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  • by Tom Eastman

The Son of the Bear - Passaconaway of the Pennacooks

When you drive west from Conway on the Kancamagus Highway alongside the Swift River, in time you'll reach an area, now woods but once clear, known as the Albany or Passaconaway Intervale. Reigning supremely over this once teeming valley to the south is a lofty, symmetrically-grand peak that rises head and shoulders above the other mountains of the Sandwich Range.

Passaconaway, monarch of all, bears fitting testimony to the mighty Pennacook Indian chief for which it is named, keeping alive his greatness for all generations.

Who was this great chief? Like his mountain, Passaconaway loomed in preeminence in life, far above and generations ahead of his fellow Pennacook tribesmen. "The Son of the Bear," as his name symbolizes, was a fierce, gigantic and powerful leader in his youth, yet he was also known for his moderation, keen insight and sagacity. Because of his unusual physical, magical, social and intellectual powers, the towering leader of the Pennacook confederacy was given a title which few have held -- Bashaba. Superior to sagamore, sachem and chief, the term corresponds to "emperor" in the English language. From all accounts, Passaconaway was more than worthy of the title.

Lauded as the most influential sachem in New England and probably as the greatest red man in the East, the Bashaba was born sometime between 1555 and 1573, ruled until 1668 or 1669, and died at the seasoned age of 120 in the 1680s. The father of Wonalancet and the grandfather of the more war-like Kancamagus, Passaconaway's story is a sad one. At the height of his power in the early 17th century, he governed a confederacy of 3,000 people comprising 13 tribes, capable of throwing an army of over 500 skillful and cunning men into the field. But just 18 years after he had submitted to the provincial government of the English, his once industrious and prosperous tribe was reduced to a paltry group of miserable paupers, literally cheated out of their lands by the settlers. Piece by piece, they took away his grounds -- lands Passaconaway had reserved for his poverty-stricken people.

Following a pestilence which swept across New England in the early 1600s, the Indian population was decimated. In many cases, powerful tribes were reduced to mere handfuls of survivors, with so many dying that there weren't enough left to bury the dead. After such devastation, new tribal relations had to be formed. Passaconaway - possessing all the physical and intellectual powers the Indians looked for in a leader - rose to the occasion.

At the time, the Pennacooks - based along the Merrimac River in Manchester and Concord - were the strongest and most highly developed of the New England Indians. Surviving the battle against the pestilence, the Pennacooks next faced an equally threatening danger - the rising of the Mohawks of New York against the other Indian nations. The Mohawks went to war against the Pennacooks approximately 20 years before the landing of the Pilgrims, just before the formation of Passaconaway's confederacy. This was climaxed with one great battle at the Pennacook's strongly built fort on the crest of Sugar Ball Hill in what is now Concord, New Hampshire.

The fight was bitter between the two nations. According to C.E.Beals Jr. in his book, "Passaconaway in the White Mountains," both sides were almost literally cut to pieces. Finally, the last few remaining Mohawks, "baffled and wounded," took to the woods, leaving their dead and dying in the hands of the victors. Proving himself in battle against the fierce New Yorkers was the future Bashaba who later claimed that the most Mohawk scalps hung from his wigwam pole. As he later told others in his last speech as chief, "The whoop of the Pennacooks was heard upon the Mohawk - and no voice so loud as Passaconaway's. The scalps upon the pole of my wigwam told the story of Mohawk suffering."

Following the last battle against the Mohawks, Passaconaway's people held them in mortal fear and would endure almost anything rather than risk another conflict. With the fight behind them, however, they looked to their new leader to create a strong confederacy. Under his guidance, the Pennacooks - through marriage and sometimes through war - created an alliance with over a dozen tribes in what is now New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine. Bearing the name of Pennacook after Passaconaway's tribe, the federation was - with the exception of the Five Nations of New York- the largest in the East.

When the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, Passaconaway - the most powerful chief in New England - was there. Summoned by his fellow medicine-men to Plymouth to conjure against the English, Bashaba met with them for three days in a dark swamp, attempting to "call down lightning to burn the ships," as well as to bring plague and pestilence upon the newcomers. As history has recorded, their efforts didn't work - not a single ship burned.

Long before his brethren, Passaconaway consequently learned a lesson in Plymouth that he never forgot - the white man's god was stronger than his own. The Great Spirit, he said, whispered to him that the Indians should make peace with the whites as a result, since they were "powerless" against them. Sadly, he returned to Pennacook, realizing that he could neither destroy the invaders by sorcery, nor with his braves could they successfully contend against the miraculous firepower bestowed by the white man's god in their guns. Rather than waste his young men before that firepower, he chose a policy of "Peace with the English." It was a policy that eventually cost him dearly.

The early colonist found the Indian chief's peace policy almost providential. Even when smarting from wrongs and injustice from those whom he befriended, the powerful chief restrained his braves. Had he combined his powerful army with the inferior band led by the more militant King Philip, the residents of Strawberry Banke, Newburyport and Saugus (Lynn) would probably have been swept out to sea. Instead, Passaconaway chose a policy of peaceful co-existence, even delivering up a kinsman to the English for trial for murder to prove his determination to deal justly with the newcomers.

The great chief was more on the mark with his premonitions about the future growth and expansion of the white man's settlements, than he was with his policy decision. The Great Spirit, he related, had whispered to him that although the palefaces were few in number in the beginning, they would eventually be as numerous as the leaves in the forest. The red man's hunting ground would be stripped of its timber and furrowed with the white man's plow, he continued, and the rivers and fishing places would be choked with dams and whirring mills. In these cases, his foresight proved to be more accurate.

Although the Penacooks under Passaconaway remained peaceful, there were frequent false alarms among the settlers about impending Indian attacks. Considering their often fraudulent treatment of the red men, there's little wonder why the settlers were so fearful of retaliation. One such groundless alarm occurred in 1642, when word spread that Passaconaway was preparing to unleash an attack. The rumor was erroneous, but that didn't stop a group of experienced soldiers from setting out in search of the chief. Luckily for Passaconaway, a hard storm arose that checked the progress of the troops for a few days, allowing him ample time to retreat from the coastal area where he wintered, to the White Mountains.

Wonalancet, his second son, wasn't as fortunate. His wigwam was surprised, and although his squaw escaped, he was led by rope to Dover. Passaconaway was invited to come to Boston to confer with government officials about the affair, an offer which, in effect, added insult to injury, as the British demanded the delivering up of all the arms of the tribe. "Tell the English, when they restore my son and his squaw," said the still proud chief, "I will talk with them." The aged Bashaba never fully forgave the insult, and from then on, distrusted the sincerity of the whites. Later in the year, however, Wonalancet was returned, whereupon his father delivered the required artillery to the English.

At last, in 1644, Passaconaway signed the articles of submissions to the English on behalf of his confederated peoples, finally bowing down to the British flag. At the same time that the government was offering the New England Indians protection, Beals notes they were also paying off the Mohawks, essentially hiring New Yorkers to exterminate the New England tribes. Asked Beals in his book, "Was this protection by the government? If so, do we wonder that the Bashaba hesitated before accepting it?"

During the next few years, Passaconaway became deeply interested in religion largely through the efforts of the white missionary, Apostle Eliot. Drinking in the message of life, Passaconaway was deeply touched, and at length accepted the new religion for himself, urging his tribesmen to do the same. Eliot was invited to live with the Pennacooks in Concord, so he could better teach them.

Beals notes that little was heard of Passaconaway between 1648 and 1660. He was seen at the latter date by Englishmen, a venerable wrinkled old man of about 110 years old. Believing that the end was probably near, he dispatched messages, summoning all his tribes to Pawtucket (Lowell) in the fishing season of 1660. In spite of characteristic Indian stoicism, great sorrow was manifest among the red men. their once all-conquering Bashaba, now bent and trembling rose before them to give his Farewell Speech.

With eloquence yet in husky tones, the aged sachem told his people that their only hope of survival against the more powerful white man was peace. "We must bend before the storm! The wind blows hard! The old oak trembles! It falls! Peace, Peace with white men is the command of the Great Spirit - and the wish - the last wish - of Passaconaway."

The message struck home with his tribesmen, to such an extent that those present never deviated from his counse until Passaconaway's war-like grandson, Kancamagus, became chief years later.

The "Son of the Bear" held onto the chieftainship for another three years or more, as his son Wonalancet was not recognized as the head of the confederacy until 1668-1669. His last years weren't happy ones, as his lands were taken from him to such an extent that he finally had to petition the government for a plot large enough for him to stake his wigwam on. The petition to the aged Merrimack was granted, with two small islands and an intervale included. He was ordered to pay for the surveying cost entailed in the addition of the islands to his original request, however.

Some say that the great chief died as late as 1682, at the age of 120. According to the legend held by the Pennacooks, who revered and feared the mountains, a sled pulled by 24 gigantic wolves sped him away in a flaming cloud. Reeling and cutting the sled team with his lash, the old Bashaba, once more in his element, screamed in joy as he sped across valleys, hills and frozen Lake Winnepesaukee, until at last the sled roared up the sides of Mt. Washington - the earthly dwelling place of the Great Spirit.

Gaining the summit with unabated speed, Passaconaway rode up into the clouds and was lost to view forever. From his place at the divine Council Fire, he now looks down from Washington's summit, out across the Valley, to the peak which bears his name.

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