Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Herring Weir Mattapoisett -- The "life-line" to the sea for the Native Americans, who wintered in the inland forests on the shores of the many fresh-water ponds, was the river flowing eight miles from Snipituit Pond to the harbor and Buzzards Bay. This river, now known as the Mattapoisett River, brought the Wampanoags to the shore for eeling and shell fishing; a change from a winter diet of deer and rabbit.
In the 50 years after the landing of the Mayflower, colonists expanded out from Plymouth to establish scattered settlements at Middleboro, Taunton, Dartmouth, and Cape Cod. Records from the Plymouth Deeds from 1673 and 1674 name Native Americans, Papamo, Machacam, and Achawanamett as owners of Mattapoisett "that soe wee may preserve our lands for our children. Our tract of land is called by the name of Mattapoisett."
For centuries, a Native American village had stood at the head of each harbor - Mattapoisett, Sippican, Agawam; each giving its name to the harbor and to land stretching back into the woods. By 1679 what was left of the Narragansett Nation after King Philip's War, were sold to the West Indes and Burmuda as slaves. Others, including women and children, were enslaved or made indentured servants within the colony. Any remaining lands of the Native Americans were "passed into the hands of the English by right of conquest." In 1680 a Company to buy the land was organized. The 32 members - "substanciall men that are prudent p'sons and of considerable estates" - paid their money, met in Sandwich, and drew lots for land.
The first white settlers looked at the Mattapoisett River, with a protected salt pond at its mouth on the harbor, as an ideal place for settlement. The rich soil along the river bank was ripe for cultivation; the rushing water promised power for their mills and their small vessels would have safe harbor in the salt pond. Jonathan and Samuel Hammond, two brothers who came from Sandwich in 1680, are said to have been the first settlers along the river. Jonathan made his homestead at Herring Weir where the alewives arrived in the spring. Samuel settled on Mattapoisett Neck and may have originally been called Antassawamock "peninsula of peace and plenty" as translated from the Wampanoag language.
The early center of Mattapoisett was not where the village is now, but at Hammondtown, the area revolving around the mills at the Herring Weir, stretching up along the river to the north, and reaching down to the Necks to the southwest. Here, at the mouth of the river, was a sizable and fairly deep salt pond which provided a small and land-locked harbor for the early trading vessels. Along it's west bank, starting 100 yards below the Herring Weir, landings, docks, and shipyards were built.
Lt. John Hammond's house became the center of this family community. On the front door were posted notices of Town Meetings in Rochester, Proclamations from the Royal Governor in Boston relating to His Majesty's wishes in London, and announcements that swine running at large must have rings in their noses. An upstairs room held the first school in Mattapoisett; for three months each year, as the teacher had to be shared with the other villages in town. Downstairs held meetings on colony, church, town, and village affairs. Herring Weir saw a constant coming and going of Hammonds, Barlows, and Dexters. In the 1700s, each April, the citizens got their 400 herrings apiece to be salted down for next winter's breakfasts.
The Mattapoisett River, with its origins in Snipituit Pond to the north, flows through the town of Rochester and Mattapoisett before emptying into Buzzards Bay. This river has always been a route for the herring to reach their spawning site, Snipituit Pond. The photos below, taken in the early 1900s, show scenes of activity in the spring when the herring are traveling upstream to spawn. The spring water flows rapidly, making the herring's struggle to get up stream a very difficult task, while making the task of men catching them an easy one.
Town reports for 1906 recorded that the river's total catch was 626,000 alewives, and a further 465,000 alewives were noted in the 1907 report.
"River herring are considered a “foundation” fish in the Buzzards Bay ecosystem. Many of the Bay’s large sportfish and water birds – including ospreys and striped bass, two other tell-tale signs of spring – rely on river herring as food. And river herring feed on plankton in the water, making them an important link in the food web." For more information on the importance of herring in the Buzzards Bay ecosystem, please visit the Buzzards Bay Coalition's website.
Because of polution, over fishing and, obstructions in the Mattapoisett River that prevent the herring from traveling to Snipituit Pond to lay eggs, fish populations drastically declined during the twentieth century until they were almost extinguished, but local restoration efforts from the 1980s onwards have promoted a slow increase in the population of herring.
The group, Alewives Anonymous, out of Rochester, has been tracking herring in the Mattapoisett River since the 1990s.
According to an article from the Buzzards Bay Coalition in 2019, "Because it has the longest dataset, the Mattapoisett River serves as our local benchmark for tracking river herring populations. In 1921, when monitoring on the Mattapoisett River began, 1.85 million river herring were counted. This year, Alewives Anonymous counted 18,156 herring in the river, up from 5,241 in 2018. This is the first increase in the Mattapoisett River herring population since 2014; however, this count still represents less than one percent of the 1921 count."
Mendell Jr., Charles S. and Seth F. Mendell. Mattapoisett Sesquicentennial Celebration. Mattapoisett Historical Society, 2007, p. 7.
Collectors of Mattapoisett Postcards and Mattapoisett Historical Society. Picture Postcard Memories of Mattapoisett Massachusetts, 2003, p. 34-35.
Alewives Anonymous, Inc. http://www.plumblibrary.com/services/alewives-anonymous/, Accessed February 27, 2021.
Geib, Claudia. River Herring Numbers Are Up in Some Bay Waterways but There’s More Work to Do. https://www.savebuzzardsbay.org/news/river-herring-2019/ Accessed February 27, 2021.
Mattapoisett (Mass). Mattapoisett and Old Rochester, 1907, Third Edition, p. 9-20