Becoming Boston

A Collision of Worlds

For thousands of years, Native peoples have built their homes and nations around Massachusetts Bay. This presence endured even after the violent arrival of European settlers in the seventeenth century, and continues to endure today.

The meeting place of salt and fresh water, low hills, and tidal grasslands provided a favorable environment for Algonquian-speaking peoples to develop settlements. The Central Library sits on a filled bay that was once criss-crossed by an extensive infrastructure of wooden fish weirs, an ecological engineering feat that formed the basis for a thriving economic and cultural system. These lifeways were upended when Europeans arrived in the Americas. European diseases reached New England even before colonists, and by the time the English began to build farms and towns in the area, warfare and property enclosure accelerated the genocidal process of Native removal. Maps of this period show New England as the Europeans wanted it to appear, with Native peoples receding into the hinterland and new territories forming the outlines of a colonial geography. Native peoples resisted and persisted in this landscape, however, and today the region is still home to members of the Massachusett tribe as well as Indigenous people from across the Americas.

A mapp of New England

John Seller and John Hills
Mapping Boston Collection

This map was published in London just after the onset of a catastrophically destructive conflict between English settlers and Indigenous peoples that would come to be called King Philip’s War. Like many European maps of this time, the justification for producing such a detailed and richly printed work was to diagram land claims and establish the political and social basis for further European settlement. In this case, John Seller based his map on a 1665 survey which had been commissioned by the Massachusetts colony to document its boundaries under royal charter. Indigenous people and settlements are shown alongside the map’s title block (called a cartouche), and vignettes depict the violent nature of colonial contact, including a battle in the Connecticut River valley. The lines of English territorial claims slice across regions labeled with the names of the tribes that had lived here for millenia: “The Mowhawks Country,” “The Pequates Country,” and so on.

Plan of the Pequot Country and testimony of Uncas, Casasinomon, and Wesawegun

Uncas, Casasinomon, Wesawegun, and John Tinker
Massachusetts Archives

Very few written records exist documenting Indigenous groups’ understanding of their own geography prior to the arrival of European settlers, though we know from oral traditions and other sources that the tribes of North America had an extensive, sophisticated set of knowledge systems about the places they inhabited. This manuscript, a combination map and legal testimony, is one of the only surviving examples of a cartographic work created directly by a Native person in seventeenth-century New England. The sketch at the top of the document shows the coastline and rivers of what is now Rhode Island, demonstrating how the Mohegan and Pequot tribes conceptualized their littoral environment. However, the manuscript itself—a verbal testimony given to colonists by tribal leaders—shows how Europeans like John Tinker primarily recorded Indigenous geographical knowledge in order to settle their own territorial disputes and vacate prior claims to the land.