From the early days of Native Americans to the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Shawsheen River has captured people's imaginations. This winding body of water even figured into the witchcraft hysteria of the 1600s.
The name Shawsheen, often in old records spelled "Shawshin" or "Shawshine," is derived from native language, meaning "Beauty's Pathway" or "The Great Spring." A 1938 newspaper article told of an old Indian legend: the story of the love of an Indian maiden for her absent sweetheart. Taken from The History of Lawrence by Maurice B. Dorgan, we read the story of "Sheen," the Indian name for "beauty":
"Sheen's lover had gone far south to fish and hunt. Tired of waiting and fearful lest harm had come over him, Sheen resolved that she would travel through daylight and darkness until she found her sweetheart."
Sheen eventually found his wigwam, and as they rejoiced in their reunion, "there burst forth from the ground a fountain of pure water." This stream ran back along the path Sheen had traveled. Taking this as a good omen, the Indian brave and his bride set out by canoe, crying as he paddled, "Shaw Sheen" - "Beauty Pathway," thus giving the river its name.
During the witchcraft hysteria in Andover in 1692, the Shawsheen was supposedly the waters in which the devil baptized his converts. One account in Sarah Loring Bailey's book, Historical Sketches of Andover, told of the confessions that claimed "the devil had baptized them in the Shawshin River...on whose borders they held midnight meetings, stealing out of their houses and riding through the air on sticks."
One accused resident, Samuel Wardwell, confessed to a period of melancholia at which time he was, by spirits, "induced to make his signature in the book of the devil and baptized in the Shawshin River."
In the late 1800s, New England Magazine published a story about the "Witch of Shawshine." It begins with the owner of a grist mill located on the Shawsheen River. This young bachelor was kept constantly busy by pioneer settlers who brought their corn to be ground into meal. After a point, however, the miller began to take days off, traveling downstream. His disappearances were explained when it was announced he was to wed Miriam Gray whose father's home was on the banks of the Shawshine in Cochichawick.
Expectation turned into consternation when the miller brought his bride home one Sabbath Day. Miriam "appeared in a cloak of scarlet, her bonnet gay with plumes of a matched red against her dark eyes and hair." This was clearly in contrast to the subdued dress of the members of the congregation. Fearing she was a witch, the neighbors shunned her and the miller began to lose business. This prejudice continued until a scourge of distemper visited the village. With no thought of herself, Miriam went to the aid of her neighbors and tormentors and nursed many a child through the illness. The disease was finally arrested and the grateful people forgot all about the "Witch of Shawshine."
The Shawsheen's waters were even memorialized in Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem, "The School Boy," written and read at the centennial celebration of the Founding of Phillips Academy:
"Still in the waters of the dark Shawshine,
Do the young bathers splash and think they're clean?"
As modern Andoverites canoe down this same river, do they keep their eyes peeled for signs of witches?
"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told in anticipation of the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.