The early 1600s saw the pre-Columbian tribes of what would become the Northeastern United States at the height of their civilization. Dozens if not hundreds of groups, each with their own culture and languages, competed for resources while at the same time maintaining a complex trading network that crossed hundreds of miles.
When European fishermen began appearing on the coasts, they introduced diseases that decimated the population, and by the time colonists arrived in what is now New England in 1620, much of the previous civilization was gone.
Salem, Massachusetts was to be the English capital of the new colony, but after Governor Winthrop’s son drowned while swimming, Winthrop moved the government to present day Charlestown, where there was no food. They soon crossed the river to present day Boston, where there was very little water.
By 1630, the colonists were starving. Unable to master living on this new land, their supplies were running short, and their people were dying. And along came a Nipmuc named John Acquittamaug with a supply of maize to sell to these new, strange, and rather pathetic people. Nipmuc means “by the fresh water lake,” as the people lived around a large lake in western Massachusetts. But they knew themselves as the “Beaver Tail Hill People.”
Boston survived, and the European colonists showed they’re gratitude by forcibly converting the Nipmuc and other local tribes into “praying indians.” Under this plan, natives would be forced to live in certain areas, similar to reservations. Because they had been converted to protestant Christianity, they were treated with more respect than non-converted natives.
Many of the Nipmuc went along with this plan because they saw it as a way to defend themselves against other tribes like the Pequot, with whom they were frequently at war. Instead, the progression of European influence over the continent began, and they found themselves being pushed out of the land that was set aside for them. As an agricultural people, this was disastrous as each move meant years preparing fields for crops. To make matters worse, the local beaver population was in massive decline due to European hunting for fur.
By the 1670s, they had had enough, and joined with the Wampanoag chief Metacom in what was called a “rebellion” by their European overlords. The non-praying Metacom was known as King Philip by the colonists, and thus the war was known as King Philip’s War.
For three years, the bloody conflict raged, with a full 50% of colonial towns being attacked. But in the end, the colonists prevailed, killing some 3,000 of the 3,600 native combatants. Many of the remaining Nipmuc were executed or enslaved, and their culture was effectively destroyed.
But not entirely. Though the Nipmuc do not officially exist according the the Federal government, they still own a three-acre parcel of land from an original praying town from the 17th century. The rest of their land has long ago been absorbed into the colony. In 1869, the few remaining Nipmuc were recognized as citizens of the United States.
Today, the remaining Nipmuc number about 1400, divided sometimes bitterly into at least three separate groups. They live as most modern Americans do. Their language died out long ago, and scholars argue about whether they even existed as a distinct tribe. Their history has been mostly forgotten, as has the history of most of the people living on this continent before the Europeans came.
But a Nipmuc is still saving Boston. In Western Massachusetts, a large reservoir was created to provide desperately needed fresh water to Boston. It’s called Quabbin reservoir, and Quabbin was the name of a now-forgotten Nipmuc chief.