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Taunton Bridge, Willard St

Letter to the Descendants of Tisquantum

by | Dec 5, 2021 | Climate Justice | 1 comment

I am borne Elizabeth, a daughter of a long line of settlers. I recognize innumerable harm done to peoples living along the Quinibequin (long winding river) and Chesapeake (shellfish bay) watersheds. Some of my family settled in the Tidewater of Maryland in the 1600s taking land from the Nanticote tribes. I was shocked to rediscover another branch of my ancestors, the Willard family, that claimed land in 1630s near Shawmut (aka Boston). Thus my lineage has been on this continent for 14 generations.

The Simon Willard family came to Massachusetts in 1634. With a young family Simon came to an unknown continent. Equipped with the immoral compass of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Willards soon afterwards appropriated land near Concord MA. I bicycled around the town square which boasts a plaque by the Mass state asserting Simon laid out 6 square miles for other European settlers. Under an ancient oak known as Jethro’s Tree Major Simon Willard “bought from the Indians the 6 myles of land square ordered by the MA general court for the plantation of Concord September 12, 1635.”

In reading these words I’m splashed with wonder and fear. Who is Jethro? Did the oak tree mean anything to the Indians or the settlers? Is land a commodity or a living being? My moral compass waivers. I cannot paint my Willard ancestors as evil or saintly.

In 1634 Simon worked with Tantamous (Old Jethro) a Nipmuc leader during the deadly Pequot wars.  Many more than just Pequots were killed— tribes of Massachusets, Naragansetts, Mohawks and Mohegans.  I regret how many families were ripped apart.  I cringe at the abuse. With the habitat destruction of farming, logging and warfare, the Indigenous people were greatly reduced. Did my ancestors try to compromise or promote trade instead of settling disputes by the sword? Simon Willard and his 17 children settled on Indigenous land from 1635 and 1675 in Groton, Ipswich, Salem, Newton, Lancaster, Roxbury, Sudbury, Braintree and Boston.

The Pequot War can be seen as en masse killings.  The next generation also participated in 1675 King Philip’s war. The Willards fought in this war, Major Simon at age 70 was an officer. In 1675 Tantamous, again was maligned with my Willard ancestors.  In 1675 Tantamous received thirty lashes in Groton for his words to Rev. Samuel Willard, Simon’s son. The Europeans, self-proclaimed landlords, detained and whipped a leader for unwelcome words? These two wars sealed the cycle of mass killings of the Indigenous followed by a spate of less violence. These massacres reshaped the entire landscape of the Northeast. The unmitigated violence to the land and the native people during King Philip’s war accelerated the killings to the point of suffocation. This is the template for ecocide. No one can pardon the crimes. The roar of genocide deafens me.

Perhaps the Willards were venture capitalists and not predatory landlords. Perhaps they did ‘pay’ for the land. The Willard annals beguile me saying that , this protagonist Simon did “buy their lands of the Indians in 1636 and maintained good relations with them for long years.” What did that harmony look like? From the founding fathers of Concord, Simon was said to have been in charge of the trade with the Native peoples. Simon did not come to this continent as a religious refugee nor fear for his life.

He came as a merchant and urban planner. The victors write the story of the wars. I suspect self-promotion. He took land and left it to his progeny, I of the 11th generation. What legacy did he want us Willards to inherit?  I am sorry for the violence, and the propaganda that erases Indigenous cultures. With the land at war and the murder of Native people encouraged, the Willards fought to be masters in Massachusetts. All trade with the Indigenous came hand in hand with the barrel of a rifle. I regret this.

While the trading had the laws and religious fervor to plump up the English, the battles  scalpings and occassional kidnappings insured skittish trading partners. I regret the violence.

The Atlantic northeast still thrives due to the Algonquin culture leaving its imprint on us for more than 12,000 years. I am grateful for the generosity of the land. Persephone’s gifts meet Gitche Manitou’ s abundance.  I appreciate the leadership and wisdom of Indigenous people in showing how to treat this Living Planet with reciprocity. My great grandparents spread over the fertile plains of the Quinibequin, the Assabet, and Concord rivers damming river channels, and manipulating logging and minerals for their private enterprises. I regret any shredding of our homeland.

I regret how my family’s occupation impacted the Wampanoag and Nipmuc tribes of the Algonquins. My relatives pursued much trading and handled land disputes. When Harman Garrett (Nipmuc) missed a payment, the English courts signed that landover to the English. I’m appalled that English didn’t respect Native sovereignty. The European style of farming and building civilization pillaged the Massachusett culture, causing heartache, starvation, and diaspora. Many English puritans such as the Willards continued a corrosive land-grab of in the last three centuries.

Simon Willard came as a young man in his 20s, trained in warcraft. How many other of his descendants worked with the Mass Bay Colony government that criminalized Native practices? Simon’s descendants, including myself, have lived comfortably benefitting from the white privilege that allowed genocide. How painful this is. In writing this letter I hope for a family with more honesty, more respect, and honoring the amazing gifts of former enemies.

I have been trained to accept US law and have been deaf, often indifferent to Indigenous sovereignty. From the core of my heart, I ask forgiveness.



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