Our school sits on a very special piece of land, and our Social Studies students began exploring it last week. We took a mini-field trip (really, a short walk) to investigate the history that took place right on our school property. Looking at artifacts outside, and then doing some internet research, we pieced together an amazing story. Imagine the year 1675, and there’s no school built yet here in current-day Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. At this time, this area was a frontier — pretty much just wilderness, with several Native American tribes who used the area for fishing on the Merrimack River. The frontier stretched all the way up to Canada; only a few settlers had arrived up this way. Otherwise, it was just the Pawtucket Indians on the lower side of the river, and the Pennacook Indians on the upper side of the river. Chief Wannalancet was considered the “chief of chiefs,” reigning over the local Native Americans and forging alliances with the settlers.At our school’s property, a brave English man set out to make a safe home. Jonathan Tyng had a mansion right here, looking out on the river on one side, with his farm land in back. It does appear that he set up some sort of fortification to keep out the Native Americans, but it’s unclear what that was. As far as we can tell from looking at historical records, he got along pretty well with the Native Americans and things were stable at his house. The house is no longer there, but today we can see the foundation of his front porch.Until everything changed.
Fighting erupted in June of 1675. King Phillip’s War brought devestating violence to the area, as Native Americans pushed back against the English settlers who were encroaching on their land. It’s hard to imagine that all around this area, people were being killed, houses were being burned, and many were fleeing North to Canada.
Except for one man. Jonathan Tyng sent a petition to the general court in Boston, asking for 3-4 men to come guard his house. He argued that it was in a good place to keep watch over the “enemy.” The general court agreed, and there he stayed, one of the only English settlers to last here through the entire war. Was Jonathan Tyng friendly to the Native Americans that whole time? It’s hard to tell, but probably not. One of our 5th grade students, Jaden, found out that Native Americans used guns that they bought from white people, though before that they used bows and arrows most often. Jaden wrote, “When an enemy was defeated his enemy often took his scalp to bring back and become famous in the tribe.” The English definitely used lots of violence in this war also.
In our investigation, students discovered that just in front of the spot where Jonathan Tyng’s house once sat, there’s a rock with a plaque on it. The plaque reads: “In this place lived during his last years, and died in 1696, WANNALANCET. Last Sachem of the Merrimac River Indians, Son of Passaconway, like his father a faithful friend of the early New England Colonists.”
As it turns out, 6th grader Spencer discovered that the Native American chief, Wannalancet, was also forced to flee to Canada during King Phillip’s War. When the fighting ended, the settlers encouraged him to return to the area, as his presence had always been a calming, positive one.
During the last four years of his life, Wannalancet lived with Jonathan Tyng, as a guest in his home. They say that he used to sit on this very rock, look out at the river, and think about how times were changing for his people.
Fifth grader Isabelle found out that “originally there were about 12,000 Pennacook indians and 30 villages, but after the English came and settled in there were 2,500. But after smallpox there were 1,200.” Wannalancet had a lot to mourn. His people were conquered. Students across the ages have probably wondered: “Why do we need to know about this history stuff? Who cares?” So, if the house is gone, why should we bother to remember what happened here?
I challenged students to consider why learning about these issues matters to helping us deal with today’s global challenges. This was tough for many students, but some made really powerful observations. One student wrote, “Refugees trying to get away from their home to go somewhere else — it happened in the past and (it happens) today.” Unfortunately, it is true that people have had to leave their homes to escape violence at many different times in history.
Another student wrote,”Christopher Columbus went to the Tainos and tried to trick them into believing in (his) religion. I think ISIS is trying to to get people to believe in (their) religion.”
Overall, student are hopeful. They were able to see that situations are not as simple as they might seem. After we read a storybook about the Columbus story told from the perspective of a Native American boy, we also read some of Columbus’s journal entries. When asked if this teaches us anything to use to understand current events, a student wrote, “Try and view things from different perspectives instead of just looking at it from one, and assuming that it’s right when you haven’t seen it from another perspective.”
So, is the friendship between Jonathan Tyng and Wannalancet worth remembering? Bridging differences isn’t always as easy as it seems. However, this student makes it seem pretty simple: “Everybody is equal. It doesn’t matter what religion they practice, if they’re big or small, black or white, young or old. We know not to make assumptions about someone’s appearance now.”
If we can remember stories when people were able to get along against all odds, like Jonathan Tyng and Wannalancet, maybe it’ll be a little easier for us to figure it out today.