Our First Peoples: The Wampanoags
And now, for something about the Nation of Nantucket’s first inhabitants.
When our fire is extinguished, and our wigwams have become
razed, then the bluefish will return. Then let the shad-belly and
the long-tail (Quakers), look out for HIS dwelling and his landmarks,
and that the stranger wrest not his inheritance from him as he
has wrested ours from us!
This warning was issue by a Wampanoag elder when the bluefish did not return to Nantucket waters after the Indian Sickness of 1764, which left 222 out of 358 Wampanoag dead. Bluefish, a staple of the native diet, had returned every year unfailingly, and they saw their absence as a sign that they would be wiped out as well. Perhaps today, this prophecy continues to ring true but instead it is for the landmarks and dwellings of the European settlers. Today, we speak very little of the native peoples who inhabited Nantucket and seldom acknowledge those who came long before the European settlers. Yet, it is their land, home sites, burial sites, and ceremonial sites that we tread across each and every day.
Life for the pre-European Wampanoag inhabitancy of Nantucket was better than for many Native American groups in North America. The Nantucket population of approximately 2,500 people was larger than most in North America at that time, and was likely due to the abundance of food, which for the Nantucket Wampanoag was rich in fish and shellfish. Some historians claim that the high population number was equal to European communities at the time.
Wampanoag fished year-round in the waters around Nantucket using nets, lines with hooks, or lances from dugout canoes, the shore, or outcroppings of rocks. Fishing in the ponds along the shore was easily accomplished as well. As ponds filled with water at high tide, fish entered through the small inlets or man-made ditches. As the fish came into or out of the ponds with the tide, the Wampanoag were able to trap the fish in oblong-shaped traps. Such traps were particularly popular for trapping eels. Weirs were also used for catching fish. Weirs acted like mazes or cages which the schools of fish would become ensnared in and from which the fish could be easily speared or scooped up with nets. These traps and weirs were made from reeds and grasses.
Shellfishing was an important means of sustenance. Scallops, oysters, and hard and soft-shelled clams were all dried for winter use. Fish and shellfish could also be smoked to be used throughout the year. In addition to shellfish, bluefish, herring, lobster and eels were taken, as well as seals and the blubber of small whales such as pilot whales. Large middens (shell dumps) are still found around the island and serve as reminders of those who came long before us. According to author Paul Schneider in his book The Enduring Shore, middens could be built over generations as the refuse of shells were dumped in the same locations. Today, in Connecticut, a shell midden still exists that is twenty-four acres in size!
In 1665, the Wampanoag and the European settlers of Nantucket decided to work together hoping to bring continuing difficulties between the two groups to an end. In that year, it was proposed that a ditch be dug from Long Pond to Hither Creek (Madaket Harbor). This ditch would be a joint effort between the Wampanoag and the European settlers. Its purpose: “for taking fish and also for making a meadow.” The two sides would split the catch as “long as [the Wampanoag] attended the weir carefully.” The work and the catch would be divided equally. It was an interesting form of cooperation that did not often occur between other European settlers and Native Americans elsewhere in North America. However, this collaboration seemed to work and today, the reminder of cooperation still exists with the ditch permanently etched into Nantucket’s landscape. If you were not aware of it, you drive across it each time you head out to Madaket.
The Nation of Nantucket
The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847. It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820. Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea. I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels. I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world. My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well. Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” at: http://www.mariamitchell.org/category/maria-mitchells-attic
Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999. She holds a Master’s in History. Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture. The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents. She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, their son, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.