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Champlains Map of Port St. Louis (Plymouth Bay)
Champlains Map of Port St. Louis (Plymouth Bay)
From Sailors Narrative of Voyages along The New England Coast 1524-1624
Published 1905 with notes by George Parker Winship. Burt Franklin: New York
Early Historic
Descriptions of

On this page, I have included exerpts, arranged chronologically, from early historic doccuments from New England which describe wigwams. The descriptions were recorded and published by Europeans from the 1500s through the 1700s. The language and spelling used reflects this time period; and the observations (more often than not) reflect the ignorance of Europeans about the Natives they encountered (as well as unfamiliarity with the resources available to Natives). Careful reading of these texts, however, not only helps us to understand what wigwams of the past looked like, but can enlighten us to the interactions between Europeans and Natives during this period.

1524 --- [Delaware and New Jersey Coast] We did not find out about their houses, as they were in the interior of country. We think from the many signs we saw that they are built of wood and grasses; we also think from various conjectures and signs that many of them who sleep in country have nothing but the sky for cover. We learned nothing more of them. We think that all the others of the country we visited earlier live in the same way. After staying here for three days, anchored off the coast, we decided to leave because of the scarcity of port and we continued to follow the coast to the northeast, sailing only during the day an casting anchor at night.

[Newport in lower Narragansett Bay] When we went farther inland we saw their houses, which are circular in shape, about 14 to 15 paces across, made of bent saplings; they are arranged without any architectural pattern, and are covered with cleverly worked mats of straw which protect them from wind and rain. There is no doubt that if they had the skilled workmen that we have, they would erect great buildings, for the whole maritime coast is full of various blue rocks, crystals, and alabaster, and for such a purpose it has an abundance of ports and shelter for ships. They move these houses from one place to another according to the richness of the site and the season. They need only carry the straw mats, and so they have new houses made in no time at all. In each house there lives a father with a very large family, for in some we saw 25 to 30 people.

-- Giovanni da Verrazono The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524-1528 (reprinted in 1970. Lawrence C. Wroth, ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.)

1622 --- The houses were made with long young sapling trees, bended and both ends stuck into the ground. They were made round, like unto an arbor, and covered down to the ground with thick and well wrought mats, and the door was not over a yard high, made of a mat to open. The chimney was a wide open hole in the top, for which they had a mat to cover it close when they pleased. One might stand and go upright in them. In the midst of them were four little trunches knocked into the ground, and small sticks laid over, on which they hung their pots, and what they had to seethe. Round about the fire they lay on mats, which are their beds. The houses were double matted, for as they were matted without, so were they within, with newer and fairer mats. In the houses we found wooden bowls, trays and dishes, earthen pots, handbaskets made of crabshells wrought together, also an English pail or bucket; it wanted a bail, but it had two iron ears. There was also baskets of sundry sorts, bigger and some lesser, finer and some coarser; some were curiously wrought with black and white in pretty works, and sundry other of their household stuff. We found also two or three deer's heads, one whereof had been newly killed, for it was still fresh. There was also a company of deer's feet stuck up in the houses, harts' horns, and eagles' claws, and sundry such like things there was, also two or three baskets full of parched acorns, pieces of fish, and a piece of a broiled herring. We found also a little silk grass, and a little tobacco seed, with some other seeds which we knew not. Without was sundry bundles of flags, and sedge, bulrushes, and other stuff to make mats. There was thrust into a hollow tree two or three pieces of venison, but we thought it fitter for the dogs than for us. Some of the best things we took away with us, and left the houses standing still as they were.

-- William Bradford in Mourt’s Relation (reprinted in 1986. Dwight B.Heath, ed. Cambridge: Applewood books.)

1624 --- When a woman hath her monthly terms she separateth herself from all other company, and liveth certain days in a house alone: after which she washeth her self and all that she hath touched or used, and is again received to her husbands bed or family.

-- Edward Winslow in "Good Newes from New England" (reprinted in 1996. Cambridge: Applewood Books)

1624 --- Their dwellings are commonly circular, with a vent hole above to let out the smoke, closed with four doors, and made mostly of the bark of trees which are very abundant there.

-- Van Wassenaer in Narratives of New Netherland "Historisch Verhael" (reprinted in 1967. F.J. Jameson, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble)

1625 --- I sailed to the shore in one of their canoes, with an old man, who was the chief of a tribe, consisting of forty men and seventeen women; these I saw there in a house well constructed of oak bark, and circular in shape, with the appearance of having a vaulted ceiling. It contained a great quantity of maize, and beans of the last year’s growth, and there lay near the house for the purpose of drying enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields. On our coming near the house, two mats were spread to sit upon, and immediately some food was served in well made red wooden bowls; two men were also despached at once with bows and arrows in quest of game, who soon after brought in a pair of pigeons which they had just shot.

-- Johan De Laet quoting Hendrick Hudson in Narratives of New Netherland "The New World" (reprinted in 1967. F.J. Jameson, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble)

1625 --- Some of them lead a wandering life in the open air with no settled habitations; lying stretched upon the ground or on mats made of bulrushes, they take both their sleep and food, especially in summer, when they go nearer to the sea for the sake of fishing. Others have fixed places of abode, and dwellings built with beams in the form of an oven, covered above with the bark of trees, so large that they are sufficient for several families. Their household furniture is slight and scanty, consisting of mats and wooden dishes, hatchets made of hard flint stone by dint of savage labor, and tubes for smoking tobacco formed likewise of flint stone ingeniously perforated, so that it is surprising how, in so great a want of iron implements, they are able to carve the stone. They neither desire nor know riches.

-- Johan De Laet in Narratives of New Netherland "The New World" (reprinted in 1967. F.J. Jameson, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble)

1629 --- They have little household stuff, as a kettle, and some other vessels like trays, spoons, dishes and baskets. Their houses are very little and homely, being made with small poles pricked into the ground, and so bent and fastened at the top, and on the sides they are matted with boughs, and covered on the roof with sedge and old mats, and for their beds that they take their rest on, they have a mat.

-- The Rev. Francis Higginson in A Short and True Description of New England. (redacted by John Beardsley 1996-1999 - the Winthrop Society

1634 --- First their building of houses, whose frames are formed like our garden-arbours, something more round, very strong and handsome, covered with close-wrought mats of their owne weaving, which deny entrance to any drop of raine, though it come both fierce and long, neither can the piercing North winde find a crannie, through which he can conveigh his cooling breath, they be warmer than our English houses; at the top is a square hole for the smoakes evacuation, shich in rainy weather is overed with a pulver; these bee such smoakie dwellings, that when there is good fires, they are not able to stand upright, but lie all along under the smoake, never using any stooles or chaires, it being as rare to see an Indian sit on a stoole at home, as it is strange to see an English man sit on his heeles abroad. There houses are smaller in the Summer, when their families be dispersed, by reason of heate and occasions. In Winter they make some fifty or threescore foot long, fortie or fiftie men being inmates under one roofe; and as is their husbands occasion these poore tectonists are often troubled like snailes, to carry their houses on their backs somtimes to fishing-places, other times to hunting-places, after that to a planting place, where it abides the longest.

In Summer they gather flagges, of which they make Matts for houses, and Hempe and Rushes, with dying stuffe of which they make curious baskets with intermixed colors and protractures of antique Imagerie: these baskets be of all sizes from a quart to a quarter, in which they carry their luggage. In wintertime they are their husbands caterers, trudging to the Clamm bankes for their belly timber, and their Porters to lugge home their Venison which their laziness exposes to the Woolves til they impose it upon their wives shoulders.

-- William Wood in New England’s Prospect (reprinted in 1977. Alden T. Vaughn, ed. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.)

1634 (Narragansett) --- Wetu (An House). … Nickquenum (I am going home): Which is a solemne word amongst them; and no man wil offer any hinderance to him, who after some absence is going to visit his Family, and useth this word Nickquenum (confessing the sweetness even of these short temporall homes.)

Puttuckakaun (A round house). … Wetuomemese (A little house): which their women and maids live apart in, foure, five, or six dayes, in the time of their monethly sickness, which custome in all parts of the Countrey they strictly observe, and no Male may come into that house.

Neesquttow (A longer house with two fires). … Abockquosinash (The mats of the house). Wuttapuissuck (The long poles): which commonly men get and fix, and then the women cover the house with mats, and line them with embroydered mats which the women make, and call them Munnotaubana, or Hangings which amongst them make as faire a show as Hangings with us.

Wuchickapeuk (Burching barke, and Chestnut barke): which they dress finely, and make a Summer-covering for their houses.

Cuppoquiittemin (I will divide house with you, or dwell with you): Two families will live comfortably and lovingly in a little round house of some fourteen or sixteen foot over, and so more and more families in proportion.

Yeaush (Shut doore after you): Obs. Commonly they never shut their doores, day or night; and ‘tis rare that any hurt is done.

Kunnamauog (Spoones): Obs. In steed of shelves, they have severall baskets, wherein they put all their householdstuffe: they have some great bags or sacks made of Hempe, which will hold five or sixe bushells.

Pauquanamiinnea (Open me the doore): Obs. Most commonly their houses are open, their doore is a hanging Mat, which being lifted up, falls downe of it selfe; yet many of them get English boards and nailes, and make artificiall doores and bolts themselves, and others make slighter doores of Burch or Chestnut barke, which they make fast with a cord in the night time, or when they go out of town, and then the last (that makes fast) goes out at the Chimney, which is a large opening in the middle of their house, called: Wunnauchicomock

Cuttatashiinnas (Lay these up for me): Obs. Many of them begin to be furnished with English Chests; others, when they goe forth of towne, bring their goods (if they live neere) to the English to keepe for them, and their money they hang it about their necks, or lay it under their head when they sleep.

Nqussutam (I remove house): Which they doe upon these occasions: From thick warme vallies, where they winter, they remove a little neerer to their Summer fields; when ‘tis warme Spring, then they remove to their fields where they plant Corne.

In middle of summer, because of the abundance of Fleas, which the dust of the house breeds, they will flie and remove on a sudden from one part of their field to a fresh place: And sometimes having fields a mile or two, or many miles asunder, when the worke of one of the field is over, they remove house to another: If death fall in amongst them, they presently remove to a fresh place: If an enemie approach, they remove into a Thicket, or Swampe, unless they have some Fort to remove unto.

Sometimes they remove to a hunging house in the end of the yeere, and forsake it not until Snow lie thick, and then will travel home, men, women and children, thorow the snow, thirtie, yea, fiftie or sixtie miles; but their great remove is from their Summer fields to warme and thicke woodie bottomes where they winter: They are quicke; in halfe a day, yea, sometimes a few houres warning to be gone and the house up elsewhere; especially, if they have stakes readie pitcht for their Mats.

I once in travell lodged at a house, at which in my returne I hoped to have lodged againe there the next night, but the house was gone in that interim, and I was glad to lodge under a tree:

The men make the poles or stakes, but the women make and set up, take downe, order, and carry the Mats and householdstuffe.

Observation in Generall.

The sociablenesse of the nature of man appears in the wildest of them, who love societie; Families, cohabitation, and consociation of houses and townes together.

-- Roger Williams in A Key into the Language of America (reprinted in 1973. J.J. Teunissen and E.J. Hinz, ed.s. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.)

1637 --- The Natives of New England are accustomed to build them houses much like the wild Irish; they gather Poles in the woodes and put the great end of them in the ground, placing them in forme of a circle or circumference, and, bendinge the topps of them in forme of an Arch, they bind them together with the Barke of Walnut trees, which is wondrous tough, so that they make the same round on the Topp for the smoke of their fire to ascend and pass through; . . . The fire is alwayes made in the midst of the house, with winde falls commonly: yet some times they fell a tree that groweth near the house, and, by drawing in the end thereof, maintaine the fire on both sides, burning the tree by Degrees shorter and shorter, untill it be all consumed; for it burneth night and day. Their lodging is made in three places of the house about the fire; they Iie upon plankes, commonly about a foote or 18 inches above the ground, raised upon railes that are borne up upon forks; they lay mats under them, and Coats of Deares skinnes, otters, beavers, Racoons, and of Beares hides, all which they have dressed and converted into good leather, with the haire on, for their coverings: and in this manner they liee as warme as they desire. . . . for they are willing that any shall eat with them. Nay, if any one that shall come into their houses and there fall a sleepe, when they see him disposed to lie downe, they will spread a matt for him of their owne accord, and lay a roll of skinnes for a boulster, and let him lie. If he sleepe untill their meate be dished up, they will set a wooden bowl of meate by him that sleepeth, and wake him saying, Cattup keene Meckin: That is, If you be hungry, there is meat for you, where if you will eat you may. Such is their Humanity.

Likewise, when they are minded to remove, they carry away the mats with them; other materials the place adjoining will yield. They use not to winter and surnmer in, for that would be a reason to make fuel scarce; but, after the manner of the gentry of Civilized natives, remove for their pleasures; some times to their hunting places, where they remaine keeping good hospitality for that season; and sometimes to their fishing places, where they abide for that season likewise; and at the spring, when fish comes in plentifully, they have meetinges from severall places, where they exercise themselves in gaming and playing of jugling trickes and all manner of Revelles, which they are delighted in; [so] that it is admirable to behold what pastime they use of severall kindes; every one striving to surpass each other. After this manner they spend their time.

-- Thomas Morton in New English Canaan (Reprinted in 1964 by University Microfilms, Ann Arbor)

1645 --- Their houses are usually constructed in the same manner, without any particular costliness or curiosity in or to the same [referring to an earlier description ‘In their best apparel, they know not how to appear proud and foppish’]. Sometimes they build their houses above a hundred feet long; but never more than twenty feet wide. When they build a house they place long slender hickory saplings in the ground, having the bark stripped off, in a straight line of two rows, as far asunder as they intend the breadth of the house.

-- Adrien Van Der Donck in "A Description of the New Netherlands" (reprinted in 1968. T. O'Donnell, ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.)

1650 --- Their dwellings consist of hickory saplings, placed upright in the ground and bent arch-wise; the tops are covered with barks of trees, which they cut for this purpose in great quantities. Some even have within them rough carvings of faces and images, but these are generally in the houses of the chiefs. In the fishing and hunting seasons, they lie under the open sky or little better. They do not live long in one place, but move about several times a year, at such times and to such places as it appears best and easiest for them to obtain subsistence.

-- Anonymous in "The Representation of New Netherland" (reprinted in 1967. "Representation of New Netherland". In Narratives of New Netherland, F.J. Jameson, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble).

1674 --- Their houses which they call Wigwams, are built with Poles pitcht into the ground of a round form for most part, sometimes square, they bind down the tops of their poles, leaving a hole for the smoak to go out at, the rest they cover with the bark of trees, and line the inside of their Wigwams with mats made of Rushes paintd with several colors, one good post they set up in the middle that reaches to the hole in the top, with a staff across before it at a convenient height, they knock a pin on which they hang their Kettle, beneath that they set up a broad stone for a back which keepeth the post from burning; round by the walls they spread their mats and skins where the men sleep while their women dress their victuals, they have commonly two doors, one opening to the south, the other to the North, and according as the wind sits, they close up one door with bark and hang a Dears skin or the like before the other. Towns they have none, being alwayses removing from one place to another for conveniency of food, sometimes to those places where one sort of fish is most plentiful, other whiles where are others. I have seen half a hundred of their Wigwams together in a piece of ground and they shew prettily, within a day or two, or a week they have been all dispersed. They live for the most part by the Sea-side, especially in the spring and summer quarters, in winter they are gone up into the Countrie to hunt Deer and Beaver, the younger webbs going with them.

Delicate sweet dishes too they make of Birch-Bark sowed with threads drawn from Spruse or white Cedar-Roots, and garnished on the out-side with flourisht works, and on the brims with glistering quills taken from the Porcupine, and dyed, some black, others red, the white are natural, these they make of all sizes from a dram cup to a dish containing a pottle, likewise Buckets to carry water or the like, large Boxes too of the same materials, dishes, spoons and trayes wrought very smooth and neatly out of the knots of wood, baskets, bags, and matts woven with Sparke [also spart, the English name for various rushes] barke of the Line-Tree and Rushes of several kinds, dyed as before, some black, blew, red, yellow, bags of Porcupine quills woven and dyed also.

-- John Josselyn in A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New England (reprinted in 1988. Hannover: University Press of New England.)

1674 --- Their houses, or wigwams, are built with the small poles fixed in the ground, bent and fastened together with barks of trees oval or arbour-wise on the top. The best sort of their houses are covered very neatly, tight, and warm, with the barks of trees, slipped from their bodies, at such seasons when the sap is up; and made into great flakes with the pressures of weight timber, when they are green; so becoming dry, they will retain a form suitable for the use they prepare them for. The meaner sort of wigwams are covered with mats, they make of a kind of bullrush, which are also indifferent tight and warm, but not so good as the former. These houses they make of several sizes, according to their activity and ability; some twenty, some forty feet long and broad. Some I have seen of sixty or a hundred feet long, and thirty feet broad. In the smaller sort they make a fire in the centre of the house; and have a lower hole on the top of the house, to let out the smoke. They keep the door into the wigwams always shut, by a mat falling thereon, as people go in and out. This they do to prevent air coming in, which will cause much smoke in every windy weather. If the smoke beat down at the lower hole, they hang a little mat, in the way of a skreen, on the top of the house, which they can with a cord turn to the windward side, which prevents the smoke. In the greater houses they make two, three, or four fires, at a distance from another, for the better accommodation of the people belonging to it. I have often lodged in their wigwams; and have found them as warm as the best English houses. In their wigwams, they make a kind of couch or mattresses, firm and strong, raised about a foot high from the earth; first covered with boards that they split out of the trees; and upon the boards they spread mats generally, and sometimes bear skins and deer skins. These are large enough for three or four persons to lodge upon; and one may either draw nearer, or keep at a more distance from the heat of the fire, as they please; for their mattresses are six or eight feet broad.

From the tree where the bark grows, they make several sorts of baskets, great and small. Some will hold four bushels, or more; and so downward, to a pint. In their baskets they put their provisions. Some of their baskets are made of rushes; some, of bents; others, of maize husks; others a kind of silk grass; others of a kind of wild hemp; and some, of barks of trees; many of them, very neat and artificial, with the portraitures of birds, beasts, fishes and flowers, upon them in colours. Also they make mats of several sorts, for covering their houses and doors, and to sleep and sit upon. The baskets and mats are always made by their women; their dishes, pots and spoons, are the manufacture of the men. They have no other considerable household stuff except these; only of the latter years, since the English came among them, some of them get tin cups and little pails, chests of wood, glass bottles, and such things they affect.

-- Daniel Gookin in Historical Collections of the Indians in New England (reprinted in 1970 J.H. Fiske, ed. London: Towaid.)

1761 --- Sketch of an 18th century Western Niantic wigwam showing a cutaway view without the mat covering, showing bent and lashed pole framework, central location of fire (with cooking pot hanging over it), European furniture, and traditional sleeping platforms.

-- based on notes and measured sketches by Ezra Stiles by Schumacher under direction by Sturtevant (in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15, "Indians of Southern New England and Long Island" by Conkey, Boissevain, and Goddard 1976)

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