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Watertown Dam

The Natick Community and the Watertown Dam

Last month the Junto blog shared an interesting essay by Zachary M. Bennett, “Damming Fish and Indians: Starvation and Dispossession in Colonial Massachusetts.”

Bennett writes:

Compared to other Native Americans in southern New England, the Ninnimissinuok community of Natick, Massachusetts seemed to have secure footing going into the eighteenth century. Located only fifteen miles outside of Boston on the Charles River, Natick was the largest community of Native American converts to Christianity—or “Praying Indians”—in mainland New England with a population exceeding two hundred persons. These Praying Indians owned their land in corporation to safeguard their enclave against land hungry colonists. . . .

In 1738, colonists downstream in Watertown raised a dam several feet on the Charles River that blocked migrating sea-run (anadromous) fish. Spring fish runs were of vital importance to Natick. Native people depended on these fish for half their yearly supply of animal protein and were also an important fertilizer for New England’s notoriously thin soil. Although Massachusetts law required the operators of the Watertown Dam to allow fish to pass by building a fish ladder, on the Charles River corrupt local officials looked the other way. Natick’s Praying Indians protested. . . .

To placate Indian petitioners, the [Massachusetts General Court] committee ordered that portions of the Watertown Dam punctured by the winter ice not be repaired until May, giving migrating fish a slightly lower structure to scale. This was a deceiving concession because the General Court granted dam owners full discretion to adhere to this judgement: if they deemed the water too low to power their mills sufficiently, only the approval of five selectmen from Watertown and adjoining Newtown [sic]—communities directly invested in the smooth running of these mills—was required to raise the dam during the May fish run. . . .

For Natick, the loss of river fish a few years before the outbreak of King George’s War in 1744 was particularly bad timing. Nearly all able-bodied Praying Indian men served in this conflict and they suffered significantly higher mortality rates than their Anglo comrades in arms.

In addition, Daniel Gookin wrote in 1792, the Natick soldiers “brought home a mortal disease, of which twenty three died in the year 1759.”

As a result of those factors, Bennett writes, “land sales in the community rose 150% in the 1740s.” Gookin reported: “In the year 1763, according to a census then taken, there were thirty seven Indians only in Natick; but in this return, probably the wandering Indians were not included.” By 1792, he judged that “The Indians in Natick are now reduced to one family of five persons, and two single women.” Of course, many more people of Natick descent were still living in Massachusetts—but they were no longer recognized as Indians or no longer had their own land in Natick to live on.