“Walks About Boston: The Indians,” by the Editor (from Parley’s Magazine, January 1836; pp. 18-20)
What! Indians about Boston? perhaps you will say. Yes, there are Indians about here, in considerable numbers; some in one place, some in another. The most numerous collection of them I am acquainted with is at South Boston, in a field near the centre; only a little way from the Roman Catholic Church. They are Penobscot Indians. But I must tell you who the Penobscot Indians are.
They are the remnants of a once powerful tribe living on Penobscot River; now in the state of Maine. Forty years ago, their numbers had become reduced to about 300; but since that time, in consequence, as Morse says in his Universal Geography, of the efforts of the Roman Catholic priests, their numbers have increased. These priests have established schools and public Worship among them.
The “Annals of Education,” a magazine for parents and school teachers, says, that in the year 1828, a Catholic priest set up a school among them, which was attended by 80 or 90 scholars of both sexes; though they were “of all sorts and sizes.” The school continued abou three months. The pupils were taught to spell, read, and write; and also to sing, and to play on instruments, such as the drum, the fiddle, and the clarionet.
Do you wonder how or why any of these Penobscot Indians should come to Boston? They get into their canoes, and setting out in good weather with their families and a tent, and perhaps a few other effects, they row along near the coasts all the way to Boston. If a storm overtakes them, while on their journey, they can easily secure their canoe, bring their tent on shore, and fix a residence till the storm is over; after which they proceed again on their journey. When they get to Boston, some of them stay there, and do not return.
“But why should they wish to live near Boston?”—Because they can sell their manufactures so readily; for they are basket makers. They do not often make large and strong baskets; but only small fancy baskets, of various color splinters.
I was going to tell you about an encampment of these Indians, settled for the present at South Boston. There are five or six families of them, embracing in all above 20 persons; but some of them are mere infants. When they first came there, they lived in tents. But they soon bought boards and built three or four huts, in each of which they have a small stove which renders the place quite comfortable. Some of the huts have floors; while in others, they sleep on the ground.
You would be amused to visit them, and contrast their manners and customs with our own; for they retain most of their Indian customs. They sit on the floor or ground, in their own way; the
females wear large breastplates of silver for ornaments; and the men spend much of their time in hunting, fishing, &c. The women make the baskets; though the women sometimes help them, and occasionally go to the city to sell them. It is seldom necessary, however, that they should go abroad for this purpose, as the throngs of visiters that are constantly around them, buy a great many of their baskets.
The money which they get for baskets they spend for food and clothes; and some of them for drink. I am happy to say, however, that one or two of the families do not appear to use any spirits. This is the more praiseworthy from the fact that such instances are very uncommon.
These Indians converse among themselves entirely in their own native tongue, though in talking with visiters, they speak tolerable English. A few of them are partly of French origin; but I did not learn that they could speak the French language.
I have been acquainted with one of these temperate families above a year. The father is an old man, and as winter was setting in, in 1834, he came round a begging. He said his name was John Newhall, and that he and his family were temperate. As he was lame, and appeared honest and respectable, some people gave him money. He and his family lived, at that time, in the woods near Roxbury.
In the winter, the small pox broke out in Roxbury, and fears were entertained that it might get into this Indian family, which was very large, and destroy them or cause the town expense; so that a physician in Roxbury went and vaccinated them.
But the weather was extremely cold, and as it was believed that they sometimes cut down valuable young trees for fuel, the owner of the land drove them off. I pitied them, for it was in the midst of the extreme cold of last winter; and I was afraid they would perish. Assisted by a benevolent gentleman, I endeavored to find them a place in the neighborhood, but it was impossible. People were afraid they would cut down their trees, and do other mischief.
They removed, first to Taunton, and after that to Fall River. Sometime afterward they removed to Providence; and recently they joined their present companions in South Boston. Here they were all resolved to remain till spring; but they may not, for they are Indians still, and fond of a wandering life.
Some of them attend meeting on the Sabbath at the Catholic Chapel, which, as I have already told you, is near them; but others stroll about or labor. Few, if any of them, can read, and I saw but one book among them. This I believe was Parley’s Bible Stories. One boy, sixteen years of age, manifests a willingness to learn, and I have no doubt
others would, if they had the opportunity. A gentleman from New York visited them, one day, and made an experiment on this boy. We were both surprised to find how easily he could be taught. At some future time I may perhaps give you an account of the experiment.