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SERIES Identifier: UAI 20.811

Harvard University Corporation Papers relating to the Marshpee Indians Digital


The collection contains handwritten records kept by Harvard University relating to the interactions between the Marshpee Indians and Reverend Phineas Fish from his appointment as pastor for the Marshpee Indians by Harvard in 1811 until his departure in 1841. Chiefly consisting of correspondence between administrators of Harvard University, local government officials, and Phineas Fish, the volume also includes contracts, petitions, and a small printed booklet relating to the legal case between Phineas Fish and the Marshpee Indians. The records document the conflict between the Marshpee Indians and Fish, the pastor appointed by Harvard to serve them, the Mashpee Revolt of 1833, and the status of American Indians in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century.


  • 1811-1841


Researcher Access

Open for research.


1 volume : disbound
.3 cubic feet (1 half legal document box and 1 flat box)

The collection contains handwritten records kept by Harvard University relating to the interactions between the Marshpee Indians and Reverend Phineas Fish, upon his appointment as pastor for the Marshpee Indians by Harvard in 1811, until his departure in 1841. Chiefly consisting of correspondence between administrators of Harvard University, local government officials, and Phineas Fish, the volume also includes contracts, petitions, and a small printed booklet relating to the legal case between Phineas Fish and the Marshpee Indians. The records document the conflict between the Marshpee Indians and Fish, the pastor appointed by Harvard to serve them, the Mashpee Revolt of 1833, and the status of American Indians in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century. The records also highlight the legal ambiguity of both Fish’s claim to the parsonage of Marshpee and the Marshpee Indians' changing legal rights in New England. The records were originally bound in a volume which was disassembled and its contents foldered for preservation purposes. The records were digitized in their original order. There is a contents list at the end of the volume.

The letters and contracts document the legal and ethical environment upon which Phineas Fish was appointed to the role of pastor of the Marshpee Indians by Harvard and Harvard's involvement with the Marshpee people. Two contracts document the appointment of Fish, one with the Marshpee Overseers, a group of white leaders who governed over the Marshpee Indians, August 23, 1811, and one with the Harvard Corporation, who appointed Fish as pastor and paid him through the Williams Fund, September 18, 1811. Through the contract with Harvard and without consultation with Marshpee leaders, Fish was granted land to reside on and farm, and further, was permitted to take wood from the Marshpees' land, which he sold. Throughout the volume, letters between Fish, Marshpee leaders, and prominent Harvard figures such as Harvard President Josiah Quincy and Unitarian minister of Harvard Church Reverend James Walker document how Harvard was considered a significant governing body over the Marshpee people. Letters from Walker and Quincy to Fish inquire into the state of his church and the Marshpee people, documenting Harvard's role as supervisor to Fish and the missionary effort in Marshpee. Quincy wrote to Fish in 1833 and asked "how many Indians usually attend your religious instruction" among other specific questions. Harvard also found it important to record race in the documents pertaining to the Marshpee Indians. In a letter written by James Walker, 1835, he recounts the number of Indians and whites that Fish serves in church, and further mentions that out of the 320 Indians at Marshpee, only two men and six women claim to be of “pure blood.” There are mentions of race and the mixing of races in the 1835 “List of Proprietors (male),” where the terms “squaw,” “negro,” and “mullato” were all used to describe the mixed ethnicities of the Marshpee Tribe. President Quincy’s report of 1841, which describes the overall interactions between Fish, Harvard, and the Marshpee Indians, also describes the Indians of Marshpee as “colored,” and describes how many members are of “pure blood." The reports and correspondence with Fish during his conflict with the Indians document Harvard's role in resolving the contention between Fish and Marshpee. For decades, Harvard conducted inquiries into Fish, received and wrote letters to him, and received complaints about him, but didn’t document disciplinary measures against him. Only in Quincy’s report of 1841 does Harvard take action against Fish, finding his appointment was not permanent as he had claimed, and ending with a vote of the Corporation in favor of ceasing payment of salaries from the Williams Fund to Fish and the Selectman of Marshpee. With this vote, Fish was no longer paid for his pastoral services, though not officially fired, and subsequently left Marshpee.

The documents created by the Marshpee Indians in this collection record uprising and the way in which they used local and Massachusetts government to advance their legal standing in the nineteenth century. A list of voters in Marshpee from 1835 documents when Marshpee became incorporated as a district by the Massachusetts government as a result of their petition, and were able to vote for their own governing officers. In "Statement of the Condition of Education and Religious Instruction in Marshpee," 1834, prominent Marshpee Indians such as Marshpee selectmen Ezra Attaquin, Isaac Coombs, and Israel Amos voiced their complaints against Fish such as stealing wood and preaching to only whites, eventually leading to a court case before the Massachusetts General Court. The booklet, "Legal Opinion of Council in the case of Marshpee Indians vs. Revd. Phineas Fish. May 20, 1835," also contains information presented by Benjamin F. Hallett, Counsel for the Marshpee Indians, before the Massachusetts General Court. Despite the evidence presented, the Court failed to produce a ruling on the issue of Fish. Marshpee leaders continued to protest Fish, as documented in the 1836 petition to Harvard calling for Fish’s dismissal and transfer of the Williams Fund from Fish to the Marshpee leaders, signed by William Mingo, Chairman of the Selectman of Marshpee Indians; Solomon Attaquin, prominent Marshpee figure; Isaac Coonils; Ezra Attaquin; and clerk Daniel Amos.

Fish's letters record the evolution of his role in Marshpee and document the atmosphere of contention between him and the Marshpee Indians. In an 1824 letter to John Kirkland, Fish gives his account of his missionary work by stating "I wish I could give a more pleasing account of the Indians." In an 1826 letter, Fish more explicitly expressed the difficulties he was facing: "I have not accomplished what I hoped to have done. Many are in a worse state than when I first came." His letters gradually show how threatened Fish felt by the state of his mission and the lack of Indian members, blaming "intemperance" for the struggles. In 1826 and 1833 Fish claimed that his salary was being reduced; he also mentioned events from the Mashpee Revolt of 1833. In the letters to Harvard President Quincy, December 1833, he described a threat to his cause, spurred by William Apess (Apes), whom he refers to as "the stranger Indian" and an "imposter and fanatic," lecturing at Marshpee and impressing upon the people the idea of "civil and religious rights of Indians." Fish was threatened by his promises to occupy the meetinghouse, which Fish laid claim to, and was further distressed by the “poisoned” minds of the Indians. He also mentioned the petition against him in an 1836 letter to Walker, which was organized by Apess but supported by many Marshpee Indians, in which he referred to Apess and his "gang." The records also document how Fish viewed Native Americans in terms of race. He often referred to Indians as “colored” in his letters (see letters from 1824 and 1833). He also characterized African Americans as belonging to this group when recounting the number of “colored people” that attended his services.

Historical Note on Harvard University's connection to the Marshpee Indians

Harvard University became connected to the Marshpee people through missionary work. Harvard received financial contributions from the Company for Propagation of the Gospel in New England and the Parts Adjacent in America, an English organization founded in 1649 whose objective was to convert New England Indians to Christianity, until the Revolutionary War. The Company also funded the establishment of Harvard Indian College, circa 1650. Among the funds directed to Harvard College by the Company were the bequests of two British men, Robert Boyle and Daniel Williams. These funds were administered by the Harvard Corporation and were later referred to as the Williams Fund, established around 1700 to educate and aid the Indians through Christianity, and dispersed by Harvard to prominent missionary figures throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Through Harvard, this fund established the missionary pastor Reverend Phineas Fish as the official pastor of the Marshpee Indians in 1811. Throughout Fish's duration in Marshpee, Harvard administrators continued to supervise Fish, pay his salary, and tried to remediate issues relating to him raised by the Marshpee community. During the legal case brought against Fish from 1833 to 1834, the Harvard Corporation, through Harvard President Josiah Quincy, conducted inquiries into the state of Fish’s mission and work in Marshpee.

Historical Note on the Marshpee Indians

The American Indians of Marshpee, residing in Barnstable County, and more broadly Cape Cod, Massachusetts, now known as the federally recognized Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, historically built an economy around fishing, whaling, agriculture, hunting, and later, selling plantation wood. Prior to the Marshpee district's incorporation as a town in 1870, the common spelling for the Mashpee Indians was “Marshpee.” “Mashpee” was used upon its legal incorporation as a town.

The Marshpee plantation was established officially in the Massachusetts legislature as a Christian plantation when in 1660 Richard Borne, a follower of missionary John Eliot, secured a grant of 10,500 acres on Cape Cod for the exclusive use of the Indians of Marshpee. In 1763, Marshpee was incorporated as a district, including the “parsonage of land” often referred to in official documents of the legislature and Harvard University, but was not a town. For decades, the Marshpee Indians sought self-government through petitions to the Massachusetts government. In 1788, in order to stop these attempts at self-government, the Massachusetts legislature secured the appointment of three men by the governor, and the formation of a board of five Marshpee Overseers, who were given the authority to regulate the plantation and the fishing industry that had become a vital part of the Marshpee Indians’ livelihood. The Overseers also rented and leased some of this land to non-Marshpee residents for collecting wood, fishing, and farming. During this time, the Marshpee Indians saw the district of Marshpee as their own land, and didn't agree with the formation of the Overseers or the use of their land by non-tribe members. They felt their rights were further restricted when they lost their right to select their own minister in 1809, as the Harvard Corporation and the Marshpee Overseers appointed Phineas Fish as their pastor through the missionary Williams Fund dispersed by Harvard. Fish was not popular among the Indians, who preferred to attend the services of Baptist minister "Blind Joe" Amos, the local Indian preacher, who was forced to give his services outside, as Fish refused to allow others to use the meetinghouse.

The Mashpee Revolt of 1833 erupted as prominent American Indian preacher William Apess (Apes) visited Marshpee and saw the poor state of the community and their preacher who restricted them from using their meetinghouse or joining services. Apess aided the Marshpee Indians in drafting a memorial which was sent to the governor, council of Massachusetts, and Harvard College on May 21, 1833. The petition included “the Indian Declaration of Independence,” which stated that the tribe had the right to rule themselves, “for all men are born free and equal.” The petition also outlined restrictions for the use of Indian land and resources, including wood; and called for the dismissal of Fish with Apess to replace him as preacher. The Marshpee people insisted they would self-govern and Apess led the Marshpee to take back non-tribe members' wood that they had cut from the Marshpee land. The Massachusetts legislative committee did not rule in this case, and the following requests were left unanswered: the right to appoint a minister of their choosing, the right to access parsonage land, and the right to control of the meetinghouse. As the court failed to bring the conflict to a close, the Massachusetts press characterized the conflict as a riot, and subsequently Apess was arrested. Finally, in 1834, William Lloyd Garrison and Benjamin Franklin Hallet aided the Marshpee Indians in appealing to the Massachusetts legislature; Marshpee became a self-governing town as the Indian District of Marshpee, granting them the right to elect their own selectmen, and the Marshpee Overseers were dissolved. Mashpee was incorporated as a Massachusetts town in 1870, and the Mashpee Indians were granted citizen status.

Biographical Note on Phineas Fish

Phineas Fish graduated from Harvard with AM in 1807, and shortly thereafter was promised the position of pastor in the area of Marshpee by Harvard. He was officially appointed as the pastor to the Marshpee Indians in 1811. Fish's annual salary was paid from the Williams Fund, a fund dispersed by Harvard primarily meant for the Marshpee people. In addition to an annual salary of $520 and a $250 settlement fee, he was also given a part of a meadow and pasture plot. This was a direct side step to the Indian Nonintercourse Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which banned the sale of Indian land in the United States between Indians and white Americans. Furthermore, in the 1816 Massachusetts Supreme Court case of Andover v. Canton, the state declared Indians the “unfortunate children of the public, entitled to protection and support” and “incapable of civilization.” This decision reflected the opinion of government bodies at the time and characterized the climate in which the conflict between Fish and the Marshpee Indians would escalate.

Since his appointment in 1811, Fish, a Congregationalist missionary pastor, failed to assimilate into the Marshpee Indian community and was unable to convert many Indians to Christianity. Over his tenancy of 25 years, only 20 Marshpee Indians joined his "church at Marshpee." He was often accused by Marshpee Indians, their council, and local government figures of preaching to a solely white audience. When Apess visited Marshpee in 1833, his revivalist and egalitarian rhetoric was an inspiration to the Marshpee people in sharp contrast to Fish. Apess attended Fish’s services at "the meetinghouse" and called a public meeting upon noticing the predominately white congregation, starting the Mashpee Revolt and the legal case brought against Fish by the Marshpee Indians and their counsel, Benjamin F. Hallett, from 1833 to 1834. Following the incomplete rulings of the Massachusetts legislature, the Marshpee Indians were unable to expel Fish from his post for years to come. Fish eventually ceased preaching in Marshpee after a long confrontation between the neighboring tribe members. By 1846 he had sold his house in Marshpee.


The documents were originally kept in a bound volume in chronological order. All the documents were disbound for the purposes of digital reformatting and subsequently rehoused in archival folders. The original chronological arrangement has been maintained.

Acquisition information

The documents in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business.

Online access

All of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Related Materials

Collections in the Harvard University Archives

  1. Harvard University. Corporation. Records of grants for work among the Indians, 1720-1812. UAI 20.720, Harvard University Archives :

Collections in other libraries

  1. Massachusetts. General Court. Joint Special Committee on Petition of Ebenezer Attaquin and Others. Reports, resolves, [etc.], relating to the Marshpee Indians. N.A.SOC. R 299, Tozzer Library :


  • Mancall, Peter C. Encyclopedia of Native American History. New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 7, 2016).
  • Nielsen, Donald M. “The Mashpee Indian Revolt of 1833”. The New England Quarterly 58.3 (1985): 400–420.
  • Carlson, David J. Sovereign Selves: American Indian Autobiography and the Law. University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 August 11.

Processing Information

Processing involved a collection survey, rehousing documents in appropriate archival folders, and the creation of this finding aid.

Throughout this finding aid, the Mashpee Indians are referred to as Marshpee Indians. Prior to the Marshpee district's incorporation as a town in 1870, the common spelling for the Mashpee Indians was “Marshpee.” “Mashpee” was used upon its legal incorporation as a town.

This finding aid was created by Lael Dalal in May 2016.

Preservation and description of the Papers relating to the Marshpee Indians was supported by the Arcadia-funded Colonial Nineteenth-Century North American Project at Harvard University.

Collection title transcribed from Harvard University Archives shelf list.

Harvard University. Corporation. Papers relating to the Marshpee Indians, 1811-1841: an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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