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Tracing the legacy of ‘Praying Indian’ towns

 A drawing by J.A. Oertel depicts John Eliot preaching to Native Americans; by 1675, there were Praying Indian towns across the area.
A drawing by J.A. Oertel depicts John Eliot preaching to Native Americans; by 1675, there were Praying Indian towns across the area. Natick Historical Society

Before there was Hopkinton there was Megunko.

There were Okkokonimesit (Marlborough), Wamesit (Chelmsford), Nashobah (Littleton), Hassanamesit (Grafton), Punkapog (Stoughton), and Natick, too.

Despite their Native American names, these settlements were established in the 1650s by the Massachusetts General Court to house members of the Nipmuc, Massachusett, and other tribes who had converted to Christianity.

“Hopkinton was one of the original Indian Praying Towns,’’ said Ray Gendreau, program director for the Hopkinton Historical Society. “It all started with a minister named John Eliot, who was trained in England and sent here by religious groups to try to convert the natives,’’ Gendreau said.


“They figured they could not keep living with savages, ‘so let’s turn them into us.’ They gave them tidy clothes and Bibles, and moved them into houses so they were not roaming.’’

A free presentation on the lesser-known bit of Colonial history, “Rev. John Eliot, the Praying Indians & Megunko Plantation,’’ will be held at 2 p.m. next Sunday at the Hopkinton Historical Society, 168 Hayden Rowe St., in conjunction with the Ashland Historical Society.

In 1646, Eliot famously converted a Massachusett leader named Waban while preaching in what today is Newton. Waban led the way to other conversions, and the founding of Natick as the first so-called Praying Indian town in 1651, Gendreau said.

The Praying Indians were expected to adopt Puritan lifestyles, and abide by a system of fines enforcing hard work, along with prohibitions on sex out of wedlock, long hair on men, and short hair on women.

By 1675, 14 Praying Indian towns dotted what was then frontier, spreading from the Merrimac River south into Connecticut and even to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

But the events of 1675 ended Megunko and many of the other Praying Indian towns, according to historian Paul Brodeur. That was the year of King Philip’s War, a violent uprising of several tribes across New England.


“The war caused an incredible amount of damage along the frontier . . . At the very least, the towns were destroyed or abandoned. Settlements along the Connecticut River suffered the same fate, with only Springfield and some of the larger towns that were fortified surviving,’’ Brodeur said.

That winter also saw the massacre of a family of settlers on an isolated homestead a few miles away from Megunko, said Brodeur, who will detail the sad history during the presentation next Sunday afternoon in Hopkinton.

The uprising caused such harsh sentiment against the local tribes that the Praying Indians were first confined to their towns under penalty of death, and were later imprisoned by the hundreds on Deer Island and Long Island in Boston Harbor. More than half died of starvation, exposure, and illness before the war ended in 1676.

“In a larger sense, King Philip’s War was important in creating the model for how we later treated Indians all across the country,’’ Brodeur said. “The Indians were treated as savages. The English and those who followed them refused to work in cooperation. The atrocities committed mostly were whites against the Indians, and pretty much ignored.

“They were pushed onto controlled reservations. You couldn’t sell them guns or alcohol. Their movements were restricted,’’ he said. “It happened all across the country and it happened here first. It’s a sad lesson. Even today, we haven’t figured out how to deal with the American Indian.’’


Not all Praying Indian towns vanished like Megunko after King Philip’s War. Some of Eliot’s disciples returned to Natick upon their release from Deer Island. Traces of their settlement along the Charles River can still be found in South Natick.

The headstone for Daniel Takawambait - one of the first Praying Indians to become an ordained minister - sits in the shadow of Eliot Church, overlooking Route 16. Across the street stands a spire memorializing Takawambait’s mentor - Eliot - as “Apostle to the Indians.’’

Just footsteps away in the basement of the Bacon Free Library, the Natick Historical Society has a 1685 edition of a Bible that Eliot and his converts translated into Algonquin. Originally printed in 1663, the Eliot Bible was the first to be printed in America, according to the American Antiquarian Society, which has had its own copy for 200 years. Eliot also published an Algonquin grammar primer.

“We take the school groups around our property and we go through the history and it just knocks their socks off,’’ said Jennifer Hance, executive director of the Natick Historical Society, which also boasts a wooden pulpit built for Takawambait by his followers some time after he took over the ministry from Eliot, who died in 1690.

Takawambait kept the church going for another 25 years before his own death in 1716, Hance said. His headstone, a remarkable example of an English-style cradle-end marker, complete with death’s head imagery, is believed to be the first tombstone for a Native American, she said.


The exact location of Takawambait’s grave, however, is unknown, since the burial ground was replaced with buildings and what is now Pleasant Street.

Still, Rosita Andrews of Stoughton, a descendant of the Natick Praying Indians, praises the Natick Historical Society for keeping her people’s history alive.

“This is such an integral part of the history of this country, and this country does not know about it. It is a foundation stone,’’ said Andrews, whose tribal name is Chief Caring Hands.

“The tragedy is it also was the first internment - a prisoner of war camp. It would have remained just a tragedy had it not been for the hearts of the Praying Indians who found forgiveness in their faith. We are still offering that gift of forgiveness and pardon.

“This is a living history,’’ Andrews added. “We still exist.’’

Jose Martinez can be reached at martinezjose1@mac.com.