Algonkians in New England
By: Nancy Bonvillain
Aboriginal people of southern New England produced crops in addition to the abundant supplies of natural plant and animal resources available in their territories. Farming was primarily the responsibility of women. They planted, corn, beans, squash, and artichokes in fields cleared by groups of women and men. Tobacco was also grown, although, among the Narragansetts and possibly others, men were the producers.
According to Roger Williams’s observations of the Narragansetts in the early seventeenth century, women and men cooperated in joint agricultural labor although the bulk of farming work was women’s domain:
The Women set or plant, weede, and hill, and gather and barne all the corne, and Fruites of the field: Yet sometimes the man himselfe (either out of love to his Wife, or care for his Children, or being and old man) will help the Woman.
When a field is to be broken up [readied for planting] they have a very loving sociable speedy way to dispatch it. All the neighbours men and Women forty, fifty, a hundred &C, joyne and come to help freely.
With friendly joyning they breake up their fields, build their Forts, hunt the Woods, stop and kill fish in the Rivers, it being true with them: By concord little things grow great, by discord the greatest come to nothing. (Williams 1643: 98-99)
Horticulture produced a substantial harvest, at least where the soil was fertile and weather warm. Among Narragansetts in the seventeenth century, “The woman of the family will commonly raise two or three heaps of twelve, fifteene, or twenties bushels a heap, and if she have helpe of her children or friends, much more.” (Williams 1643: 98-99)
Algonkian women also gathered a wide variety of wild plants, including many kinds of berries, fruits, and nuts. Among the animals hunted by men, deer were the most important, contributing as much as 90 percent of the meat eaten. (Salwen 1970: 6) Deer were caught in traps or stalked by hunters. Communal drives, sometimes involving several hundred people (e.g. among the Narragansetts, Mohegans, and Massachusetts) were organized to hunt deer in the fall. Men also caught freshwater and saltwater fish and hunted many species of waterfowl. In Atlantic coastal regions, women collect shellfish such as clams, oysters, scallops, and lobsters. They were joined in the pursuit by children and sometimes by men too old for the hunt.
Native people of southern New England changed their residences according to seasonal economic pursuits. In the summertime, they dispersed to the seashores in small family groups. They planted fields near the coast, often at a distance of a mile or more from each other. In addition to small summer villages consisting of a cluster of houses, people erected temporary shelters when they travelled to fishing stations or to sites for collection of shellfish or wild plants. After harvesting crops in the fall, people moved inland to the forests to hunt deer. There they gathered in larger numbers and cooperated in communal hunts. Some villages were surrounded by stockades in the early seventeenth century, possibly in pre-contact times as well. Among the Pequots in Connecticut, for instance, a stockade village contained 300 or 400 residents. Although members of such large settlements were usually related, the basis for residential affiliation was flexible. People changed village association depending on resource supplies, available land, and family composition.
The historical literature describing societies of the region is unclear concerning aboriginal social systems. For some people, such as the Narragansetts and Pequots, exogamous matrilineal [lived with and traced family lines through mother] clans assigned social identity and controlled descent and marriage. For others, such as the Mohegans, descent could be traced through either matrilineal or patrilineal [father] kin.
Village leadership was vested in a chief, or “sachem,” whose position tended to be inherited through patrilineal lines, although a son was not necessarily his father’s successor. Claims of rights to inherit could also be made by appealing to matrilineal descent. Women, too, could assume sachemships among people of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and Virginia (Grumet 1980: 49-52). For instance, in 1673, George Fox, a Quaker minister, reported meeting “…the old Empress [of Accomark] [who] sat in council” in her town in Maryland (Fox 1952: 653). And in 1705 Robert Beverley mentioned two women sachems in his description of Indians of Virginia: “Pungoteque, Govern’d by a Queen, but a small nation” and “Naduve. A seat of the Empress. Not about 20 families, but she hath all the Nations of this shore under Tribute” (Beverley 1947: 232).
Sachems had influence and authority in their territory, usually confined to a relatively small area where resources were collected and the land was farmed by a group of related extended families (Brasser 1971: 65). A sachem’s role was one of advisor and leader, but he/she did not have coercive power. Writing of the Narragansetts, Williams observed that sachems did not act or make decisions in ways “…to which the people are averse, and by gentle perswasion cannot be brought” (1643: 134). Similarly, of New England nations, Gookin noted that since people could readily leave the village or territory of a particular sachem if they were dissatisfied with local leadership, “…sachems have not their men in such subjugation, but that very frequently their men will leave them upon distaste or harsh dealings, and go and live under other sachems that can protect them” (1972: 154).