Testing Rights in Contested Space: The District of Marshpee versus Reverend Phineas Fish, 1833-1839

  • Nicole Breault University of Massachusetts, Boston
Keywords Marshpee Wampanoag, New England, American Indian, Land Rights
Keywords Marshpee Wampanoag, New England, American Indian, Land Rights


From May of 1833 to March of 1834, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Cape Cod Massachusetts waged an aggressive campaign to gain political and religious autonomy from the state. In March of 1834, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act disbanding the white guardians appointed to conduct affairs for the Mashpee tribe and incorporated Mashpee as an Indian district. Despite being awarded rights to self-government and controlling interest in their affairs, their unwanted minister, Reverend Phineas Fish, remained. This paper considers Mashpee’s use of the courts to discharge Fish from his position and regain the land he unlawfully assumed title over. Specifically, the analysis engages with three cases brought before the Barnstable Court of Common Pleas between 1833 and 1839: Commonwealth of Massachusetts versus William Apess, an unnamed 1835 case, and Phineas Fish versus William Mingo and Moses Pocknet. Treated as related components of a larger strategy, this paper demonstrates how Mashpee used the cases as a series of tests to determine a strategy to settle the matter of contested space, to bring Mashpee property and resources firmly back into the hands of the community, and to dismiss Fish’s claim on the contested parsonage land.