The history of Deer Island in Boston Harbor abounds with many dark chapters. Over the centuries the isle has been home to a run-down prison, a quarantine station where hundreds of Irish immigrants passed away from contagious diseases contracted on their journeys to America, and a wastewater treatment plant that polluted the harbor.
By far the saddest chapter in Deer Island’s past, however, occurred during King Philip’s War in 1675 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony forcibly interned hundreds of Native Americans, known as “Praying Indians.” Though the Praying Indians had converted to Christianity and pledged their loyalty to the English, the settlers feared they would join in arms with the enemy.
So on the night of October 30, 1675, hundreds of Native Americans from Natick and other “praying towns” around Boston were hurried onto boats along the Charles River in Watertown and ferried to Deer Island. Those interned on Deer Island were given few provisions and suffered great hardships during a brutal winter. They lacked adequate shelter from the bitter cold but were not allowed to cut firewood. Colonial settlers were authorized to kill any Native American found off Deer Island not accompanied by an English guard. John Eliot and Daniel Gookin visited the island in December 1675 and reported, “the island was bleak and cold, their wigwams poor and mean, their clothes few and thin.” By the time they were released in May 1676, it is estimated that as many as half of the prisoners died from starvation or exposure.
This Saturday, members of the Nipmuc tribe and other Native Americans will commemorate the events of 335 years ago by retracing the steps of their ancestors. The commemoration begins at 5 AM with a Sacred Run along Route 16 from the South Natick Dam to Watertown followed by a Sacred Paddle, beginning at 8 AM, in canoes down the Charles River and through Boston Harbor to Deer Island. There will be a Prayer Circle and commemoration on Deer Island beginning at 1 PM.
King Philip’s War is an often forgotten piece of Boston—and New England—history, but one that shouldn’t be ignored for the lessons that it can teach us. Click here for more information on this weekend’s commemoration. There is more about the history of Deer Island and the use of other Boston Harbor Islands as internment sites during King Philip’s War in Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands.