Passaconaway is an amazing figure in the history of New Hampshire, and more specifically the Merrimack Valley. Since we are taught the history of the Europeans, I would wager a guess, that less than 1% of the current residents of the area have even heard of him. I know, I know, he lived 350-400 years ago, that’s ancient history and doesn’t have any relevance to contemporary times, right? And he was a Native American after all, but his story is so amazing and compelling that he is a person who is worth the time it takes to remember him. His long and noble life deserves our attention.
Passaconaway is said to have been born between 1550 and 1570, and died somewhere near 1679. He lived to be over 120 years old. So he lived through a time of great change. He grew up in a land that was possessed by the Native Americans, when the Europeans were all but unknown. He saw the coming of the Europeans and pondered upon what it meant for himself and his people. He made peace with the Europeans and cooperated with them, and yet, they double crossed and killed members of his tribe and abused his two sons. His cooperation was not simple surrender, it was a well thought out plan to allow the Europeans to plant themselves as a bulwark against his enemies the Mohawks and other tribes who had been attacking his people in constant warfare. He was part of a community that had seen over 75% of his people die of plague and disease. And in old age, he watched as his world was destroyed by the overwhelming power and numbers of the foreigners. In his great prophecy, he councils his people to live in peace with Europeans, because they are destined to inherit the land and because he knew his own people did not have the power to resist.
Passaconaway is the bastardized English version of the chief’s name. “His name is indicative of his war-like character—-Papisse-conewa, as written by himself, meaning ‘The Child of the Bear,’ being derived from Papoeis (a child) and Kunnaway (a bear.) The name he doubtless received at mature age, according to the custom of the Indians, from his supposed resemblance in courage and bravery in war, to that ferocious and powerful animal.” (Potter’s History of Manchester)
The various European accounts of him say that he was a giant, a genius and possessed magical powers. The fact that accounts say he was a giant and a magician is very interesting, because of the obscure but well documented evidence found in the nineteenth century, in the mounds and burial places of the Native Americans, that giants lived among them. The findings and archeological evidence was suppressed by the Smithsonian Institute and others at the time of their discovery because the existence of giants didn’t fit their paradigm. So maybe, the legend of Passaconaway, his magical powers and intelligence was more truth than fiction and came by way of a “giant” ancestor, whose DNA still coursed through his veins.
Passaconaway was the sagamore or sachem (chief) of note among the Pennacooks and other tribes who lived along and near the Merrimack River in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Later, he became the “Bashaba” (chief of chiefs) of many diverse tribes whose sachems were subject to him.
Finally, you should appreciate Passaconaway because you owe the very legal claim to your home and land in Windham, to him and the other sachems, who deeded it to the Rev. John Wheelright and his associates, on May 17, 1629. Forty years after his death, when the Scotch-Irish arrived in Londonderry, in 1719, there were only a few Native Americans roaming the area and only slight traces of Native American culture left….their best growing fields and dwelling places having been coveted and appropriated by the Europeans.