August 16, 2009

How Maushop Created the Most Expensive Real Estate in New England

My last post was about Indian deities; my previous posts were about Provincetown, a summer resort. Can I write about Indian gods and resort towns in one post? Yes, if I write about Nantucket.

Oh, Nantucket, playground of the wealthy elites! I can understand why, since it is so beautiful there. No one is sure what the name (an Algonquian word) means exactly, but it may mean something like "far away island" or "in the midst of waters." Nantucket is nicknamed the Grey Lady because of its occasional foggy weather.

In the past it also had a less attractive nickname: the Devil's Ash-Heap. I can't imagine people saying "Where am I spending my summer? Why, on the Devil's Ash-Heap, of course!"

According to a legends told for hundreds of years by the Wampanoag of Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket was created by Maushop ("Big Man" in Proto-Algonquian), the giant culture hero of southern New England. William Baylies, a physician from Dighton, first recorded this story in 1786:

On a time, an offering was made to him of all the tobacco on Martha's Vineyard, which having smoked, he knocked the snuff out of his pipe, which formed Nantucket. (found in William Simmons Spirit of the New England Tribes)

Later versions of the story elaborated on this, adding details such as Maushop creating Nantucket as a refuge for two lovers whose marriage was opposed by their parents.

Maushop was basically a benevolent force, but Nantucket was called the Devil's Ash-Heap because Christian writers assumed that all indigenous gods were evil. For this same reason, an off-shore rock formation Maushop created is named the Devil's Bridge, and a bowl shaped depression on Gay Head where Maushop used to live is called the Devil's Den.

Most legends recorded in the 18th and 19th century say that Maushop abandoned New England when the European settlers came. However, legends from the 20th century note that he might still be lurking around. Dolores Tantaquidgeon recorded the following in the 1920's:

Maushop takes the form of various creatures and may be sensed about Gay Head at times as a gust of cold wind that rushes past one...

Nosapocket, a member of the Mashpee tribe, told William Simmons in 1981 that she encountered a large, hairy giant in the woods. It eventually came to her house and looked into her window.

And its chest I would say had to be about five feet wide. Its lungs were bigger than my body, and it just breathed... I was not very frightened, but excited that such beings still lived amongst the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Many pages of Maushop stories can be found in Simmons's excellent book Spirit of the New England Tribes.


Unknown said...

This is fascinating! I've never heard this story, but since I'm involved with real estate up and down New England I'm happy I stumbled upon it. I specialize primarily in real estate in Natick, however, I spend my Summers down in Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, so this is especially interesting for me.

- Jackie

Rich Clabaugh said...

Great post Peter! It would be a nice feeling to know that these ancient beings were still among us today.