James the Printer

Photo taken by me at the American Antiquarian Society on Monday, April 2, 2018 with David Tall Pine.

James was born Wawaus around 1640 in Hassanamesit, one of many Nipmuc villages that existed before contact with the English Puritans and still exists today. He was the son of Naoas, a leader at Hassanamisco during colonization. Even though Hassanamesit was a matriarchal society, the name of Wawaus’ mother was not recorded.

At age 5, Wawaus went to live with an English family. In Indigenous culture at that time, sending a child to live with allies was an act of diplomacy. The child would learn the culture and practice of the other community and bring that knowledge and understanding back to his own people. The English may have had other reasons for removing young children from their families and placing them with English families. In an English home, Indigenous children were more easily indoctrinated into Christianity. And, by keeping the children of Indigenous leaders isolated in English towns, the threat of violence or resistance by Nipmucs would be reduced. When old enough, Wawaus attended the Indian Charity School at Harvard College – he was called James by this time.

John Eliot was a puritan missionary with the goal of converting the Indigenous population to Christianity. He was successful in converting many men in multiple Nipmuc communities. Over the course of his career, he created fourteen praying villages, in Nipmuc homelands, to aid in the conversion to Christianity. Eliot thought that printing a bible in the local language would help his mission. He made efforts to learn the language, secured Indigenous youth to help in translating. The printing press at Harvard College was the only press available. But the two English printers running the press did not know the local language. Eliot felt it would take too long for the English printers to typeset the translated bible. He needed someone Indigenous who was fluent in English.

James and his brother Kattenanit (now called Job), along with Joel Iacoomes and Caleb Cheeshateaumuck from Aquinnah Wampanoag, graduated from the Indian Charity School around 1659. Job became a teacher in a Nipmuc praying town. Joel and Caleb went on to Harvard College where they excelled. James became the printer’s apprentice at the Harvard College press under Samuel Greene. Eliot finally had his Indigenous, English-fluent typesetter.

James, with others including Job Nesuton from Massachuset, helped to translate the bible into the Algonquin N-dialect language, more commonly known as the Massachuset language. He typeset the first bible ever printed in the Americas – a New Testament in1661. He later printed the Algonquin version of the full bible and multiple religious tracts and primers. He became known as James the Printer which inevitably shortened to James Printer. Despite the many books and pamphlets attributed to James Printer, his name only appears once in print – on the Massachuset Psalter which was published in 1709. Some copies of the Algonquin bibles survived to this day. They are the tools used for the language reclamation work of several southern New England tribes. These volumes would not have been possible without James Printer’s knowledge and skills, an unqualified fact that has been forgotten.

James Printer continued to work at the Harvard Press for 16 years before the start of King Philips War in 1675. James played many roles, often seemingly conflicting, during the war. At the start of King Philips War (KPW), James was at Hassanamesit with hi family. As colonists grew worried, an English delegation traveled to Hassanamesit and other praying towns to gauge the temperaments of the Nipmucs. At Hassanamesit, the Nipmucs including James pledged to not get involved in the war. Their political and spiritual allegiance was to the same God as the English, and they declared that they did not intend to change that position. Several weeks later, as war spread towards Nipmuc country, the Hassanamiscos went to Okkanamesit (now called Marlboro, MA) where their kin had a fortified village. There James lived his life away from war until one day while hunting, he came upon a father and son who were making their way home to Okkanamesit. For reasons lost to history, James turned in the pair to the English. Colonist Samuel Mosely, known for his savagery, tortured and executed the father and son.

Great David, kin to the executed pair, was shortly thereafter captured by Mosely. In retribution, David told Mosely that James Printer and his kin were the Nipmucs who recently attacked the town of Lancaster. Mosey forced his way into Okkanamesit, took James and ten of his kin and literally dragged them behind horses to Cambridge for trial. Once there, the Nipmucs were imprisoned for weeks until the Mohegan delegation to Massachusetts Bay colony spoke up in James’ defense. All but two of the captured Nipmucs were released. At nearly the same time, Massachusetts Bay released an order confining all Indigenous people to only five praying towns, one of which was Hassanamesit.

James and his kin returned to Hassanamesit, again choosing not to fight. By November, the entire Hassanamisco community was carried away by Nipmucs fighting with Metacom. All knew what had happened to the Nipmucs in the Natick praying village. They had been carried away at night to an island in the harbor (now called Boston harbor) and left there for the duration of the war. When the warrior Nipmucs came to hassanamesit, they offered its inhabitants a choice – come with them to safety or stay and be removed like the Naticks. The Hassanamiscos went with their fellow Nipmucs to safety at Menimesit. At Menimesit, James became a scribe for the sachems that sought refuge there. He penned two famous and still-existing letters from Menimesit. The first was a letter tacked to a bridge taunting the English. The letter made clear that it was the English that started the war and that while the Indigenous may lose their lives, the English would lose possessions and land. The letter showed that the Nipmucs knew how precious possessions and land were to the English and how the English thought little of the value of Nipmuc lives.

The second letter written by James at Menimesit was the letter negotiating the release of Mary Rowlandson, who was taken from the 2nd attack on Lancaster and used as a servant to the squa sachem. The letter led to the successful ransom of Rowlandson. Not many months later – Nipmucs, Wampanoags and Narragansett Peoples lost the war. Retaliation by the English was swift and brutal. Many were executed, others sold into slavery in the Caribbean. Others were forced into indentures in English homes.

James returned to the printing press in Cambridge. Many years after the war ended, Rowlandson wrote a book about her capture and return. That book would be typeset by James Printer, himself a character in the book. James returned to hassanamesit around 1698 as a teacher. There he remained until his death in about 1709 while fighting for the English in Queen Anne’s War.


Brooks, Lisa Tanya. Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. Yale University Press, 2018.

Gookin, Daniel, “An historical account of the doings and sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England in the years 1675, 1676, 1677.” (1831) https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/digital/collection/nby_eeayer/id/27845

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