National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month
Hassanamisco Reservation, Worcester County, Massachusetts

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

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Hassanamisco Reservation: Pavilion, ceremonial circle.
Photograph by Margaret Haynes-Lamont
Courtesy of the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Office

This historic reservation is an approximately three-acre property owned by the Nipmuc Nation, located within the town of Grafton in Worcester County, Massachusetts. The reservation is unique in Massachusetts for never have been owned or occupied by non-native people. The Hassanamisco Reservation has been the property of the members of the Nipmuc Tribe and has never been alienated from tribal ownership during the past 400 years. The reservation is characterized by open and wooded land. A number of ceremonial areas and several structures are located within the reservation. The most significant among the structures is a building known as The Homestead, which was originally constructed in 1801, and has been home to the Cisco family, a family prominent in the political and cultural activities of the tribe.

The Nipmuc were a loose confederation of communities located throughout central Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut.  Each community was tied to a homeland containing at least one major settlement that may have been occupied at certain times of the year, as well as a variety of smaller settlements, many of which were also inhabited seasonally. The various communities were linked through ties of kinship and alliance.  The Grafton area, including the present reservation, was known as Hassanamesit, meaning “the place of small stones.”

The present-day Hassanamisco reservation was part of the original Hassanamesit Plantation of Christian Indians (the so-called “Praying Indians”) established in 1654 by the Reverend John Eliot.  This plantation, located where there was an existing Nipmuc community of the same name, was intended as a mission, where native people would adopt Christian religion and elements of English culture. It was the third in a series of similar plantations, known as “praying towns,” established by Puritan missionary John Elliot.  The original settlement comprised an area approximately four miles square.  The center of the settlement appears to have been located in the eastern-part of present day Grafton, where a church was built in 1671. The settlement was dispersed during King Phillip’s War (the war fought between the English settlers and their American Indian allies against the forces of Metacom, known to the English as "King Philip", a leader of the Pokanoket  and Wampanoag Confederacy American Indians). Nipmuc  families returned after the war and were living in Hassanamisco Plantation when it was sold to Anglo-American settlers in 1728.This settlement left 1,200 acres divided among Nipmuc families in several separated parcels in town, which was renamed Grafton. Among these parcels was a 108-acre parcel set aside for Moses Printer and his heirs, which included the present reservation. 

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Hassanamisco Reservation: Homestead, south facade.
Photograph by Margaret Haynes-Lamont
Courtesy of the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Office

Corrupt practices and economic misfortunes led to the loss of almost all native-owned land in Grafton over the next hundred years or so, by 1800, approximately 62 acres of the original 190 allocated to Moses Printer remained in the hands of his descendants. By 1861, according to a report by the Massachusetts Indian Commissioner John Milton Earle, the original Hassanamisco land base had dwindled down to its present size.  Following the sale of  apportion of Moses Printer’s land in 1857, Harry Arnold’s parcel (the present day Hassanamisco Reservation) became the last remaining piece of Nipmuc land in Grafton, and is today the only piece of Nipmuc land in the Commonwealth held continuously in Native American hands. 

It was at this time that the transformation of the reservation property from a domestic landscape to a tribal reservation began.  This land was preserved through the efforts of its occupants. Documents, including letters and deeds, from the early 20th century confirm the persistent presence of the Hassanamisco Reservation and its continued occupation by tribal members. The 1911 obituary notice of Patience Fidelia (Arnold) Clinton records the existence of the reservation and records its size as being 2 ½ acres, “probably the smallest Indian reservation in the United States…still in the hands of the descendants of the Hassanamisco Indians” (Anon.1911). By the 1920s the Hassanamisco Reservation had acquired significance as a tribal reservation used in a very public way, especially with the start of annual gatherings referred to as Powwows. During this period, The Homestead was used as both a private residence and as a public space that included a museum and tribal office. The various buildings and features on the property today (cook shack, pavilion, ceremonial circles and fires, old fire pit and picnic area, and picnic table area) reflect the emergence of the property as a public space, a traditional cultural property, and symbol of tribal persistence and continuity during the 20th century.

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Hassanamisco Reservation: Stone wall at the western edge of the reservation and west facade of Homestead.
Photograph by Margaret Haynes-Lamont
Courtesy of the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Office

The stone walls, which divide the reservation from adjoining parcels, are more than the remnants of an 18th-and 19th-century domestic economy based on farming. At least the western part of the stone wall appears to have been built at the time when the property became the last piece of Nipmuc land in Grafton.  The walls physically separate “Indian land” from non-Indian land, and contribute an important visual and tangible element to the landscape of Nipmuc identity.
In the early 20th century, the Cisco family had established themselves as tribal leaders through their role as stewards of the reservation. James Lemuel Cisco (1846-1931) became Chief of the Hassanamisco in the 1920s, while living in the house at the reservation.  It was during this time that the annual gatherings at the reservations were reported in newspapers. As the location of tribal powwows (renamed the Annual  Hassanamisco Indian Fair in the late 1950s) and the home of the tribal leaders, the reservation and Homestead have continuously served as the focal point of Nipmuc cultural activities, from the mid to late 19th century up to the present.  Responsibility for the reservation today is maintained by the Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council, and Chief Natachaman (Walter A. Vickers). The Nipmuc are recognized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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Hassanamisco Reservation: State historic marker.
Photograph by Margaret Haynes-Lamont
Courtesy of the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Office

The Homestead, built in 1801 for Lucy Gimbee of the Nipmuc Tribe, was the home of generations of Nipmuc families, including the Ciscos.  It retains core features of the original building, as well as additions and alternations that reflect the evolution of the property from family home to tribal center. The Homestead’s present size is just less than 1,400 square feet. It is rectangular in plan, measuring approximately 42 by 33 feet and is a one-story structure, consisting of a gable-roofed core surrounded by shed-roofed additions on the west, south, and east.

The property has long been the principal location where members of the Nipmuc community have convened to carry out cultural practices important in maintaining their historical and contemporary culture/ the most significant of these has been the Annual Hassanamisco Indian Fair, held every July.
Excerpted from the National Register Documentation for Hassanamisco Reservation, written by Rae Gould (with Eric Johnson), and Betsy Friedberg, National Register Director, Massachusetts Historical Commission

American Indian and Native Alaska Heritage Month

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