Those who were born in  Northampton, England, for example, came from a city famed for its leather trade and the manufacture of shoes and boots.  There were a large number of non-conformist believers (separatists from the Anglican church) in Northamptonshire, who sided with Cromwell during the English Civil Wars of the 1640’s and supported his short-lived government.  In revenge, when King Charles II came to power, he destroyed the walls and castle of Northampton in 1660.  Nonotuck’s first English settlers grew up in troubled times in England.  They were deeply invested in their faith and well aware of the ravages of war.  At the same time, they were chiefly men and women with at least modest wealth, possessing excellent skills in several crafts, as well as in farming and warfare.


[i] Thomas, 26

[ii] Thomas, 118

[iii] The Massachusetts Court ordered, in 1650, that wampumpeag should pass for debts to the value of 40 shillings, the white at 8 and the black at 4 for a penny, except for country rates.  This law was repealed in 1661, and wampum had no legal value, but continued in use at diminishing prices until 1675 and for some years after.  Archives of Ralmon Jon Black.

[iv] Bruchac, Margaret. 2004. “Native Presence in Nonotuck and Northampton,” in Buckley, Kerry, ed. A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, 1654-2004. Northampton, MA: Historic Northampton. p. 21

[v] Thomas, 30

[vi] Bruchac, 26

[vii] Bruchac, 28


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