Looking ahead to the new year from a local history perspective, there are commemorative moments for at least six events: five European settlements and a tea party, the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, to be precise. A century and a half earlier, there were settlements at Gloucester, Massachusetts and Portsmouth, Rye (the Pannaway Plantation) and Dover (the Cocheco Plantation), New Hampshire. The ill-prepared and -fated Wessagusset Colony was established in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1622 but its demise came the following year after the brutal Wessagusett “Incident,” more appropriately referred to as a massacre. Commemorative history should acknowledge both the good and the bad, the heroic and the tragic, the kind and the cruel, and so the Wessagusett Massacre of March 1623, a veritable “red wedding” which harmed relations between Native Americans and English settlers for years to come, demands a spotlight. Like the first Gloucester settlement by the Dorchester Company, Wessagusett was decidedly not a plantation in the seventeenth-century sense, but rather a fishing and trading station of 60+ men financed by London merchant Thomas Weston. “Weston’s Men” were completely unprepared for the New World and by the winter of 1622-1623 they were starving, and altogether dependent on both Plymouth and the Native Americans in the region. But foodstuffs were scarce for everyone that winter, and everyone was anxious. Rumors of an impending Native American raid on both settlements drove the Wessagusett men to seek aid from Plymouth, and militia leader Myles Standish and eight men sailed a shallop to the northern settlement and issued an invitation to Massachusett tribal leaders Pecksuot, Wituwamat, and others to attend a summit during which commenced a slaughter just as they all sat down to dinner. I’m going to let Charles Francis Adams tell the tale, as he presented it in his anniversary address on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Weymouth: the savages were taken by surprise, but they fought hard, making little noise but catching at their weapons and struggling until they were cut almost to pieces. Finally Pecksuot, Wituwamat and a third Indian were killed; while a fourth, a youth of eighteen, was overpowered and secured; him, Standish subsequently hung. The massacre, for such in historic justice it must be called, seeing that they killed every man they could lay their hands on, then began. There were eight warriors in the stockade at the time,—Standish and his party had killed three and secured one; they suddenly killed another while the Weston people despatched two more. Only one escaped to give the alarm, which spread rapidly through the Indian villages. Interesting language for 1873: savages is employed, but Adams does not refrain from calling this slaughter a “massacre” unlike many of his contemporaries who labeled it a pre-emptive strike. Several Wessagusset men also died during the massacre, and the rest opted to abandon the settlement; Standish returned to Plymouth with the head of Wituwamat on a pike in ancient English warrior fashion, “to ornament the Plymouth block-house as a terror to all evil-disposed savages” in the words of Adams. This massacre seems worthy of a bit more commemorative reflection, at least a fraction of what the Boston Massacre receives continuously.
“The Return of Myles Standish from Wessagusset,” from Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849 by William August Crafts, 1876. Ironically, nearly 300 years later (299!) Myles Standish lost his head when the Standish monument in Duxbury was struck by lightning: according to this post by Carolyn Ravenscroft, archivist of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, his replacement head was too heavy for the damaged “body,” so an entirely new Standish was created by Boston sculptor John Horrigon, pictured here in 1930.
I’m not sure what the plans for the commemoration of the Wessagusset Massacre are but all the early settlements have been planning their 400th anniversaries for quite some time, particularly Gloucester, which has assembled a multi-layered calendar of commemorative initiatives and offerings focused overwhelmingly on the city’s social history. I’ve been so impressed with the “400 Stories” project, which aims to collect, present and preserve stories from 400 of Gloucester’s residents from 1623 to 2023, thus connecting the past to the present. There are books, an artistic competition for a new commemorative medal, walking tours, festivals, and a gala: the evolving celebratory schedule is at Gloucester 400.
Portsmouth is all geared up too, although its big reveal party is on January 6 so I don’t know all the details. The PortsmouthNH400 site is here, and so far its signature product is a lovely book, A History of Portsmouth NH in 101 Objects, to which both my Salem State History colleague Tad Baker and alum Alyssa Conary have contributed. There’s an ongoing speakers’ series and exhibition based on the book, and on January 6 Portsmouth’s Memorial Bridge will be illuminated in blue, PortsmouthNH400th’s commemorative color. Like Gloucester, Portsmouth is also collecting stories (of 400 words) from its residents, to be compiled in a commemorative book designed to update its 350th anniversary history. Rye and Dover also have their 400th anniversary committees and calendars, derived from considerable public participation: the mission of Dover400 is “to honor our past, celebrate our present, and to inspire our future through meaningful and creative community engagement.”
The 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party is going to be big: after all, from the Boston perspective, it was “the single most important event leading up to the American Revolution.” I’m excited about all of the offerings by Revolutionary Spaces at the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House, including an exhibition on the power of petitions, an “immersive theatrical experience,” and various programs on the nature and expression of protest. Of course the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has plans as well, and is already counting down to the big reenactment on December 16, 1773. And there will be merch, including lots of commemorative tea.