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History of Winter Island

Winter Island—Salem's Seaside Jewel
by John Goff


Four hundred years ago, Salem was part of a Native American coastal place called Naumkeag. Naumkeag was a seasonally occupied fishing, maritime trade and government center of the Massachusett people—who also occupied the Boston area (Shawmut) and whose name was later applied to our state of Massachusetts. The Massachusett language, a dialect of Algonkian, used the word NAMAS to refer to fish. NAUMKEAG was named for the rich concentration of fish and sea-life found and annually harvested here.

Winter Island, a prominent “aquidneck” or island near the mouth of Massabequash or Salem Harbor, was a very significant summer focal point and work place of the Massachusett peoples. Before Contact with French and English mariners, the island was heavily forested with old growth towering tall pines. Some trees would be felled, and hollowed out by burning, and used to make mishoonash or dugout canoes. The canoes were used for fishing, travel, exploration, and trade, as well as to harvest special stones used to make needed tools.

Three Sisters gardens with Indian corn, beans and squash or askuntersquash were also planted and tended near the shore, while snug and comfortable houses or wetuash were built of bent saplings, covered with bark and/or mats made of woven cat-tails. Nomadic lifestyles following the seasons and migrations of the animals were pursued peacefully here for dozens of generations. History was recorded in stories passed down over camp fires, and in patterns woven into belts crafted of wampum—fine beads made from seashells. Care was taken to live according to Original Instructions.

The waters on the west side of Naumkeag's Winter Island (now called Cat Cove) were always shallow, and probably one or more wooden fence-like fish weirs were built here to help impound fish that were then brought ashore and cut and smoked and preserved. An Old Indian Trail ran along the west side of Cat Cove, connecting the shallow waters and the Winter Island / Cat Cove settlement with many other places of importance, including the Salem Willows, the fishing cove now named Collins Cove, and a path that survives beneath Salem's Essex Street.

Winter Island and Cat Cove supported a 4,000 year old Naumkeag campground and village site that was archaeologically excavated in the 1990s. Large piles of discarded shells were found here on Salem's most significant “Naumkeag” site. Hundreds of chipped stones—mostly felsites or Marblehead porphyry--were also left by Naumkeag Natives. This material proved that finely worked arrowheads, knives, spears, and scrapers for making beaver pelts, etc. were used and locally manufactured here. Clay deposits were also mined to make pottery and “olamon”, a kind of ochre used for sacred ceremonies as well as body paint. Winter Island itself may have been especially valued because it also has four distinct sides with different microclimates (north, east, south and west) corresponding to the cardinal Four Directions.

By 1615, Naumkeag came under Nanepashemet's care. He was the Massachusett sachem, sagamore or ruler and leader whose name reportedly meant “He who walks by the light of the moon.” Nanepashemet's people pursued not just maritime trade, boat-building, fishing, stone-working and leather manufacture, but a vigorous fur trade with Champlain's visiting French. The French enlisted the Mi'kmaq peoples of Canada, also called the Tarratines, to serve as trade intermediaries. Great quantities of animal pelts and furs and hides from beaver, fox, martin, wolves, bears, as well as deerskins were brought from all over Massachusetts and here were traded to meet European clothing and fashion needs. To make payment and room for trans-Atlantic passage, French ships discharged copper kettles, glass beads and other imported luxury goods from Europe. Winter Island is the only place in modern Salem where Contact period trade bead(s) are known to have been found. These findings prove Winter Island was an exceptionally important center of early Native and Non-Native commerce and trade.

Between 1615 and 1619, Naumkeag and Winter Island suffered greatly. The place and people endured a series of harsh coastal raids and sea invasions likely fought for fur trade control. Invading Tarratines had acquired fire-arms and gunpowder from the French, giving them a profound military advantage. Deadly plague(s) or epidemics also swept the region. As a result of the battles and plagues, the Massachusett people were severely depopulated before Nanepashemet, defended in a large timber castle or palisaded fort, himself was slain in battle south and west of Naumkeag in 1619.

Following the arrival of the English Mayflower Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620, the Massachusett people negotiated a peace and alliance with English colonists. Nanepashemet's widow began accommodating English settlers in 1623. The first arrived at Cape Ann (modern Gloucester, northeast of Salem) with Thomas Gardner in 1623-4. A few years later, the Cape Ann English settlement was relocated by salt-maker Roger Conant and others to Naumkeag in 1626. Between 1628 and 1630, further efforts were made to have Naumkeag become the key foothold for the newly emerging Massachusetts Bay Colony. Governor John Endicott crossed to Naumkeag in 1628. Governor John Winthrop sailed nearby with the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter aboard the Arbella in 1630. In 1629 Naumkeag's name was changed to Salem. In 1630, Winthrop sailed the Arbella south from Salem to settle the Shawmut peninsula as Boston.

Between the 1630s and 1676, Naumkeag and Winter Island changed radically as many English colonists arrived by water. The newly arriving English worked to have Winter Island and Naumkeag become an American support base of an Atlantic fishing industry. They also used it as a place for shipbuilding, and salt manufacture—as salt was then used in great quantities to help preserve fish.

The English cut down most, if not all the trees on Winter Island. This was done to create more room for erecting fishing stages (large wooden platforms upon which cut fish was dried) as well as to produce sawn and hewn timber from which the Puritan settlers commenced building boats and ships.

English ships were larger than the Native canoes, and needed special care in winter months. The shallow waters west of Winter Island proved not to freeze and so were named and valued as a special “Winter Harbor” for Salem's Puritan fishing fleet. Winter Island got its name from its adjacency to Salem's Winter Harbor.

In the 17th century the English colonists built sturdy small pinnaces, shallops, and other framed vessels used for coastal fishing, and for trade with such places as England and the West Indies. In later years Winter Island became an even more storied place for Early American shipbuilding when it was used by Enos Briggs and his men to construct and launch the colossal frigate ESSEX during the 1790s quasi-war with France. Boatbuilding and shipbuilding became important Winter Island industries.

Space limitations here do not permit us to provide a comprehensive and complete history of Winter Island. However, some consider it to be the most historically significant part of all of Salem. This is because, in addition to its ancient use as a place of Naumkeag and English First Period fishing, boat building, and settlement, Winter Island also became a place important for its coastal harbor defenses (fortifications dating back to the 1640s), maritime commerce (Derby wharf remains from the 1790s likely relate to the China Trade), lighthouses (Winter Island Lighthouse was built in 1871), architecture, and U.S. Coast Guard Air Station.

Since Winter Island's 1930s era air station was closed in 1970, Winter Island has been rediscovered and redeveloped as a maritime park valued for its sandy beaches, waterfront views, public boat launchings, trolley tour connections, summer gatherings and special events. It has been used to support music concerts, Shakespeare performances, and Native American craft demonstrations and pow-wows as well as sailing lessons and Salem's leading campground. In 2009-2010, a new Friends of Winter Island was formed, and a new Master Plan for Winter Island's preservation was funded. Many hope that this place, once so important in Salem's past, can continue to find new uses to educate and inspire Salem visitors and Salem residents in the future.

New attractions and activities envisioned and/or proposed for Winter Island in and after 2010 include a Function Hall that doubles as an Orientation Center and a Museum; a Winter Island Visitor's Center that also has a Naumkeag Native American & Natural History Museum; a U.S. Coast Guard Aviation History Museum complete with restored military aircraft in a 1930s Winter Island Coast Guard Seaplane Hangar; a restored Fort Pickering and restored Winter Island Lighthouse; a community gardens with horticultural tours; a 21st century Renewable Energies Demonstration Center with new wind turbine, solar panels, tidal energy demonstration and weather station; an Aquacultural re-use of the Fort Pickering Moat; a new waterfront restaurant with rental function hall; new camp store; new offices for non-profits including Rebel Shakespeare; new and improved facilities for stage and drama concerts and performances; new hostel(s) and increased tours for visitor orientation and accommodation.