Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wilbraham Native Americans at the Science Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts

On the hottest day of the year, over 100 degrees in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the humidity reaching to almost the same number, Marash Girl escaped with her grandchildren into the cool of the Springfield Science Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts.  There to her surprise was an exhibit on the Native American, a rather dated exhibit, admittedly, but an exhibit that had its origins in Wilbraham.  In fact, the very soapstone that the model Nipmuc Indian is carving (below) into a bowl came from our own (then their own) Wilbraham Mountain!
Nipmuc Indian carves soapstone bowl from 3300 years ago from boulder found in Wilbraham, as Raffi and Aline (3300 years later) look on.
Nipmuc Indian woman preparing food using soapstone bowl carved by her tribesman.
A hard life, judging by the expression on their faces.
The plaque describing the exhibit pictured above reads, "This familiar scene depicting life in Wilbraham 3,300 years ago is getting a face lift.  We are adding realistic reproductions of trees that were made from molds of real trees and a background mural to show how the forest looked long ago.  The boulder you see is real and came to the museum in 1933 from a site in Wilbraham.  Researchers believe that Native Americans visited the site year after year in late spring and early summer to carve the relatively soft soapstone into bowls.  Look closely and you can see the outline of a new bowl being made. It was done by a Native American worker 3300 years ago."
Marash Girl knew through chats with Charlie Merrick, the town historian, that Native Americans once lived on the very land where she and her family used to live every summer (before the tornado) on the top of Wilbraham Mountain.  In fact, a soapstone quarry existed on Glendale Road and arrowheads can be found throughout Wilbraham, though we had yet to find one until after the tornado of June 1, 2011, when Lorig's husband Matt Rogers found an arrow head lodged in the clump of soil of the roots of an upturned tree.

According to Charlie Merrick, descendant of one of the original white settlers of Wilbraham, the area of Wilbraham was probably abandoned by the Indians soon after the time of King Philip's War in 1675, and the only known Wilbraham Native American thereafter was an old Indian woman called Weshaugan who lived on Wigwam Hill, named after her wigwam home on the mountain, known to Marash Boy as the "Page" land, now under Marash Boy's ownership. Weshaugan, according to oral tradition and Charlie Merrick,  invited the wife of the local minister, the Reverend Noah Merrick (1711-1776), who resided on the corner of Bolles and Tinkham Roads, a neighbor to Weshaugan, for Sunday dinner.  When the minister's wife learned that Weshaugan was serving skunk, Mrs. Merrick gently declined the invitation.  For further information on the early history of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, see Charles L. Merrick (ed.), THE HISTORY OF WILBRAHAM U.S.A. BICENTENNIAL EDITION 1763-1963.

For your edification, dear reader, below is a  history of the Native Americans in Wilbraham issued in a press release by Wilbraham's Atheneum Society.

"In 1674, William Pynchon of Springfield, Massachusetts, purchased land extending to the Springfield
Mountains from the Nipmuc Indians. Wequagan, Wawapaw and Wequampo sold the land for a fathom of Wampum – 6 feet of strung shell beads.  The word "Wampum" comesfrom the Narragansett word for 'white shell beads' harvested from the Whelk shell. A white wampum fathom was worth 10 shillings [half pound or half sovereign].  

It was an unusual land transaction in that it involved only 3 Indians. They received their pay, but were driven away by the Indian War in 1675. The land transaction was recorded in the County of Hampshire July 12, 1679 [attested by John Holyoke, recorder] and can be found in the Registry of Deeds in Hampden County. The agreement reserved the Indian’s rights for hunting and fishing to continue on the land. This area, called Minnechaug or Berryland, became the town of Wilbraham with its incorporation in 1763. The Nipmuc are a group of Algonquin Indians native originally to
Worcester County Massachusetts. Nipmuc originated from the word ‘nipnet’ meaning 'small pond place.'  They are sometimes called 'Fresh Water People' because they first settled around the clear crisp lake system at the Chaubunagunamaug Lake in Webster, MA. 

These Native Americans settling in the area now called Wilbraham operated two stearite (soapstone) quarries on Wilbraham Mountain. Their finished products included implements of necessity and convenience.  Soapstone artifacts include: arrowheads, bowls, scrapers, awls, pipe, spear points, plow heads, hoes, hand hammers, digging tools, pestles and cutting tools.  Many of these early artifacts are on display at the Quadrangle Museums in Springfield and others are here at the Old Meeting House.

There were only two stearite quarries in the fertile Connecticut River Valley - one in Westfield (now gone) and locations in Wilbraham. Quarried soapstone lasted longer than pottery and provided an excellent trade item.

Indigenous natives are believed to have inhabited sections along Nine Mile Pond, the Chicopee River, Spectacle Pond (Spec Pond) and the hilly mountain area during the Plantation Period (1620-1675) - where they operated a three- season campground.  The Chicopee River lowlands and the moderately sloping uplands in northwestern Wilbraham
would have offered abundant natural resources to these early settlers. There have also been smaller unidentified native campsites found in the eastern uplands.  

Good agricultural land was present in the northwest and the southeast and the Chicopee River was a major source of fish.  Spectacle and Nine Mile Ponds provided excellent interior stream fishing as well. The wooded uplands and marshlands likely provided sites for hunting and gathering.  They presumably trapped beaver in cool streams, speared
salmon in river waters, hunted deer and fowl and gathered berries and nuts."


  1. Thank you for the post. This is a great article of native Americans culture!

  2. Very interesting article about a subject which fascinated me since my childhood growing up in the region ( East Longmeadow ) where I would find arrowheads in my driveway after rainfall , ax heads in the meadow , large geometric mounds ( now under a gated community ) ,and pottery shards ; all unexcavated professionally but instead gathered randomly by us kids and the old local farmer of the time. This was located in the Wauchaug Brook and Scantic River areas in the three corners intersection of East Longmeadow ,Hampden, and Somers , Connecticutt...It all conjurs images of N.C. Wyeths beautiful illustrations from "Last of the Mohicans" ( different tribe I know but similar time period / woodland Indian culture )

    1. We always looked for arrowheads on Wilbraham Mountain and never found a one!

  3. off of main street in indian orchard , is a street called indian leap street. Weather myth or historical fact is gained its title as being a site where native Americans would leapinto the Chicopee river which flows in a westerly direction from Ludlow .Traveling easterly up the river was a small island where aritifacts were found in what could best be described as firepits on the island . Several years ago pottery shards were found indicating it had been an active encampment site