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An Investigation of the Position of the European Chicken (Gallus gallus) in the 17th Century New England Native American Culture | A Reinterpretation of the Attack on the Clarke Garrison/RM site, Plymouth, MA
An Investigation of the Position of the European Chicken (Gallus gallus) in the 17th Century New England Native American Culture

One of the most interesting recent finds in New England has come from the Tura site located in Kingston, Massachusetts. This site, dating from the Late Woodland to Contact Periods, was found as the result of testing for a wastewater pipeline project (Dudek 1998:1). This site is located on level area at the confluence of a small stream and a brook. Important finds from the testing at this site included blue glass trade beads dating to the early seventeenth century and over 100 fragments of calcined and unburned animal bone from sealed contexts.
Site examination following the intensive survey roughly delineated the boundaries of the Tura site and uncovered seventeen features and 565 bone fragments. These remains were unevenly distributed across the site with the majority of them being concentrated in test pit E-8 of the intensive survey and EU 1 of the site examination.
The bulk of the faunal remains from this area were recovered from Feature 8 in Excavation unit 1. This feature was a circular hearth with a diameter of approximately 70 cm. The features encountered within test pit E-8 are interpreted as possible post molds for a structure, possibly a house, within which 142 pieces of bone were recovered. Preservation at the site was very good with unburned fragments of several of the species being recovered. Prior to the examination of the faunal remains from this area the large circular feature and associated postmolds were interpreted as possibly being the remains of a smoking complex for fish and shellfish. The occurrence of so much bone within the circular stain indicates that this feature probably served a more generalized function as a cooking hearth. If this feature had been a smoking hearth, one would expect to find less faunal remains than would be associated with a cooking hearth, in much the same way that Barber found at the Wheeler site's smoking complexes (Barber 1983:)
Excavation Unit 3 was located in an area where a possible feature had been located during the intensive survey. When the excavation had proceeded to the A/B transitional layer, several stains were discernible.
Feature 15, which was the only feature containing bone in this area, appears to be a large, possibly circular, pit excavated at least 25 cm. into the subsoil. The only artifacts recovered were lithic debitage and shell tempered pottery fragments. In the northwestern corner of the feature a circular area of darker soil was encountered below mottled transition soil. It was within this undisturbed sub feature that the faunal remains were recovered.
The faunal remains recovered from Excavation Unit 3, while being a relatively meager assemblage, proved to be the most interesting. Within a small, discrete circular stain located on the edge of the larger feature 15, a distinct concentration of at least semi-articulated remains of an adult specimen of a male Gallus gallus, the domestic rooster, were encountered. No other faunal remains were recovered from the remainder of the feature or surrounding soils. The feature containing the bones was a contained entity bearing no evidence of being a recent historical intrusion into a prehistoric or Contact period Native feature. Not a single artifact of European origin, aside form the rooster, was recovered from this feature, only Native made lithics and pottery.
The Tura site is located to the immediate north of the English colonists 1620 settlement at Plymouth and appears, from the presence of this find to have been inhabited at the same time. Early explorers to New England prior to the Plymouth colonists are not noted to have carried chickens or roosters with them on board their ships and there is the strong probability that this bird was a rooster of the Pilgrims. But what was it doing buried here, alone and semi-articulated at this site?
As early as 1623, the Plymouth colonists described giving chickens to the Pokanoket Sachem Massasoit when he was sick and expected to die. Edward Winslow arrived at the Sachem's house and saw the condition he was in. He then sent a messenger back to Plymouth to get a bottle of drink and "also for some chickens to make him broth" But when the messenger returned with the chickens? "he (Massasoit)would not have the chickens killed, but kept them for breed." (Winslow 1623: 34).
Chickens and roosters became part of what the Natives eventually called Netasuaog, or the ones that are house fed (Trumbull 1908:84). Roger Williams stated in 1643 that "This name the Indians give to tame beasts, yea, and birds also which they keep tame about their houses." (Williams 1971: 173). It would appear that by 1643 at the latest, European domestic animals were fairly common around Native homesites. Chickens and roosters were variously referred to as either Chicks or Monish, which means the spotted or dark colored ones (Williams 1971: 127; Trumbull 1908: 64). The Native name of the Pleides constellation is Chippapuock, meaning the brood hen or literally the one that separates herself, which may refer to European nesting hens and any nesting bird.
There is no reason why chickens and roosters, which were fairly numerous in Plymouth early on, would not be given or traded to Natives friendly to the colony.
Roosters in the seventeenth century were described by various contemporary agricultural authors such as Markham as "the most manliest, stately and majesticall, very tame and familiar with the Man, and naturally inclined to live and prosper in habitable houses.." (Markham 1614:110). The ideal rooster was described as being "..large and well sised bodie, long from the head to the rumpe, and thicke in the garthfeathers would be very long, bright, and shining, covering from head to shoulders, his legs strait, and of strong beame, with large longe spurres, sharpe and a little bending.. and for the generall colour of the dung hill cocke, it would be red, for that is medicinall, and oft used in Cullisses and restoratives" (Markham 1614:110-111). Markham also stated that the colours of the roosters head and neck should match the color of the eyes such as gray with gray, red with red or yellow with yellow. The colors of the most common type of fowl, the dung hill fowl that is often seen in probate records in Plymouth colony, are generally red in the body with the heads and necks of the roosters being gray, red or yellow. Googe further elaborated on this by stating that " the best to be bought for broode, are the dunne, the redde, the yellow and the blacke, the white are not to be meddled with, because they are commonly tender, and prosper not, neither are they beside fruitfull, and are alwayes the fairest marke in the Hawke, or a Buzzards eyeThe best kinde are such as have five clawes, so that they be free from spurres.." (Googe 1614:149).
Because chickens are relatively easy to keep and are prodigious breeders, they made the ideal first domestic animal to be brought to New England by the Plymouth colonists. These factors also made them ideal domestic animals to be introduced and given to the Natives; they were plentiful, cheap, easy to keep and versatile. Added to this value was the color of the birds from the Native perspective. If the poultry that was kept by the Plymouth colonists were in fact red dung hill fowl, as it appears that they were, then their red color coupled with the fact that they originated from the English would have made them doubly attractive to them.
The color red, as well as white, black or dark blue, and yellow, was one of the colors that held ceremonial and religious import in Native life. Redness in an object is reflective of the light of a fire and by association with life itself. Red also has the association with the qualities of blood, ochre, copper, certain fruits and berries and red cedars. Redness connotes the animate and emotive aspect of Life and is combined and associated with white and black in a cognitive system of the colors of life (Hamell 1983:7). Objects from the Europeans that were of these colors, such as copper kettles, white and dark blue or black beads and colored cloth were believed to carry the spiritual power of the Europeans as well as power associated with these colors in Native society. When the Sachem Massasoit was cured by Edward Winslow in 1623, he decided to keep the chickens brought to him so that he could raise them. He may have felt at this time when he had just been saved from death by the English, that by keeping these birds, which he knew were often made into a curative soup by the English in times of illness, then perhaps he too could control the power to cure some of the illnesses that were affecting his people following the first contact with Europeans and the pandemic of 1616-1619 that followed. The use of these birds during curing ceremonies and their color cooresponded with his belief system quite well.
Based on the context within which the remains were recovered, the chicken remains appear to have been purposefully buried in this separate pit feature. The bird may have been killed and eaten as part of a curing ceremony similar to that described by the Jesuits among the Iroquois called a tabagie. At these tabagie, or solemn feasts, the sick person could request things that he or she felt would make them better and often times dogs were desired, killed and eaten at the feast (Butler and Hadlock 1994:17). This chicken may have been eaten separate from other foods and the bones ceremonially placed in this separate distinct feature.
Alternately, the chicken may have been acquired from the English or from other Natives who had gotten them from the English and then the owner killed the bird and skinned it to make a bag. If this was the case, it may explain the missing wing and cranial bones. As had been found out by personal experience, when making a bag of bird skin, the outer bones of the wings, the carpometacarpus and phalanges are left to dry with the skin and the head can be removed, cleaned and replaced in the head skin to fill it out.
Feathers hold special significance to Native People across America. They were used in seventeenth century New England as hair knot ornaments and marks of status, they were woven into mantles and capes by the older men of the communities and used as the fletchings on arrows. But their use transecended a utilitarian value, they, like shells, bones, teeth, claws, quills, beaks and horns represent gifts from the animal world to the human. These items are believed to hold within themselves a form of power that lies dormant with the killing of an animal and is subsequently reawakened when a human uses the items in their lives (Whitehead 1991 in Weinstein 1994:182). Feathers are powerful objects. When a bird dies it looses its power until the feathers or skins, or both are reused in some way. Once reused, the formerly inanimate or dormant materials become animate with power again. (Weinstein 1994:183). The use of the rooster skin or at least the feathers would not have been a foreign concept for the Natives living in Kingston in the early seventeenth century.
It is known that the New England and the North Carolina Natives would dry whole birds out and important people such as Sachems and medicine people would wear them. William Wood, in 1643, described a well-dressed Sachem as having eagle feathers in his hair and a hummingbird dangling from his ear (Wood 1977:85). George Weymouth reported in 1623 that the more common Native people that he saw wore white feathered skins of an unidentified fowl about their heads and that the feathers from the tassel gent were saved for persons of estimation among the Indians to wear in the fron t of his locak, with traine upright, the body dried and stretched out (Winship 1905: 94). Feathers were so important to the people that sachems often took names such as Ousamechin or Tispaquin. These names can be translated as yellow feather and dark feather respctively.
The red skin of an animal that both the English and the Natives may have considered a medicinal bird, made into a personal bag or just worn on the person , can be concluded to have been a very handsome, respectable and powerful item for a Native person. At the same time, the use of the feathers of any bird would incorporate the abilities and power of that bird to the person wearing it. Another example would be the use of turkey feathers as hair ornaments or woven into mantles. Using the turkey fetahers would have allowed people to incorporate the turkeys abilities and mantles may have served as protective items from malevolent spirits the way that clothing, body adornment or tattooing does for the Micmac (Whitehead 1988:13).
The rooster remains recovered from the Tura site probably represents something more than just the remains of someone's chicken dinner. The context within which the bones were found, a separate discrete deposit of only the rooster bones and a few possibly accidental artifacts deposited from the backfilling of the pit, not a shell midden or refuse pit containing a mixture of discarded artifacts and food remains, leads one to speculate that this feature had a special meaning to its creator. Distinct deposits of articulated or semi-articulated animal remains are known from various archaeological sites and usually take the form of dog burials. Unfortunately, during excavation, the bones were not recognized as possibly being something more than a food waste deposit and as a result they were excavated in the field with only limited plotting of their original positions being done. Articulation of at least one set of bones was noted though and it is possible that the bones, which were in the usual spongy condition associated with buried unburned bone in New England, were more articulated than determined in the field, as some of the bones are less well preserved.
While it can not be staed unequivically that the rooster remains recovered are not just some sort of Native pet burial, by looking at the position that feathers colors and birds have in eastern Massachusetts Nartive culture, it can be stated with confidence that this animal held a position of high power in the culture. The roosters power was a result of its red color, its position as a bird, and its association with the English. By either killing and eating this bird or just using the feathers, the Native people that had this bird probably felt that they were able to assume some of the birds power and by association some of the power of the English settlers. They may have felt that the power they attained would help to protect them against the English and their diseases, guns and the changes they were creating in the Natives traditional way of life.






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