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Nahatan Street

Nahatan Street, the road that extends from route 109 to Norwood Center and Route 1, takes its name from a powerful Massachusett leader named William Nahatan. William Nahatan and his family (his son Amos, his father Ahaton, his brothers Peter [Natooqus], Benjamin, and his sisters Jammewwosh [Hanna] and Tahkeesuisk) were incredibly powerful in the Westwood area and beyond, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. His family name is referred to as Nahatan, Ahaton, Ahaugton, Ahauton, Ahawton, Nahanton, Ahanton, Hahaton, or Nahaughton depending on the source, which is the case because it is not originally from English, and anglicized versions of Native names tend to have all sorts of variations. The family was forced to move into the “Indian Praying Town” of Ponkapoag in the early 1600s. The Praying Town of Ponkapoag took the name of the Massachusett village of Ponkapoag, although it was much smaller in size, and the indigenous people who lived there were Christian converts who were forced to assimilate into English culture. Ponkapoag was the second Praying Town established by John Eliot, with the first being Natick. 

Ahaton, William Nahatan’s father, was an advisor to the Great Sac’hem of the Massachusett named Chickataubut. He was imprisoned along with his son William and most of his family on Deer Island (with hundreds of other members of the Massachusett Tribe and other New England tribes) during the period of King Philip’s War. After the war ended, with many Native people dying on Deer Island due to starvation and hypothermia, Ahaton sold major tracts of land to English colonists. These land grants were the foundations of many New England towns. 


William Nahatan also signed many land grants, with his name appearing on a plethora of land deeds all over the South Shore. According to the Massachusett Tribe, he sold a large tract of land in the Newton/Wellesley area, including Newton Upper Falls, which was used as a site for fishing using weirs by the Massachusett Tribe, to John Clark. He also granted a large amount of land in the Needham-Wellesley area to colonists on a deed that now belongs to Dedham Historical Society. 


According to some sources, Nahatan was the name of a Massachusett village that existed in Westwood. Although this information is not certain, ample evidence suggests that there were permanent Native settlements in the area. When West Dedham (now called Westwood) broke away from Dedham in 1897, the town wanted to be called Nahatan, but a representative from the town of Nahant objected, and the town became Westwood instead. 


It is important that we recognize the history of Nahatan Street’s name, especially since it is an important road that is home to Westwood High School, with even the school newspaper, the "Nahatan News," bearing the name of William Nahatan. Without this history, we are actively contributing to the erasure of indigenous people; saying a name every day, without understanding or acknowledging whom it was taken from, covers up the legacies of people who shaped the land that we live on. 

It's also essential to understand exactly how, and why, William Nahatan and other Native people in the New England area sold off so much of the land that belonged to them during this time period. The land deeds do not represent the whole story: there were all sorts of atrocities committed by the English that contributed to the decline of indigenous populations. The first one was disease: according to the Massachusett Tribe's website, almost 80 percent of the Massachusett population was wiped out by a plague in the early seventeenth century. The Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag  that in the late seventeenth century, English settlers weaponized the disease of smallpox through the trade of infected blankets (see "The Death of Chickataubut" section on the Massachusett Tribe's website) that were brought over from England's infirmaries to be sold to Massachusett people, who valued those items. The effect of disease on Native populations is often considered to be "inevitable," due to differing immunity between European peoples who had been exposed to the disease before (through livestock) and Native people who hadn't, but one of the primary reasons why smallpox had such a devastating effect on the Massachusett population was the use of biological warfare, or weaponized disease-spreading, by English settlers. 

Another method of erasure that the English was the establishment of Praying Towns and the removal of the Neponsets from their land on the Blue Hills. Praying Towns, such as Ponkapoag and Natick, were created by John Eliot to separate Native people who had converted to Christianity from their non-Christian counterparts, whom Eliot called "savages." In these Praying Towns, Native people were required to practice Puritan traditions, which was a cruel form of forced assimilation. Some Native people moved to these towns willingly because of the protection that they offered from many hostile English settlers. Even within the effort to erase Native presence in the area, many indigenous inhabitants of Praying Towns maintained key aspects of their culture, and continued to maintain their connections to their land. The Nahatan family, who lived in the Praying Town of Ponkapoag, may not have had access to the entirety of their ancestral lands as they did before colonization, but they still understood and maintained their multi-generational connection to it. 


When King Philip's War broke out, many Massachusett people were imprisoned on Deer Island (one of the Boston Harbor Islands), and many starved to death because they were abandoned without food. William Nahatan and many of his family members were among those who were imprisoned on Deer Island, and this experience likely affected them deeply. Additionally, when the war began in 1675, a law was passed that prohibited Native people from entering the city of Boston "unaccompanied" (without a settler in their presence). Although not enforced in later centuries, this law was not repealed until 2004. 


A number of postwar policy changes further disrupted Native land use. A 1680s update to the Massachusetts Bay Charter required townships to clear all "Indian title" from the land inside their town borders. The Nahatan deed to Dedham was part of this process of systematic removal. 

We must think of Native land deeds within this context, for they are not fair sales; they come with backgrounds of atrocities that forced Native people into the positions of sellers. We also must address the extremely twisted fact that Westwood, a town built on the land of the Massachusett people, almost named itself "Nahatan" after one family who unfortunately had to be the ones to sell off their ancestral and sacred lands to a belligerent settler society.

The Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag,

“Ahaton.” Ahaton | Native Northeast Portal,

“Ahaton, William, - 1717.” Ahaton, William, - 1717 | Native Northeast Portal,  

Nahatan Deed. April 14, 1680. "Indian Deeds Collection," Dedham Historical Society. Dedham Massachusetts.

“Westwood Wanted to Be Nahatan.” 7 Apr. 2014,

O'Brien, Jean M. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 

Works Cited
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