Indigenous scholars join missionaries, Indian College Harvard and ‘Cities of Prayer’

Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University. This portrait is by Stephen Coit, commissioned as part of the Harvard Foundation Portraiture Project, a diversity initiative.

The history of the Indigenous peoples of the place we call Cambridge is largely unrecognized and underrepresented, but understanding is important to understand the roots and depth of the cultural genocide that Native Americans have faced over the centuries in the Massachusetts and the United States as a whole. Indigenous scholars, who were educated under colonial education systems, also received very little recognition despite their impact. They disrupted theconviction of colonial dominationabout Aboriginal people. They used their learned and observed skills and the colonialist teachings imposed on them to their advantage for their own benefit and that of their communities. James Printer and John Sassamon are among the many examples of Aboriginal people – often apprenticed to Christian missionaries – who used assimilation to their advantage to claim their humanity and their rights.

Although there are few written records regarding Aboriginal presence on this land prior to its settlement, the founding of New Towne in 1630 served as a trigger for the exclusion of Aboriginal life from the area. Later named Cambridge after the English University of Cambridge, the village quickly grew from plowed land, a church and a meeting place into a larger center of education, ministry and governance with the founding of Harvard College in 1636, as well as the influence of the city’s founder, Thomas. Dudley, Governor at that time. The establishment of Harvard Indian College in the 1640s was key to the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into the small English community. However, very few eventually graduated during the school’s short history, largely due to death from illness.

The Native American tribes that lived in the vicinity were the Massachusett and the Wampanoag. Since the city’s inception, the presence of Aboriginal people has had an influence, even in the choice of the city’s location. Although there was a path leading to the ocean, the young city was largely surrounded by wilderness, which led to the construction of walls and ditches such as windmill hill (the current site of Ash Street), to protect themselves against wolves and the native peoples they saw as equal threats.

The high death rate caused by the transfer of disease from English settlers to Indigenous peoples meant that few groups of Native Americans remained in the area for long.

Some indigenous peoples, however, established professional relationships with the colonizers. One was Sassamon, a Native scholar, translator, and apprentice of Puritan missionary John Eliot in the early to mid-1600s. Sassamon, the first Native American to attend Harvard College, assisted Eliot with many of his translations into Native languages ​​- created with the aim of assimilating the indigenous population into the colonial culture.

Sassamon also served as a preacher, teacher, and interpreter of the Algonquin language, acting as an intermediary between the English and Native peoples in disputes and land exchanges. He was bilingual and bicultural, able to travel between the two cultures without being fully immersed in either. Some believe it was this, and Sassamon’s role as an informant for the English, that led to his murder in 1675, triggering King Phillip’s brutal war.

Nonetheless, Sassamon played an important role in gaining and maintaining the rights of Indigenous peoples through his own mastery of culture, despite attempts by the colonials—among them Eliot—to strip him of his culture through assimilation.

Wowaus, or James Printer, is another Indigenous man facing assimilation through the imposition of English literacy and education. Printer was a native typographer, teacher, Christian missionary and leader educated at Harvard College and was instrumental in spreading English literacy among his students at Hassanamesit (now known as Grafton) and Waeuntug ( current Uxbridge). His English literacy and connection to native and colonial cultures also allowed Printer to serve as an advisor and translator to Metacomet, or King Phillip, during King Philip’s War.

Like Sassamon, Printer was Eliot’s apprentice. He lived primarily in Hassanamesit, one of Massachusetts’ many “prayer towns”—established by the English colonial government for the native peoples, where the practice of Christianity and “civilization” by English standards was central. The natives were often brought to live in these towns by force, faced with the alternative of exile.

Native missionaries who lived in these towns and preached the tenets of Christianity bridged the gap between settlers and native peoples by teaching English. As Sassamon did, missionaries often served as intermediaries and spokespersons for their communities, having the ability to negotiate land rights and property in disputes with the English. While this often led to them owning land, they were also able to provide breakthroughs towards land autonomy for other indigenous peoples.

Sassamon and Printer’s travels illustrate the varied nature of assimilation and its use by Indigenous peoples to combat settler colonialism and regain their freedom and rights as a people.

History Cambridge will provide resources to further explore the history of Cambridge’s Indigenous peoples in the upcoming Indigenous Peoples History Centre. Follow our progress on

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Fatimah Ali is an intern this summer with History Cambridge, researching the history of Indigenous peoples at Cambridge. She is a rising senior at Wellesley College and studies architecture with a concentration in urban studies.

James C. Tibbs