Erasure: The Forgotten Native American History of Cape Ann and Manchester-by-the-Sea


The commonly accepted history of early Manchester-by-the-Sea credits the town’s beginnings to the endeavors of a few intrepid Puritan settlers: carpenters and fishermen of the adventurous and enterprising variety, cobbled together from the remnants of the Rev. White’s ill-fated Dorchester Company for a new beginning at Jeffrey’s Creek.

William Jeffreys, William Allen (of Manchester England) and five or six others appear in the ancient records as being the original “proprietors” of the town.  According to accepted record; into the new world of Cape Ann this “brave and resolute few” stepped to find a wilderness largely devoid of indigenous humanity.  As Manchester historian Darius Lamson wrote in his 1895 largely-accepted and definitive History of the Town of Manchester, Essex County, Massachusetts, “the country was practically unoccupied when the white man first set foot upon its shore.  The wilderness…was but a hunting ground and battlefield to a few fierce hordes of savages.”  This account has been largely echoed by subsequent historians as gospel.

“Not true” says noted (and gracious) historian and anthropologist Mary Ellen Lepionka.   Inspired by Samuel de Champlain's map of Le Beauport (Gloucester) showing a wigwam on her street near Rocky Neck in Gloucester, Lepionka began to research the prehistory of Cape Ann and the Native Americans who lived here and to document artifacts from Cape Ann held in public and private collections.  Armed with new data culled from meticulous original source research, Lepionka reeducated a packed and rapt audience of Manchester residents last Thursday at the Manchester Historical Museum’s first installment of its 375th Anniversary historical lectures, Wigwams on Sawmill Brook. 

Turns out, the original records and journals of the earliest American explorers reveal the Town’s true origins amidst a flourishing Native American population and infrastructure inhabiting New England at the time of Manchester’s first settlement.  Early explorers, including French traders and Spanish fisherman made careful note of the Native American land full of families, men, women and children building and tending extensive roads, forts, farms and cemeteries that graced the coastline from Canada to New York (and beyond) for thousands of years. 

Lepionka told attendees that Cape Ann, including Manchester, was populated by the Algonquian-speaking Pawtucket, of which the locally famous Masconomet was its local leader (not “Chief”).  Pawtucket familes occupied a small village in Manchester located at what is now Manchester Essex Conservation Trust land by Cedar Swamp.  The Pawtucket “summered” on the coast and moved frequently between their main winter village in Lowell and their summer farms and fishing villages on the coast.  They willingly traded with and sold land to the colonists (William Jeffries bought Manchester from Maconomet) and the colonists aided the Pawtucket in defending against their chief native foe, the Tarrantines of Maine.   This Native American population and infrastructure coexisted side-by-side with early settlers in an originally mutually supportive existence.

As European numbers in New England grew through the 17th century, frictions increased.  The resulting hostilities led to the extermination of much of the Eastern American native population, including the Pawtucket, starting with King Philip’s War in 1675, moving to the institutionalization of “Indian” slavery and culminating in President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.  Much of the Native American infrastructure such as roads, forts and cemeteries were assimilated by the early colonists.  In fact, Manchester’s Powder House was originally the site of a Pawtucket fort and many of our old roads (including Routes 127 and 133) were originally Native American roads.

But why is the existence of the rich indigenous civilization that coexisted with the early European settlers missing from our traditional curriculum and given over to the dismissive proclamations of Mr. Lamson and his disciples?  Lepionka places the blame on the practice of Erasure: “the modification or distortion of the historical record to downplay events or remove facts that people are not proud of, are prejudiced against, or wish to conceal as politically incorrect…  Example: Indians had no civilization and mysteriously disappeared.”

Interestingly enough, support for Lepionka’s analysis can be found in the forgotten pages of a July 1, 1875 edition of this newspaper’s predecessor, The Beetle and Wedge, in an article by Manchester’s John Lee:

“It is very evident that the Indians inhabited this township at some time in large numbers; and for a time after the English first visited the coast they undoubtedly cultivated what is now called the ‘Old Neck’ and the ‘Plain Fields’ … Tradition says the last family of Indians that inhabited this town had their wigwam at the place called ‘Nichols.’  They were very aged, and the town-people used to visit them and carry them meals and other things for their support … It is a melancholy reflection that comes over one who traces the melting away of the aboriginal possessors of the country.”

Mary Ellen Lepionka is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with a master's degree in anthropology from Boston University and post-graduate work at the University of British Columbia.  Prior to her career in the higher education textbook publishing industry, she participated in salvage archaeology on Great Neck in Ipswich and taught anthropology and history at various colleges and universities. 

Excerpts of Lepionka’s book and research can be found at and

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