Magunkaquog, Ashland , MA Projects  

Magunkaquog, "a place of great trees" was the last of the original seven "Christian Indian" communities" established during the seventeenth century by the English missionary John Eliot. Established by 1660, Magunkaquog was located "Well South of Boston about twenty-four miles, near the midway between Natick and Hassanamesitt" according to Daniel Gookin who served as superintendent of Indians for the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the seventeenth century. The Fiske Center has been involved in research surrounding the community at Magunkaquog since 1996 when excavations at the Magunkaquog Hill Site in Ashland, Massachusetts began. Subsequent excavations, analysis and documentary research has evolved into a larger collaboration with the Nipmuc Tribal Nation that focuses on the archaeological and documentary investigation of Nipmuc History that also involves Fiske Center excavations at Hassanamesit Woods. The overall goal of this collaboration is to use archaeology as one means for examining recent and deeper Nipmuc history. An equally important goal is to add archaeological evidence to the corpus of information the Nipmuc Tribal Nation has compiled in seeking federal recognition.

Originally discovered during a CRM survey for a large housing development by the Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the Magunkaquog Hill site is believed to be the meetinghouse of the original seventeenth century community. Excavations carried out by the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research (then known as the Center for Cultural and Environmental History) at the University of Massachusetts Boston during 1997 and 1998 focused on the remains of a dry-laid foundation that contained a large assemblage of material culture. Large block excavation and sampling of the area surrounding the foundation revealed that most of the material was deposited either in or immediately around the foundation. There was some evidence of yard use, especially the remains of a small hearth, but few other features. The site assemblage contains several categories of material culture of European, primarily English manufacture plus a smaller, but highly significant collection of Native American manufactured items. Although the assemblage spans a period of roughly a century (1650-1750) the bulk of the assemblage can be more tightly dated to the period 1675-1725. This period was punctuated by the conflict known both as King Philip’s War and Mettacomet’s Rebellion that had a devastating impact on both the Native American and English communities. During the conflict many of the inhabitants of the seven “Praying Indian” communities were taken to Deer Island in Boston harbor where many died during the winter of 1675-1676. Some historians believed that some of the towns, including Magunkaquog were essentially abandoned after the conflict, but archaeology at Magunkaquog Hill counters this interpretation. There is both documentary and material evidence to suggest that the community remained active at least until 1720 when the land was purchased by Harvard College so that it could be leased to English colonists. This was one of the stipulations of the Hopkinton Trust that was established to administer the funds left to Harvard by Edward Hopkinton. With additional lands provided by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Harvard was able to lease out lands to English colonists thereby provided funds for the college and furthering English colonization, the two stipulations of Edward Hopkins will. The town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts that borders Ashland where Magunkaquog Hill is located was named after Edward Hopkins.

The documentary evidence pertaining to the sale of Magunkaquog reveal a confusing and contentious environment in which Natick Indians appear to have signed off on the sale while those at Magunkaquog were against it. The depth of the feelings against the sale are evidenced by the fact that one of original signatories of the agreement, Isaac Nehemiah, hung himself with his own belt after the sale was completed. An archaeological record that indicates the dynamic and fluid quality of the encounter that unfolded at Magunkaquog matches this kind of dramatic historical evidence. Although much of the material assemblage is of European and in particular English origin, there is other evidence that suggests a spiritual continuity thousands of years deep. The main reason we believe the Magunkaquog Hill site is the original meetinghouse for the community is that the foundation appears to be of “English Style” and it appears to have been furnished in a minimalist fashion. If there is a noteworthy characteristic of the assemblage as a whole it is its internal consistency meaning that it seems to represent a small number of pieces of furniture including a bed, small chest of drawers, perhaps a single drawer, and chairs. This is based on a set of bed current rings, a single set of matching drawer pulls and escutcheon plates as well as a small assemblage of star-shaped chair tacks. There is also horse furniture including bridle and saddle parts. The assemblage also contains a small collection of thimbles that may be linked to the kind of schooling in the domestic arts that was supposed to be a part of the training “Christian Indians” were to receive from their leader whose job it was to train them in as they the ways of the English. This at least was the picture that John Eliot and Daniel Gookin painted of the communities that they would visit staying in the meetinghouses that they describe as containing English furnishings and being the storage place for much of what the Native groups owned.

Just how accurate this picture may have been is called into question by the material culture recovered from inside and around the foundation on Magunkaquog Hill. There is a small hearth located outside the foundation that contained calcined bone and the residue of quartz cobbles that were being heat-treated. Quartz crystals were recovered from three of the four corners of the interior of the foundation. In at least two instances they were recovered from what appear to have been small, discrete pits. There was no evidence of an interior hearth associated with the building. In addition to the quarts crystals there were also several examples of quartz gunflints. The late Barbara Luedtke analyzed these gunflints and concluded that they exhibited manufacture and use-wear patterns that were distinctly Native American. In particular she noted that there was use-wear and retouch evidence on all four sides of the spall gunflints that she felt was evidence of Native use. One additional category of material culture that suggests a continued Native presence at Magunkaquog Hill were several examples of English manufactured red-paste earthenwares that had fire-blackened exteriors. In an 18th century English household context such vessels would have been used for food preparation, but would not have been placed directly on fires.

The evidence of blackening suggests the pots were used in a manner consistent with long-standing Native American cooking practices of placing pots directly on fires. The excavations at Maguno Hill suggest a process of cultural transformation that involved both negotiation and cultural vibrancy. The trappings of English culture represented by the material culture recovered from around the foundation could be interpreted as evidence of English cultural practices. Such an interpretation would also be consistent with the images of the “Praying Indian” communities contained in the writings of Eliot and Gookin. From the antiquated perspective of an acculturation paradigm one could easily interpret this material culture from the site as evidence for the adoption of an English materiality by the inhabitants of Magunkaquog. A more nuanced interpretation however points in a different direction: the continuing role of quartz crystals, lithic technologies, and foodways practices suggest a deeper cultural continuity that runs counter to the notion that Native American identities were lost as a direct result of cultural assimilation. It also points to the importance of searching for deeper connections that transcend the false dichotomy between history and prehistory that many archaeologists continue to reinforce.

The concentration of English material culture in this one location suggests that it could have served as a “show place” where the Magunkaquog could display their adoptive “English ways”. This same space may have also served seamlessly as a locus of cultural perseverance and change. Attributing this kind of intentionality and agency to Magukaquog’s residents and leaders is certainly speculative, however, it is consistent with practices documented in other colonial contexts as evidence of interpolation, the reinterpretation of new cultural forms in familiar tropes.


Stephen A. Mrozowski, Holly Herbster, David Brown and Katherine L. Priddy (2009) Magunkaquog Materiality, Federal Recognition, and the Search for a Deeper History. International Journal of Historical Archaeology Volume 13, Number 4, 430-463

Related Masters Theses

Mohler, P. J. (2000). Soil Phosphate Analysis: The Evaluation of a New Testing Method. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.

Murphy, J. P. (2002). Crystal Quartz from Magunkaquog. Unpublished Masters Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston.

Herbster, H. (2005) The Documentary Archaeology of Magunkaquog. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA