INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ DAY: The Naumkeag Tribe, Marblehead’s original inhabitants

This Indigenous Peoples’ Day Oct. 9, it’s interesting to note that long before European settlers arrived in what is now Marblehead, the area was home to the Naumkeag people, part of the larger Massachusett tribe. Naumkeag history and heritage are deeply intertwined with the coastal town’s origins.  

A photo of the 1684 deed that hangs in Abbot Hall: A testament to the Naumkeag Tribe’s legacy and rightful claim to the lands of Marblehead before Colonial settlements. COURTESY PHOTO

The Naumkeags were one of several Algonquin-speaking tribes in the coastal regions of present-day Massachusetts. Their sachem, or chief, was Nanepashemet, who oversaw territories from Salem to Gloucester. Native people had inhabited the area for millennia, evidenced by abundant archaeological sites.

When English colonists established Salem in 1626, Nanepashemet agreed to a peace treaty and mutual aid. But the partnership was cut short when Nanepashemet was killed in 1619, leaving his surviving wives Squaw Sachem and Wenaumet to lead the Naumkeag.

In the following decades, Naumkeag settlements dotted the shoreline and interior hills of Marblehead, with Native place names like Mugford, Wigwam Hill and Powder House surviving today. The people sustained themselves through agriculture, fishing and hunting.

After Nanepashemet’s death, colonists and Naumkeag relations grew more fractured. The Naumkeags were hesitant to convert to Christianity or adopt English customs. Squaw Sachem continued to assert Naumkeag territorial rights.

In 1649, Marblehead was officially incorporated as its own township, separate from Salem. But the Native American presence remained strong. In an account by settler Robert Moulton, he described the many Naumkeag survivors in Marblehead during King Philip’s War, evidence that it was still part of their ancestral land.

Despite Naumkeag occupation, Marblehead’s claim to the land originated with the 1629 royal charter establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony. After the charter was revoked in 1684, the Naumkeag survivors and heirs moved to reassert their territorial rights.

Native American skeletons were exhumed in Marblehead on Nov. 10 and 11 in 1874. COURTESY PHOTO / ESSEX INSTITUTE

Sagamore George or George No-Nose, the grandson of Nanepashemet and Squaw Sachem, came forward as the heir to Marblehead lands. No-Nose agreed to sell the territory for 16 pounds sterling. But before the deed could be signed, he passed away.

In September 1684, No-Nose’s widow Ahawayet and other Naumkeag descendants signed the deed with their marks. The original recording took place in Salem, with spelling changes in the copy that remains today.

The sale of Marblehead represented the significant loss of land and territory experienced by Native communities across New England in the colonial era. Yet the 1684 deed also represents an important legal acknowledgement of Naumkeag ownership and rights.

Today, the deed hangs in Abbot Hall, in the Select Board Room. It serves as a symbol of the Naumkeag people who inhabited the area for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.

Other traces of this indigenous past remain. Archaeological excavations in Marblehead continue to uncover Naumkeag artifacts. Native place names dot the local landscape.

And in the deed itself, the marks of Ahawayet, Weecowet, Nanesemt, Ned and John Umpee represent the long history of Marblehead’s original inhabitants, the Naumkeag people, and their heritage as part of the town’s founding origins.

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