Saturday, September 12, 2009

"An Heir to King Philip"

During the last quarter of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th centuries, Teweeleema (1836-1919) and Wootonekanuske (1848-1930), perhaps better known by their English names of Melinda and Charlotte Mitchell, claimed themselves to be the last lineal descendants of Massasoit. While viewed with some skepticism today, the claim was little challenged at the time, and the women were regarded by the non-Native community with a mix of attitudes ranging from reverence to racism. Along with their mother, Zerviah Gould Mitchell (1807-98) who became an early spokeswoman for the rights of the Native peoples of Massachusetts, the sisters settled on Betty's Neck in Lakeville in the late 1800s following the comment of a judge who advised the ladies to go and take possession of the land they claimed for themselves. Increasingly in their struggle to acquire legal title to the land, their resistance to non-Native ways and their staunch vocalization of a Native perspective on history, the women garnered the attention of the press, both locally and nationally, and numerous reporters, writers, artists and photographers made the trek to document the family at Lakeville. Among the many pieces published as a result of this journalistic quest was the following article from an unidentified (though likely Boston newspaper) dated October, 1895, and written three years before the death of Mrs. Mitchell. In it, not only is a glimpse of the sisters' lives at Lakeville given, but also an indication of the non-Native attitudes prevailing at the time. Ironically, while the article was titled "An Heir to King Philip", the sisters were not descendants of the Wampanoag sachem, but of his sister who had married Watuspaquin (Tispaquin).

AN HEIR TO KING PHILIP.

Daughter of Long Line of Royalty.

Last Scion of Heroic Family Lives in Lakeville.

Of Majestic Height and Carriage and Proud of Her Descent.

A lineal descendant of kings, a claimant of the title of princess, lives near the quiet little city of Lakeville, on Lake Assawampsett, which is one of the most charming of those many small bodies of water that form what is known as the lake region of Massachusetts, says the New York herald. She, for it is a woman of whom I speak, is no renegade or exiled pretender. Her own people acknowledge her claim to the royal name and station. She lives on the soil that she and they look upon as hers in immemorial rights. In the very rooms which her ancestors have made famous in history and in legend, and in the midst of an alien race who have dispossessed her and hers. They are the parvenus, the usurpers, the false claimants, not she.

To those barbarians she is content to be known as Melinda Mitchell, condescending to acknowledge the dull, unromantic, commonplace conditions which have resulted from their coming. But to her own people she is the Princess Teweelema. In the same way her great kinsman, King Pometacom, consented in times gone by to drop that significant and euphonious name for the meaningless Philip, making the new name glorious among his own, and terrible to his foes. It as as the nearest heir of that regal and regnant character and the direct descendant of his father, the almost equally famous King Massasoit, chief Sagamore of the Wampanoags, that she has a birthright to her title and a right acknowledged even by the strangers’ lawless law to the very land on which she and hers reside. This is known as Betty’s Neck, named after one of its former owners, Assowetough, whom the English ignobly called Betty. It is a long high strip of land, situated on the south shore of lake Assawampsett. Here, under the shade of the primeval trees which sheltered their ancestors, live the last pitiful remnants of the opnce powerful tribe of the Wampanoags, and here, in their midst, in a small house sequestered and well nigh hidden by dense woodland, dwell the princess, her mother, Mrs. Mitchell, and her sister, Charlotte, whose Indian name is Wootonekanuske.

Proud of their descent and tenacious of the right of exclusiveness claimed by royalty and its heirs the world over, the members of this small family are averse to notoriety and unwilling to receive visits of mere curiosity from members of the race they have reason to distrust and fear. But through the genial influence of the firend who accompanied me, I have had the honor and pleasure of being received by them.

Our three gracious hostesses were Indians to the core, with rich brown skin, high cheek bones, flashing eyes, and straight, lithe and graceful figures, and possessed, moreover, of much natural and acquired refinement, both of speech and manner.

Shorter in stature than her daughter, Mrs. Mitchell has settled into the fleshy solidity of age. In spite of her 89 years she is hardly feeble in body, although her mind is somewhat blighted. She has a motherly, winning face, with kind eyes and a friendly mouth; but when we listened to her pleasant tones we realized that her greatest charm was her voice, so soft, so sweet, so mellow, and then so strong, so incisive and so indignant.

Melinda, or the Princess Teweelema, is something past 50. Of most majestic height and carriage, her picturesque appearance is much enhanced by her complete Indian attire and the crown of beads and feathers which she always wears upon her stately head.

When questioned concerning this insignia of royalty, she says in explanation, “I am the daughter of a king.” And as the words leave her lips there comes over her fine face a look of mingled sorrow and scorn that she is denied her birthright and forbidden her heritage. Her voice is resonant and under good control, her gestures are at all times well chosen and dramatic. She was educated at Abington, Mass., as was also her sister Charlotte, or Wootonekanuske.

Charlotte’s Indian name was given her in honor of the wife of King Philip, and she does no discredit to the “beloved wife of Philip of Pokanoket,” who was a sister of Weetamoe, the unfortunate squaw sachem of Pocassett.

While of less distinguished appearance than her sister Melinda, Charlotte Mitchell possesses in large degree the air of proud and pathetic resolution which so characterizes her mother and Teweelema, and although she was most cordial in her welcome, her domestic duties soon called her and we could hear her busy in the little lean-to kitchen, or flitting with light step through the dining room. Once or twice she stood for a moment in the curtained doorway and chatted with us.

Mrs. Mitchell responded most willingly to all our inquiries. Teweelema stood beside her, correcting now and then a date, with beautiful and charming deference. It was more than touching to watch the look of expectant recollection in the old woman’s face as she endeavored to recall, sometimes fruitlessly, the incidents of her past life, and we could tell whether the memory for which she was groping was glad or sad by the deepening lines in her expressive face.

She told of the evolution of their home on the Neck, which, starting as a canvas tent, has reached the culmination in a comfortable but small house. It was with a proud sweep of her arm that she called our attention to their present cosey [sic] surroundings; then, with scarcely a breath between, she reverted to her school teaching in Boston when she was a young woman. Suddenly her face grew hard and stern, as she spoke of cords and cords of wood cut upon her woodland by the agents of the state, for which the commonwealth still refuses to reimburse her. As her voice rose in the passion of remembered and existing wrong, her aged figure seemed to assume majestic proportions and her dull eyes blazed. It was then that Teweelema stepped forward, and placing a quieting hand upon her mother’s shoulder, brought her to tranquility and forgetfulness.
In reply to a question concerning their famous lineage, Teweelema, her hand still resting upon her mother’s shoulder, replied, with uplifted head, and slow distinct enunciation:

“My mother is the grandchild of Massasoit, seven generations removed, and the niece of King Philip, six generations removed. Her descent is through Amie, the daughter of Massasoit, who married Tuspaquin, the Great Black Sachem. My mother is also, through Assowetough, or Betty, the sixth generation in lineal descent from Sassacus, the earliest chief of the Pequot tribe.”

Being somewhat surprised at the number of pretty baskets piled in one corner of the dining room, we were told that they were made to sell at the harvest moon festival at Onset. This is well known as the summer rallying place of the Spiritualists of the United States, and is but a few miles from the home of the Mitchells and within sight of Gray Gables. It is presumably under Indian control, and spirits of departed chiefs and braves are said to appear on the streets on the night of the harvest festival, or, to give it its full title, the harvest moon festival and pow-wow of Indian spirits, so that the general Indian atmosphere especially permeating the place at that time makes the sale of Indian trinkets easy and lucrative.

Teweelema is the traveling salesman for the little family. When she goes upon a commercial trip she arrays herself in her bravest Indian finery, and makes a circuit of the nearby towns, in each of which she is a well known figure.

We were especially fortunate, a few days later, in seeing her at Onset, on the afternoon of the harvest festival, gorgeous in scarlet and yellow, and beads and wampum, her fur trimmed leggings reaching to her embroidered skirts, her long, black hair floating free beneath her crown of beads and feathers, and her bodice nearly covered by the many strands of large beads which formed her necklace.

In these days of intense realism, when one’s sensibilities are coerced into a forgetful apathy, a bit of romance is as warming to one’s heart as a blazing fire on a brisk December day, and what could be more romantic when the thought of this Indian princess living unwedded, because, as she says, “would the daughter of a king wed one of the race which robber her fathers?” – and there seems to be no fit mate for her – none unless, indeed, it be the materialized spirit of an Onset chief.

Illustrations:
Teweeleema (Melinda Mitchell) at Betty's Neck, Lakeville, MA, photograph, 1885
Typically for visits and photographs, Teweeleema dressed in a modified version of Native attire, including beads and a feathered head dress. In contrast, her sister Wootonekanuske generally dressed in less traditional garb.

Mitchell House, Betty's Neck, Lakeville, MA, by George Dorr of North Middleborough, photograph, c. 1901
Contrary to characterizations which termed the Mitchell House at Betty's Neck as little more than a hut, the house in which the family lived, though modest, was comfortable and well kept. The ell in the foreground of the picture was likely the earliest portion of the structure built.

Source:
Unidentified newspaper clipping, "An Heir to King Philip", October, 1895.

2 comments:

Random O.C. Christian said...

Is there any way to find out who wrote this 1885 article? It seems probable that these were the last descendants of Massasoit. I'd like to find someone who knew the ladies and their descendants to try to get a line of contact from them to the present day. Please email me to help me make this connection.

jay twocrows said...

the " massasoit" book contains this genealogy and a bit more. written by alvin weeks I think.
other royalty related to the great cheif comes from a wheldon line, whom i'm many times removed from, as I am also from the great chief Iyannough, pronouncesd Hyanno( hyannis ma. latter named after his domain:) aqunee. jay , two crows....

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