The Ponkapoag Petitions

The Ponkapoag petitions to the Massachusetts General Court illustrate the concerns of several tribal members through four generations.  

In 1775, Isaac Williams, a member of the Ponkapoag community who was living in Dedham, Massachusetts joined the Province's militia to fight in the American Revolution.  However, in the spring of the following year, he deserted his post, was captured and imprisoned.1 While in jail, Williams' health or state of mind rapidly deteriorated enough to cause Jonathan Capen, the tribe's Guardian, to successfully petition to the Province's Committee of Correspondents to ask for his release.

Five years later, Native communities throughout New England were hard hit by the war.  In some villages, like the Mohegan and Niantic of Connecticut, the military drained their homes of husbands, fathers, and sons.  Deaths in battle made those losses permanent.2 In the Ponkapoag community, where before the war, households survived under their own industry, now adverse circumstances and new taxes on property made it difficult for some people to support themselves.  Thus, in 1781, two Ponkapoag widows, Sarah Moho Wills Berry, Jerusha Hawkins, and their families asked the Legislature for an abatement of their taxes.  Among the names is Isaac Williams, whose marriage to Elizabeth Wills united the Berry and Hawkins families into one larger kinship network.

In the following years, more petitions for financial assistance reached the Legislature.  The main reason for this is that between 1725 and 1813 much of the  tribal land was sold or transferred away from the tribe by  the state-appointed tribal guardians and in 1827, a tribal Guardian, Thomas French, sold the last remaining piece of the state-controlled  Ponkapoag  Plantation in Canton, Massachusetts, leaving no funds to support the poor.3  Without a communal land base to rent or from which objects for sale could be produced--wood or coal, for example--tribal members, especially the sick and infirm, fell into desperate need. 

In 1861, a report found approximately three-quarters of Ponkapoag had moved to the industrial centers of Boston, Lowell, Providence, a few even to Vermont and California, where opportunities for employment were more abundant.4  Nevertheless, the community's needy requested an annual State Pension, either directly or through the assistance of the tribal Guardian. 

Among these representative applications can be found a third generation of Ponkapoag.5  Isaac Williams, Jr. (son of Isaac Williams, Sr. and Elizabeth Wills) had been a State pauper since 1824.  According to a report on the Commonwealth’s poor in 1847, he boarded with his mother, Elizabeth, and both received State pensions.6  By 1859, he had become blind and required additional help until his death in 1868.   When her health failed, Williams' widowed sister, Charlotte, periodically (1860-1869) petitioned for assistance.   So did Sally Burr (daughter of Mary Wills Wilbor Burr), her brother James's wife Sally Turner Burr and their son James, Jr. of the next generation.

Polly Burr Crowd (another daughter of Mary Wills Wilbor Burr) also petitioned the Legislature from 1850 to 1870.  Notably, her petitions of February 1850 and January 1, 1853 are in the handwriting of the Boston journalist and Abolitionist, William C. Nell, a family friend, who included the Burr patriarch and Revolutionary War veteran, Seymour Burr in his volume The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). 

It was with Nell that Polly's nephew Lemuel (son of Sally Burr) co-signed a number of petitions,  starting in 1837 for a right to petition against slavery in Washington, D. C. (Petition of Perez Gill, 1837); for right to petition for rights on railroads (Petition of Francis Jackson, 1842); for removal of the word "color" from the Statute Books (Petition of Benjamin Roberts, 1845); to allocate funds for a memorial to Crispus Attucks (Petition of William C. Nell, 1851); petition against school discrimination (Petition of William C. Nell, 1855); and against the repeal of the personal liberty laws (Petition of Henry Mitchell, 1861).7


  • 1. Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, Vol. 17, 435. Petition of Jonathan Capen to the Massachusetts Council, 1776.12.03.00.
  • 2. For a closer look at the impact of the American revolution and Indian communities, see Daniel R. Mandell, "'The times are exceedingly altered": The Revolution and Southern New England Indians in Jack Campisi, ed., Eighteenth Century Native Communities of Southern New England in the Colonial Context (Ledyard, CT: Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, 2005).
  • 3. Huntoon, The History of Canton, Massachusetts, 44, 61-82.
  • 4. Earle Report, 14, 75-77 xlii-xlvii.
  • 5. The following names are not exhaustive. Elizabeth Wood Bancroft (widow of Ponkapoag Jeremiah Bancroft) was on State assistance, as was Rebecca Davis of Milton, Massachusetts (from 1845-1870), whose several petitions can be found within the Native Northeast Portal collection. Bird Report, 44-45.
  • 6. Documents printed by Order of the House of Representatives during the Session of the General Court, A.D. 1847 (Boston, MA: Dutton and Wentworth, 1847), 151.
  • 7. Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions Dataverse. Harvard University.
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