Sunday, August 4, 2013

Teweelema, Betty’s Neck and Wampanoag Rye-straw Basketry

On August 23, I added three new images of the rye-straw baskets at the end of this post.

The following account is a departure from my usual posting on Iroquois or Wabanaki beadwork; this is for my Wampanoag friends.

In May of 1879, three Wampanoag women (figure 1), Zerviah Gould Mitchell (1807-1898) and her two unmarried daughters, Melinda, aka Teweelema (1836-1919) which means “Bride of the Forest” (Vigers 1983:26), and Charlotte, aka Wootonekanuske (1848-1930), moved from North Abington, Massachusetts to a fifteen acre plot of ancestral land at Betty’s Neck, in Lakeville, Massachusetts.
Figure 1 – Cabinet photo of Zerviah Gould Mitchell (seated) with her daughters Melinda (Teweelema) on the left and Charlotte (Wootonekanuske) on the right in front of their home at Betty’s Neck in Lakeville, Massachusetts. Photo dated 1883. Private collection.

The area was so named for one of their ancestors, Assowetough, daughter of John Sassamon, the seventeenth century Wampanoag, who accepted the English name of Betty. Located on the picturesque shores of Lake Assawompsett, the artist Walter Gilman Page described the place in 1890 as
beautifully situated, and it abounds in Indian legends… At a distance of five miles or thereabouts from the village [Lakeville], one leaves the main road and turns off into a lovely winding woodland lane, by a rippling brook, and further on an old dilapidated sawmill. A mile or so, and a sudden bend brings you to the cottage door, where Mrs. Mitchell accords you a pleasant welcome… From the doorway you look out over a field of waving corn; beyond that the line of the woods; and if the trees did not grow so thickly, you might catch glimpses of the placid bosom of the lake. Nothing disturbs the profound stillness which reigns about, save the cry of the blue-jay or the distant tinkle of a cow bell (Page 1891:642-643).

Before the Mitchell’s moved to Betty’s Neck, the property sat idle for many years and sections of it had been encroached upon by squatters and others who now considered the area their own. From the Mitchell’s first arrival, land disputes arose and other parties turned up with deeds claiming the land was theirs. With the will to settle the controversy, Teweelema filed a petition with the state of Massachusetts in 1904
for the registration of title to certain tracts of land lying within the limits of Betty’s Neck, a point lying between Assawampsett and Pocksha Ponds, in Lakeville, which, at a meeting of the Proprietors of Assawampsett Neck, May 11, 1697, was laid out, as part of lands then rightly belonging to the Indians, to one Betty Sausaman, under whom the respondents claim title by devise and descent.

The respondent, Melinda Mitchell, a woman of intelligence and education, and a well known authority on matters of Indian history and tradition in this locality, appears officially in this case in full Indian costume, with paint, feathers, and wampum, as the Princess Teweelema, and claims the land in her Indian right as being the last remaining property of the aborigines, land which has never come under the private dominion of the white man… The respondents trace… their descent from Wattuspaquin, otherwise known as the Old Black Sachem... [who married the] sister to King Philip… [they] conveyed this property to the Indian Assowetough, known to the English as Betty, by a deed which ran to the said Betty “forever and especially her eldest daughter.” Betty later by her will devised this property to her eldest daughter and her heirs forever, and of the said eldest daughter the present respondents are the only living heirs.  Betty’s grand-daughter and her descendants have ever since lived on a portion of the land where there still stands a house occupied by these respondents (Davis 1901: 176-177).

Figure 2 – US Topographic map of Assawompsett Pond (at the time the largest body of water in Massachusetts) indicating the approximate location of the original Mitchell homestead. 

Figure 3 – A survey map drawn in 1895 of the Mitchell’s property at Betty’s Neck.

Betty’s Neck (figures 2 & 3) was the home of three Wampanoag women who were descendents of the seventeenth century sachem Massasoit, aka Ousamequin (c. 1581 – 1661), the leader of the Wampanoag at the time of the Pilgrims first landing.
Figure 4 – Large albumen photograph of Zerviah Gould Mitchell. 1870s. Private collection. 

The elder in this trio, Zerviah Gould Mitchell was a full-blooded Wampanoag (Vigers 1983:26) (figure 4), and was the first woman of color to apply to Wheaton College. In 1824, at the age of seventeen, she married Thomas C. Mitchell who was half Cherokee and half English and they lived in North Abington for many years. Mr. Mitchell was a merchant seaman who was often away from home for up to three years at a stretch; he died in 1859. Together they had eleven children, five of whom were still living when Zerviah and her two daughters moved to Betty’s Neck.
Figure 5 – Printed image of Alonzo Mitchell, brother of Melinda and Charlotte. Circa 1905. From Scott 1905:395.
In addition to Melinda and Charlotte, there was brother Alonzo (1850 – ?) (figure 5) who worked for a time in the shoe shops of Brockton. He often vacationed with his sisters at Betty’s Neck but sometime around 1905, he took up permanent residence with them.
Figure 6 – Tintype of Emma (Mitchell) Safford, at about 26 years of age, taken at the time of her marriage to Jacob B. Safford, of Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1873. From a copy in the collection of the Museum of the American Indian.

Figure 7 – Large photograph of Emma (Mitchell) Safford of Ipswich, Massachusetts, one of five siblings of Melinda and Charlotte. Photo by the anthropologist Frank Speck and dated 1923. Emma was a basketmaker and also did beadwork. Private collection.

There were also two other sisters, Emma J. Mitchell (c.1846 - 1935) who married Jacob C. Safford of Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1873 (figures 6 and 7), and a Mrs. Zerviah G. Mitchell who married Joseph C. Robinson in 1854. Zerviah Robinson often tarried under the roof of Melinda and Charlotte at Betty’s Neck (Vigers 1983:26).
Zerviah Gould Mitchell taught her children “the techniques of straw and wood splint basketry, some historical legends, medicinal and divining knowledge, and a firm attachment to their family land and Wampanoag lineage” (Simmons 2002). Lydia Tuspaquin, aka Lydia Squin, was Zerviah’s grandmother and she was born at Betty’s Neck in the eighteenth century. The remains of her home were still standing at the turn of the twentieth century (figure 8). All of her married life was spent at Betty’s Neck where she gave birth to five children. Her daughter Phebe (1770 – 1839) was Zerviah’s mother. Phebe’s first marriage was to Silas Rosier, a Mashpee Indian with whom she had two sons. After her first husband’s death, she married Brister Gould of Abington in 1797. They had seven children of which Zerviah was the second to the last born (Peirce 1878:215-218).  The elder Lydia Tuspaquin lived at Betty’s Neck until the early 19th century and “claimed great skill in the healing art, and was in the act of gathering herbs for medicinal purposes, when she fell from a high bank into Assawompsett Pond and was downed” (Vigers 1983:19). 
Figure 8 – Printed postcard, circa 1910. Alonzo Mitchell standing in the doorway of the remains of Lydia Tuspaquin home at Betty’s Neck. At the time the picture was taken the dwelling was over 200 years old.
On his blog on Middleboro and Lakeville history, Michael Maddigan writes that Zerviah Gould Mitchell published her Indian History, Biography and Genealogy, Pertaining to the Good Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag Tribe, and His Descendants in 1878. “Depicting her Native ancestors as men and women of dignity, honor and integrity, in sharp contrast to long-held negative stereotypes of Native peoples, Mrs. Mitchell was successful in prompting a reconsideration of Wampanoag history and a thoughtful reevaluation by introspective whites of their previous conceptions of Native peoples and Native history. Writing in the preface to the work, Mrs. Mitchell stated – ‘Before going to my grave I have thought it proper to be heard in behalf of my oppressed countrymen, and I now, through the medium of the printing press, and in book form, speak to the understanding and sense of justice of the reading public.’ To the end of her life, her nemesis would be social injustice and racial inequality. You can read more about Zerviah’s accomplishments in his blogShe died peacefully at Betty’s Neck in 1898 at the advanced age of ninety one.
The Mitchell’s move to Betty’s Neck was no small undertaking. The land had to be cleared and tilled; a house, barn and other outbuildings erected, and a source of income had to be derived.
From this home they went out to earn their livelihood – by selling the baskets, brooms, and beaded work which they had made and the vegetables they had raised. With their wares they were frequent visitors at Sampson’s Tavern, here in Lakeville, and at the summer resort of Onset, where Teweelema also sold fortunes (Vigers 1983:24-25).
It’s unclear what kind of beadwork they were making. Gladys Tantaquidgeon interviewed their sister Emma Safford in 1930 who was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts and she acquired a beaded basket from her which is now in the collection of the Museum of the American Indian (figure 9).
Figure 9 – Beaded basket; beaded on wire. Acquired from Emma Safford in 1929 by Gladys Tantaquidgeon. 3 inches wide by 2 inches deep. From the collection of the Museum of the American Indian.

It was made of dark red and green beads, three inches in diameter and two inches deep and was woven on wire (Tantaquidgeon 1930:482). Another example of Emma’s beadwork is illustrated in figure 10
Figure 10 – Beaded basket, beaded on wire; approximately two inches in height. This piece had an old tag attached to it when purchased indicating it was made by Emma Safford. Circa 1930. Private collection.
I’m not familiar with any examples of beadwork that can be attributed to either Melinda or Charlotte although I’ve seen one reference that they sold moccasins but it’s unclear if they were also making them. In an old stereoview of Teweelema, she is wearing a pair of Iroquois style moccasins (figure 15).  
Soon after their move to Betty’s Neck and with little outside help, Melinda and Charlotte commenced work on their homestead (figure 11).
It was a modest affair at the start, as the family intended making Abington their winter quarters, but the moment the residents of the “Neck” began showing resentment at the presence of the Indians in their midst, the Mitchells’ fighting blood was up in a flash, and they resolved to remain there for all time. As the family prospered additions were made to the house (figure 12) until to-day [1905] it is a good sized, conveniently arranged dwelling (Scott 1905:395).

Figure 11 – Large albumen photograph of the Mitchell homestead at Betty’s Neck. Early 1880s. Photographer: L.B. Shaw, landscape photographer, Elmwood, Massachusetts. Private collection.

Figure 12 – Circa 1900 image of the Mitchell homestead at Betty’s Neck showing building improvements over the 1880s image in figure 11. Private collection.

Once the land was cleared, these slender women chopped down trees, uprooted stumps, dragged logs, raised livestock, planted and gathered crops and stored a winter cache. A visitor to the site in 1905 described generously stocked barns and poultry sheds, lush fields and gardens along with a strawberry patch (Scott 1905:395). They even had time to build several camps along the shore of Lake Assawompsett which they rented to summer boarders to raise additional income. During the summer season, they would travel to Onset, on Cape Cod where they found a ready market for their farm produce. They also sold the baskets they made during the winter months as well as patent medicines. Additionally, they attended fairs and Teweelema was well known as a fortune teller. 
Teweelema (figures 13, 14 and 15) graduated from Abington High School and Union Academy. 
Figure 13 – Circa 1906 real photo post card of Teweelema likely taken at Betty’s Neck. Private collection.

Figure 14 – Printed postcard of Teweelema taken by F.W. Glasier, in 1906. The card incorrectly identifies her as the last living descendant of Massasoit; she was outlived by at least two of her siblings. Private collection.

Figure 15 – Stereoview of Teweelema, circa 1880, taken by C.M. Couch of Concord, New Hampshire. In this image she is wearing a pair of Iroquois styled moccasins. Private collection.

Charlotte (figure 16) attended school at both Abington and Cambridge. Charles Scott, writing about them after a visit to Betty’s Neck in 1905 said that both
adopted their native dress, always appearing in public with blankets over their shoulders, great strings of beads around their necks, gaudy sashes at either belt or shoulder, embroidered leggings and moccasins, an elaborate headdress of feathers indicative of their rank, fluttering over all. The curiosity of the children when they visited the city amounting to almost impudence at times, forced Lottie [Charlotte], as a means of diverting attention, to abandon this dress. Melinda, however, never goes out unless arrayed in full Indian costume (Scott 1905:396).
Figure 16 – Printed image of Charlotte (on the left) and Melinda presumably in the doorway of their home on Betty’s Neck, circa 1905. From Scott 1905:393.

Charlotte was known to have an unsettling effect on visitors. Lucy Lillie, who visited the Mitchell’s at Betty’s Neck in 1885 later wrote that
while she talked, she looked at us from under her half-veiled eyelids with a curious kind of contempt, as though she felt our race entirely inferior to her own, and I am not sure but that as we drove away a sense of her superiority did not impress us more than anything else (Lillie 1885:828).
Charlotte was keenly aware of her history. She was descended from Massasoit and respected her great uncle Metacom, aka King Philip, for his effort to resist the injustices done to their people. She so admired Metacom that she took his wife’s name, Wootonekanuske, as her own. The highlight of her life came in 1921 when she was chosen to unveil the statue of Massasoit, in Plymouth, Massachusetts (Vigers 1983:27).
Charlotte also kept a journal (presently in the Dyer Memorial Library collection in Abington, Massachusetts) that covers the period from January 2 through March 15, 1896. It documents the pragmatic, day-to-day details of farm life, household activities and relationships with family and neighbors. There are only causal references to her Wampanoag heritage found in comments about making baskets, preparing Indian medicines, and fortune-telling. On January 27, she wrote that it was a sunny day and that she and Melinda “have been working on baskets. We put the cows out and Lin put them up.”  On March 2 she reported that Melinda “got ready to color straw but didn’t have enough cut up to color,” a reference to her dying rye-straw for basket making.  Regarding their involvement in producing patent or Indian medicines, she wrote on February 4 that a “Mr. Lee wanted two bottles more of the same kind of medicine he had before.” A few days later, after a trip to Middleboro, she wrote that “I got some wormwood for Lin to go in her medicine and a box of headache tablets.” On February 13, a woman by the name of Jones drove to the homestead with her daughter and grandchild. Charlotte’s entry for that day indicated that both visitors “had their fortunes told and bought a bottle of medicine. All came to $1.50.” Unfortunately, she is silent regarding the concepts or procedures involved in Teweelema’s fortune telling. Teweelema was also known to frequent the home of one Lakeville residence to gather flagroot for her medicinal tonics (Vigers 1983:27).
The interior of the Mitchell home was captured in a rare photograph taken in 1893 (figure 17 and 18).
Figure 17 – Interior view of the Mitchell home at Betty’s Neck, circa 1893. Seated on the left is Zerviah. On the far right is Melinda (Teweelema) and immediately behind her is Charlotte (Wootonekanuske). In the lower right hand corner there is a partial image of a seated man. This could be their brother Alonzo. On the table behind Charlotte is a group of rye-grass baskets that they were working on.  Photographer: L.B. Shaw, landscape photographer, Elmwood, Massachusetts. Private collection.

Figure 18 – Detail view of the baskets in figure 17. The miniature basket on the far right of the table has a domed top, a technique they were known for in their rye-grass basketry. See: figure 20 for another example with a domed top.
The artist Walter Gilman Page spent some time there in 1890 and reported that
the room was evidently a place where one could eat, drink, and be merry; since it was kitchen, dining-room and–containing a piano, which was certainly a surprise–could, I suppose, be called a music-room. A door leads to an L containing the sleeping-rooms, one on the ground floor… and the other above, reached by means of a “Jacob’s ladder,” as Mrs. Mitchell facetiously termed it (Page 1891:643).
This image is quite remarkable as it gives us a glimpse into their private lives. Both Melinda and Charlotte are in the process of weaving a basket. On the small table behind them is an assortment of their finished rye-straw baskets. Teweelema, seated at the far right, appears to have just started a basket as the splints are still awaiting the weavers. The small size, checkerboard pattern and somewhat square shape of those on the table were typical of a style of rye-straw baskets the Mitchells were known for. When the Mohegan scholar Gladys Tantaquidgeon interviewed their sister Emma Safford in 1929, she was still in possession of a small collection of baskets that she made in her youth which Tantaquidgeon said were carefully preserved with other family treasures. 

Tantaquidgeon recognized them as representative of a type hitherto undescribed by writers on the subject who have dealt with the Northeast (Tantaquidgeon 1930:475).
According to the testimony of Mrs. [Emma] Safford, the manufacture of baskets with several materials and in several types persisted in her family until about 1875, when, after being married, she abandoned the interesting art.  Up to that time they were constantly engaged in the process and were known to have frequently supplied stores with large orders of miniature straw baskets, numbering as many as twelve dozen at one time (Tantaquidgeon 1930:479-481).

The straw’s preparation for use was as follows:
It was soaked in water and split. Purple seems to have been used exclusively for the dyed portion, and the specimens show the pleasing effect produced by combining this with the natural color of the straw. The technique employed in fashioning these baskets was the simple checker weave; the width of the straw, both upright and horizontal strands, being about three-eighths of an inch (Tantaquidgeon 1930:482).

The image in figure 17 was likely staged as well as there are no basket materials, such as splints, weavers or grasses visible anywhere. There are no basket moulds either. Maine basketmakers for instance, made many of their baskets over forms or moulds so the basket shapes could be replicated. The Mitchell’s rye-straw baskets, which were much more delicate than the ash splint basket the Maine Indian were producing, were likely made free-hand and without moulds. This image was taken in the mid-1880s and Charlotte’s diary, cited above, indicated that they were still dying straw for baskets in 1896, so this would confirm that the Mitchells at Betty’s Neck were still producing rye-straw baskets after Emma’s marriage and move to Ipswich around 1875.
The Museum of the American Indian in NYC has two of Emma Safford’s baskets in their collection (figure 19, 20, 21 and 22) as well as a collection of photographs of several others.
Figure 19 – Miniature basket made by Emma Safford, a Wampanoag living in Ipswich, Massachusetts and one of five sibling of Zerviah Mitchell. Circa 1870. Rye-straw and aniline dyes. Photo taken by Gladys Tantaquidgeon in 1929. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.
Figure 20 – Miniature basket made by Emma Safford, a Wampanoag living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Circa 1870. Rye-straw and aniline dyes. Length is approximately eight inches. Collected from Emma Safford in 1929 by Gladys Tantaquidgeon. From the collection of the Museum of the American Indian. 
Figure 21 – Miniature basket made by Emma Safford, a Wampanoag living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Circa 1870. Rye-straw and aniline dyes. Collected from Emma Safford in 1929 by Gladys Tantaquidgeon. From the collection of the Museum of the American Indian.
Figure 22 – Miniature basket made by Emma Safford, a Wampanoag living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Circa 1870. Rye-straw and aniline dyes. 3.25 by 2.5 inches. From Indian Notes, volume 7, number 4, 1930, page 480.
Stylistically, 19 & 20 are like those in figure 17 and Emma, who was also taught by her mother Zerviah, likely worked with similar materials and in a similar style to her siblings at Betty’s Neck.  She told Tantaquidgeon that the material used in the manufacture of these baskets was cultivated by her father and that it was in all probability the common rye-straw of commerce (figure 23) (Tantaquidgeon 1930:480-481). 
Figure 23 – An annual form of ryegrass that was similar to the type the Mitchell’s used to weave their baskets.

“Data pertaining to the straw-grass articles… indicate that the production of this particular type of basket receptacle persisted among certain of the more conservative mainland Wampanoag until a much later date than had been supposed” (Tantaquidgeon 1930:476-478).  She says that most of Emma’s baskets were dyed with a purple commercial dye which seems to have been a favorite color (Tantaqidgeon 1930:482). Emma’s baskets in the Museum of the American Indian were donated to them by Tantaquidgeon. Although most of them are identified as dyed-straw baskets, a similar example is labeled as being made from ash splints so they were working in more than one medium.
Charlotte Mitchell held legal title to a 15-acre tract until her death on 29 April 1930, whereupon the estate went to her sisters, Lydia Mitchell (residence unknown) and Emma J. Safford, of Ipswich. Massasoit’s lineage surrendered this land finally and completely in October, 1943, for nonpayment of back taxes (Simmons 2002).
The land was later owned and farmed for some 50 years by a local cranberry growing operation. When the price of cranberries fell, the company decided to sell the land. The Town of Lakeville acquired 292 acres of Betty’s Neck and set conservation restrictions on the other 150 acres, at a cost of $8.4 million. The remaining 38 acres was purchased for $600,000 by the Trust for Public Lands.
Betty’s Neck is considered a sacred site by many traditional Wampanoag.  Windsong Blake (figure 24), who for many years was the Wampanoag chief of the Assonet band, lives nearby and we have walked the grounds of Betty’s Neck on numerous occasions.  
Figure 24 – Photo of Chief Alden “Windsong” Blake at the entrance to Betty’s Neck, in Lakeville, Massachusetts. Circa 2009.
The woodlands there have a certain reverence about them.  There’s an intangible quality about the place; something you can’t quite put your finger on, a presence that can be felt yet is just out of reach.  Perhaps it’s the spirit of Teweelema and her ancestors walking the grounds of their ancient homeland. A number of years ago I painted a portrait of Teweelema (figure 25) and although the beaded bag I depicted her with is done in the Wabanaki style, I selected it because the design is suggestive of a face, perhaps that of the forest spirits that still dwell in the backwoods of Teweelema’s ancestral homeland. This is what I set out to capture in her portrait. You can see more of my portraits by following this link to my website
Figure 25 – Portrait of Teweelema, by Gerry Biron. 27 x 37 inches, 2006. Mixed media: graphite and colored pencils, acrylic, watercolor and ink.
My special thanks to Sara Turnbaugh for her help in identifying the Mitchell’s straw grass baskets. Here is a link to her new book on Indian baskets.

Below are three new images of rye-straw baskets that were made by either the Mitchell women living at Betty's Neck or their sister Emma Safford living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The baskets are quite small and I provided three images of each. From the collection of Peter Corey.

Figure 1 A

Figure 1 B

Figure 1 C

Figure 2 A

Figure 2 B

Figure 2 C

Figure 3 A

Figure 3 B

Figure 3 C

References cited:

Davis, Charles Thornton, Judge of the Land Court
1909    Massachusetts Land Court Decisions 1898-1908 - Henry A. Wyman, Trustee et al., vs. Melinda Mitchell et al. Plymouth, October, 1904. Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Lillie, Lucy C.
1885    “An Indian Journey” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, pp 813-828.

Page, Walter Gilman
1891    “A Descendant of Massasoit,” an article published in The New England Magazine, Volume 3, No.5, January.

Peirce, Ebenezer W.
1878    Indian History, Biography and Genealogy: Pertaining to the Good Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag Tribe, and his Descendants. Published by Zerviah Gould Mitchell, North Abington, Massachusetts

Scott, Charles T.
1905    “The Last of the Wampanoags,” an article published in The New England Magazine, Volume 33, No. 4, December.

Simmons, William S.
2002    From Manifest Destiny to the Melting Pot: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mitchell, Wampanoag. Department of Anthropology, Brown University. Article published online:

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys
1930    Newly Discovered Straw Basketry of the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts. Indian Notes, volume 7, no. 4, October, 1830.

Vigers, Gladys DeMaranville
1983    History of the Town of Lakeville, Massachusetts. Lakeville Historical Commission.