Damming Fish and Indians: Starvation and Dispossession in Colonial Massachusetts

Today’s post in the Roundtable on Food and Hunger in Vast Early America is by Zachary M. Bennett, who is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Connecticut College this autumn. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. His dissertation, “Flowing Power: Rivers, Energy, and the Making of New England,” examines the political ecology of waterpower before the industrial revolution.

Compared to other Native Americans in southern New England, the Ninnimissinuok community of Natick, Massachusetts seemed to have secure footing going into the eighteenth century. Located only fifteen miles outside of Boston on the Charles River, Natick was the largest community of Native American converts to Christianity—or “Praying Indians”—in mainland New England with a population exceeding two hundred persons. These Praying Indians owned their land in corporation to safeguard their enclave against land hungry colonists. To passersby, Natick residents farmed like their English neighbors, dressed like them, and even worshipped like them too. Yet, in contrast to their English neighbors, this community steadily declined over the course of the eighteenth century.In 1753, Natick’s Praying Indians had dropped to “twenty-five families, besides a few individuals.” Eleven years later in 1764 there were only “eight or ten families.” By the 1790s there were only twenty-some “clear blooded” Indians in Natick.[1]


Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus). Alewives, sturgeon, salmon, shad, blueback herring, and eels all visit New England’s rivers from the ocean.

Anglo observers were mistaken in thinking that Natick’s Indians disappeared. Many moved, intermarried with African Americans, or became itinerants that were harder to track down. But these Praying Indians certainly did not thrive in Natick as they had originally hoped. Historians have explained the “disappearance” of Natick’s Praying Indian community by arguing that a combination of war and disease placed many Praying Indians in debt and precipitated land sales.[2]

These explanations for Natick’s demise as an Indian community miss the impact of a major environmental change literally in the center of town. In 1738, colonists downstream in Watertown raised a dam several feet on the Charles River that blocked migrating sea-run (anadromous) fish. Spring fish runs were of vital importance to Natick. Native people depended on these fish for half their yearly supply of animal protein and were also an important fertilizer for New England’s notoriously thin soil.[3]. Although Massachusetts law required the operators of the Watertown Dam to allow fish to pass by building a fish ladder, on the Charles River corrupt local officials looked the other way. Natick’s Praying Indians protested to no avail. Deprived of the river-sourced food which attracted them to Natick in the first place, land sales in the community rose 150% in the 1740s.[4]

Water dominates Natick’s geography. The town straddles two watersheds with the Charles River wending through the south of town and several ponds draining northward into the Merrimack Valley. Praying Indians chose Natick as the site for their community because of the many advantages water afforded them in the form of fish, fertile alluvial soil, and ease of transportation. Puritan missionary John Eliot was initially drawn to the large number of Ninnimissinuoks gathered in area. Yet water’s importance is not nearly as well represented as terra firma in archives. The English legal system understood space and property as land. This has led historians to perpetuate colonial perspectives by focusing on fences, cattle, and land deeds to explain environmental change once their analysis leaves the ocean.[5] If we acknowledge the significance of water’s life-sustaining properties, we can see how events underwater impelled many Praying Indians to abandon Natick.

Long before industrialization, dams began bisecting many of New England’s rivers to meet the growing energy demands of its ballooning population. Boston itself had grown fourfold around the turn of the eighteenth century from around 4,000 souls in 1675 to 16,000 by 1735. More people meant more farms and more mouths to feed, which increased the amount of grain gristmills needed to process. A watermill could pulverize inedible grain into edible flour approximately 100 times faster than by hand, thus making it one of the most important buildings in a colonial settlement.[6]  In order to cull more waterpower from the Charles River, the Watertown Dam had been raised several feet—the greater the fall of water, the faster millwheels churned. However, by trying to glean more waterpower from the Charles, colonists accelerated the river’s flow, preventing anadromous species such as alewives—who cannot jump—from ascending the river to spawn.

watertown dam

The Watertown Dam today. Although colonial America’s preindustrial dams were not very tall, without a suitable fishway, they could effectively destroy fish migrations.

A petition from Natick Indians quickly reached the General Court in Boston in June 1738 complaining that the Watertown Dam “stopped the natural passage of the Fish.” Massachusetts law was on their side: a 1735 act required dam owners to provide a “convenient sluice or passage” for alewives. Watertown sent a representative to Boston defend their dam. Records of the General Court’s proceedings do not survive, only their decision. A committee assigned to adjudicate the matter, after “having met and heard all parties” determined that the dam would not be lowered.[7] The committee stated that enough water passed over the dam in the spring to accommodate the passage of fish. Such a conclusion ran counter to the testimony of Praying Indian petitioners. Research in aquatic biology supports the Praying Indians’ account—biologists have found that even small dams with no fish ladder can decimate or even destroy anadromous fish migrations.[8]

To placate Indian petitioners, the committee ordered that portions of the Watertown Dam punctured by the winter ice not be repaired until May, giving migrating fish a slightly lower structure to scale. This was a deceiving concession because the General Court granted dam owners full discretion to adhere to this judgement: if they deemed the water too low to power their mills sufficiently, only the approval of five selectmen from Watertown and adjoining Newtown—communities directly invested in the smooth running of these mills—was required to raise the dam during the May fish run. The Indian petitioners above the Watertown dam whose rights had been violated would have no voice in such decisions.[9] In response to widespread negligence of these fish conservation measures, Massachusetts passed another act in 1742  that required towns to appoint fish wardens. That nearly all Charles River towns failed to appoint such an official indicates the low esteem they held for fish laws.[10]

For Natick, the loss of river fish a few years before the outbreak of King George’s War in 1744 was particularly bad timing. Nearly all able-bodied Praying Indian men served in this conflict and they suffered significantly higher mortality rates than their Anglo comrades in arms.[11] Traditionally, agriculture had been women’s domain in Ninnimissinuok society. But as Praying Indians strove to “Live more like” their “Christian English neighbors,” they adopted the gender norms of English husbandry where men labored in the field.[12] Without men to assist in the harvest of crops, Indian communities struggled to feed themselves or earn an income in the colonial economy. In the past during bad harvests or war, Indians leaned on fishing to avoid starvation during emergencies. The Pilgrims observed such a strategy in 1623 when drought scorched the soil and withered crops. While starving Plymouth colonists dedicated more time to beseech God for rain, they noticed their Wampanoag neighbors were less anxious about the weather since they “could make a shift to supply themselves of their wants with fish and other things.” Where migrating fish had saved them from starvation in the past, colonial dams prevented such measures by the 1740s. Praying Indians began selling off their land at an unprecedented rate to pay off debts and Natick’s Indian population began a nosedive from which it would never recover.[13]herring and alewives

Migrating herring and alewives in Westbrook, Maine in 2018. These recently restored migrations are a mere fraction of their size in the seventeenth century.

This episode on the Charles River shows that before Native peoples affixed their names to documents ceding tracts of land, they lost access to the water which made it possible for them to live there. Indian land sales have deeper contexts tied to resources and food that historians must account for in order to understand the motivations behind their actions. A grumbling belly was often of more importance in people’s lives than the names and abstract lines on the land deeds we find in the archive. Natick was not an isolated incident. When a dam first crossed Rhode Island’s Blackstone River in 1718, the Hassanamisco Praying Indian community upriver declined precipitously thereafter.[14]

Rivers were important spaces even if the English property regime did not recognize them as such. To ignore the presence of water in early Americans’ lives is to omit a space of vital political, economic, and cultural significance in their world. Colonizers sought to create order over American territory by parceling land into neat lines. Rivers and fish did not fit into this model of property. Colonists manipulated the English property regime’s ambiguous stance on water rights as a means to dispossess Indians from their land. Such actions were reminiscent of earlier events when colonists unleashed wandering cows and pigs on Indian crops. If Indians killed these errant cattle, colonists used the brands inscribed on the animals’ skin to bring Indians to court for damages. When colonists deprived fish from Indian stomachs by erecting dams, the fish could not be branded like cattle. English justice could not be applied to fish, or Indians.

[1] Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 1st ser., 182, “twenty-five” and “eight or ten” 1:195; 10:136, “clear blooded” 5:43.

[2] Jean O’ Brien, Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Daniel R. Mandell, “Selling the Praying Towns: Massachusett and Nipmuc Land Transactions, 1680–1730,” Northeast Anthropology 70 (Fall 2005): 15; Brian D. Carroll, “The Effect of Military Service on Indian Communities in Southern New England, 1740–1763,” Early American Studies (2016).

[3] The English residents of Watertown complained as early as 1632 that their corn harvests failed “for want of fish” to put in their fields. These swarms of alewives, shad, and river herring often saved people from starvation since their arrival each spring coincided with the moment when people’s winter food reserves were at their lowest. John Winthrop Winthrop’s Journal, “History of New England,” 1630–1649, ed. James Kendall Hosmer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), 1:86;

[4] M. K. Bennett, “The Food Economy of the New England Indians, 1605–75,” Journal of Political Economy 63, no. 5 (1955): 392; Sarah F. McMahon, “A Comfortable Subsistence: The Changing Composition of Diet in Rural New England, 1640–1840,” William and Mary Quarterly, no. 1 (1985): 34–38; Daniel R. Mandell, Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 119. Natick’s land sales are a wonderful archive since Native land was protected, Natick owners had to justify or explain the circumstances that led them to sell. They can be found in the Massachusetts State Archives, Boston, vol. 31.

[5] O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees, 33–34; Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991), 14; William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983; repr., New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 127–58; Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); The English terrestrial property regime grated against Native conceptions of space organized around “networks of waterways and kinship.” Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), xxxv; W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015).

[6] Lemuel Shattuck, Report to the Committee of the City Council Appointed to Obtain the Census of Boston for the Year 1845 (Boston, 1846), 3; Conversation with George Whitley, miller at Gray’s Gristmill in Westport, Massachusetts, Feb. 1, 2019.

[7] Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (Boston: Wright & Potter), 12:492, 511–12, 536–37; Unfortunately, this petition does not survive; Watertown Records comprising the Fourth Book of Town Proceedings (Boston: Stanhope Press, N.d.), 179.

[8] Small numbers of fish made it over the dam which were caught in Waltham. By the 1850s pollution destroyed the practice. The point is that these dams drastically shifted the baseline for fish in the Charles to the extent that Native people could not depend on them to be a substantial part of their diet as they had since time immemorial. Charles A. Nelson, Waltham, Past and Present: and its Industries (Cambridge, Mass.: Moses King, 1882), 21–22; David L. Belding, “The Preservation of the Alewife,” Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 49, no. 2 (1920): 96; Michaël Ovidio and Jean-Claude Philippart, “The impact of small physical obstacles on upstream movements of six species of fish: Synthesis of a 5-year telemetry study in the River Meuse basin,” Hydrobiologia 483 (2002): 55–69; Theodore Castro-Santos, “Optimal swim speeds for traversing barriers: An analysis of volitional high-speed swimming behavior of migratory fishes,” Journal of Experimenting Biology 208 (2005): 421–432.

[9] Acts and Resolves, 12:536–37.

[10] Acts and Resolves, 2:1087–88; Newtown was the only town along the Charles which appointed fish wardens. Newtown Town Records Book 2, page 195, Newton Public Library, Newtown, Mass.; Waltham Town Records, Roll 892245, Waltham Public Library, Waltham, Mass.; Town Record Book, 1665–1742, Medfield Clerk’s Office, Medfield, Mass.; Watertown Records.

[11] Brian D. Carroll, “‘Savages’ in Service of Empire: Native American Soldiers in Gorham’s Rangers, 1744–1762,” New England Quarterly 85, no. 3 (2012): 383–492.

[12] Phrase borrowed from Mandell, Behind the Frontier, 80.

[13] Mandell, Behind the Frontier, 45, 119; William Hubbard, A General History of New England from the Discovery to MCDLXXX (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1815), 74; Although many Natick Indians adopted English husbandry practices, evidence shows that a good number continued to live in wigwams and practice the seasonal mobility of their ancestors. Collections of the Mass. Hist. Soc., 1st ser., 5:39–41; Jean M. O’Brien, “‘Divorced’ from the Land: Resistance and Survival of Indian Women in Eighteenth-Century New England,” in After King Philip’s War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England, ed. Colin G. Calloway (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997), 152–53; Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2018), 268.

[14] Betty Buckley and Scott W. Nixon, “An Historical Assessment of Anadromous Fish in the Blackstone River,” Final Report to the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, and Trout Unlimited (Narragansett: University of Rhode Island, 2001), 14; In 1724 Hassanamisco surrendered their communal ownership of the town in exchange for large plots of land. Praying Indians sold approximately half the town in 1726. By 1764 a visitor to Hassanamisco observed “not a Male Ind[ian]. in the Town, & perh[aps]. 5 Squaws who marry Negroes.” Acts and Resolves 10:443, 11:233; Franklin Bowditch Dexter, Extracts from the Itineraries and other Miscellanies of Ezra Stiles (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1916), 203.

9 responses

  1. Thanks, Zachary, for this information that expands our understanding of how and why the population of the “Praying Indian” towns changed in the 17th and 18th centuries.
    You cite some population numbers in the first paragraph: do these numbers exclusively represent the Indian population of Natick, or do they represent the total Indian/European population of Natick?

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