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Volume 37 Issue 16 • August 10 - 16, 2007 now in our 37th season

Flight to Hyannis

by Frances Karttunen

On September 29, 1764, George Hussey placed this notice in the Boston Evening Post:

Nantucket:  Run away in the Night of the 24th, an Indian Servant Boy, about 14 Years of Age, named Joe Caleb.  Whoever will take up said Boy and convey him to Nathaniel Wheatley in Boston or Clothier Pierce in Newport or to me here shall have FIVE DOLLARS Reward and all necessary Charges paid.

P.S. It’s supposed he landed near Hyannis.

Almost as soon as they began living on Nantucket in 1659, English settlers began taking Wampanoag boys and girls into their homes as indentured servants.  It was not easy keeping them, however.  Young Wampanoags found life in English households onerous and did their best to get out of arrangements into which they had been thrust against their will.  After barely a decade on-island, the English proprietors felt they had to establish a disincentive for anyone inclined to lend a helping hand: “If any person, English or Indian, at any time carry in any vessel any Indian servant, whosoever shall carry any such person off the island without orders from his master shall be fined twenty shillings.”

So fourteen-year-old Joe Caleb set out across Nantucket Sound headed for Hyannis in the dead of night all on his own.  Was he just running away from household chores or a working apprenticeship?  Or was he fleeing something much worse?

Beginning about twelve months before his flight and continuing on into the new year of 1764, something horrific happened to Nantucket’s Wampanoags. Only since 1988 has the site of the tragedy been marked in a low-key sort of way. On the west side of Surfside Road, outbound toward the south shore, just beyond Miacomet Road, lies a fenced open field.  In late spring and summer it is often filled with yellow flowers, putting on a cheery face at odds with its history.  The only identifying marker is a roadside boulder inscribed with the words “Miacomet Indian Burial Ground.” It has been suggested that there should be more informative signage and that educational fieldtrips should be arranged for Nantucket students and visitors to the island.  Wampanoag elders from Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod prefer, however, that the place be left in peace.

In this field were interred the victims of a fatal epidemic that worked its way through the Wampanoag village of Miacomet during the fatal winter of 1763-64.  The first to die was Mary Norquata, a woman employed as a washerwoman in a laundry in the English town.  She brought the pathogens, whatever they were, home to Miacomet, and by the time the epidemic wound down, it had taken the lives of two hundred twenty-two of her fellow Wampanoags.  In 1890 a list of the names of the victims came to light, written into an old Bible.  From this list it appears that about two thirds of the people who died were women and children.

Whole families were wiped out.  Wampanog Tom Never is commemorated in the place name Tom Never’s Head, but after 1764 there was no living person to carry on the surname.  Seven members of the Never family had died in the epidemic.  Likewise the Poppoma family lost seven members, as did the family descended from weaver Jeremiah Netowar. The family losing the most members, nine in all, was the Spotso family, descended from Sachem Spoospotswa and Queen Sachem Askammaboo,  Of the descendants of the Indian Justice Corduda, five died. The Chegin family, for whom Chicken Hill was named, also lost five, as did the Micah family and the Panchame family.  Four members of the Tashama family, whose name lives on as Tashama Farm, succumbed. The list goes on and on.

Despite the English proprietors’ efforts to keep Nantucket Wampanoags on Nantucket, there was constant travel back and forth, and this travel transmitted the epidemic to other places.  A Wampanoag woman from Nantucket carried the infection to Mashpee, an Indian town on Cape Cod, and communicated it to a local resident before she died and was buried in a wigwam there.  Sam Pocknett of Mashpee picked up the disease on a visit to Nantucket and brought it home as well. The disease also reached Martha’s Vineyard, where fifty-two Wampanoags were infected, and twenty-nine died. Nowhere, however, were there so many deaths as at Miacomet.

Ironically, being an indentured servant, however hateful that might have been, proved to be protective. Whatever the vector of the deadly disease was, it traveled neither by human breath (as small pox does) nor by wings (as yellow fever does).  From Miacomet to Sherburne (as the English town was called at that time) it spread not at all. The English families remained untouched, and so did the Wampanoag boys and girls, including Joe Caleb, living so reluctantly with them.

When the epidemic finally burned itself out, there were fewer than a hundred and fifty Wampanoags left alive on Nantucket.  Some had been sick and recovered.  Six who lived at Madaket had escaped unscathed.  Some had been at sea on whaling vessels and returned to find their wives and children dead and gone, and some had survived in the mysterious safety of English homes.

By the end of the century, the number of Wampanoags residing on Nantucket had fallen to fewer than twenty.  What had become of the survivors?  Piecing together scraps of information from many sources, it is possible to account for about sixty-five of them.

Sam Robin moved with his wife and child to Mashpee.  He probably was not the only one to take this route; Mashpee population figures for the years after the epidemic rise as Nantucket’s Wampanoag population numbers fall.

Some men whose wives died in the epidemic found new ones from Nantucket’s black community.  Schoolmaster Benjamin Tashama, who lost his wife and also the children who had attended his school, married a black woman named Jenny Richards and moved to the village of New Guinea where Nantucketers of African heritage were just beginning to concentrate.  An 1821 map shows his house, by then occupied by his granddaughter, located close to the current intersection of Prospect Street and Atlantic Avenue. In the early 1800s Essex Boston—son of African slaves on Nantucket—issued a statement on behalf of himself and his neighbors that most of the New Guinea families were descended in part from “Indians of this place.”  His brother Seneca had, in fact, married a surviving member of the Micah family.

Missing the good fortune of finding new domestic arrangements, some men lost their lives to violence.  Before the decade of the 1760s was out, Joel Elica and Simon Hews had been hanged for murder.  Nathan Quibby went the same route for the triple murder of three fellow Wampanoags—Peleg Titus, Isaac Jeffrey, and John Charles.

Some survivors just endured in solitude.  Nantucket historian Zaccheus Macy remarked on two old Wampanoag whalemen, Isaac Tashama and Peter Micah, living in decrepitude in 1790.  Jacob Barker recalled Peter Micah as well and added a third to the company, an old man known as Joshua “Chicken” (Chegin). R. A. Douglass-Lithgow published a list of twenty-five or so women and four or five men who survived into 1790s and a bit beyond.  By 1810, Obed Macy’s list was down to seven or eight women.  At the time of their deaths in the early 1820s, Sarah Esop and Abigail Jethro  were considered Nantucket’s “last Indians,” but then the designation was passed on to Abram Quary and Dorcas Honorable, who died within six weeks of each other in the winter of 1854-55.  Abram and Dorcas, both born in the years soon after the epidemic, were perhaps the last two children to be raised as Nantucket Wampanoags. Abram outlived his wife and children.  Dorcas practiced serial monogamy—five husbands in all—but remained childless. Because she changed names so often, it was inevitable that she would be confused with some other Dorcas, and from this confusion has arisen the mistaken belief that she had a daughter through whom Nantucket’s Wampanoag heritage was passed on.

Eighty or more epidemic survivors remain missing and unaccounted for.  One of them was fourteen-year-old Joe Caleb, who slipped away one night, cast off, and headed for Hyannis.

Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, is available at bookstores and from Spinner Publications, New Bedford. Look for Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket in bookstores this summer.

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