A complex and remarkable man, who stood with one foot balanced on Indian land, and the other on English land. Like the man himself, this story is ambiguous and complicated, and does not conform to a simplistic narrative.
April 14th is Nehoiden Day in Needham, a local holiday first declared in 1985 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Land Deed that set aside the land that is now Needham and Wellesley. The commemoration also bids us remember the Native Americans who lived here for some 7000 or 8000 years before the English, and the complex and remarkable man who managed to stand with one foot balanced on Indian land, and the other on English land.
Nehoiden (more properly Nahaton or Ahaton) was born sometime around 1635, in the village of Unquity (now Milton). He and his family were converted to Christianity by the Rev. John Eliot in the 1640s, and he took the Christian name of William – William Nehoiden. His family moved to the “Praying Indian” (Christian convert) village at Ponkapoag.
Nehoiden was about as educated a man as was possible in his day. He could read and write in English, and later in Algonkian as well. He helped to teach his own Algonkian language to Eliot, helped create a written script for the language, and also helped to translate the Bible. In 1671 Nehoiden was one of three emissaries sent by John Eliot to Metacom (“King Philip”), in a failed effort to defuse the tensions that Eliot saw growing between the Native American tribes and the English. When the war came in 1674, Nehoiden led a company of English scouts.
Trusted by neither side, the Praying Indians suffered terribly during King Phillip’s War. The Natick community was interned on Deer Island, and left through the harsh winter without adequate food or shelter. Many died. John Eliot was the only Englishman to protest the internments. He was different from most of his contemporaries in his attitudes – he believed that the Native Americans might be the Lost Tribes, and were therefore the Chosen of God. With the help of Nehoiden and a few others, he made several journeys to the island to bring much-needed supplies. Eliot and his helpers often fought with settlers, who tried to stop them by overturning their boats and dumping their supplies (and them) into the harbor.
In the aftermath of King Philip’s War, the power of the local tribes was broken, and any remnants of the peaceful collaboration that characterized the initial contacts were swept away. Many of the defeated Native Americans (convert or not) were sold into slavery in the Caribbean; many others moved out of the area to live with other tribes. Some gathered into the old villages, leaving large parcels of tribal land to be claimed by the growing number of English settlers.
To validate these land claims, the King belatedly required deeds attesting to their purchase, so a lot of post-facto deeds were produced in the late 1670s and thru the 80s. Although many indicate some exchange of goods in return for the land, the relative value of the goods versus the land is impossible to evaluate. For the most part, it can be assumed that the deeds were only recognizing land takings that were made after the war or even at an earlier date – through actual force, or through the softer force of taking something from someone who has few alternatives. People who were leaving the area to relocate to other villages would prefer to take some value with them, even if not the full value, rather than lose everything; most were not in a position of strength to negotiate a fair sale. So, while these “deeds” record “sales,” the reality is that many document takings or virtual thefts. Nehoiden spoke both languages and was known to both the English and the Native Americans, and he acted as the negotiator for the deeds for Hingham, Braintree, Walpole, and Dorchester, as well as Dedham.
The context of the Nehoiden Deed itself is more complicated. The deed, dated 14 April 1680, records the sale to Dedham “for valueable Pay in hand received” of the land that had belonged to Nehoiden’s grandfather, north of the Charles River as far as the Upper Falls – the land that would become the Dedham North Parish, and finally, Needham and Wellesley. As one of John Eliot’s main assistants, Nehoiden had a very clear understanding of how the English did things. It also seems clear that his decision to convert to Christianity was unforced and durable – he stuck with the English through King Philip’s War and after, acting as a scout for the British army and giving them information about native warfare. He remained a Christian preacher after the war, and collected the remaining Praying Indians in this area to the village in Ponkapoag. In the immediate post-war period, he also acted as lawyer for the tribes to the General Court to try to reclaim tribe members’ lands or their freedom from slavery.
Nehoiden’s 1680 deed is notable for the fact that it is conveyed by himself and his siblings as individuals (not as representatives of the tribe) and that the land is conveyed in the terms of an English contract – “…wee do acknowledge Ourselves fully contented [with the price] and do Alienate, Grant, Assigne, Enfeoffe, Bargain, Sell & Confirme [the sale].” Nehoiden was a complicated and very savvy man, and was unlikely to have any illusions about the English and their goals. He also kept a valuable parcel for himself, 40 acres of fishing ground in Hemlock Gorge. The language of the contract which describes the land as belonging to him and his family (inherited through his mother’s father, and where his grandfather was buried) seems to imply that this was an intentional rather than forced sale, especially since he apparently planned to come back during alewife season to fish in Hemlock Gorge. Like the man himself, this story is ambiguous and complicated, and does not conform to a simplistic narrative. There is much more research to be done here.
Nehoiden eventually returned to Ponkapaug after the war, gathering together survivors of the Praying Indian communities. He lived there for the remainder of his life, and died in 1717 at the age of about 80.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum