The Hassanamesit Reservation is a special place for Indigenous people in Massachusetts, especially those belonging to the Nipmuc tribe and those with Nipmuc ancestry. It is the only place in Massachusetts that has never been owned or stewarded by anyone other than Indigenous people. In the Nipmuc language, or N & L-dialect Algonquin, Hassanamesit means “place of small stones” – named for its rocky soil. Nipmucs lived in Hassanamesit since before recorded time and are called Hassanamisco – meaning that they belong to Hassanamesit. Today, this place has no title or deed associated with it. Its very presence predates the existence of Massachusetts and the United States.

  • neepnet = Nipmuc territory
  • weatchiminneash = corn
  • mohtukquas = rabbit
  • nequttika = eel

Like other the other communities that thrived in neepnet, people at hassanamesit cleared areas to plant weatchiminneash, beans and squash. The cleared areas also encouraged animals such as deer and mohtukquas to graze in the openness, making it easier to hunt them.

Communities organized at various levels including the singular extended family, multiple families, or multi-clan groups. Hassanamiscos understood their inherent responsibilities to the world around them. Their relationship to the land and other living beings was one of kinship.

Hassanamiscos managed their resources in alignment with what the earth provided. This way of life allowed the rivers in Neepnet to fill with herring and nequttika. Centuries of living in balance produced a capacity to adapt to change that was rooted in an in-depth understanding of the land they shared their lives with.

  • ohkeketompog = dawnland
  • ninnimissinuock = the people

As the English, French and Dutch continued to invade ohkeketompog – now called New England, ninnimissinuock aided these strange beings as tradition dictated. But it soon became clear that the strangers did not intend to live with the land as the people did but instead, they began to change the landscape.

The English erected fences to prevent the people from gathering necessary food and medicines. When the people disregarded the barriers, they were treated disrespectfully and as criminals. ninnimissinuock were given curious and odd items in exchange for making marks on sheets of paper filled with other marks that they did not understand.

Substantial amounts of land became inaccessible to the people, upsetting the balance that had lasted for millennia. The help given to the invaders, as the cultural norms of the day demanded, backfired, and wreaked havoc on the Hassanamiscos and their way of life.

In 1654, English missionary John Eliot set up a “praying village” in Hassanamesit to Christianize its Nipmuc population. This was the 3rd of Eliot’s 14 praying villages (sometimes called praying towns). The residents of these villages were expected to adopt English customs and behaviors, including cutting their hair, speaking in English, and converting to Christianity. Some Nipmucs already lived on the land Eliot decided to make into a praying plantation; others moved there out of curiosity, better relations with the English, and protection from other tribes such as the Mohawks. Children of Hassanamisco leadership were often removed from the praying towns and placed in English homes to be “properly raised and educated.” One example of this was the son of Nipmuc leader Naos. Before age six, his young son was taken and sent to Harvard’s Indian school and later apprenticed to a print shop. This child would grow up to typeset the first book ever printed in America, the Algonquin bible. He became James the Printer or, simply, James Printer. Removing children from their community served multiple purposes, including raising them to become English allies, keeping the parents of those children loyal to the English, and creating an environment where the Indigenous culture could not thrive. Removing children prevented their families from teaching them their culture, and from passing down stories and skills essential to maintaining the community’s existence. While Hassanamesit was a safe harbor for Nipmucs, it also meant publicly relinquishing Nipmuc lifeways to stay.

In 1675, King Philips’s War erupted. Philip, whose real name was Metacom, was a Wampanoag leader who realized that the English incursions into ohkeketompog were hurting Indigenous people and that soon the land would be full of the English and ninnimissinuock would have no place to go. Metacom fought against the English when they looked to arrest him for exercising his leadership responsibilities. He was joined in his fight by multiple Nipmuc communities and the Narragansett. While some Wampanoags fought with Philip, many other Wampanoag communities sided with the English.

Some praying towns remained neutral or on the side of the English, but their loyalties were understandably divided. Many of the Hassanamisco leaders sided with the English, including James Printer, Job Kattenanit, and the sons of Robin Petavit at the outset of the war. Written accounts by the English show that these Nipmuc men worked for the English to protect their families. James Printer still had family at Hassanamesit. Job Kattenanit had a wife and two children interned at Deer Island that he desperately wanted released. Although they functioned as scouts for the English, these Nipmuc men also aided Metacom, his people, and the Nipmucs that fought with him at various points during the war.

Ninnimissinuock lost the war to protect their homes, people, and lifeways. Those that did not die defending their homelands were forced to surrender to English authorities. The Indigenous who surrendered were executed, sold into slavery in the Caribbean, or forced into indentured servitude. Other Nipmucs were confined to four praying villages not destroyed by the war. One of these villages was Hassanamesit. The Hassanamiscos were driven off the land during the war, but families eventually returned. Some ninnimissinuock continued to follow the rules and principles set up by John Eliot, others left their homes and sought refuge with Indigenous communities west and north, beyond the vengeful reach of the English.

The English kept a tight reign over Indigenous people after the war. The colonial legislatures of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay appointed Guardians or Trustees to oversee each surviving Nipmuc community as well as the remaining Massachusetts and Wampanoag communities to the east. The control exercised by colonial authorities made it difficult for Indigenous communities to resume their long-established way of life. Earning money to survive was essential post-war and to gain funds many Hassanamisco men fought for the English during the Seven-Years War, called the French & Indian War in America. Colonial records report Nipmucs bearing arms in both Queen Anne’s and King George’s Wars – the second and third of the series of wars between Great Britain and France for control of North America. Many Hassanamisco men did not survive including James Printer.

Although multiple families returned to Hassanamesit, in 1727, the colonial government only recognized 7 Nipmuc families as they prepared to sell 7500 acres of eight thousand Hassanamesit acres to English householders. The 2500 pounds paid by 40 English proprietors was placed in trust by the guardians or trustees of the Hassanamisco. The ninnimissinuock were to be paid the interest on the fund annually, but according to multiple petitions to the legislature, this only sometimes happened. Trustees also took it upon themselves to decrease the principal of the fund from time to time to pay their own debts. These stolen funds are still owed to the tribe today.[1]

Throughout the 18th century, war continued to take its toll on the population of Hassanamesit. Men from the community that survived the French & Indian War fought in the Revolutionary War. Land continued to pass out of the hands of the Hassanamisco community. Trustees would often force ill or elderly Nipmucs to board with white families and use Nipmuc land as payment. Other English would “assist” ninnimissinuock in building debt and take land as payment for that debt. Land transactions had to be approved by the Massachusetts legislature via the trustees. In effect, the state-appointed trustees and Commonwealth of Massachusetts personally supervised and directed the loss of tribal lands in Nipmuc country by allowing and encouraging these practices. This pattern of land loss continued until 1854 when Sarah Walker sold the last of her family’s ancestral lands and used the funds to buy a home in Worcester with her husband Gilbert. [2]

Hassanamesit is now called Grafton, MA. There is just one place left that was not sold out of Nipmuc hands. It is the remnant of the five hundred acres allotted to the Nipmuc families in 1727, part of the Moses Printer allotment. It is the place that we now call the Hassanamesit Reservation.


Bagley, Joseph M., Stephen Mrozowski, Heather Law Pezzarossi, and John Steinberg. “Continuity of Lithic Practice from the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries at the Nipmuc Homestead of Sarah Boston, Grafton, Massachusetts.” Northeast Historical Archaeology 43, no. 1 (2014): 9.

Mrozowski, Stephen, Heather Law Pezzarossi, Dennis Piechota, Heather Trigg, John M. Steinberg, Guido Pezzarossi, Joseph Bagley, Jessica Rymer, and Jerry Warner. “The Archaeology of Hassanamesit Woods: The Sarah Burnee/Sarah Boston Farmstead.” (2015).

[1] Papers Related to Commissioners of the Indians Reports for Massachusetts (widely known as John Milton Earle papers). https://americanantiquarian.org/reclaimingheritage/manuscripts/commissioners/

[2] Mrozowski, Stephen, Heather Law Pezzarossi, Dennis Piechota, Heather Trigg, John M. Steinberg, Guido Pezzarossi, Joseph Bagley, Jessica Rymer, and Jerry Warner. “The Archaeology of Hassanamesit Woods: The Sarah Burnee/Sarah Boston Farmstead.” (2015).

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