Petition of the Mashpee Indians to the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Petition of the proprietors and inhabitants of the Mashpee Plantation, signed by seventy-nine males and ninety-two females on the plantation, and in behalf of seventy-nine males and thirty-seven females who are absent and will not return to live under the present laws. In all two hundred eighty-seven, praying for liberty to manage their own property, for the abolition of overseership, for the incorporation of the Town of Mashpee, with liberty to form a municipal code of laws, for the appointment of one or more magistrates among them, and generally for a repeal of the existing laws placing them under guardianship, with the exception of the law preventing them from selling their lands, which they pray may be retained, and for redress of grievances.
A voice from the Mashpee Indians
Where it is expected by the inhabitants of this Commonwealth that justice and equity will reign in the hearts of all, that national prejudices and peculiar feelings attending religionists, will not be permitted to rule the hearts of any. But, that every enlightened judicious representative, as we trust they all are, that compose this body, will be willing to do as they would wish to be done by. And we wish for this Honorable Body to consider our oppression. While ye are filled with the fat of our fathers' land, and enjoy your liberties without molestation, will not this Honorable Body be as benevolent to us poor Mashpee Indians who are sighing and weeping under bondage, as ye are to poor Cherokees2 and have we not ground under the weight of degradation long enough? Are ye willing that we should go down to the grave with sorrow and disgrace as our fathers have before us, where we are willing to try to take care of ourselves? And we fear that our petitions have been laid aside without much notice yet afore and our complaints that come before common courts as well as this Honorable Body have been looked at as being mere ciphers. But we hope that this indifferent spirit is dying away and that the true spirit of the Christian philanthropist is begging to reign in the hearts of the people and those who compose their legislative bodies. If so, may we not expect to share a part, although we are looked upon to be good and wholesome citizens, and we do say that we can never rise to a state of cultivation under existing circumstances. We can assure Governors that there is not one enlightened and respectable Indian upon the plantation, that wants overseers or the present minister, Mr. Phineas Fish. We say that all of our rulers and he who is said to be our preacher, was placed here amongst us without our consent. And it has been the policy of these interest men to work upon the feelings of some of our most ignorant and dissipated men and women to keep us divided. We are sure that none but those who are in the habit of drinking and such as do not attend meeting anywhere, would, or have signed his paper to hear him preach and many of them have said they did not know what it contained. Why we mention this is because we have discharged him and passed resolutions that we will not hear him preach and we are of the same mind still. We do not believe he cares anything for our souls, but the fleece we believe he loves well. If he did care for us, we believe that twenty years would have been long enough to have secured our confidence and reared to himself a respectable church and society. But he has not a male member belonging to his that has one drop of the royal, or real Native blood in him. We therefore wish to have him removed peaceable from our borders by this Honorable Body whom we believe will try to do us justice, especially when Your Honors hear the bill of complaints laid before you by us your humble petitioners, the Mashpee Indians.
Bill of Complaints
It is not possible for us to give you a full statement of wrongs that we have had to suffer in consequence of having overseers to manage for us, who we believe felt more interested for themselves then for us. And we purpose only to give you a few statements of facts such as generally can be sustained by us ,whose fathers were the original proprietors of the soil, where this stately edifice now stands and whose laws has ground us to the dust.
First, we are certain that the Mashpee government is unconstitutional and far transcends the constitution of the country and, of course, is extremely defective and injurious to us as a people.
This law was imposed upon us by the consent of a few of our forefathers aided by the designing white man whose artful voice inspired in their breasts cheering hopes, that their property should be secured to them and they one day should be equalized and respected with the white man. For we have no idea that our fathers would have bound us so, as to take away all of our rights from us, for Indians have too much affections for each other to use that kind of treachery to wound their children. We believe they would as soon given up their own lives, but for the promise of bettering their condition and that of their children. But since our fathers fell asleep, we have heard but little about law or liberty or anything else, but imposition upon the back of imposition and in the following manner:
We have been obliged to submit to a hereditary government, as we believe, son succeeding father and brothers brothers to the overseership. For this lineage of government has been kept up, for nearly forty years and we think it is time for a change. Neither do we think it right for us to abide by an unconstitutional law made by our fathers forty years ago, and others meaning the whites, who had their own interest in view. We believe all together, for our sufferings by that law has been immense.
We, as a people, have not been permitted to worship god according to our own views and feelings and as conscience dictated us, for the preacher that was placed among us was all together by the power of the overseers without asking one of us whether we would like to have him or know. And, of course, ordained without the particular knowledge of us, to be supported out of our property for life, without being any service to us, or our consent to have it so. Is the like known anywhere amongst other towns in this State peopled by white men? This preacher has moved primarily amongst white people and taught them whilst we have been compelled to support him and sigh in bondage and the presumption is that the whites have had three times the benefit of the preacher and our funds then we have ourselves.
This government who admits two ministerial farms upon our plantation occupied by Phineas Fish and Gideon Hawley. Mr. Hawley succeeded his father who was preacher and overseer, the latter now being overseer. And these two gentlemen occupy about fifteen hundred acres of our best land and do us no essential service whatever but contravise a bill of expense, and as destructive to us as a famine would be in gradually wasting away the people before it.3
We have been kept out of our own meeting house and school houses till very recently; have had no privileges to hold any kind of meetings in them although we should have been glad to have done something to improve our minds in the way of meetings either for debating societies or the worship of god. And our meeting house has been vacated for nearly ten years by most all of our people. We have no idea it would average ten of a Sabbath and our meeting house is almost worn out by white people. It is not actually fit for respectable people to meet in. When we wanted a meeting for the benefit of the town, the overseers have appointed them in other towns and incurred a large bill of expense in this way, while there insulted and pushed out of doors our women and our widows neglected and our orphan children crying for bread. The expense has been very great in this way of doing business for they the overseers generally had a fine dinner and we believe the expense came altogether out of our funds. The General Court provides but three for us to pay, but they, the overseers, provide three or four more for us to pay and they all find such good picking. They are both to leave us: But we should rather not maintain them any longer for we do not see that they are any service to us in raising us in the world. But we find he same deep stain of degradation hanging upon our persons and property all apparently devoted to the will of unholy and unprincipled men that prowl around our borders.
This present Government admits all the scum of the white population amongst us that cannot remain in those towns where Your Honors dwell. And our young people are not slow to learn their vices and it is impossible under existing laws to have it otherwise. It also admits those characters to more privileges upon our lands than ourselves, and if we say a word, we are then made out highway robbers, condemned and bailed to the prison, and calumniated, to the foulest extent, by those very persons who we believe have reaped the benefit of our property.
It furthermore withholds from us the necessaries of life, that many of our people might enjoy. For it is a fact, that it gives power to the overseers to take from us our grain, if they choose, which they, in fact, have done. Whilst their husbands were absent at sea our wives and mothers and sisters would go to the overseers for assistance. Sometimes they would hear and other times they would not. And when they did, they would give them a writing or order for the value of twenty-five or fifty cents and these send them nine or ten miles to procure the value of it and this as often as they go. We set too much by our women and children to have them served in this way any longer.
It also spoils our fishing, for white people think they have as good a right to our plantation and fishing privileges as ourselves and, of course, throng us and injure us all the more or less.
This law also declares our whole plantation to be a public highway and its inhabitants to be thieves and robbers according to the plea made by Mr. Warner, the district attorney, appointed by the Governor and Council. And this too, for merely inquiring into our rights, and shuts us up in prison. This law discourages our people so that many of them have left their homes and say they will not live under such oppressive laws, (the overseers never encouraging industry). And we believe it is the design of the overseers so to oppress us or to drive all our people from the plantation. So that this law only adds disgrace to disgrace and grinds us to the dirt. The overseers have also incurred many needless expenses by hiring other houses to have our meetings in when we had them of our own, and appointed several men to do our business and payed them out of our funds where we might have done it ourselves, such as mending roads, carting wood, it being for the market, and by the time the poor get it theirs, that had no team of their own, they had but little indeed left for themselves.
There is several tons of our most excellent ship timber that is cut and carried off yearly and other valuable timbers that we do not want cut, for we do not know but we shall want to build a ship ourselves, if we get able, and if not we want the profit of it, for we have never learnt that any account has been rendered or any of it, to anyone. Our cedar swamps share the same fate.
Many of our most enlightened and righteous men have been4 ,and cut, and corded wood for themselves, and the overseers have taken it from us and sold it to whom they pleased and even torn our fencing stuff from our fences and carried it off, and sold it. And all the satisfaction we could get was, hold your peace or you shall have nothing. This law admits just as much wood as the overseers are a mind to cut, and sell, and we believe it will average yearly, not less than twelve hundred cords per year of cord wood besides other wood that is sold for fires around about us. And if we want any we have to pay one dollar per cord for pine wood and one dollar fifty cents for oak out of our commons. And then sell it to just such men as the overseers said, and to no others, and we think that such a tax is enormous to pay for our own wood.
It also admits the white people to take away from our meadows all the hay, if they choose, leaving only enough for one cow, if any one of us happens to have one, and if we have any more stock we have to go ten or twelve miles to cut hay upon shores or by it. This we are compelled to do, or our cattle must suffer, and die, and from these men we had no encouragement to raise stock or be enterprising in any way whatever. It also admits the white people to greater privilege in possessing our pastures then ourselves, for our wood and hay and pastures are all set up at auction and white people have the means to outbid us and take away everything from us and the overseers will not give us any chance for our lives in these things. As to the poor, we are all poor together. For we, in the general, take care of ourselves in farming, hunting, fishing, and some a going to sea. We have some poor that are not able to maintain themselves. The overseers assist a little in helping us to take care of them, but if we did not they must suffer and, in the manner things are conducted, it makes it hard for all. If things were conducted differently it would make it easier for all, but we cannot have it otherwise under present laws and task masters. Although we believe there has been enough to maintain our poor, and if we had what has been squandered, as we believe from circumstantial evidence, we all should be in a better condition than we are now.
How much the proceeds of our plantation would amount to yearly we are not able to give an accurate account, but from circumstances that we have had before us, we think we can come somewhere near it. We will say twelve hundred cords of wood at nine shillings per cord, amounts to eighteen hundred dollars; two hundred tons of hay at four dollars per ton, amounts to eight hundred dollars; there are twelve farms at fourteen dollars per farm, amounts to one hundred and sixty-eight dollars. We have much pasture, we will say one hundred dollars for that, although we think we are within bounds, ship timber we will put one hundred more. The whole amounting to twenty-nine hundred, and sixty-eight dollars. We think the property ought to fetch that, certainly.
How much our expenses would be when all told, we are not able to account accurately, but we believe we can come very near it. Our schools are kept in the following manner; in the winter, we have two. The teachers receiving pay from twelve to fourteen dollars for three months each. In the summer, we have two female teachers, they receiving one dollar per week for about sixteen weeks, making one hundred and ten dollars. There are seven, we believe, assisted by the town. Three are supported principally from the fund. For them is paid one dollar per week out of the funds. The others receive from two shillings to fifty cents making about two hundred and fifty-six dollars for their table expenses. As to clothing, they get but a little: They get a suit of coarse factory cloth amounts to four and five dollars per suit. We will say 30 dollars. The overseers let us have a few boards and shingles to stop a few holes in our old houses. We would say it would be one hundred and fifty per year. We have a doctor that comes amongst us; we should presume he received about seventy-five per year. The overseers pay out of our funds about 25 dollars per year for mending roads. The whole of the expenses amounting to six hundred and forty-six dollars per year.
We think there is a great contrast between our expenses and the income of our plantation. But, how much the overseers charge for their services we know not, (we presume they take care of themselves), but they take the remainder. The funds are generally all away.
And now, Honored Gentlemen, we think we have been in slavery long enough. As to the overseers, we have no confidence in them whatever. We do not believe they have dealt honestly by us5 and we believe it they have a mind to swindle. None has a better chance than themselves, for they keep debt and credit and how easy it is for them to conspire together to do us wrong if they choose. At any rate, after suffering so much, we are jealous of them and do assure Your Honors, we want them no longer. The overseers say there is a general satisfaction amongst us and that the excitement is of recent date. But we say for more than five years there has been a very great dissatisfaction amongst us and if we should add five more to it, it would be nothing out of the way; and it appears from the movements of the overseers, that their influence in past times respecting our petitions have been against us, that we have been represented as being a set of indolent drunken Indians. But we say, it is not the case for many, very many of our people are temperate and sober and industrious and are willing to do, if they, the overseers would not prevent us. And now, if we wish to take care of ourselves, we cannot see why we may not have that privilege.
We presume the above charges and complaints is sufficient to warrant us a redress and the abrogation of an unconstitutional law. If not, we have no doubt but the overseers would strip us of all our living in five years more, and we have no doubt but it was the intention of the overseers to strip us from our all. And, we most solemnly believe, we have been wronged out of thousands and tens of thousands of dollars in the course of this overseership, every man seeking his own wealth instead of another man's.
Honor to whom honor is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, and we would render therefore unto Cesar the things that belong to Cesar and unto god the things that are god's.6 Therefore, we can say there is one item in the law that is good, that is this, that no one should be permitted to sell their land without a mutual consent. And we wish that item still to be retained for a few years, till our people become more enlightened, for many of them are ignorant in making trades, although we are happy to state to this Honorable Body that we have many who are capable of doing business anywhere and any kind of common and merchantable or seafaring business to navigate a ship to any port of the globe. And now we want a chance to instruct those that are ignorant before that item is removed, for there is many that would not hesitate to strip us, who are ignorant, of our last morsel. And we shall consider it a favor indeed to have that item remain, give us a chance for our lives in acting for ourselves.
And we do not want overseers. As for these, we want them discharged and never want their names mentioned amongst us again. And we would say of the preacher Mr. Fish, we think no more of him then we do of the overseers, believing they are all linked in together and we want him discharged, for we want our house to meet in ourselves.
Yours most obediently,
The Mashpee Indians
We, the Mashpee Tribe, also pray for a grant of the liberties of the Constitution, to form a municipal code of laws amongst ourselves, that we may have a government that will be useful to us as a people, for we are sure we have never had any since our original Sachem Fathers fell asleep. Also, we desire that this Honorable Body would grant us the privilege of choosing an attorney to advise with us in our municipal regulations and to instruct us still further in the laws, and this Gentlemen to be chosen yearly, or as long as we may deem it proper for the safety of the town, and his expenses to be supported out of our funds.
We wish that some provision could be made for the appointment of one or two magistrates amongst us. We also pray that our town may be incorporated and called Mashpee.
We have made these requests believing the white men are knowing to our oppression in the general, and that if such laws are still enforced upon us, it is still murdering us by inches. And we do not know why the people of this Commonwealth wants to cruelize us any longer, for we are sure that our fathers fought, bleed, and died for the liberties of their now weeping and suffering children, the same as did your fathers for their children whom ye are, who are now writing to make laws to suit your own convenience and secure your liberties. Oh White Man, White Man, the blood of our fathers spilt in the7 Revolutionary War cries from the grounds of our native soil to brake the chains of oppression and let our children go free.
Yours we are most respectfully.
The Mashpee Indians and witnesses to the above
Males who are absent at sea and all of them are opposed to having masters and say they will not return, many of them, to live with us while in this situation. We want our friends to return and live with us, for they are near and dear to us, as Your Honors' children are and we hope that you will think of this.
Females that are absent are placed below who are respectable and wish to return but will not to live14. Will this Honorable Body help get our sisters back? We want them still to live and die with us.
Total opposed: 200 + 87 = 287
House of Representatives, January 29 1834, Referred to the Committee on the Mashpee Indians, Sent up for concurrence, L. S. Cushing, Clerk / In Senate, January 30, 1834, Concurred, Charles Calhoun, Clerk
Title: Memorial of the Mashpee Indians for Redress of Grievances, Left hand running title: Mashpee Indians / House unpassed / printed / Petition of the Mashpee Indians, Laid on the table
- 1. Not only was this left unsigned, but there is a notation instructing that the above paragraph not be included in the printed version of the petition.
- 2. This is a reference to effects of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
- 3. Crossed out text: Oh, tell it not in Massachusetts. Publish it not in the Cherokee wilds.
- 4. The word out was erased from the original.
- 5. The following text was crossed out: neither do we believe they fear god or regard man, and who would be more likely to do wrong than themselves
- 6. A reference to Romans 13:7
- 7. The word last was crossed out here.
- 8. The name Joseph was erased immediately preceding the name James.
- 9. This is the number of male signatories who live on Mashpee lands.
- 10. May be a duplicate signatory
- 11. May be a duplicate signatory
- 12. This is the number of male signatories who live outside of Mashpee lands.
- 13. This is the number of female signatories who are living at Mashpee.
- 14. A fold in the original document renders the remainder of this sentence illegible, although it is likely similar to the language associated with the introduction to the off district or off reservation males earlier in the document.
- 15. This is the number of female signatories who live outside of Mashpee lands.