Wampanoag (pronounced wam-puh-NO-ag ). The name is probably a variation of Wapanacki, meaning “eastern people.” The Wampanoag have also been called Massasoit, Philip’s Indians, and Pokanoket (from the name of their principal village).
The Wampanoag occupied about forty villages in northern Rhode Island and southeastern coastal Massachusetts and its offshore islands (now known as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) at the time of European contact. As of 2007 most lived in southeastern Massachusetts.
There were an estimated 15,000 Wampanoag around 1600. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 2,145 people identified themselves as Wampanoag. In 2000 there were 2,488 Wampanoag, including the 430 members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, who prefer to call themselves Aquinnah Wampanoag.
Origins and group affiliations
Ancestors of the Wampanoag most likely occupied territory in northern Rhode Island and southeastern coastal Massachusetts for twelve thousand to fifteen thousand years. The Wampanoag traded with many New England tribes, particularly the Mohican, Mohegan, and Delaware. They were enemies of the Narragansett, Mohawks, and other Iroquois tribes and allies of the British colonists.
The Wampanoag were a peaceful agricultural people before Europeans arrived. Diseases from Europe nearly destroyed the tribe, while the newcomers demanded more and more of their land. The Wampanoag welcomed the British colonists called the Pilgrims (religious separatists who sailed to North America in search of a home where they could freely practice their religion) at the beginning of the seventeenth century and helped them through their first rough winters. However, the Pilgrims permanently disrupted Wampanoag life.
Peaceful life begins to unravel
For thousands of years before Europeans came to the Americas, the Wampanoag occupied villages along the Atlantic Coast in southern New England, living comfortably off the fruits of agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Because the region was heavily populated even before the British arrived, the Wampanoag decided among themselves who could hunt where. Their arrangement was different from Native American tribes in other areas of the country, where the land was less populated and hunters could move over very wide areas.
In the 1500s and 1600s Europeans established a presence along the Atlantic Coast. Before the Wampanoag had much contact with Europeans, they experienced the effects of that presence. The French to the north, wanting more and more furs from their Native American trading partners, encouraged them to expand their territory into Wampanoag lands. War with the Narragansett (see entry) and other tribes resulted. At the same time fishing and trading vessels sailed up and down the New England coast, bringing new diseases to Native peoples who had no resistance to them. Some Wampanoag were taken captive by Europeans and sold as slaves in Europe.
1621: Massasoit allies with Pilgrims.
1676: King Philip’s War results in the destruction of life, loss of land, and the end of a way of life for New England tribes.
1928: The Wampanoag Nation is reunified after living on separate reservations for more than two hundred years.
1986: The Gay Head Wampanoag (Aquinnah) get federal recognition.
2007: The Mashpee Wampanoag receive federal recognition.
The Pilgrims arrive
When the first Pilgrims arrived in 1620 at a place they called Plymouth (in present-day Massachusetts), the Wampanoag there had endured nearly a century of terrible experiences with Europeans. In the previous ten years, three disease epidemics, probably brought by Europeans, had killed as many as three-quarters of the entire Wampanoag population. Those who remained were forced to pay tribute to the Narragansett Indians, now the most powerful people in the region.
Still, the Wampanoag welcomed the British and gave them invaluable assistance, teaching them to hunt and fish and how to grow native crops by “hilling,” a system of planting corn kernels in rows of small hills. Without this help the Pilgrims would probably not have survived the punishing New England winter.
In 1621 Chief Massasoit (1600–1661) signed a treaty of friendship with the colonists. He hoped by doing so to secure their help against the Narragansett and Micmac (see entry), who now had European weapons and were becoming troublesome. At some point Massasoit granted the colonists permission to occupy Plymouth Colony; the colonists believed they now owned the land. After the first harvest that autumn the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims celebrated by having a thanksgiving feast together. People sometimes refer to this meal as the first Thanksgiving, but it was not an annual tradition, and the holiday as it is presently celebrated did not begin until many years later.
Fifty years of good relations followed in which the British assisted the Wampanoag in skirmishes against other tribes. The friendship was so strong that just before his death Massasoit, who was called “King” by the British, was granted permission by the General Court of Plymouth to give British names to his sons. But the friendship that Massasoit carefully nurtured was already turning on him toward the end of his life, as new colonists arrived who saw Native Americans as little more than obstacles to taking the land as their own.
Under Puritan influence
New settlers, called the Puritans, arrived in large numbers. (Puritans were Protestant reformers who followed strict religious standards.) The Puritans preached Christianity to the Wampanoag and tried to force observance of their laws. They arrested Natives for hunting on the Sabbath (the day of worship) or for observing ancient traditions they considered “savage.” Natives who agreed to convert to Christianity were called “praying Indians.” To keep them separate from their unconverted neighbors, the Puritans resettled them in new communities, called “praying towns.” By 1675 there were about 2,500 “praying Indians” in New England.
Puritan efforts to convert the Natives did not cause nearly as much resentment as their expansion westward. They defeated Native American tribes and took over their lands. By the time Massasoit ’s son, Wamsutta (or Alexander), succeeded him as grand sachem (pronounced SAY-shem; chief) in 1661 Native resentment had reached a high pitch. The Puritans, who considered Wamsutta too arrogant, invited him to Plymouth for a conference. While there he became ill and died suddenly; some historians believe he was probably poisoned. His brother, Metacomet (King Philip; c. 1639–1676) succeeded him. By this time it was obvious that the settlers had plans for unlimited expansion into Native territory. They had come close to destroying the Pequot (see entry) and had established 14 reservations for Native Americans in the northeast that restricted their rights and forced them off their lands.
King Philip’s War
Metacomet was a military genius. Before launching King Philip’s War (1675–1676; a general Native American uprising to resist continued expansion of the British colonies in New England), he declared: “Soon after I became sachem they disarmed all my people.… Their land was taken.… I am determined not to live until I have no country. ” Of all the revolts carried out against the colonists by Algonquian-speaking peoples, this war came the closest to succeeding. Metacomet gathered an army made up of warriors from the Abenaki (see entry), Nipmuck, Narragansett, and Wampanoag tribes. The army attacked more than half of the British settlements in New England, and for a time held their own in the war against the Puritans. But the tribes were so weakened by epidemics that even their allied forces did not have the strength to win. By the time this tragic war was over, the colonists had nearly exterminated the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett tribes. Betrayed by his own people, including Wampanoag “praying Indians,” and cut off from food, King Philip was forced to fall back into Rhode Island’s cedar swamps. His defeat and death in July 1676 ended Native military action in southern New England.
After the war colonial armies hunted and killed Native Americans, whether they were enemies, neutral, or friendly, and then divided their lands. Metacomet was beheaded and his head was displayed on a post in Plymouth for 25 years, as a warning to all who thought to resist colonial expansion. Widows and orphans were sold as slaves in the West Indies; “praying Indians” and enemy warriors alike were imprisoned, and many refugees fled. Only four hundred Wampanoag survived the war. Gradually over the next two hundred years, the population climbed above two thousand. Today the Wampanoag people are concentrated on the Aquinnah Reservation in Martha’s Vineyard and on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Helen Attaquin, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, described the Native American world view in her essay (from the book Rooted Like the Ash Trees ), titled “There Are Differences.” She said: “Indians do not believe in a ‘universe’ but in a ‘multi-verse.’ Indians don’t believe that there is ONE fixed and eternal truth; they think there are many different and equally valid truths.” This appreciation that there exists “more than one way to view this earth of ours, and more than one way to share it” may have restrained the Wampanoag from simply ridding their shores of the Europeans with “their bristling armament [weapons] and the frightening aroma of death-causing diseases.”
Wampanoag traditions center around the Great Spirit called Kiehtan, who made all things. Manitou, guardian spirits in the form of birds, fish, and animals, watch over the people. They believe the Great Spirit sent a spirit called Crow about one thousand years ago with gifts of corn and bean seeds in his ears. With these gifts the people ceased being wanderers, settled down, and planted gardens.
Early European explorers along the Atlantic Coast saw and wrote about religious ceremonies conducted by shamans (medicine men; pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz ) at powwows. Powwow means “brings together.” Explorers used the word to refer to the shaman and the ceremonies he or she conducted. Shamans performed magical feats the explorers called “juggling,” made possible, the Natives said, by spiritual helpers or “devils.”
The Pilgrims and Puritans brought Christianity to the Wampanoag. In the massacre of Native Americans that took place after King Philip’s War, Christian Wampanoag were mostly allowed to survive. Afterwards more surviving Wampanoag turned to Christianity. Even as Wampanoag communities died out or consolidated over the years, efforts to practice ancient ceremonies continued, and still do to this day. For example, the Aquinnah Wampanoag give thanks to the Great Spirit for the berries they harvest during their annual celebration of Cranberry Day.
The Wampanoag were speakers of an Eastern Algonquian dialect (variety) known as Massachusett. Most Eastern Algonquian speakers could understand other dialects, although some islanders had difficulty communicating with mainlanders.
Although the Wampanoag language, along with other Massachusetts languages, had been considered extinct for more than one hundred years, two women began the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project in 1993. Jessie Littledoe Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and Helen Manning, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, wanted to revive the language. Since then, scholars have studied old books to piece together the words and grammar. One of these was a Bible translated into Wampanoag by a British minister, John Eliot (1604–1690), in 1631. In addition several other old books and documents containing records of the language have been referenced to revive the Wampanoag language.
Massachusett Place Names
The Massachusett language survives mainly as Massachusetts place names and personal titles, often a mispronunciation of the original Native version. Gay Head was called Aquinnah (“land under the hill”); Hyannis was Anayanough (“warrior’s place”); Sakonet means “black-goose place” or “rocky outlet”; Pautuxet is“at the little falls”; Cowasit refers to “pine place”; and Mashpee is “great pond or cove.”
The first syllables of both “Massachusetts” (“big hill”) and “Mississippi” (“big river”) derive from the Algonquian superlative “massa-.” Massasoit (translated loosely as “big chief” or “great commander”) was the title given to Grand Sachem Ousemequin (Yellow Feather).
Prior to European contact
At the time of contact with Europeans the Wampanoag lived in about forty villages with a Grand Sachem (Great Chief) at their head. Under him were lesser chiefs called sachems and sagamores. These chiefs had little actual authority, but were highly respected. The position was handed down from father to son; if there were no male heirs, a woman could become a queen sachem. Sachems advised on the best areas for planting, hunting, and fishing. They devised punishments for those who broke rules. The sachem and a council of warriors (distinguished by extreme physical strength and special powers given to them by the spirits) decided when to make war.
After King Philip’s War
By the early 1700s many Wampanoag had been placed on reservations called “plantations.” In the mid-2000s the two largest were Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard and Mashpee on Cape Cod.
In 1928 two Wampanoag men, Eben Queppish and Nelson Simons, brought together the Mashpee, Gay Head (Aquinnah), and Herring Pond communities as the Wampanoag Nation. The Wampanoag reorganized in 1975, adding the Assonet and Nemasket people.
Aquinnah Wampanoag gained federal recognition in 1987, which gives them certain legal rights and privileges in their relations with the U.S. government. For example, recognition brought them $3 million to build housing for the elderly and a hospital. Aquinnah Wampanoag own 485 acres of land and are governed by an elected tribal council; the council also has a traditional chief and a medicine man as members. All council meetings are open to the public, and the tribe can override council decisions by a majority vote.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe owns 55 acres and is governed by an elected tribal council. They maintain traditional governing roles by electing a sachem, a medicine man, clan matriarchs, and an elder council. In 2007 the tribe received federal recognition, which entitled them to act a sovereign (self-governing) nation. It also brought other benefits, such as federal funding.
In early times
After the Wampanoag became an agricultural people they lived on corn, beans, and pumpkins, supplementing their diet by hunting and fishing. People helped one another prepare fields for planting in the spring. Women then took care of planting everything except for tobacco, a male specialty.
In winter the people moved inland to hunting camps, where individual extended families “owned” specific hunting territories and passed them down from father to son. (Extended families include parents, children, grandparents, and other relatives.)
The Wampanoag also traded with neighboring tribes. The favorite trade items were soapstone pipes and bowls and wampum beads. (Wampum beads are cut from shells. Long strings of the beads were used as money and for other purposes.) Trade items obtained from the Narragansett were traded with the Abenaki, along with corn seeds, in exchange for birch bark to make canoes.
After King Philip’s War nearly destroyed the tribe the remaining Wampanoag worked as whalers, day laborers, domestic servants, farmers, soldiers, and basket makers. The Mashpee Manufacturing Company, which incorporated in 1867, made and marketed brooms, baskets, and other wood wares.
As of 2007,the Aquinnah Wampanoag did not live on a reservation. Their lands included the Cliffs of Gay Head, a popular tourist destination on Martha’s Vineyard; cranberry bogs; and a herring run. The tribal government employed some members of the tribe; others were involved with tourism. The tribe also began an environmental laboratory and fish hatchery to increase the amount of shellfish in the waters along the coast. It benefited the surrounding communities as well as the tribe.
The Mashpee Wampanoag own 55 acres, which are neither populated nor developed. The people live in the town of Mashpee in the popular resort destination of Cape Cod. The town’s economy depends on tourism and summer visits by people who own property there. Some tribe members support themselves in construction, agriculture, and fish farming. In 2000 the Mashpee Wampanoag opened an equestrian center where they board, show, and train horses. They also run a museum that is listed in the National Register.
In the summertime Wampanoag families enjoyed a communal existence, with neighbor helping neighbor, and a fair amount of leisure time. Men often engaged other tribes in games of chance and endurance. During the long, cold months of winter, the people withdrew into smaller groupings of extended families. Men gathered around the fire and fashioned arrowheads out of stone. Women wove baskets and mats. Elders told stories and children listened.
Before European contact the Wampanoag built dome-shaped wigwams, or wetus, from long sapling poles, which were stuck in the ground, then bent and tied together. Walls were made of bulrushes woven into mats; they laid similar mats out on the floor or placed them atop special raised racks for sleeping. A smoke hole at the top of the dwelling did not always keep the structure from becoming too smoky for comfort. If this happened the Wampanoag might sleep out under the stars.
Other buildings in a village were smokehouses, sweat lodges for purification, and dance houses for celebrating. When it was time for the seasonal move they left a building’s pole frame behind to be used again the following year.
After European colonization fortified dwellings on hilltops provided safety. The Wampanoag eventually incorporated European hardware and furniture, and some moved to shingled homes similar to those of their European neighbors.
Food in New England was plentiful and varied. The Wampanoag grew corn, squash, cucumbers, and beans. They gathered wild rice, nuts, and berries. Fish taken with hooks, lines, and spears included crabs, lobsters, eels, and whale. They used herring as fertilizer. They hunted fowl, beaver, and deer. They dried fish and meat on racks or smoked it, placed it in cedar baskets, then stored it in underground pits.
Wampanoag Cape Cod Cranberry Pie
The cranberry is a creeping, evergreen shrub that grows in eastern North America. It has pink flowers and tart, red, edible berries. Native Americans have long appreciated the cranberry both for eating and for its healing powers. Cranberries are very high in vitamin C and cranberry juice is often recommended to prevent urinary tract infections.
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah, on Martha’s Vineyard (an island off southeast Massachusetts) celebrate a Cranberry Day Festival each October. Families gather to pick cranberries and picnic. This recipe for Wampanoag Cape Cod Cranberry Pie results in a dish that is a favorite at that celebration.
- 3 cups fresh cranberries
- 2 Tablespoons flour or fine cornmeal
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
- 1/2 cup boiling water
- 1 cup dark currants or raisins
- 3 Tablespoons freshly grated orange zest [Note: The grated orange peel is called the zest; it should not include any of the white part underneath.]
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- pastry for a two-crust pie [homemade or store-bought]
Combine the first 8 ingredients in a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring thoroughly while you bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat to simmer, cover, and cook until the cranberries start to pop, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Set mixture aside to cool slightly.
Preheat oven to 425° F. Use your favorite pastry recipe to make pie crust [or buy a prepared crust]. Place bottom crust into a 9-inch pie plate. Pour cranberry filling into the pie plate. Slice remaining dough into long, thin strips, and arrange a latticework of pastry strips on top of filling in a basket-weave [pattern]. Crimp and flute [pinch] the pastry edges [so they don’t hang over the edge of the plate].
Bake pie for 40 to 55 minutes until crust is just golden and juice is bubbling. Cool slightly on a wire race. Serve hot or chilled, with your favorite topping.
Makes one 9-inch pie.
Kavasch, E. Barrie. Enduring Harvests: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season. Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 1995, p. 50.
Clothing and adornment
Men generally wore breechcloths, garments with front and back flaps that hung from the waist and were often decorated with quillwork or embroidery. Animal-skin leggings and deerskin robes were worn. Women generally wore wraparound skirts with a belt. After European contact they often wore dresses made from two skins sewn at the sides with straps at the shoulders.
Wampanoag religion and medicine went hand in hand. They believed angry spirits caused illness. Herbal treatments and sweat lodges (for ridding the body of poisons) were the remedies of choice. Various groups used different herbal treatments. For example, the Aquinnah Wampanoag believed that snake oil would heal stiff joints, while other groups used ground wintergreen leaves mixed with animal grease for this purpose. Remedies were administered by shamans, those who had received visions in childhood telling them to become medicine people.
During King Philip’s War the Wampanoag and their allies used fire against Europeans because by then they knew them to be plague-bearers. They had observed during the plague of 1617 that the Pequot and Narragansett came through with little damage. Native Americans believed the sickness stopped at Narragansett country because of a burning ceremony that destroyed all plague victims’ belongings, a ceremony the Wampanoag did not then share.
Wampanoag children learned mainly by observing. Girls watched women plant, prepare, and preserve food; prepare skins to make clothing; and weave baskets and mats. Boys learned endurance by running, and by surviving cold, pain, and hunger.
Certain boys were chosen by the warrior council to undergo tests to determine their fitness as warriors. If they passed the first round of tests, they fasted and drank a special cleansing liquid that made them vomit. Warrior trainees learned to use war clubs and bows and arrows in close encounters with the enemy. They were taught the advantage of surprise and the techniques of silent ambush. If they passed this second more rigorous round of tests and were age sixteen or older, they became members of the warrior council, known and admired for their courage, strength, and wisdom.
During the assimilation movement the U.S. government forced Native Americans to adopt white ways. Over the years the Wampanoag attempted to become like the neighboring whites and, as a result, gave up their language for British and changed their ways of life. In the early twenty-first century Wampanoag children attended local public schools, but the tribe intended to revive the language and pass down its traditional ways. To assist them in preserving their heritage, the Mashpee tribe opened a museum to educate the public as well as future generations of Wampanoag about the tribe’s history and culture.
Through the years the Wampanoag have retained contact with their heritage by learning and practicing traditional crafts such as basketry, wood and stone carving, and making unusual pottery. The multicolored clays of Gay Head were shaped into pots, bowls, and jugs. Sometimes patterns were drawn into the clay with pieces of shell. The pottery was sunbaked because kiln firing dulled the colors.
King Philip’s Prophecy
The following is part of a speech given by King Philip to his counselors and warriors. A prophecy is an oral or written prediction of things to come.
Brothers, you see this vast country before us, which the Great Spirit gave to our fathers and us; you see the buffalo and deer that now are our support. Brothers, you see these little ones, our wives and children, who are looking to us for food and raiment [clothing]; and you now see the foe before you, that they have grown insolent and bold; that all our ancient customs are disregarded; the treaties made by our fathers and us are broken, and all of us insulted; our council fires disregarded, and all the ancient customs of our fathers; our brothers murdered before our eyes, and their spirits cry to us for revenge. Brothers, these people from the unknown world will cut down our groves, spoil our hunting and planting grounds, and drive us and our children from the graves of our fathers, and our council fires, and enslave our women and children.
Apess, William. “Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston.” In On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Edited by Barry O’Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Birth and naming
Children were prized by the Wampanoag. At birth babies were given a “true” name and a nickname. True names were sacred and were known only to the immediate family and to village leaders.
A boy who had not been chosen for warrior training (see “Education”) underwent a ritual in which he was blindfolded, led into the forest, and left there alone. He had to survive for an entire winter using only his wits, a bow and arrow, a knife, and a hatchet. Sometimes he had dreams; these were later explained by a medicine man or woman, who might decide from hearing about his dreams that the boy had the potential to become a medicine man himself.
Men moved in with their wives’ families after marriage. Wampanoag men sometimes chose wives from other tribes in order to make political alliances. Sometimes powerful chiefs married two or more wives.
War and hunting rituals
The Wampanoag went to war when wrongs were committed against them. If another tribe trespassed on their hunting or fishing territory or on an especially productive berry patch, they felt obligated to attack.
To prepare for battle warriors painted their bodies black, red, green, or white. The colors came from charcoal or from berries and plants, so the choice of colors depended on what was in season. They held a war dance; sound effects included beating the ground with sticks and emitting piercing war cries. The tribe requested the help of the spirits to make the warriors quick and cunning. Warriors drank a tea made from juniper berries to help the blood clot in case they were wounded.
Once engaged in battle it was every man for himself. Warriors fought independently, seeking personal honor and glory. Those who distinguished themselves earned eagle feathers to wear in their hair. Sometimes the widow of a slain warrior took up his weapons and fought in his place.
The help of the spirits was also sought for a good hunt. Hunters set off on an empty stomach because it gave them an incentive to find their prey more quickly. The Wampanoag killed only what they needed and all parts of the catch were used. The bones of a slain beaver were returned to the stream from which it came so the beaver could be reincarnated (come back to life) and be hunted again.
Wampanoag wrapped the dead in furs or grass mats and put their moccasins in their hands; food and other necessities were buried with the body for the journey through the after-world. Mourners blackened their faces and held an evening burial ceremony. Afterwards, the name of the deceased was never spoken again.
The tribe held a special week-long celebration at harvest time to thank the spirits for the gift of food. Everyone gathered at the dance house for singing, dancing, feasting, and playing of games. They placed a pot of corn on the fire, and its rising smoke joined the spirit powers where they dwelled.
As of 2007 the Aquinnah Wampanoag of Martha’s Vineyard still celebrated Cranberry Day, now held the second Tuesday in October. In earlier days the medicine man or woman decided when the cranberries were ripe and informed the people. The harvest could take days or even weeks, depending on the size of the crop. The Aquinnah Wampanoag also hold a Spring Dance in April; the tribe’s Noepe Cliff Singers and Dancers perform.
Current tribal issues
One of the Wampanoag’s greatest difficulties results from living in a summer resort area. During warm weather wealthy and famous tourists flock to the area, causing housing costs to soar. Many people struggle to pay for living quarters and often cannot afford the steep summer rental prices.
Because they are a federally recognized tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag qualify for government assistance to build subsidized housing for their people. This housing is affordable because payments are not fixed; they vary based on the owner’s or renter’s salary. People with low incomes pay less than those with more money. For more than a decade, the Aquinnah Wampanoag have also been trying to get government permission to build a casino that would bring in additional income to combat poverty.
After waiting almost 25 years the Mashpee Wampanoag finally received federal recognition in 2007. This long process began in 1974 when they first filed their petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Since they now have federal recognition, they will be entitled to financial and other government help. They are also eligible for assistance that will allow them to build affordable housing. It also means that the U.S. government considers the Mashpee Wampanoag a sovereign nation.
Helen Attaquin (1923–1993), an Aquinnah Wampanoag, wrote that Native Americans care most about preserving their culture, land base, and their right as separate nations to make their own decisions. In recent years the anniversaries of events such as the Pilgrim’s landing and the first feast of thanksgiving have become opportunities for the Wampanoag and others to express their displeasure at the way their culture has been trampled. For example, five hundred Native Americans once responded to a protest call to “bury Plymouth Rock.” They demanded a National Day of Mourning, and Native American activist Frank Wamsutta James (1923–2001) gave a speech. In it he asked: “How can they expect us to sit and smile and eat turkey as they continue to dig up our graves and display our bones?”
Massasoit (1600–1661) was a Wampanoag chief who encouraged friendship with British settlers in the early 1600s. Because of this, Massasoit was forced to wage frequent attacks against hostile Native American groups not inclined to welcome the settlers. But even Massasoit eventually came to resent the Europeans growing encroachment (taking over of land). His son, Metacomet (King Philip; c. 1639–1676), turned resentment into war in 1675–76.
Weetamo (c. 1635–1676) led a group of warriors in battle in King Philip’s War after the death of her first husband, Wamsutta. She was killed in a surprise attack on her village, and her naked body was found floating in a river. The Pilgrims beheaded her and posted her head on a pole alongside Metacomet’s as a grisly warning to their enemies. Weetamo (also spelled Weetamoo or Weetamoe) has become a romantic heroine in Native American lore.
Squanto (c. 1600–1623) was one of twenty Wampanoag from the village of Pautuxet who was kidnapped by British explorer Thomas Hunt in 1614 and sold as a slave in Spain. Rescued and set free, he made his way home, only to find that nearly his entire village had been wiped out in an epidemic. Squanto is remembered as the British-speaking guide and agricultural advisor to the Pilgrims at Plymouth colony.
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George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute
WAMPANOAG. In the seventeenth century the Gay Head (or Aquinnah) Indians of Martha's Vineyard were members of a confederacy of Wampanoag communities in southeastern Massachusetts. After epidemic diseases struck Martha's Vineyard in the 1640s, dropping its Indian population from 3,000 to 1,500, the terrorized survivors embraced Christianity and allied with the English. These shifts led Vineyard Natives to fight alongside colonists
when they successfully battled mainland Wampanoags in King Philip's War of 1675–1676.
In 1685 the Gay Head Indians deposed their sachem (chief) for selling land. However, a mixed blessing occurred when a missionary organization, the New England Company, acquired the title to Gay Head. The company supervised Gay Head until the Revolution, and although Indians resented its oversight, it kept the colonists from seizing Wampanoag territory. Secure land and Indian church leadership stabilized Gay Head throughout the eighteenth century as its people struggled with indebtedness, indentured servitude, male whaling deaths, exogamous marriages, and the loss of the Wampanoag language.
In 1871 Massachusetts made Gay Head a town and divided its common lands. Nevertheless it remained a Wampanoag place because the Natives discouraged treating land as capital, passed on the people's stories, and rallied around their church. In 1983 the Wampanoags of Gay Head-Aquinnah successfully petitioned the United States to become a federal tribe and established a reservation.
McBride, Kevin, and Suzanne G. Cherau. "Gay Head (Aquinnah) Wampanoag Community Structure and Land Use Patterns." Northeast Anthropology 51 (1996): 13–39.
Mandell, Daniel R. Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
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