Looking for Your Native American Ancestry in Massachusetts? Aquinnah (Gayhead) Wampanoag

Until 1869, Massachusetts Indians were wards of the state, not subject to taxation and disenfranchised. The Enfranchisement Act of 1869 changed that – not only did the law make citizens of the Commonwealth’s Native population, it also opened up communal lands held by Natives for sale to non-Indians. Committees were formed to investigate Indian lands that might be subject to sale. One such investigation on the island of Martha’s Vineyard included a detailed census of the island’s Wampanoag residents.

In 1866, the legislature appointed a Commission to “complete the examination and determination of all questions of title to land, and of all boundary lines between the individual owners, at Gay Head, on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.” The “questions of title to land, and of all boundary lines” was a sore point with the Massachusetts government due to the Aquinnah’s unique method of distributing land to their tribal members.

When an Aquinnah came of age, he would fence off land from the common area for his own use. The size of the area did not matter – it could be 1 acre or 5 acres or ten. The amount depended on what the member felt he needed. Several legislative reports from the colonial period on remarked on the method of dispersal and claimed that it could not continue.indefinitely.

This 1866 report (published in 1870) not only defined boundaries between privately held Gayhead lands and common areas but included a census of all members of the tribe whether on the island or living elsewhere. The details included in the census is a genealogical goldmine of information. The screenshots below demonstrate the two page chart system.

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Page 1 gives the assigned number of the member, name, sex, when born, where born, residence, condition (married, widowed, etc.), and occupation.
Page 2 lists the assigned number, when married, parents, parents’ residence, father’s birthplace, mother’s birthplace, father’s occupation.
This entire report can be found online at the State Library of Massachusetts at http://archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/48290

8lsanten ak8oi (Make Peace),
Cheryll

 

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