First Known Inhabitants of Massachusetts

The first people to live in North America were Paleoindians who came from Asia at least 14,000 years ago after they crossed over the Bering land bridge. They lived during the Paleoindian Period, which took place between 12,000 to 9,000 B.P.

PaleoIndians in Massachusetts:

These Paleoindians became the first known inhabitants of prehistoric Massachusetts when they entered the New England region around 12,000 years ago.

These Paleoindians were nomadic hunters who followed the migrating herds of ice age animals that lived in North America, such as mammoths, giant beaver and mastadons. After the ice age animals went extinct about 10,000 years ago, the Paleoindians then hunted smaller animals, such as caribou and deer.

Mammoth and a Paleoindian
Mammoth and a Paleoindian

Despite the presence of Paleoindians in the region, only a handful of Paleo sites have been discovered in Massachusetts due to the fact that they were nomadic people who were constantly moving to follow their food source.

Around 12,000 years ago, a group of Paleoindians from the north established a site now called Wamsutta in Canton, Massachusetts.

Wamsutta was used primarily as a seasonal campground during the winter because it provided a shelter from the cold winds due to a 90 foot sandstone hill, known as Signal Hill, and because it also had plenty of animals to hunt, such as caribou and mastadons,

Since the site didn’t have any stone for making tools, the Paleoindians who visited here brought their tools with them. The tools that have been found at the site are made primarily of Mt. Jasper flow-banded rhyolite, which is a stone quarried exclusively in a prehistoric mine near Berlin, New Hamsphire, as well as Mt. Independence chert and Colchester Jasper from Vermont.

According to an article by Jim Chandler in the Massachusetts Bulletin of the Archaeological Society, as the climate and surrounding landscape continued to change, the visitors to Wamsutta eventually began settling at other nearby sites and only returned to Wamsutta occasionally:

“In the late Pleistocene the sea level rose and the earth, freed of the weight of the ice sheet, continued to rebound; the coastline of eastern Massachusetts began to take on its present contour. Finneran theorizes that as Lake Neponset continued to recede, visitors to Wamsutta traveled the Neponset River from Dorchester Bay and en route discovered a quarry of felsite at nearby Blue Hills. At other sites close to Blue Hills, archaeologists have found points of later traditions – Dalton, Hardaway, and Palmer – but only isolated specimens at Wamsutta. It appears that late-Paleolithic people settled closer to the quarry, in locations as rich in game as Wamsutta, and returned to Wamsutta only on isolated hunting forays…Thus Wamsutta experienced intense seasonal habitation 12,000 years ago, when it was a highly desirable hunting and camping site on the shore of glacial Lake Neponset, then fell into disuse with the changing terrain” (Chandler 25-26.)

Also around 12,000 years ago, a group of Paleoindians established a site, now called the Turners Falls site, in Montague, Massachusetts, which is located in the Connecticut River Valley in the western part of the state. The site is located on a sandy ridge near the Turners Fall municipal airport.

In addition, other sites around the airport show evidence of Native American occupation during the Middle and Late Archaic Period and during the Woodland Period.

Artifacts found at the Turners Falls site include fluted points, scrapers, gravers and edge tools made out of jasper.

According to an article by Timothy L. Binzen in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, life at the Turners Falls site during the Paleo period was difficult:

“Environmental conditions at that time were challenging to human settlement, and climatic fluctuations occurred both before and after the Paleoindian occupation at the site. The course of the Connecticut River itself had not fully stabilized during the period. Temperature fluctuations affected vegetation regimes as well as the combinations of faunal species that contributed to human subsistence” (Binzen 12.)

Due to the fact that only a limited range of fluted-point tools have been found at the site, it indicates that it was not repeatedly occupied by Paleoindians over a long span of time.

Around 11,000 – 10,000 years ago, a large number of Paleoindians established a site now called the Bull Brook Site, in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The site is believed to be a transitory hunting camp that was frequented by small bands of Paleoindians passing through in pursuit of herds of caribou.

Radiocarbon dates for the site range from between 11,000 to 10,500 years B.P. As a result, Bull Brook is considered one of the oldest archaeological sites in the eastern U.S. and is one of the largest Paleo-Indian settlements in North America.

According to Guy Gibbon in his book Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America, the site contains 40 different areas of activity:

“The buried site lacks clear vertical stratification; artifacts, animal and plant remains, and hearths seem concentrated in more than 40 circular ‘hot spots’ arranged in a semi-circle ca. 90 m (295 feet) across. The circles may be individual family activity areas that were occupied either at different times over the years or at the same time within a larger band settlement” (Gibbon 95.)

According to Claude Chapdelaine in his book Late Pleistocene Archaeology and Ecology in the Far Northeast, Bull Brook is considered a Paleoindian base camp:

“Base camps are a well-known, though often poorly defined, category. For the purpose of this discussion, base camps are essentially sites were various family bands would have aggregated and occupied the landscape for substantial length of time, at least well beyond the supposed few nights of a transient hunting-foraging encampment, and where a wide variety of functions were executed. Among the New Hampshire Paleoindian sites these activities might include not only subsistence activities but also tool manufacture (lithic and nonlithic), hide processing, and other processing of animal remains taken on the hunt, such as bone and antler. Less tangible but certainly congruent with larger groupings of family bands would be social intercourse, exchange (of both goods and information) and ceremonial activities. The best example of a base camp in the Northeast would be the Bull Brook site (Jordan 1960; Robinson et al. 2009) in northeastern Massachusetts and the Vail site (Gramly 1982) in western Maine” Chapdelaine 83.)

Stone tools found at Bull Brook include fluted points, scrapers, engravers, and irregular retouched flakes, many of which were made out of chert from Pennyslvania or the Hudson River Valley, indicating they may have been gifts from natives in those areas or may have possibly been obtained during visits to those locations. In addition, over 1,000 fragments of burned caribou and beaver bones have been discovered at the site.

Around 11,000 years ago, a group of Paleoindians established a site, now called the Sands of the Blackstone site, in the Blackstone River Valley in southern Massachusetts.

Stone tools found at the site include hammerstones, scrapers, projectile points, and a burnishing stone, and were made out rhyolite, chert, quartz, and quartzite. In addition, pieces of calcined bone and flecks of charcoal have also been discovered.

A total of 1,200 pieces of pre-contact cultural materials, mostly chipping debris from stone tools, have been uncovered at the site as well as 28 pieces of post-contact material.

Around 10,000 years ago, a small band of paleo hunters established a small site on the northern shore of Lake Assawompsett in Middleboro, Massachusetts, which is now an archaeology site known as Wapanucket No. 8.

The Paleoindians who occupied Wapanucket are believed to have lived in two locations at the site, the primary location, referred to as Locus 8, is located on the crest of a sand dune along the proglacial lake, and the secondary location, referred to as the Beach component, is located several hundred meters to the west along the lakeshore.

An article by James W. Bradley and Jeff Boudreau in the Bulletin of The Massachusetts Archaeological Society journal suggests a few hypothesis for who lived at Wapanucket No. 8 and when they lived there.

The first hypothesis is that they were an early group of Paleoindian migrants. Yet, the stone tools found at the site date to a later time period, which makes this hypothesis unlikely.

A second hypothesis suggests that they were a later group of migrants to the area. Yet, the presence of a few artifacts made from regional stone suggests they were not newcomers to the area and had been in the area for a while.

Bradley and Boudreau believe a third hypothesis is more likely: that Wapanucket No. 8 was one of many stopping points along a frequently traveled route between New York and New England:

“We prefer a third hypothesis – that Wapanucket No. 8 was part of a specific, possibly band-related, pattern of movement in what is now southeastern New York and southern New England. This pattern of mobility was anchored in part by the rich lithic (and other) resources of the Hudson/Champlain Valley on the west and those of the Gulf of Maine to the east. This zone of movement appears to have extended down the Hudson and possibly upper Delaware to include sites such as Port Mobil and Plenge, and east to include Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod as well as now inundated portions of the coastal plain. This area also fills some of the gap between the New England-Maritimes region…and a proposed pattern of Paleoindian settlement the Mid-Atlantic coastal plain.” (Bradley and Boudrea 69.)

Evidence of this hypothesis includes similarities between stone tools and artifacts found at Wapanucket No. 8 and the mid-Hudson Valley and Port Mobil sites in New York.

No radiocarbon dates have been obtained from Wapanucket No. 8 but it is well established that the use of fluted points among Paleoindians correlates with the Younger Dryas climatic event that occurred towards the end of the last ice age around 12,000 – 10,000 years ago.

Bradley and Boudreau’s conclusion is that the Paleoindian presence at the site is complex and not entirely clear:

“Consistent with the rest of the site, the Paleoindian presence at Wapanucket is multi-component. The primary occupation occurred at Locus 8. With its late Gainey/Butler style fluted points and diverse, non-local lithics, this appears to be a single, brief occupation and very similar to Bull Brook. The Beach component represents some other Paleoindian presence. Unfortunately, with its ‘different’ but undefined fluted points and unusual lithic assemblage, this component remains a mystery. The presence of two Ste Anne/Varney point bases indicates a Late Paleonindian presence on the site as well. We suggest that the Gainey/Butler phase occupation represents the movement of a band of Paleoindians who came from the mid-Hudson valley, bringing with them a stock of Normanskill chert plus oth chert and jasper tools as well as a few objects of ore exotic material.” (Bradley and Boudreau 69-70.)

Bradley and Boudreau suggest that the Paleoindians at Wapanucket during the early Paleo era, known as the Gainey/Butler phase, made new fluted points and resharpened their tools there, discarding what was no longer usable, which they say suggests they were headed somewhere to replenish their stock of stone materials, possible either the Boston basin or Bull Brook in Ipswich.

In addition to the handful of established Paleoindian sites in Massachusetts, sporadic and single find Paleoindian materials have also been discovered in towns such as Hadley, Mansfield, Bridgewater, Wrentham, Carver, Norwell, Hampden, Gill, Agawam, Greenfield, New Salem, Wakefield, Arlington and Watertown, Massachusetts.

The lack of Paleoindian sites in Boston has been partially attributed to sea levels rising after the ice age and submerging many existing coastal sites.

Archaic Peoples in Massachusetts:

According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s reports on Historical and Archaeological Resources in Central Massachusetts and Cape Cod, during the early Archaic Period, which took place between 9,000 to 8,000 B.P., at least 10 sites were established by Archaic peoples in central Massachusetts, at least four were established on mainland Cape Cod, two were established on Martha’s Vineyard and four on Nantucket.

Seven of the sites in central Massachusetts are located in the Chicopee Drainage area, with two sites at Quabog Pond in Brookfield, one site along a small tributary of the Quabog River in Warren, three sites along the Ware River in New Braintree and one site on the former Middle Branch of Swift River. In addition, early Archaic materials have also been found in Watertown, Arlington and Wakefield.

One of these sites in central Massachusetts, known as the Mill River site, is located in Mendon, Massachusetts.

The Mill River site contains two main areas where people are believed to have lived, a lower zone occupied during the early Archaic period and an upper zone occupied during the later Archaic period, according to an article by Stanley M. Roop in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society.

The site also contains many stone hearths and fire pits as well as refuse pits where the occupants discarded their waste, broken tools and etc.

Two of the early Archaic sites in Cape Cod are located in Harwich, Massachusetts while another is at a place called Indian Rock in Eastham, Massachusetts and another is in Chatham, Massachusetts.

In addition, four Early Archaic sites were established on Nantucket in the Squam Pond and Coskata regions.

Around 8,600 years ago, a group of Archaic people also established a site in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, which is now known as the Titicut site.

Over 6,000 artifacts have been recovered from the Titicut site, including knives, projectile points, drills, scrapers, grooved axes, gouges, celts, pestles, plummets, atlatl weights and hammerstone.

Titicut also contains 241 hearths and pits, 416 post molds, 5 red paint ceremonial deposits, burial pits and 1 rectangular lodge floor. Archaeologists believe Titicut is a multi-component site that was used from the Early Archaic period up until the contact period in 400 B.P. Titicut later became an Indian reservation after it was officially deeded to the Indians on June 9, 1664.

Excavations of the site revealed a lot about the people who lived at Titicut. For instance, a handful of the occupants died as a result of warfare with other tribes, according to an article on the Taunton River Stewardship Council website:

“One must not overlook the fact that 5 burials showed the results of raiding parties, probably Narragansett Indians. Quartz arrows were imbedded in the skeletons found in burial numbers 6, 7, 10, 16 and 17, and were inflicted on the young and defenseless. These raids probably occurred when the men of the village were off hunting or fishing. Only young children, old men and middle aged women were tending the camp at the time of conflict.”

There was also a high frequency of death before middle age at Titicut, especially among women of childbearing age, indicating many women died in childbirth.

Some of the skeletons uncovered there also show signs of heavily worn front teeth, indicating they had an abrasive diet, and many others showed dental decay and tooth loss at middle age.

During the Middle Archaic period, which took place between 8,000 and 6,500 B.P., prehistoric occupation of Massachusetts increased dramatically.

During this time period, around 22 sites were established in central Massachusetts, 29 sites were established in the Greater Boston area, 34 sites were established on the mainland of Cape Cod, 25 sites were established on Martha’s Vineyard and 12 sites were established on Nantucket, according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission reports.

Fifteen of the central Massachusetts sites were located in the Chicopee Drainage area, six were located near Quabog and Quacumquasit ponds and five were along a tributary of the Ware River.

Some of the sites established in the Boston area during this time period include the Boston Harbor Islands, which indigenous people continued to inhabitant into the late Woodland period.

During the late Archaic period, between 6,500 and 3,000 B.P., as many as 87 sites were established in central Massachusetts and 20 were established on mainland Cape Cod, 26 on Martha’s Vineyard and nine on Nantucket.

Many Late Archaic sites were also established in the Greater Boston area, such as camps and workshops in Wakefield, burial sites and fishing sites in Watertown as well as the Boylston Street Fishweir in what is now Boston.

During the Transitional Archaic Period, between 3,800-3,000 B.P., a burial site was established next to the Titicut site in Bridgewater, where they buried the cremated remains of their deceased in pits of red ochre.

Woodland Peoples in Massachusetts:

During the Woodland period, which took place between 3,000 to 500 B.P., the number of sites established by Woodland peoples in the Greater Boston area decreased while the number of sites on Cape Cod and the coast appear to have increased, indicating that more people were moving to the coast and lower lying areas, according to a report by the Massachusetts Historical Commission on the Historic & Archaeological Resources of the Boston Area:

“Early and Middle Archaic period sites appear less numerous than their Archaic predecessors. Dincauze (1974) feels that the drop in the density of Early Woodland period sites reflects severe cultural and social changes which irrevocably disrupted Archaic lifeways. The successful Archaic period adaptive strategies disintegrated; Woodland period lifeways are substantially different as reflected in settlement patterns which appear to shift to the coastal fringe and towards lower elevations.” (Massachusetts Historical Commission 27.)

During the early Woodland period, between 3,000 and 2,400 B.P., a total of 87 sites were established on Cape Cod, including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while 95 were established there in the middle Woodland period, between 2,400 and 1,000 B.P., and 144 in the late Woodland period, between 1,000 and 500 B.P.

Only 13 early Woodland sites have been identified in central Massachusetts and these were all multi-component sites that had already been established and occupied during the Paleo and Archaic periods.

Only ten sites were established in central Massachusetts during the middle Woodland period and around 24 were established during the late Woodland period.

In the Connecticut River Valley, small hunting camps were established in locations such as Belchertown in the early Woodland period and on Wills Hill in Montague in the middle Woodland period and burial sites from the Woodland-era have been discovered in locations like Holyoke, Massachusetts.

By about 1,000 B.P., Woodland peoples were practicing horticulture and mainly grew corn, beans and squash, although it is uncertain how dependent Woodland people were on this practice, according to the Historical & Archaeological Resources of the Connecticut River Valley report:

“The degree to which pre-contact Native populations became dependent upon horticulture and the implications of this development in New England in general and the Connecticut Valley in particular remains uncertain…The middle Connecticut Valley, with its excellent farmland and lack of coastal resources that were so important elsewhere in New England, would seem to be an ideal location for the adoption of horticulture. However, the practice demands changes in a society’s division of labor, and the seasonal subsistence and settlement pattern…The development of horticulture has been suggested as a cause of population growth, inferred from increasing artifact frequencies and site sizes in southern New England after 1,000 B.P. In other parts of the Northeast, the introduction of horticulture is seen as an important impetus to the development of a nucleated village settlement pattern.” (Massachusetts Historical Commission 44.)

According to the report, settlement patterns in the Connecticut River Valley during the Woodland period were based on seasonal resources in those areas. Woodland-era people seemed to migrate to areas like the lowlands of the Connecticut River during the spring to fish and hunt waterfowl.

The Native American tribes that we recognize today were Woodland peoples. One such tribe, the Pennacook tribe, were Eastern Woodland Indians, which lived in the northeast of the U.S., and depended largely on seafood and would often travel down the Merrimack River from New Hampshire to the seacoast area of Massachusetts for food.

When Europeans first came in contact with Native Americans in North America, there were many tribes in Massachusetts, according to an article on the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ website:

“At the time of earliest European contact (around 1500 A.D.) tens of thousands of Native Americans made their homes in Massachusetts. They were speakers of a variety of dialects and languages, all of which were part of the Algonquian language family and lived in many communities among which some of the best known were the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Pennacook, Mahican (Stockbridge), Pocumtuck, and Nipmuck. Their settlements and hunting grounds were spread across the entire state from easternmost Cape Cod (Nauset) to the western mountains (Housatonic).”

Unfortunately, the contact between the natives and early European explorers and traders introduced disease into the Native American population and an epidemic in 1616 decimated the population. By the time the pilgrims arrived in 1620, much of New England was either uninhabited or abandoned.

Sources:
“Historical & Archaeological Resources of the Connecticut River Valley.” Massachusetts Historical Commission, Feb. 1984, www.sec.state.ma.us/mhc/mhcpdf/regionalreports/CTValley.pdf
“Historical & Archaeological Resources of Southeast Massachusetts.” Massachusetts Historical Commission, June. 1982, archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/265715
“Historic & Archaeological Resources of the Boston Area.” Massachusetts Historical Commission, Jan. 1982, www.sec.state.ma.us/mhc/mhcpdf/regionalreports/Bostonarea.pdf
“Historic & Archaeological Resources of Cape Cod & the Islands.” Massachusetts Historical Commission, Aug. 1986, www.sec.state.ma.us/mhc/mhcpdf/regionalreports/capeandislands.pdf
“Historic & Archaeological Resources of Central Massachusetts.” Massachusetts Historical Commission, Feb. 1985, www.sec.state.ma.us/mhc/mhcpdf/regionalreports/CentralMA.pdf
Roop, Stanley M. “Mill River: An Archaic Upland Site.” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Vol. 24, No. 2, Jan. 1963, maxwell.bridgew.edu/exhibits/BMAS/pdf/MAS-v24n02.pdf
Chapdelaine, Claude. Late Pleistocene Archaeology and Ecology in the Far Northeast. Texas A&M University Press, 2012.
Leveille, Alan. “Sands of the Blackstone: A Paleoindian Site in the Narragansett Bay Drainage.” Public Archaeology Labratory, www.palinc.com/sites/default/files/publications/Sands%20of%20the%20Blackstone-Leveillee.pdf
Gibbon, Guy. Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Guy Gibbon, Garland Publishing, 1998.
Bradley, James W. and Jeff Boudreau. “Re-Assessing Wapanucket: Paleoindians in Southeast Ma.” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaelogical Society, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2001.
Chandler, Jim. “On the Shore of a Pleistocene Lake: The Wamsutta Site.” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Vol. 62, No 2, pp: 52-62, 2001, maxwell.bridgew.edu/exhibits/BMAS/pdf/MAS-v62n02.pdf
Binzen, Timothy L. “The Turners Falls Site: An Early Paleoindian Presence in the Connecticut River Valley.” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Vol. 66, No.2, 2005, maxwell.bridgew.edu/exhibits/BMAS/pdf/MAS-v66n02.pdf
Taylor, William B. “A Review of Transitional Archaic Mortuary Features at the Seaver Farm.” Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaelogical Society, Vol. 67, No. 2.
Gage, Mary. “Titicut Site.” Stone Structures, www.stonestructures.org/html/titicut_site.html
“Titicut Reservation.” The Wild and Scenic Taunton River, Taunton River Stewardship Council, www.tauntonriver.org/titicutreserv.htm
“Paleo Indian Period.” The Wild and Scenic Taunton River, Taunton River Stewardship Council, www.tauntonriver.org/paleo.htm
“CIS: Historical Sketch.” Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cismaf/mf2.htm

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the writer and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

2 thoughts on “First Known Inhabitants of Massachusetts

  1. jason

    Great article, Rebecca. I was surprised you didn’t include any information from the DEDIC site in Deerfield as it is one of the largest Paleoindian sites known in North America. Also, I encourage you to look up the Clovis point found in Northampton that Dr. Gramly beliefs dates to 12,800 CYBP.

    Reply
    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      At the time I was writing this article I was aware of Dedic but couldn’t find much info on it, especially a specific date for when it was established, so I wasn’t sure where to place it in the timeline of established sites. I’ll update the article when I find more info on it. I’ll look into the Northampton site too.

      Reply

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