J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 12, 2020

Jonas Obscow, Natick Indian and Continental Soldier

Jonas Obscow (also spelled Obsco and Obscho) was born in Natick on 5 June 1739. The town’s vital records don’t identify his parents, but a man of the same name—presumably this baby’s father—died in 1745. His probate file, approved by Judge Samuel Danforth, said the most valuable part of his estate was 27 acres of land.

Four years later, in June 1749, Thaddeus Mason of Cambridge put young Jonas’s name on a list of Indians in Natick, “old and young,” separate from all other family groups.

On 27 Apr 1764, Jonas Obscow married Mary Speen, born to Abraham and Rachel Speen in 1738. “Abram Speen, wife and one child” had also appeared on the Mason list, and some of the late Jonas Obscow’s land bordered on Abraham Speen’s land, so the couple no doubt knew each other well.

The Obscows had three children recorded in the Natick record over the next few years:
  • Mary, born 18 Nov 1765
  • Abraham Speen, born in Walpole, 22 Dec 1767
  • Zurvia, born 4 Feb 1770 and dying exactly two months later
In May 1772, the Obscows petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to permit the sale of some of their property. Their plea said that they had “for several years past, been exercised with Sickness in their family, of long continuance, which several of their Children have died.” Now “indebted to Physicians and others who relieved them in times of their affliction,” they wanted to sell “a lot of land at ye. West part of Natick four miles distant from their home lot, and four miles from the meeting house, Containing thirty seven acres.”

The Obscows had to petition the legislature before selling any land because, as Natick Indians, they needed the approval of guardians for the tribe appointed by the province. This provision was no doubt instituted with the goal of protecting Native people from being gouged. Of course, it made them dependent on the good will of the white men appointed as their guardians. The Obscows signed their petition with their marks. Three guardians of the Natick Indians signed as well. The General Court approved the sale.

In May 1775, Jonas Obscow joined the Massachusetts army, enlisting in the company of Capt. Joseph Morse within Col. John Paterson’s regiment. Obscow served in the siege of Boston at least through November, when he received a bounty coat. Military service meant income and food, but it also meant leaving Mary and whatever children were still alive back in Natick.

Jonas Obscow also enlisted for a 1777 campaign against the British in Rhode Island. Around that time his marriage with Mary was ending.

In 1783 Mary Obscow petitioned for state approval to sell her own land. That petition said she and Jonas had had four children, “But one now living about 15 years of age”—probably Abraham Speen Obscow. Mary went on to say that Jonas “Left your Petitinor & Child about 7 years ago & married unbenone to your Petitioner.” Mary had suffered from from “great Sickness & other misfortune of Broken Bones &c.,” putting her in debt to “doctr’s & Nursing &c.” The legislature granted that petition.

As of October 1788, Mary Obscow was dead, though the guardians for the Natick Indians were still selling her land “for the purpose of paying her Just Debts, & for the benifit of her Heir at Law.” One guardian held £5.12s.9d. from that estate in 1790, when Abraham Speen Obscow had presumably come of age.

In 1789 a man named Abel Perry petitioned the state to allow the guardians to look into and approve Jonas Obscow’s sale of twelve acres to him. Many Natives in New England’s “praying towns” lost the land assigned to them in just this gradual way, as debts forced them to sell off their property.

In 1796, the selectmen of Natick described Jonas Obscow as “an Indian man who is blind and is also wholly unable to go by reason of the Rheumatism and has not Estate to support him.” They were petitioning for state money to feed and house Obscow and other poor people, including Caesar Ferrit. The Natick officials argued that their town, originally founded for Indians who had converted to Christianity, deserved special consideration since Natives were exempt from local taxes but still sent their children to town schools.

The Natick selectmen also pointed out that Indians “have taken in negros…with whom they marry and have children,” and then “Said children when of age suppose them selves Exempted from all Taxes.” In other words, they would have preferred for those people of both Native and African ancestry to be classified as Negro so they were taxable. If, however, the state hinged special grants to Natick based on its large Native population, the selectmen would no doubt have wanted those same people counted as Indian.

Jonas Obscow died in Natick on 13 Nov 1805, at the age of sixty-six.

2 comments:

Charles Bahne said...

I guess this is the origin of Speen Steet in Natick. I know there were a lot of Native Americans in that town, but I never would have guessed that Speen was a Native American name.

I also note the comment about Natives marrying and having children with "negros". From what I've heard elsewhere, Crispus Attucks may have been the progeny, a generation or two removed, of such a relationship.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the Speen name goes way back in Natick.

And yes, Crispus Attucks is the most famous example of the intermarriage of New Englanders of African and Native descent. But it was by no means uncommon.