Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Locating "Wissatinnewag" in John Pynchon's Letter of 1663

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Locating "Wissatinnewag" in John Pynchon's Letter of 1663

Article excerpt

The place name "Wissatinnewag" appears in only a single document preserved in the English colonial records: a letter from John Pynchon written on July 28, 1663. The original letter, written in English, is now missing, and only a printed text and a Dutch translation survive. Today, some assume that the name refers to a Native American Indian village situated in the present-day town of Gill, Massachusetts, along the northern shore of the Connecticut River near Turners Falls.1 There appears to be no other surviving seventeenth century manuscript or primary source that confirms this name for this location. The archaeological evidence and oral traditions of Native use of the falls for millenia are indisputable, but there is no indication that a separate tribal nation lived there, nor that the residents of this site were engaged in diplomatic relations with John Pynchon. Furthermore, the association of Wissatinnewag with the Connecticut River Valley overlooks the complex history then unfolding in western Massachusetts and eastern New York, where Pynchon was trying to negotiate peace with the Mohawk and Mohican and establish a truck house to expand the potentially lucrative fur trade with them. This essay endeavors to more accurately locate "Wissatinnewag" by considering the historic and linguistic context in which Pynchon's document was originally written.

At the moment on July 28th of 1663 when John Pynchon sat down to pen a letter to the Dutch authorities at Fort Orange (now Albany, New York), he was perhaps the most powerful Englishman in the middle Connecticut River Valley. For more than thirty years, the Pynchon family had controlled the English fur trade with the Native American Indian inhabitants of Agawam (now Springfield), Nonotuck (Amherst, Hadley, Hatfield, and Northampton), Pocumtuck (Deerfield and Greenfield), Pojassic (near Westfield), and Woronoco (Westfield). The Pynchons had also opened trade with the Sokoki, the southernmost band of Western Abenaki who inhabited parts of present-day northern Massachusetts, southern Vermont and New Hampshire.2 As a land broker, John Pynchon had designs on all of these territories. As Springfield's chief magistrate, he also hoped to avoid inter-tribal warfare to ensure the safety of the fledgling English settlements in the valley.3

Pynchon's original letter, written in English, is now missing, having apparently been destroyed during a 1911 fire in the New York state archives.4 Following seventeenth century custom, his English missive was translated into both Dutch and Mohawk languages to reach his intended audience. The only version preserved in the New York archives is a Dutch manuscript with scorched edges, bound into a volume with other documents from New Netherlands. The text begins as follows:

Translatie uij het Engels

Desen sijn door't versoeck von de indianen von Agawam. Pojassick. Nalwotog. Pacomtuck. ende de Wissatinnewag, Im u. e. [U Edelen] wij vrienden de Iroquois...[illegible]...de Sowquackiak Indianen, om dat hebben vermoord en doodgeslaegen...de Maquasen...5

The ink is smeared and faded, the abbreviations are inconsistent, and other idiosyncracies of the author's handwriting render much of this manuscript illegible. A rough translation says that an intermediary is writing on behalf of five tribal communities, begging "their honors" (the Dutch) to convey the message that "only Sokoki have been killing and slaughtering Mohawks." It contains Pynchon's distinctive signature at the end, suggesting that he approved of this rendition of his request.

A slightly different wording is found in the English version of John Pynchon's letter that was published in 1881 by B. Femow, editor of Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York. The differences between the extant Dutch letter and this publication raise questions of translation and transliteration that are difficult to answer, since there is no indication where Fernow found the document he transcribed, or how that document characterized the location of each tribe. …

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