Origins Of The Old Indian Meetinghouse
By: Brian Kehrl
For years conventional wisdom has held that the Old Indian Meetinghouse next to the cemetery on Route 28 was built in 1684, making it, by many accounts, the oldest Indian church in the country and the oldest church on Cape Cod.
The sign at the building and too many publications to count give 1684—not long after British colonists came to the area to convert the Native Americans to Christianity—as the date of original construction.
The story goes that in 1717 the building was moved, rolled on logs placed one in front of the other, from its original location on Briant’s Neck near Santuit Pond to its current site, near the eastern bank of the Mashpee River.
But Rosemary H. Burns, longtime member of the Mashpee Historical Commission and a local historian, is challenging that conventional wisdom. In a recent interview, Ms. Burns described her theory that the meetinghouse built in 1684 remained near Santuit Pond and the current meetinghouse was built about 75 years later at its current location.
Ms. Burns points to extensive research she has done on the building over the past two decades, including visits to the Massachusetts State House Library, the state Archives, Harvard University Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and Rhodes Library at Oxford University in England.
In her research she has pieced together a host of evidence indicating that the move across town never happened, that the man credited with building the current meetinghouse was not alive in 1684, as well as that the meetinghouse remained near Santuit Pond well after the supposed move.
The questions are a sensitive issue at a time of great pride for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and many in town, as the tribe is preparing to reopen the building this winter after an extensive renovation funded in part by the town and capping a long process of restoring the building from near shambles.
Ms. Burns said she felt she should make her research on the meetinghouse public, based on the theory that if she does not speak out, she is accepting what is written about the building. “Silence means acceptance,” she said.
“I believe strongly that it was not moved to Route 28. There are just too many references that it was built in 1757, 1758, when [the Reverend Gideon] Hawley was arriving,” she said.
Ms. Burns said that regardless of her claims about different origins, the building is still extraordinarily important in the history of the tribe and the town. “This is not to say that it isn’t a wonderful building with a greatly important and fascinating history. But there is no need to embellish or mythologize. It is great on its own,” she said.
Tribe members said in interviews this week that there is considerable evidence, recorded and passed down from ancestors, pointing to the conclusion that the building was moved.
They questioned why there would be two meetinghouses in a town as small as Mashpee in the mid-18th century. They said there is clear evidence, including several written histories, stating that the building was used for multiple purposes, from a school to a meeting room to a church.
Mark Harding, vice chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, who is overseeing the restoration of the building, pointed to research that has been done on the building by other historians.
For example, Sarah B. Chase, a historical preservation specialist working on the restoration, wrote in a historical brief that the construction appears to be from the 17th century. “Not only the tall prominent gunstock or shouldered posts and the corroded hand-wrought rose head nails found in a number of areas, but also the scale and proportions of the early structure,” she wrote.
But while some tribe members, upon hearing that she is challenging the date of origin of the meetinghouse, immediately questioned Ms. Burns’s credentials and even credibility—noting, for example, that Ms. Chase holds an advanced degree in a relevant field—Ms. Burns described herself as a stickler for documentation and verification. She decried secondary sources, like other written histories that mention the building, citing facts without listing their original sources. Meticulously kept note cards on which she has recorded hundreds of different references to the building seem to illustrate her attention to detail.
Tribe members also said there is an arrogance to Ms. Burns’s writing and sounding off about the Old Indian Meetinghouse without consulting the Indians themselves. Ms. Burns, who often as not seemed to respond to tribe members’ claims against her before being confronted with them, said she and others involved in the archives have made efforts over the years to reach out to the tribe on this and other historical issues, like some of the background work on the tribe’s petition for federal recognition, but her overtures were unrequited.
In the interview, Ms. Burns stressed that she has no intention of being adversarial to the tribe. She only wants to help better document Mashpee’s history, she said.
But while the relationship between Ms. Burns and the archives and the tribal council has been fairly closed, a small opening may have emerged this week.
Ms. Burns said a meeting may be in the works with the tribal council to discuss the building’s history.
The meeting, should it come to fruition, would mark the first formal meeting between Ms. Burns and the tribal council in recent memory.
*Pieces Of The Puzzle*
Ms. Burns has asserted her theory before, most prominently in 1998 during the debate over listing the building in the National Register of Historic Places. But it was hardly publicized at the time and has not seeped into the common understanding of the building.
After a draft application for the national register was released, Ms. Burns responded with a letter to the state historical commission arguing that two dates of significance should be listed for the building: 1684, for when the first meetinghouse in Mashpee was built, and 1758, for when documentation shows a new meetinghouse was built.
Ms. Burns took issue with, among other things, the mention in the application that Deacon John Hinckley built the 1684 building, when records from his family geneaology show he built the 1758 building. “Deacon Hinckley was not alive in 1684,” she wrote.
“I recognize fully the importance of oral tradition, but I am concerned that the tradition only started in the past several decades,” she wrote.
The register ultimately listed both dates, with the statement that “The Old Indian Meeting House in Mashpee, Massachusetts was constructed in 1758 to provide a place for ministry to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe...While this building was not the first meeting house constructed for the Mashpee tribe, it has served as an important public building to the tribe and the town from 1758 to present.”
Beyond the national register, if Ms. Burns’s research were for a criminal case instead of the history of a building, she would have loads of circumstantial evidence that could be pieced together to make a convincing case, but no smoking gun or other incontrovertible evidence.
“The history is so fragmented, and yet the more I kept writing down, the more it was fitting together,” she said.
She has found no references to there being two meetinghouses at the same time or to the Briant’s Neck meetinghouse being turned into a residence, burned, or otherwise lost.
The written history of the building is highly contradictory: Simeon Deyo’s 1890 “History of Barnstable County,” for example, says the the meetinghouse was not moved until the mid-19th century, while Marion Vuilleumier’s “Indians on Olde Cape Cod” states that it was moved in 1717 and renovated in 1854.
Ms. Burns said she has not been able to find any reference in state archives to $500 being appropriated in 1717 for the move of the building, as Ms. Vuilleumier suggests was the case.
There are, however, numerous documents, including records of the Legislature, that state that a meetinghouse was built in Mashpee in 1684.
Most important to proving Ms. Burns’s revised date, she said, is a lease from 1751 that states the property known as Webquish field is next to the meetinghouse. “...Lett unto the said Benjamin Blossom his heirs and assigns for and during the term of three years fully to be Compleated and Ended their field lying by the Indian meeting house and where their Dwelling House stands...,” the 1751 deed states.
The property owned by the two Native Americans, John and Joseph Webquish, in turn, is known to be near Briant’s Neck, near Santuit Pond, based on a late 18th-century census of the Mashpees, Ms. Burns said.
In the years previous to 1757, there are several records of the Native Americans appealing to the state Legislature for assistance, saying that they had no place to meet, according to records cited by Ms. Burns.
The Reverend Gideon Hawley arrived in Mashpee a few years before 1757, the date that Ms. Burns suspects the new meetinghouse was built. Ms. Burns said she believes it was built at the request of Mr. Hawley based on his writings.
“...to the Marshpee tribe where I was empowered to fix a sport for a new meeting house for those Indians and prepare them for reception of an English minister which had been in vain attempted at one time and another for a course of years...” the reverend wrote.
There are several other references in Mr. Hawley’s writings that mention the meeting house, including one that states that Mr. Hinkley finished building a structure for him in 1758. The mention comes in the same context of a reference to the meetinghouse.
The Hinkley geneaology states: “In 1757 he built the Meeting House at Mashpee.”
A 1767 map shows a building of significance near Santuit Pond, as well as a church by the Mashpee River.
In the 1830s, the famous Native American preacher Joseph “Blind Joe” Amos preached at his house, which was located near Santuit Pond, according to records cited by Ms. Burns.
Ms. Burns also pointed to a report produced in 1988 by the Public Archaeology Labs, a Rhode Island firm, stating that the 1648 meetinghouse was moved only a few hundred feet, to a spot closer to present-day Cotuit Road.
In 1717, a land dispute over 10 acres of property near Santuit Pond was settled, which Ms. Burns said could have provided the new location for the old meetinghouse.
There are, however, also a host of questions that emerge from Ms. Burns’ research and other documents.
Briant’s Neck, on the western shore of Santuit Pond, is the easternmost boundary of the land that was deeded to create the “praying town” of Christianized Native Americans in the 1660s. Why would the meetinghouse be built there, far from the center of town?
If it was moved but remained on the property, as Ms. Burns believes may have happened, why would it be moved only a small distance?
If it was not moved to near Route 28, what happened to the 1684 meetinghouse?
The piecemeal nature of Ms. Burns’s research, as well as the remaining questions, is a function in part of the challenges of documenting history about Mashpee, she said.
“Mashpee’s history is all over the place, and there is still a lot to be found,” she said.
Short of a new document discovery, Ms. Burns said she believes the only thing that might prove the origins of the meetinghouse is carbon-dating a piece of the structure, an idea that Mr. Harding said he could agree with.
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