Two Locations Reconnected With Their Native Names

By: Lee Roscoe

Topics: Local History

At the dedication of a new sign at Askaonkton, or “Wading Place,” now known as Muddy Creek, are, front, Scott Tappan, Samantha Stone, Mike Lach, Matt Cannon, Nookahshun; Eunice Burley, Corliss Primavera, back row, Gary Primavera (partially obscured), Beth Eldridge Fletcher, Mark Simonitsch and Todd Kelley. LEE ROSCOE PHOTO

CHATHAM – On Tuesday, at ceremonies presided over by Noohkahshun, whose name means “the wind that carries softly,” two areas connecting Chatham to the native story of the Cape were named and given signs detailing their history.

An area adjacent to the Muddy Creek and the Muddy Creek Bridge was re-consecrated to its original name, Askaonkton, or “at the Wading Place.” A sign was then placed on land at Old Harbor Road and Shore Road announcing that this was “The Last Native Land: Menekish Farm,” informing the public about this 18th century farmstead.

The signs were a project of the Chatham Conservation Project – with a lot of help, said Executive Director Matt Cannon.

While the Menekish Farm may have been on the last native land in the Cotchpinicut area – and on the last piece of land the family owned – Micah Ralph (pronounced and spelled “Rafe” because Native people had no “L” sound) lived upstream from the Wading Place, truly the last native in the area, dying in 1816.

“We wouldn’t be here today were it not for historian Sears Nickerson’s empathy for Micah Rafe being the last of his people, and wanting to honor him by remembering the places he inhabited, such as Muddy Creek and the Wading Place," said naturalist Todd Kelley, who urged the project on and wrote the copy on the signs.

At Askaonkton, the wind was sweet and the water of Pleasant Bay calm as Noohkahshun thanked those involved for honoring his ancestors, gifting participants with sweetgrass braids.

“It is good to return and to reestablish connections to a place where whaling parties returned nearby, songs were sung, food eaten, children laughed and stories were told,” he said.

Cannon noted that today, people are doing many of the same things near the Wading Place as in the past.

In the past however, the area had no bridge; you had to wade across, hence the name. The waterway of the Muddy Creek (Monomoy River) and accompanying trails led inland to pond areas where Monomoyicks camped in winter and where one of the first churches for praying Indians later stood.

From the Monomoyicks to author W. Sears Nickerson’s writings, through his descendants – a number of whom attended the ceremony and helped with the signs – to modern Wampanaogs such as Marcus Hendricks and Noohkahshun (Devin Wixon), to Kelley (who with Hendricks gives Native Lands walks for the Harwich Conservation Trust), the knowledge of place and the people who lived there has been passed down. This lineage, coming through from generations before, Kelley said, gives authority, gravitas, to information on the signs.

Mark Simonitsch, a former fisherman, galvanized the idea for the Ashkaonton-Wading Place sign, having read a Massachusetts Archaeological Society Bulletin from 1961 in which W.S. Nickerson hopes “that Cape Codders will never forget” the name. Suggesting a naming project to the Harwich and Chatham conservation trusts, as well as various Nickersons and to Kelley, he wrote to state Rep. Sarah Peake for her help.

Many people helped finalize the renaming projects over almost a year, including Jon Vaughan, who donated land at Askaonkton in his late wife’s name. Victoria Chane's family, through Winifred W. Clark, gifted the Jeremiah Menekish land, having bought the last remaining acreage of his holdings, saving the land from becoming a gas station. Chane, after discovering a sign regarding Menekish as “The Last Indian Sachem of the Monomoit Tribe” for the 200th anniversary of Chatham, wanted a more detailed rendering of information to honor him.

Wixon said, “Menekish (who was originally a Nauset sachem) was a prominent leader who had a lot on his mind.” He may have taken over the burden of leadership from Mattaquason after his death. (Mattaquason was the Monomoyick sachem who in the late 1600s deeded use of the area North of Pochet to parts of Chatham, including the Wading Place, to the English colonists—Nickersons, Eldredges and Eldridges.) Wixon said Menekish had seen his people’s ways reduced by Christianity and himself became a preacher to buy time when the colonist overseers were not around to help keep the old ways going, and to provide for the coming generations.

Chane was thrilled with the new signs. “I think it’s great that the town wants to learn there is native American history here, not just the same old Nickersons and Eldridges,” she said.

And some of those Nickersons and Eldridges agreed. Corliss Primavera said her mother, 93-year-old Jean Corliss Nickerson, very much wanted to see this history and sense of place explored, and a great granddaughter of W.S. Nickerson, Samantha Stone, said, “Instagram, Twitter, Facebook all claim to connect us. This sign and the history truly does.” Beth Eldridge Fletcher added, “We always knew this as Monomoyick territory growing up; we found their arrowheads."

“I think it’s important to connect people to place, to consider who came before and how land was used, and this project does that,” Cannon said.

Chatham Conservation Foundation President Eunice Burley said about the new signs, “This is fabulous and long overdue," adding that "as we go forward we need to acknowledge" the real heritage of the Cape.

Wixon, Cannon and Simonitsch offered next steps: to get the town and state to rename the Muddy Creek Bridge as the Wading Place Bridge at Askaonkton; put that on maps, and to place signs at Frost Fish Creek with its complex history and Wampanog use; to create an encampment with a wetu where the People could sing, do ceremonies, tell stories, and come for overnight socials.