Passaconaway was an amazing man. He was Sagamore (Abenaki sakimau). of the Native People called Penacook.
The Penacook were a confederation of native American peoples living on the Merrimack River Valley in south and central New Hampshire at the time of first European contact in the early seventeenth century. At this time there were over ten thousand Penacook [sometimes spelled Pennacook] separated into as many as eighteen different sub tribes. Due to the introduction of new diseases by the colonists, the Penacook were devastated by a smallpox epidemic in 1612-13 and 1620 and also devastating epidemics of influenza and diphtheria which dramatically reduced their numbers. By 1631, Thomas Dudley estimated their number to be “at four or five hundred men.”
Passaconaway consistently urged his tribe to maintain peace with the European settlers. Among his own people, he was known as “Papisseconewa,” and “Papasiquineo,” his name reportedly from the Abenaki words “Papoeis” meaning child, and “Kunnaway,” a bear, i.e. “Child of the Bear.” They considered him a leader, priest and physician. In various European writings he was called sachem, sagamore, sagamo, bashaba, and powah. The European settlers considered him a friend. But even though Passaconaway never moved against or threatened the settlers, the colonists thought of Passaconaway and his people as a potential threat, and devil worshipers.
Priest and Magician?
There are many stories available detailing Passaconaway’s ability to both heal and perform amazing feats. William Wood in his “New-England Prospect,” of 1639 said: “The Indians report of one Passaconnaw, that hee can make the water burne, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphise himself into a flaming man. Hee will do more; for in winter, when there are no green leaves to be got, he will burne an old one to ashes, and putting those into the water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see, but substantially handle and carrie away; and make of a dead snake’s skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt and heard.”
Thomas Morton wrote, “Papasiquineo…is a Powah of great estimation…to the admiration of the spectators whome he endeavored to persuade that he would goe under water to the further side of a river too broade for any man to undertake with a breath, which thing hee performed by swimming over and deluding the company with casting a mist before their eies that see him enter in and come out,–but no part of the way hee has been seene;–likewise by our English, in the heat of summer, to make Ice appear in a bowle of faire water; first having the water set before him, he hath begunne his incantations according to their usual accustom, and before the same has bin ended a thicke clowde has darkened the aire, and on a sodane a thunder clap hath bin heard that has amused the natives; in an instant hee hath showed a firme piece of Ice to flote in the middle of the bowle…
Friend or Foe?
In reading many texts about Passaconaway and his relationship with the European settlers, he appears to have consistently acted in a friendly, supportive, and cooperative manner, and urged other members of the Penacook to do the same. In return, the European settlers most often reacted with suspicion and animosity.
By some accounts in 1629 Passaconaway deeded vast amounts of land to the Rev. John Wheelwright, while reserving the right to hunt and fish upon it. “The authenticity of the 1629 deed bearing his signature is likely a forgery according to the latest scholarship“.
According to Thaddeus Piotrowski in “The Indian Heritage of New Hampshire and Northern New England, The colonial English repaid him by not only breaking their word about allowing him to hunt and fish upon those lands, but by also “conscripting the aid of the Mohawk” Indians, and in 1666 battle of Fort Eddy (just north of Concord NH) to “break the power of the Pennacook.” [Fort Eddy is located about a mile north of Hale’s point, an extreme point on land on Ferry Road, opposite Sugar Ball. Traditionally this was the location of an old Indian Fort. Just north is a tract of land called “The Fan” that was owned by Abiel Walker]. The History of Concord NH by Jacob B. Moore (page 75) instead dates this event as 1684 when “Lieut. Governor Cranfield formed the project of bringing down the Mohawks, from New-York, in order to destroy the Penacook and Eastern Indians.” Whichever date is correct, it is evident that the European colonists plotted to destroy the peace-loving Penacook, grouping them indiscriminately with unrelated, more warlike tribes.
Documents show that Passaconaway respected the laws of the European settlers, and in 1632 Passaconaway delivered an Indian to the authorities who had killed a white man by the name of Jenkins. In 1642, following an unproven report in Connecticut regarding animosity by tribes not directly related to the Penacook, the English sent out men to arrest some of the principal Indian chiefs. Forty men came after Passaconaway “to disarm him,” but due to bad weather, they were not able to find him. His son, Wonalancet with wife and child, however, were captured. Wonalancet was taken into custody, and paraded around with a rope around his neck, then fired upon “like a dog when he tried to escape.” Even after this, Passaconaway indicated he would “come and talk with” the European authorities once his family was released. He kept this and other promises that he made.
In 1647 John Eliot the preacher visited Passaconaway at Pawtucket Falls (now Dracut, Massachusetts). Considering that Mr. Eliot thought of, and described, the Native Peoples as savages, much of what he describes may be of questionable value. The Europeans considered some of the native peoples to be “Powabs,” i.e. “witches, or sorcerers, that cure by the help of the devil.” By 1646 Mr. Eliot was already fining the native people’s “20s. apiece,” if they acted as “Powow” or if they received the benefit of one. Passaconaway never converted to Christianity, although he appears to have been respectful of John Eliot and the beliefs of the European settlers.
In 1659 Passaconaway was to be found residing at the Indian fort (aka Fort Eddy) in Penacook, where he was visited by Major Waldron of Dover. By 1660 reportedly he was in Pawtucket Falls and made his famous “farewell speech,” where he asked his people to live in peace with the “white men.”
On 9 March 1662, having been pushed out of any lands previously owned by, or granted to him, Passaconaway requested from the Massachusetts General Court to be provided with a portion of land on which to live. He was granted a piece of land in New Hampshire, 1-1/2 miles wide and 3 miles long on both sides of the Merrimack River, including two islands (my grandmother called these islands Nunnehaha and Minnewawa, and they were later known as Reed’s Island) in the Merrimack River nearly opposite the Reeds Ferry or northern section of the current town of Merrimack NH.
Legend says that when Passaconaway was about to die, he wrapped himself in a bearskin, and was pulled in a giant sled by wolves, up to the top of Mount Washington, where his sled burst into flames, and Passaconaway disappeared into the clouds of the sky.
What probably happened is that Passaconaway died about 1673 possibly on the last piece of land granted him in what is now the towns of Merrimack and Litchfield, New Hampshire. According to the History of Concord NH, “The whole tract afterwards reverted to the government, and was granted in 1729 to John Richardson, Jos. Blanchard, and others.” Note that the islands on Passaconaway’s granted property are not the same as Cartagena Island, that lies in the Merrimack river between Manchester and Goffs Falls, which is mistakenly reported as Passaconaway’s island. There were “large bones” found on this (Cartagena) island that were reported to belong to Passaconaway, but in my opinion this makes for a good story, but they probably belonged to someone else.
One traditional burial ground of the Penacook was at the ancient Indian fort at Penacook (mentioned above). The History of Concord mentions that European settlers discovered “a considerable number of human skulls and bones” there, and that some of the skulls and bones were later in the possession of Hon. Chandler E. Potter of Manchester NH.
The exact date and burial place of Passaconaway is unknown. It is believed he died before King Phillip’s War (1675) and possibly it occurred about 1673. Perhaps he was buried in a simple manner, as other Penacook were, in their old burial ground in Penacook. In 1855 a grave was found in the Concord area as described: “They were each enshrouded in a thick envelope, consisting of several thicknesses of pitch pine bark–they lay upon their right side, in a direction north and south, the face looking east; the lower limbs somewhat flexed upon the trunk, the knees flexed at about right angles, and the elbows completely flexed, the head resting upon the right hand.”
Passaconaway left four sons and two daughters, viz.: Nanamocomuck, sachem of Wachusetts; Wonalancet, sachem of the Penacooks; Unanunquoset; Nonatomenut; a daughter that married Nobhow (sagamon of Pawtucket), and a daughter that married Montawampate the sachem of Sagus.
–Sakamo– [history of other sagamores, archived version]
–William Wood’s Impressions of New England Indians (1639)– (archived version)
-Book Online: Passaconaway In the White Mountains– internet archive
1. The Library of American Biography, Jared Sparks, 1836, R.J. Kennett
2. Indian Biography, by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher, 1832, J.& J. Harper.
3. Winthrop’s Journal, History of New England 1630-1649 by John Winthrop, James Kendall Hosmer, 1908, C. Scribner’s sons
4. The History of Concord NH, by Nathaniel Bouton, 1856, pub. Benning W. Sanborn
5. History of Concord, New Hampshire, from the original grant in seventeen hundred and twenty-five to the opening of the twentieth century; (1903); James O. Lyford Editor, Volume I
6. The history of Manchester, formerly Derryfield, etc, by C.E. Potter, 1856.
[Editors note: updated January 2014 and November 2018]