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The American Indian Quarterly 26.2 (2002) 165-197

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Mashpee Wampanoags of Cape Cod, the Whalefishery, and Seafaring's Impact on Community Development

Mark A. Nicholas


How southern New England Indians fared in the business of whaling in the early nineteenth century and the long-term consequences of whaling for Native American communities are subjects that deserve closer examination. 1 This essay is primarily a study of the post-American Revolution Mashpee Wampanoag community of Cape Cod and focuses on the group's ties to the whalefishery. It makes two interrelated arguments: Wampanoags from the Cape, like other men from southern New England, were an important source of whaling labor into the early nineteenth century; and early American whaling transformed the lives of Mashpee whalers and their families. Examining Mashpee's intimate relationship with the whaling business, this work reconsiders the roles played by Indians in the maritime world and the influence of wage labor on one Native American group.

Nantucket accounting papers pertaining to the Mashpees permits for analysis of these Indians as whalers. Historians have already learned from colonial whaling contracts, court records, and merchant accounts that for the Native men of southern New England, America's whaling trade was an exploitative arm of colonial labor relations. The primary route into whaling in the eighteenth century, which was the practice of indenturing, threatened Native ways as Indians remained caught in cycles of labor exchange for credit, goods, and money. New research in Nantucket merchant house account papers dated to the early republic period reveals that white trading networks between the island and the mainland maintained control over Mashpee whaling labor. 2

The first section of this essay tracks the development of whaling as a labor system in which, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, state-appointed guardians and local merchants maintained authority over the lays (earnings in fractions of the total catch of a whaling voyage) and the accounts of Mashpee whalers. The Massachusetts government dissolved the guardianship system in 1763 with the creation of the district of Mashpee but reversed this decision in 1788 by reinstating three guardians. In 1789 the legislature replaced [End Page 165] the three guardians with a five-member board of white male overseers, two of whom acted as guardians and attempted to wield power over the affairs of Mashpee's proprietor Indians. (Proprietors were those community members "entitled to legal rights in the plantation through inheritance or adoption into the tribe," and only proprietors had rights to the group's common land.) The board included the Congregational minister Gideon Hawley (missionary to the Mashpees from 1756 to 1807) who was treasurer and overseer. The board was given the power to oversee the distribution of Mashpee resources as well as to monitor the employment of Indians and their contracts with white merchants. With Hawley as a member, the board also helped support education and religious worship. They also used funds to care for the indigent. Hawley died in 1807, and one year later the Massachusetts government reduced the number of overseers to three. The new overseers were given the duty to choose one guardian. By 1818, the legislature replaced the three overseers with two, but they were also granted the powers of guardians, and this system remained in place until 1834. The approximately twelve thousand acres in Mashpee ultimately was to serve as a reservation for proprietor Indians. 3 Among other duties, the guardians tried to put an end to the abuses that had plagued Mashpees who joined the whaling business by trying to ensure fair wages and a way for proprietor whalers to collect their earnings. 4 With the guardianship system affording some "protection" to members of the group, Mashpee proprietors enjoyed the chance of making a decent living from whaling. Nantucket merchants would notify Mashpee's overseers of upcoming voyages, and guardians, acting on their behalf, offered lays to the reserve's employable proprietors. The guardians, in correspondence with the leading merchant houses of Nantucket, also managed the contracts, debts, and sale...


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