Locating "Wissatinnewag": A Second Opinion

Article excerpt

Appearing in the Winter 2006 issue of the Historical Journal of Massachusetts was an article about the identity of the Indian word "Wissatinnewag" by Marge Bruchac and Peter Thomas. As they explained, the word is found in only one place: a July 1663 letter that John Pynchon of Springfield wrote to the Dutch colony of Rensselaerswyck in New Netherland. Pynchon wrote in English, which was then translated into Dutch, but the original document has been lost. However, an English text of the document exists, published in 1881 by the State of New York. It opens with the following paragraph:

This is written to your Honors at the request of the Indians of Agawam, Pajassuck, Nalwetog, Pacomtuck and the Wissatinnewag, to inform their friends, the Dutch, that they are very much put out, because the Sowquackick Indians had killed and murdered some of the Maquaas [Mohawks]; all the above named Indians request herewith, that the Dutch Commissaries will believe, that only Sowquackick Indians had been killing the Maquaas.1

The Bruchac-Thomas article offers a long argument in an effort to locate Wissatinnewag, but it relies almost exclusively on an elaborate, inconclusive linguistic analysis of the word itself, without providing any real historical evidence. They conclude that Wissatinnewag was a corruption of the Algonquian Indian name for "Housatonic" in what is now Berkshire County, Massachusetts. This conclusion is probably incorrect.

Whether or not Pynchon was familiar with the Dutch or Indian languages is immaterial because there was no Indian community on the Housatonic River of Massachusetts in 1663. On that account alone, the Bruchac-Thomas argument is not particularly convincing when other factors are considered.

A better approach is an examination of the historical context in which Pynchon wrote his letter. By 1656 he and his father had established Indian fur trading posts at Springfield and on the Westfield River.2 In 1661 John began trading on the Housatonic River with Mohicans from the Hudson River Valley but that endeavor proved unsuccessful and was abandoned the next year.3 By 1663, there were no Indians living year-round on the Housatonic. The Mohicans of the Hudson River followed a seasonal lifestyle in the seventeenth century and visited their traditional hunting grounds in western Massachusetts only for two-month periods in the fall and winter.4

John Pynchon acted as agent for the Indians of the Connecticut River Valley, those whom he called "our Indians." He had no jurisdiction over the Mohicans of the Hudson Valley, known then as "Albany Indians" and later as "New York Indians." Thus he had no authority in 1663 to petition the Dutch in favor of any Indians on the Housatonic. They would have sent their petitions directly to the Dutch authorities.5

Even if Bruchac and Thomas could establish the presence of Mohicans at Housatonic in July 1663, then it would make no sense for that tribe to enlist the aid of Pynchon for protection from the Mohawks. Mohicans and Mohawks were at war with each other in 1663 and it seems unlikely that the former would be requesting that their enemies not attack them for murders committed by the Sowquackicks.6

Within the body of Pynchon' s letter are two phrases that offer significant clues to the location of Wissatinnewag. Pynchon begins by mentioning five tribes or locations: Agawam (Springfield), Pajassuck (Westfield), Nalwetog (Northampton), Pocumtuck (Deerfield), and the mysterious Wissatinnewag. In his second paragraph, he refers "to the other Indians of the Caneticot [Connecticut] river, as Pacomtuck, Nanatan, Agawam and further down." Later he describes "the Southern Indians of Pacomtuck and Agawam and farther South."7 Since Pynchon had no agency over Indians on the Housatonic, he was representing only those tribes on the Connecticut River. These phrases then suggest that Wissatinnewag was on that river to the south of Agawam and within the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. …