Their history is our history: Native Americans on Cape Ann

The Pawtucket people inhabited the shores of Gloucester for thousands of years. We still have a chance to learn from their legacy.


MIla Barry

Plaque commemorating French explorer Samuel de Champlain who came ashore on Rocky Neck in 1606. He and his crew had peaceful encounters with the Pawtucket people, who built the causeway connecting Rocky Neck to East Gloucester.

Just short of a year ago, when the school year was drawing to a close, I decided to pursue some anthropological research as a summer project. In the face of the climate crisis, I wanted to learn more about the relationship between Gloucester’s people and the land. I interviewed several biologists, checked out library books, and made what you might call a foray into the expected. The information was new, but the narrative very familiar; postcolonial fishing and quarrying industries, overfishing and urbanization, the nature of our ecosystem services. It was quintessentially Gloucester. 

Things took an unexpected turn, however, when it occurred to me that I should try to dig up some information on the history of Native American people in Gloucester. I knew virtually nothing, besides the fact that tribes once inhabited these shores, so I turned to Mary Ellen Lepionka, a local historian, anthropologist, and rare authority on the subject. The depth of what she was able to tell me was incredible, but the experience was surprising. 

Yet the makers and tellers of history – the patrons of our past – prove to be quite close by. What we choose to remember and what we choose to forget can have a profound effect on the direction of the future.  ”

Gloucester is a city with a strong sense of itself, yet Native Americans seemed completely exempt from the cultural narrative. I really didn’t have any idea how profound and relevant Native American history is to Cape Ann.  According to an article by Lepionka, the last Tolba Menhan Intertribal Powwow, held annually in August, occurred in just 2012. That’s only 9 years ago. 

It’s an oft-repeated adage that history is not as far away as we may sometimes think. The human experience is so overwhelmed with the magnitude of now, and the brevity of life. Yet the makers and tellers of history – the patrons of our past – prove to be quite close by. What we choose to remember and what we choose to forget can have a profound effect on the direction of the future.  

The Native American story is as much embedded in Cape Ann’s history as the scrappy, resilient immigrant narrative from which we draw our identity and pride. It’s different of course, as many fewer of us can claim that story as our own. But histories should be known by all, especially when they are as rich and long as this one, which seems to have been so willfully forgotten. 

I’m far from an expert, but I’ve learned a lot from the little reading I’ve done, and it’s truly fascinating stuff. I think it’s information that everyone should know a little of – about the land on which we build our lives. 

People, Politics, and Language: Who are the Pawtucket?


When the first Europeans reached the shores of North America, the Algonquian people occupied New England and large swaths of the Northern United States. These people were bound by fundamental similarities in language (the Algonquian family is a family of languages), but formed many smaller cultural groups. 

The Native American story is as much embedded in Cape Ann’s history as the scrappy, resilient immigrant narrative from which we draw our identity and pride.”

One of those groups, the Pawtucket people, made their lives in and around Essex County. They hailed originally from the Pennacook people of New Hampshire. Many of us may be familiar with a variety of words to refer to the Pawtucket – Wamesit, Agawam, and Naumkeag to name a few – but this confusion stems from an ages old misunderstanding. The Pawtucket often identified themselves to colonists according to where they were at the time of the encounter. This led colonists to believe that those living in Lawrence, for example, belonged to a different people than those in Ipswich, when they were all Pawtucket. The other names given weren’t inaccurate per se, the Europeans just didn’t understand their context.  

More specifically, according to Lepionka: “On the coast in eastern Essex County [and] on the Gulf of Maine the Pawtucket were called the Agawam, an extension of the name of their village on Castle Neck in Ipswich. On the coast in southern Essex County on Massachusetts Bay the Pawtucket were called the Naumkeag. At Pawtucket Falls in Lawrence… they were Pawtucket, and at their winter village at Lowell at the junction of the Merrimack and Concord rivers, they were the Wamesit.”


As previously stated, the Pawtucket spoke an Algonquian language. Rather like how the Romance languages of Europe evolved from Latin, the Algonquian languages have their roots in Proto-Algic and Proto-Algonquian. These original Algonquian-speaking people “were descended from the first people to occupy northeastern North America after the end of the Ice Age.”

The Eastern Algonquian language was common in New England. This language was broken down further into dialects, including the Abenaki dialects, which were spoken by the Pawtucket. 

“Eastern Algonquian languages were spoken from circum-polar regions (for example, Innu) all the way to Chesapeake Bay (for example, Powhattan),” said Lepionka, “Other, different, languages were spoken in Central Algonquian and Western Algonquian areas: in the northern plains (for example, Cheyenne); in the Great Lakes region (for example, Ojibwe or Chippewa); and in Canada (for example, Cree).”

We use many words today which have Algonquian origins, such as moose, terrapin, and quahog. 


While language may have created handy cultural indicators for ties between Native American peoples, to suggest that those reflected their political affiliations would be inaccurate. Italy, Spain, and France have always been independent entities, despite Italian, Spanish, and French sharing an ancestral language. 

Native American political structuring differed wildly from European and in many cases differed from the descriptions that early colonists were able to provide. The word ‘tribe’, though now almost universally adopted, doesn’t even really capture that nuance of the original vocabulary used to describe delineations. 

The more accurate term is band: “Bands are co-residing extended families with shifting composition and location, while tribes exist as corporate entities and occupy sovereign home territories.Groups of bands formed ties by who were led by a sachem, who was chosen from among members of a high ranking family.  

“The Algonquians of New England did not have tribes, did not have clans, did not have chieftainships, and did not have sovereign territories,” said Lepionka, But they did have a long and rich history and very complex political systems.”

Kinship was a critical part of these political systems. Bands were led by sagamores, who served as stewards of the band’s homeland, and sagamoreship passed within families. The Pawtucket life was patrilineal – focused on descent through the male line – so sagamoreship usually passed from father to son. Matrilineal organization was prevalent in other parts of the country. 

Though not well known today, sagamores and sachems held recognized leadership positions for much of Massachusetts history. 

Lepionka explained: The Salem Registry of Deeds charts documented sagamores and sachems in Essex County and other counties in Massachusetts during the colonial period.”

Villages and Fisheries: How did the Pawtucket interact with the land and sea? 

You could go any number of directions when digging further into this topic, but I was most interested in exploring the ways in which the Pawtucket interacted with the land and sea. From intertidal marshland to the deep ocean, the impact of modern society is obvious. How did the Pawtucket use these same resources?

The Pawtucket fished extensively, and for many of the same species that remain popular today. 

“They built weirs to trap alewives (shad), rainbow smelts, salmon, and striped bass. Their weir on Little Good Harbor River acted like a tide mill, for example, letting fish in with a rising tide and trapping them as the tide went out. The Native people also netted mackerel, scrod, herring, and other shoal fish from the beaches and in the channels between headlands and nearby offshore islands, such as at Gap Head and Land’s End,” explained Lepionka, “They speared winter flounder and skates (thornback rays) inshore. And they fished from canoes in the ocean as far as two miles out to sea. They speared cod, bluefish, and sea bass on Stellwagen Bank. They also used hooks and lines to catch prized deep sea fish, such as anglerfish and swordfish.”

Shellfisheries were also prevalent. 

“[The Pawtucket] harvested oyster, clam, scallop, and quahog meats to eat, and preserved them by drying to reconstitute in winter stews and to trade with inland people.”

Evidence of these activities remains in the places where the Packtucket harvested and processed much of this seafood. Shell heaps, called middens, can be found on river islands across Cape Ann. 

“Little Neck in Ipswich is a shell heap. The entire seaward side of Hog (Choate) Island is a shell midden with hickory trees growing through it. There are shell heaps on Rust island at Little River and Merchants Island at Jones River,” said Lepionka, “Wheeler’s Point in Riverview is what is left of a shell midden that was 10 or 12 feet high over the entire peninsula where houses are now.”

Yet middens are not the only clues about Pawtucket life that remain in the city. We have many Algonquian derived place names. For example, Wingaersheek Beach most likely got its name from the word “Wingawecheek”. Likewise, the term Annisquam bears resemblance to “Wonasquam” (meaning end of the salt marsh), which was the name that settlers gave to the Pawtucket village in Riverview. 

The Pawtucket legacy is also evident in geographical features. 

“They built the causeway to Rocky Neck, a causeway connecting Rust Island to West Gloucester, and a causeway from Riverview to Cow Island in the Annisquam River, which now appears as part of the land,” said Lepionka, “The Algonquians also diverted streams, drained beaver ponds, and dug canals connecting the Annisquam to Essex Bay and from Essex Bay to the Ipswich River and Plum Island Sound.”

Particularly in the case of the causeways, we take for granted the ways in which the Pawtucket made their mark, disrupting and creating paths between water and land which we still rely upon. And that’s not all: “Algonquian forestry methods made Stage Fort Park and much of Dogtown into parklands.”

Other well known places, such as Folly Cove and Red Rocks were also lived and worked on by the Pawtucket. 

Lepionka said: “Pole Hill served as an astronomical observatory and possibly also as a ceremonial stone landscape. The felsite rocks in Folly Cove are the remains of an Algonquian tool manufacturing site. They mined the blue quartz at Andrews Point and the granite at Red Rocks.”

What does this have to do with modern Gloucester? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.

The foremost reason that this information remains relevant is that the descendants of the Pawtucket people live and work in our communities and deserve historic visibility. It’s also important because the Pawtucket shaped local landscapes for centuries; from Rocky Neck to Stage Fort Park, we live with their legacies and should be aware. 

This information remains relevant because the descendants of the Pawtucket people live and work in our communities and deserve historic visibility. It’s also important because the Pawtucket shaped local landscapes for centuries.”

However, there’s also great potential here to learn practical lessons about the high stakes issues that will shape Gloucester’s future. The Pawtucket certainly acted as more responsible stewards than colonial and postcolonial societies, taking advantage of natural resources and operating sustainable fisheries for thousands of years. 

As Lepionka put it: “Even with comparatively smaller Native populations living here, that is a lot of seafood being taken from the same places year after year over thousands of years! In contrast, consider how quickly the productivity of local clam flats and inshore waters has declined here within just a few lifetimes.”

Today, questions about how to maintain a robust fishery without depleting local ecosystems are at the forefront of conversation. So how did the Pawtucket do it?

“The Algonquians policed their oyster and mussel shoals, culling dead or diseased individuals and removing damaging species, such as starfish, crabs, and gastropods. They kept watch for predatory seals, which they hunted, much as their boys kept watch for crows in their corn fields. They also harvested only the largest oysters and mussels to leave room for others to grow. The Native people farmed shellfish with as much attention as they gave to their corn, squash, and beans.”

Additionally, special care was taken to preserve the viability of fisheries. Quotas, much like the ones enforced today, were employed to prevent overfishing. Fishing was even more tightly restricted during spawning periods to allow for populations to replenish. And juveniles were never harvested. Indeed it seems as though much modern conservationist philosophy already bears some resemblance to these types of practices.

There’s less to say when it comes to uniquely modern issues – such as industrialization and urbanization. But I think it’s worthwhile to mention that the causeways and canals created by the Pawtucket were examples of people altering the environment to suit their needs. They just didn’t do it in such a detrimental way and to such an irreversible extent – another lesson that might be worthy of our attention.   

The bottom line – Native American history remains practical and relevant as we navigate the future of this coastal community. It’s not just an anthropological interest, but a living, breathing part of this city’s past and present. 

Native American history remains practical and relevant as we navigate the future of this coastal community. It’s not just an anthropological interest, but a living, breathing part of this city’s past and present. ”

The Pawtucket were stewards of these shores and we share with them a care for this land. Our commitment to its protection will be proven if we successfully manage the implications of urban growth, resource consumption, climate change, and sea level rise in the next few decades.  

“If we could do this, Cape Ann might become a place of thriving maritime science industries and arts and culture organizations,” said Lepionka, “—a continuing pride and joy for us and our descendants a thousand years from now, as it undoubtedly was for those who were here a thousand years ago.”