Herring Pond Wampanoag Burial Ground Comes Home
February 17, 2020
Alice Hirsch, wife of Solomon Webquish, died Aug. 11, 1859 and was buried here, on a hill in Cedarville, off Long Pond Road. Hirsch was laid to rest alongside relatives and cousins like Dina Chummuc who died at the age of 19 April 17, 1840, Antone Francis, who was 31 when he died in 1840 and Lucy Anah, who was buried here in 1831, never to see her fourth birthday. They belong to a family, to a tribe, that has finally enveloped them into its folds, once again.
PLYMOUTH – Alice Hirsch, wife of Solomon Webquish, died Aug. 11, 1859 and was buried here, on a hill in Cedarville, off Long Pond Road. Hirsch was laid to rest alongside relatives and cousins like Dina Chummuc who died at the age of 19 April 17, 1840, Antone Francis, who was 31 when he died in 1840 and Lucy Anah, who was buried here in 1831, never to see her fourth birthday.
They belong to a family, to a tribe, that has finally enveloped them into its folds, once again.
Herring Pond Wampanoag Elder Hazel Harding Currence, 75, has been up here before, and pulls her wrap around her ears against the cold. Her sons, Troy and Samuel, share her gaze into the past, as she scrutinizes the graves, all Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe relatives who called this quiet stretch of Plymouth home. Their cousins, Melissa Ferretti and Bill Hunt, complete the family tableau. They are all descendants of the same relative: Harriet Saunders Harding who found her way into government documents that chronicled Native American tribes like hers.
Pines and oaks creak in the late autumn breeze as Troy Currence gestures to a simple stone marker, noting that many more graves likely lie beneath the carpet of leaves and underbrush. The bones of Hardings, Chummucs, Hirsch and Webquish who came before lie below his feet on this hill that used to be part of this tribe’s 3,000-acre Great Lot, its parcels sold off and taken over hundreds of years of European occupation.
Currence’s low voice carries his native tongue, as he offers up a prayer to the Great Spirit, in honor of their ancestors, before they head back to their cars and 21st Century life. A Herring Pond Wampanoag Medicine Man, Currence translates when asked, hesitating as he searches for the right English words.
“I said, ’I thank you, ancestors and friends. I thank you for all things. I thank you for the sky. I thank you for the land. I thank you for the people. I thank you for the trees. I thank you for the rivers. Help us to do what is right,” he explains.
Doing what is right is what these Herring Pond Wampanoag’s feel Plymouth did when fall Town Meeting voted to transfer this six-acre parcel back to the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe through its nonprofit by the same name. The transition comes just in the nick of time, it would seem, as this burial ground has been targeted by vandals and the vagaries of New England winters over the years that have left headstones broken, chipped or even missing. The graves need to be catalogued, properly cleaned and preserved, toppled stones need to be raised and repositioned.
Ferretti, who is the nonprofit group Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe chairlady, grew up in this area and noted that the Herring Pond Wampanoag were the first natives to be assimilated by the Pilgrims. Ferretti and her cousins are all Harding descendants.
“Harriet Saunders Harding was the one we all descended from,” Ferretti explained. Their lineage is documented in the Earl Report of 1859, Ferretti said, referencing John Milton Earle’s “Indians of the Commonwealth” report to the governor, documenting various families and tribes, their whereabouts and landholdings.
“The Harding family is prevalent and indigenous to Great Herring Pond Wampanoags, and we’re related to Mashpee and Aquina, who are our cousins,” Hunt said. “Hazel’s father, God rest his soul, was my grandmother’s brother. Our family dates back to the 1500s here, and, of course, a lot earlier than that.”
A labor of love lies ahead. The property needs to be surveyed carefully to determine where all the graves are located; while some obvious ones have head stones, many others do not, either through vandalism or because the original marker was simply a stone without writing. And identifying the boundaries of the burial ground can only be done when the debris and leaves are removed.
“Once we get the property deed recorded, we’ll do a LIDAR survey,” Ferretti explained. “We need to cut down the underbrush. We have to meticulously clean the area to see what’s underneath. It’s almost going to be like with a toothbrush to remove the underbrush and all the leaves so we can do a site analysis. Once we do that, we can start the cleaning in the spring. We want to reposition the ones that are down.”
LIDAR surveys use laser lights to measure distances to targets and create 3D representations of areas, showing indentations and other indications of human activity, like construction and burials.
Ferretti and her relatives are gratified that the town saw fit to honor the Herring Pond Wampanoag, she said. Pilgrim Hall Museum Executive Director Donna Curtin said Pilgrim Hall has extended its resources to help the Herring Pond Wampanoag document the history of tribal members. The grounds are sacred to this tribe and it is important to protect them, she said.
“It’s a small community in many ways that has often been overlooked,” Curtin said. “I’m sure there are many people in Plymouth who aren’t aware that the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe existed. We feel it’s a very important history for understanding Plymouth’s history as a whole.”
The Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe’s history intersects with the Pondville Baptist Church on Herring Pond Road, what is now the New Life Baptist Church. Ferretti said she remembers attending the church with her Wampanoag relatives in the 1970s and 1980s. It was the church tribal members attended from time out of mind.
“We were Christianized through the town of Bourne,” Hunt explained.
He noted that Yale University has included the tribe in the Yale Indian Papers Project, which endeavors to organize and make available precious Native American historic documents and data through an online site. Meanwhile, Suffolk Law School is assisting the tribe with its bylaws. A shift in perception is happening along academic and government fault lines, in which Native American history and artifacts are receiving the respect and consideration they deserve, Ferretti said. The burial ground’s return to its family is one joyful indication of this.
For Curtin, it’s time to let the Native Americans tell their own story, without European Americans stepping in to tell it for them.
“They need to be the voice of their own history,” Curtin.
Follow Emily Clark on Twitter @emilyOCM.