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[p. 19]

The last Medford Indian.

Mr. Brooks, in his ‘History of Medford,’ written more than fifty years ago, devoted some space to the Indians, and before closing with a somewhat elaborate flight of fancy, said,

In Medford they lived in “Turkey swamp.”

. . . The last Indian here was “Hannah Shiner,” who lived with “Old Toney,” a noble-souled mulatto man, who lived on the Woburn road, in West Medford, opposite where the town schoolhouse once stood.

It may be noticed that this location is that of the present Sarah Fuller Home, and near to the home of Mr. Brooks. Doubtless, in his early boyhood, as a neighbor, he had abundant opportunity to learn what were this old Indian woman's characteristics. He wrote, ‘Hannah was kind hearted, a faithful friend, a sharp enemy, a judge of herbs, a weaver of baskets, and a lover of rum.’ This is all the information he gave us of her, but alluded to a Thanksgiving dinner, probably spoiled in the total destruction of ‘Old Toney's’ house by fire. We may query whether Hannah cooked the dinner that was to have been served to Toney's dozen ‘colored friends;’ and also how the fire originated, but all in vain: the time, even, is unknown, save that it was at Thanksgiving time.

But later, Hannah Shiner lived in Turkey swamp. This is a locality the younger people of Medford do not know by that name. Doubtless many know of the Winchester reservoirs lying between the hills to the north of Ram's Head and the observatory. A few years ago a native of Woburn, a close observer of people and events,1 wrote of her, ‘Hannah Shiner, an Indian who for many years lived in a little hut on the east side of Turkey swamp, just under a hanging rock. On the spot is a cool and never-failing spring that now runs into the north part of the south reservoir. For seventy-five years it has been called the Hannah Shiner spring. The land on which it is was once owned by Samuel Hutchinson and [p. 20] was then called the “Donty Richardson lot.” The town of Winchester now owns it.’ But cool and refreshing as was the spring water in 1820, Hannah was still a lover of rum, and on December 22 came down to see Mrs. Hutchinson while under its influence. After venting her displeasure upon that good lady's ‘earthen milk pans,’ much to their detriment, she continued on her devious way to the village of South Woburn (Winchester). In going over the foot-bridge that spanned the Aberjona, she fell into the water and was drowned.

The same writer said, ‘She had a little dog that always went with her; the dog commenced barking and gave the alarm. Abel Richardson (who owned the mill and lived near by) and his sons took her out of the water and carried her into his house; from there, two days after, she was buried. There was a great attendance at the funeral, the Rev. Joseph Chickering of Woburn preaching a sermon from this text, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” ’

Some have thought her drowning was at the bridge on Main street, near by, instead of at what is now Pleasant street. Both were near Abel Richardson's house, and as the wind blew fiercely down the valley on that winter day, it overcame her as she emerged from the old trail that led down from the highlands between two eminences by the river side. The river then flowed where is now the Scientist Church, lately the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, its course having been moved several rods westward about thirty years ago.

Hannah Shiner's ‘hut under the rock’ was not within Medford bounds, but a little over the line in Stoneham. The ledge rose perpendicularly and faced toward the south. Her rude shelter was but a rod away from it, and the spring mentioned close by.

The location of her rude home in Turkey swamp, sheltered by the ledge, high, straight and long, was an ideal one for the last survivor here of a vanished race. The [p. 21] proximity of the old trails, the sunny exposure, the clear, cool spring, and the turkeys, abundant in number, that gave the swamp its name, and which she doubtless snared, all these appealed to her aboriginal nature, for she was of full blood. Tradition has it that she found sale for her baskets, and occasional employment, among the housewives of the adjoining towns, and doubtless her knowledge of Indian remedies hinted at by Mr. Brooks was also profited by.

And so, for some years after the fire at Old Toney's, she lived her wild life in that rocky fastness among the hills, till on that winter day, just two hundred years after the day of Plymouth rock, decrepit with age, benumbed with cold, but inflamed by the fire-water of the white men that her ancestors called Oncapee, she came to her death in the chill waters of the Aberjona.

Her funeral is mentioned, and also her burial. Possibly she was not buried, for somewhere, up to a few years ago (and, possibly, still), a skeleton of an Indian, said to have been that of Hannah Shiner, was preserved. It was articulated, and used in the demonstration of anatomy to medical students.

On the Woburn records (some years ago printed) is this entry among the deaths:—

Shinar, Hannah, Indian, pauper of Medford, Dec. 22, 1820, 82 yrs.

The town record here quoted gives clue to the way by which an old practitioner came into possession of the body. The gruesome details of its preparation we may well omit, only local tradition has it that the last Indians had fear of such fate; though they feared not death, the former, doubtless, with good reason.

Later it passed into the possession of another and eminently worthy physician, and when not in use as an ‘anatomy’ (as the common term was) was kept in an ‘ancient hair trunk under the bed in the attic.’ There our informant slept in childhood. He saw it many times, [p. 22] and seems not to have had the fear thereof that the gruesome relics may well be supposed to inspire.

At the present time, both the site of the hut and spring are ten feet below the surface of the water of the middle reservoir, from which the ‘hanging rock’ or ledge rises. Doubtless the spring boils up as clear as ever, but at the time the man wrote this reservoir was not complete, and being higher than the south reservoir, the water flowed in that direction, thus making this spring one of the sources of Meetinghouse brook.

Along the eastern edge of Turkey swamp was the old Indian trail to the Merrimack; and across the swamp westward, doubtless the way the aged Indian woman went for the last time on that winter day, was another. A causeway of logs made passage through the bog secure; these were with some difficulty removed in preparing the reservoir, which lies between two ranges of hills. But not all of the old swamp where Hannah Shiner roamed and gathered herbs or basket stuff has disappeared. Near where the old trail lay is an island which refused to be submerged, but rose, floating on the waters as they gathered, and is held in position by some unseen connection.

Our venerable friend wrote that Mr. Chickering was an able preacher, that as ‘dissatisfaction had sprung up in his society he took the occasion to preach an impressive sermon,’ and added that his informant, there present, said, ‘Not a dry eye could be seen in the audience as he described the sad end of this poor Indian woman.’

Mr. Chickering owned some land through which a brook flowed; one of his parish wished to purchase and use the same as a mill site. He would not sell without security from flowage of his other land. This was declined, and ere long discontent began to be noticed, and so continued was it for several years that the good man's efforts were made void, and a few days after this funeral occasion some action was taken that resulted in his asking his people for dismission.

Yet he came to the burial of this poor old Indian [p. 23] woman, the last of her race, dead because a ‘lover of rum,’ with the same graces and gifts in exercise, as to the wealthy and beloved of his parish.

After one reads Mr. Brooks' closing words referred to, this thought recurs:—

Lo! the poor Indian whose untutored mind
Sees God in the cloud and hears him in the wind.

Doubtless the Great Spirit hovered over the lonely hut in Turkey swamp, caring for her whose ‘kind heart’ had ample opportunity to there behold Him in the clouds and the tempests that raged over these rocky wilds.

Mr. Brooks was twenty-five years old in 1820, and just entering his work as a Christian minister. Doubtless he was absent from Medford when this native American, over four score years old, whom he had known in his boyhood as a faithful friend, perished in the cold waters of the Aberjona, or he might have written thereabout in 1854.

M. W. M.

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