History: The Nipmucks and the Settlers

Today’s blog begins with a tale that Holliston historian Joanne Hulbert likes to tell about the local Native Americans.

White settlers and Nipmuck Indians lived in this area at the same time. One night, a settler was out until late at night. When he returned and tried to open the front door to his house, he couldn’t budge it. He went around to the side of the house and tossed pebbles at the upstairs window to rouse his sleeping wife and get her to open the door. She went to the window and told him to grab a ladder and climb in, because a group of Indians were sleeping on the floor downstairs and in the way of the door opening. And so, he did just that… and went to bed.

Joanne explains that this was common. Indians did not believe that man could “own” land or property – that they could use what was available as long as they left it in the same condition as they found it. So anyone’s house was open target for Indians looking for shelter.

The story suggests that natives and white people were living in relative harmony, but I know that history didn’t go like that, so I found myself researching my way down, down, down into a fascinating rabbit hole of Nipmuck and early settler history.

Blogs are not supposed to be book length (and this one is long), so there will be a Part 2 on this period – and maybe a Part 3 – because I found this history to have relevance to today.

Native Americans in Holliston – Part 1

The Nipmucks (or Nipmucs) suffered from a major pestilence just before 1620 reducing their numbers significantly. They had settled in three general areas – East Brookfield (the Quaboag tribe); South Natick (the Natick tribe); and in Sterling (the Washacum).

The Nipmucks are considered nomadic (though this linked history contradicts that view) and did not settle in any one location for long, but they did maintain a camp on the southwest shore of Lake Winthrop. Typically, they lived near their planting fields during the growing seasons and then moved inward to deep forest land to hunt during fall and winter. The planting fields near Lake Winthrop are pretty much housing developments today (Strawberry Hill and Holly Hill)²

Daniel Gookin, the Superintendent for the Indians of Massachusetts and an advocate on their behalf, described the homes of the Indians as being “as warm as English houses,” built “very neatly, tight and warm, with bark of trees”…”some of 60 or 100 feet long and 30 feet wide.” When Henry Morse settled along Lake Winthrop in 1734, the fields had clearly been planted for many years and many artifacts were found from the Indians.

Pequot War

Until the Pequot War, the Indians and whites were friendly enough for the Indians to learn skills, like weaving, and adopt implements like metal bowls in place of clay. Some traded their bows and arrows for guns …but not enough to protect an entire tribe from a far more advanced white “army.” Many Indians found coastal areas to be ideal for obvious reasons, but so did the white people and eventually there were conflicts. Over time, as the white people started to impose more controls on where the Indians could be and do, the tensions rose. The first major and very bloody Pequot War pretty much wiped out the Pequot tribe (1637-38). The war primarily took place in Connecticut but drew whites and Indians from all over the Mass Bay Colony. In the end, the conflict drove the remaining tribes farther inland.

The Settlers

As mentioned, Indians did not believe that anyone could “own” the land. What they did not fully understand was that the King of England was giving land grants to white men for places where the tribes were accustomed to living, hunting and fishing.


In 1636 Dedham was founded, and it covered territory that includes what we know as Medfield, Sherborn, Holliston, Ashland, Medway, part of Framingham and beyond. In 1649, Medfield separated, and it was about this time when the lands farther west, beyond the Charles River, were divided and granted. Captain Eleazer Lusher received a grant for 250 acres in what is central Holliston.

These land grants were then divided and sold to settlers who contracted to develop the land in a time certain. The first such settlement was in Sherborn in the region of the intersection of Routes 27 and 115. Gradually other families followed and more land was built upon.

According to Dorothy Drinkwater Reese who wrote, “The Story of a New England Town” for Holliston’s 250th Anniversary in 1974, “Large tracts of land were exchanged for relatively valueless items, although certain privileges were demanded by the Indians such as permission to cut basket material, fish at certain times of the year, hunt for some types of game, etc.” There are copies of some of these deeds and one relative to Holliston says 3000 acres were exchanged for 22 pounds. I checked the Internet to determine the value of 22 pounds if converted to today – and it would be $4,183.86.[1]

The Holliston Reporter published some articles by Martha DeWolfe (a member of the Bullard family, which first settled here in 1652), and she wrote the following in February 2012.

In 1642, five years after the Pequot War the Narragansett sachem, Miantonomo told his people, “Our fathers had plenty of deer and skins.  Our plains were full of deer as also our woods, and of turkeys, and our coves full of fish and fowl. But these English having gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall be starved.” (Isn’t that relevant to today? And FYI, a sachem is a chief.)

If you ever have the chance to visit the museum at the Bullard Farm in Holliston, do it. This is a private collection preserved and maintained by a family Trust. They have an amazing array of early artifacts and periodically hold events for visitors.


As you walk along the Rail Trail near Wennakeening Woods, you will pass the area of Pout Lane (or Mendon Path). The path started in South Natick and ran from Sherborn into Holliston near present-day Bullard Street. It crossed Boggastow Brook and continued near the golf course at Glen Ellen, passing by the southern edge of Lake Winthrop, known then as Wennakeening (pleasant smile), heading for Mendon.

The Wennakeening Woods conservation land, owned by the Trustees of Reservations, includes the part of Pout Lane as it passes near the old railroad line. The Woods are accessed from Summer Street near the Rail Trail. There is a kiosk that serves as a landmark.

Nipmuc history can be found here.

Coming soon…part 2.


Please add to this blog – share what you know so that we have a good history for posterity.

[1] https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm – I love that you can find such stuff!

2. Strawberry Hill = Along Norfolk St /Arcadian Farm to Clark Street toward Medway into Shaw Farm and Appleyard, etc. Holly Hill is Goulding Street to Medway and the housing on either side. These developments came into being in the 1950’s and 60’s.)

One response to “History: The Nipmucks and the Settlers”

  1. Wally Thornton says:

    Great local knowledge.

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