Native Americans of Cape Ann

Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1567–1635), le Beau port, map drawn for Les Voyages. Originally printed in Paris, 1613. Cape Ann Museum. Gift of Tamara Greeman, 2011 [acc. #2011.34].


The map from "Les Voyages" in the Cape Ann Gallery is an especially noteworthy document in CAM's historical collection. Drawn from the explorations of Samuel de Champlain in 1604 and 1606, it is one of the earliest renderings of Gloucester harbor, "le Beau port."

The Champlain map illustrates recognizable features of the local landscape, such as Rocky Neck, Eastern Point and Ten Pound Island. On closer examination, it also reveals something else quite significant - the extent of Native American settlements along our shores. The map depicts dwellings, planted crops and managed woodlots. Who were these Indigenous people, and what kind of lives did they lead? Much of their story has been lost to history, but recent scholarship by local historians such as Mary Ellen Lepionka, along with the collection of artifacts and archival documents at the Museum, is helping uncover a fuller picture of this thriving community.

At the time of the Champlain encounters, the native people were the Pawtucket, part of the Algonquian-speaking confederacies of the Northeast. The Pawtucket were recent migrants into Essex County and were descendants of Algonquian-speaking people who lived in New England from around 3,000 years ago. Evidence of their presence can be found throughout Cape Ann. Ancient shell piles or "middens" on the shores of the Essex River and the Annisquam River mark the sites of summer encampments visited over centuries. The Pawtucket had a village in Riverview, Gloucester, and a surviving rock formation on Pole's Hill served as a solar observatory, with boulders aligned to mark astronomical events such as the summer and winter solstices. The Museum's collection of pottery sherds, arrowheads, fishhooks, woodworking tools, and agricultural tools provide a glimpse of everyday life.

The language and customs of the Pawtucket were little understood by Champlain and his men, leading to misunderstanding and potential conflict. In a fascinating detail, the Champlain map portrays an example of one such misunderstanding, a presumed "ambush" by the Pawtucket on Champlain’s party at Rocky Neck. A close look shows the French raising the alarm while the Pawtucket dance in a circle on the beach at Smith’s Cove. (According to Champlain’s account, he is one of the men shown, along with his second in command, Poitrincourt, and the captain of his marines, raising the alarm.)

By the early 17th century, the Pawtucket were living alongside English settlers. Fearing raids by the Tarrantines, enemies from the North, the Pawtucket welcomed the protection of the new settlers (the “Tarrantines” were the Micmac, Passamoquoddy, Maliseet, and sometimes Penobscot). Masconomet, the hereditary leader or "sagamore," sold his farm in Ipswich and other Pawtucket homelands to John Winthrop, Jr. Earlier, in 1629, Masconomet had rented cropland on Cape Ann to John Endicott, governor of the New England Company at Beverly-Salem. 

Over time, native populations in coastal New England were ravaged by European diseases and greatly diminished in number. During the 1670s, the tranquil coexistence of the Pawtucket and the English came to an end following a disastrous Wampanoag war against the English in which the Pawtucket had tried to remain neutral. The native people in Essex County fled to northern New Hampshire and Vermont or to Canada, or were confined to reservations on the frontiers, or were forced into involuntary servitude in the towns. Gradually, their history, the memory of them, and their role in shaping the American nation were largely erased.

The Cape Ann Museum presents and celebrates the people, history, art and culture of this special region. As the Museum prepares for its 150th anniversary, and Gloucester its 400th anniversary of the first European settlement on Cape Ann, the story of this area’s Indigenous people needs to be further explored and told anew. With its collection, programs and scholarship, the Museum is well poised to play a role in this important initiative.

— Ed Becker, CAM Docent, with special thanks to Mary Ellen Lepionka, author and historian 

Please visit our online exhibit, Unfolding Histories, for more on this history.

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