Contact and Pre Contact Period
Posted on February 10, 2014 by Jenny ONeill
Contact Period (1500–1620)
The first documented accounts of Native and non-Native interactions along the shores and harbors of Old Dartmouth (the original territory from which Westport was subdivided) indicate that these areas were inhabited by Native American groups affiliated with the Wampanoag tribe (Denison 1879; Ellis 1892; Howland 1907). The MHC (1982) notes a large Contact Period regional core extending from Buzzard’s Bay to Narragansett Bay, and native population concentrations along the Acushnet, Paskamansett, and Westport rivers.
In 1602, Englishman Bartholomew Gosnold reportedly landed at Gooseberry Neck in Westport and Round Hill in Dartmouth, where he encountered natives bearing gifts of “skins of wild beasts, tobacco, sassafras root, turtles, hemp, artificial strings colored (wampum) and such like things” (Ellis 1892:18; Hurd 1883). John Winthrop reported that the Native Americans living in the Old Dartmouth area were known by the name “Nukkehkammes” (Glennon 2001).
Both branches of the Westport River were likely occupied by the Acoaxset (Acoaxet) Native American group and intensively exploited for their diverse riverine and marine resource base, potential planting grounds, and land and water transportation routes. Among the primary overland native trails was the Old Rhode Island Way, a major transportation corridor linking Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island. The route passed through the Head of Westport along Old County Road and Route 177 (Worth 1908:10). A north-south trail network may have existed along Davis, Gifford, and Drift roads to Westport Harbor; and trails paralleling the West Branch along present-day Old Harbor and Cornell roads have also been conjectured (MHC 1981a). These Native trails, in addition to water routes, would have provided access between coastal resources and interior areas several miles to the north.
Prior to the reconnaissance survey, no Contact Period archaeological sites had been recorded in Westport’s MHC files. Patterns of Native American land use documented elsewhere in the region and in neighboring Dartmouth suggest that the Westport River margins and islands have a high probability of containing archaeological evidence dating to the Contact Period (Herbster and Cox 2002). These sources, combined with additional data collected as part of the reconnaissance survey, indicate that the Native inhabitants of present-day Westport were well established in the town’s coastal and near-interior regions. Naturally formed inland water bodies such as Devol and South Watuppa ponds may also contain similar evidence of Contact Period activity.
Coastal sites dating to the Contact Period could include extensive shell midden deposits and large habitation sites utilized during the summer and warmer months, while smaller winter camps would be expected in the northern/interior portions of town.
First Settlement/Plantation Period (1620–1675)
The lands of Old Dartmouth, purchased on behalf of the Plymouth Colony in 1652, included all or part of the present towns of Dartmouth, New Bedford, Westport, Fairhaven, and Acushnet, Massachusetts, and a strip of Tiverton and Little Compton, Rhode Island. John Cooke and Edward Winslow, serving as representatives of the Colony, bought the land from the Wampanoag Chief Sachem Massasoit and his son, Wamsutta, in consideration of “thirty yards of cloth, eight moose-skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes, fifteen pairs of breeches, eight blankets, two kettles, one clock, two pounds in wampum, eight pair stockings, eight pair shoes, one iron pot, and ten shillings” (Grieve 1897:4).
The enormous parcel was divided among 36 proprietors (including William Bradford and Miles Standish) with each individual acquiring at least 800 acres of land. Some of the stone markers designating these plots are still present within the town (N. Judson, personal communication 2003). As with many Native/colonist land transactions brokered in New England during the seventeenth century, the properties were not immediately settled. Most of the first purchasers remained absentee owners and sold off their parcels after the Plymouth authorities began taxing the lands. Only three of the original proprietors are believed to have settled in the area (Gifun 1983).
Several factors may have induced Euro-American settlement in the Westport area by the 1650s. The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies began persecuting religious dissidents during this period, and as a result many sought lands at a greater distance from the seat of colonial government. Many of the first residents of Old Dartmouth conformed to the Quaker (Society of Friends) religious doctrine and were not affiliated with the church or government of the old Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts. They chose to settle in the fertile agricultural lands and coastal areas of Old Dartmouth where they “. . . would be free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience” (cited in Fitch 1991).
A second settlement incentive was Old Dartmouth’s abundance of rich farmland, navigable waterways, and protected harbors. The urban villages of New England were becoming overcrowded by the mid-seventeenth century, pushing families into the hinterlands in search of more promising agrarian and commercial opportunities.
Because of concerns about conflict with Native groups, early English settlement was clustered at the highly defensible locations of Horseneck Beach and Westport Point (Worth 1908) and, before King Philip’s War (1675), included only an estimated 30 homes (MHC 1981a:3). Family names associated with the early Euro-American settlement of Westport include Earle, Macomber, Ricketson, Sherman, Sisson, Sowle, Tripp, Waite, and Wilcox (WHC 1987:16). Richard Sisson is documented as one of the first residents, with a pre-1676 homestead located on Drift Road at the Head of Westport (Maiocco 1995; WHC 1987). Sisson’s original home was reportedly burned during King Philip’s War and was rebuilt in the general location of the Town Landing (WHC 1987). Daniel Wilcox, a Portsmouth, Rhode Island resident, is recorded as another initial Westport settler who purchased land in 1659 along the East Branch. During this early period, Wilcox appears to have bought and sold large tracts of land along both branches of the river (WHC 1987).
Documentation of specific homesteads and settlement locations is extremely limited for this period. Westport’s early Euro-American settlers within the present-day town appear to have selected the coastal margins and rivers as primary homesteads. Initial settlement was also closely tied to waterpower, leading to the early settlement of the Head of Westport section of town. Interior lands located away from the Westport River and northern portions of Westport remained largely unsettled prior to King Philip’s War, although Native networks, already well traveled, were likely used by the first Euro-American settlers as well.