America | Culture | History | Travel

The Old Indian Meeting House

The Nauset of Cape Cod are part of the Mashpee Wampanoag and were known as the “Praying Indians” because they became converts to Christianity.  They were an important ally for the colonists against tribes that rose up against the encroachment of the English settlements.  Most famously they worked with Benjamin Church as guides in his hunt for Metacom, or “King Philip”.  It was one of the Praying Indians who killed Metacom, effectively ending King Philip’s War in 1678.

The Nauset were clearly converts to Christianity in the 1670’s, and they met somewhere in Mashpee to pray, but the original building is long gone.  A second building was purportedly built in 1684 at the original site near Santuit Pond.  That building is generally agreed upon as the current Old Indian Meeting House, relocated in 1717 to its current location on Meetinghouse Road (naturally) just across from the Mashpee River. This would make it the oldest church on Cape Cod and the oldest Indian church in the United States.  I’ve read at least one article that disputes the original date of construction for the meeting house, with a local historian claiming the building was actually built in 1757 or 1758 by Deacon John Hinckley.  I believe that Deacon Hinckley is agreed upon as the builder of the church, so determining the actual date should be relatively easy from there.  But I’m not diving deep into this controversy.  There’s no doubt that the Meeting House is historically highly relevant and important.  It was used by the Nauset as a church, and also no doubt that it was here that the Nauset staged a nonviolent protest known as the Mashpee Revolt against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1833 over control of the tribe’s land.  Of course, that was exactly what Metacom was doing from 1675 to 1678, but he chose violence (spurred on by violence against the Pokanoket).

I visited the Old Indian Meeting House on a quiet, hot August day.  Not a lot of Cape tourists hanging out at an old build next to a cemetery on a perfect beach day. I find that I’m often the only visitor to such places in the moment I’m there. But I prefer quiet time with places of relevance. It’s set on a small hill on the edge of the cemetery, roughly three miles from Santuit Pond, which would make moving it on logs on old colonial roads quite an undertaking.  The Mashpee Wampanoag hold this place as sacred, and I respectfully walked around the site for a few minutes, read a few of the nearby gravestones and generally tried to get a feel for the place before moving on.  A visit to their web site prompts a popup requesting that you sign a petition to help the tribe protect their lands from changes at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  It seems that the contributions of the Praying Indians are once again being forgotten by some in the endless land grab of the native lands.  That would be par for the course.

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