Pokanoket, near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island
Wampanoag tribal leader
" . . . not only the greatest King amongst them called Massasoit, but also all the Princes and people round about us, have either made suit unto us, or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us. . . . "
Massasoit was a Native American leader who worked to maintain friendly relations with English settlers in the early seventeenth century. He is also believed to have taken part in what has become known as the first Thanksgiving. While it is true that Massasoit strove for good relations with the Europeans, his story is more complicated than schoolbooks have led generations of Americans to believe. Massasoit maintained his treaty with the settlers even after a majority of Native Americans began to resist the colonists' expansion. As a result, he was criticized by other Native Americans for giving up too much in return for personal power and prestige.
From his home village of Pokanoket, near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island, Massasoit ruled the Wampanoags and a number of related tribes in southeastern New England. Little is known about Massasoit except that he was physically strong and, when conversing with the settlers, was "grave of countenance and spare of speech"—in other words, he was serious-looking and chose his words carefully. Dressed in traditional Native American attire, with his face painted red and wearing a thick necklace of white beads (the sign of authority), Massasoit was a formidable (cause of fear or dread) presence. Although he initially frightened English settlers, he gave much-needed assistance and goodwill.
Pilgrims have hard winter
In 1620 about one hundred Pilgrims (early English settlers who wished to freely practice their own form of Christianity) arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts. When their ship, the Mayflower, sailed back to England in the winter of 1620, it left behind a group of men, women, and children unprepared to deal with life in the wild land. As they shivered in their brush huts against the New England cold, they were surrounded by a "howling wilderness," an endless forest they imagined to be full of blood-thirsty savages, wolves, and maybe even devils. The new settlers did not know how to hunt, fish, plant, or build adequate shelters. They had few supplies to carry them through to spring. Under such terrible conditions, they struggled to stay alive. One by one the settlers died of malnutrition, disease, and gnawing hunger. Only half of them survived the first winter of 1620–21, and those who remained were weakened and confused, with little hope for the future. It seemed they would soon all be gone, dying thousands of miles from home on this wild, foreign shore, their bones dragged into the forest by fierce animals.
In 1614 an English sea captain kidnapped a number of Patuxent tribesmen who lived in the area where the Plymouth (Massachusetts) colonists landed. He sold them as slaves in Spain. Through a strange turn of events, one of the Patuxent men, Squanto was brought out of slavery by monks who wanted to convert him to Christianity. He later made his way to England and from there returned to his homeland. When he arrived, however, he was horrified to find his village abandoned. Tribeless, he joined Massasoit's people, the Wampanoags. When the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto followed Samoset, another Native American leader, out of the forest to greet them—in English—and helped them survive the harsh conditions in Plymouth. Squanto's friendship helped the colonists established a friendship with the far more powerful Massasoit.
Massasoit comes to their rescue
Massasoit first appeared in the Plymouth Colony in March 1621. He followed Samoset, another Native American
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leader, and Squanto (see entry), English-speaking Native Americans who paved the way for friendly relations with the English. When Massasoit and his sixty warriors stepped out of the wilderness and stood on a hilltop looking down on the settlement, the few surviving able-bodied colonists scrambled for their guns. But the settlers slowly realized they were not confronting enemies who wanted to kill them. Instead, the Native Americans turned out to be friendly people who gave them food in exchange for baubles (trinkets) and, moreover, helped protect them against marauding (roaming and raiding) Native American tribes. Massasoit seemed to be a blessing from Heaven. Squanto led the Native Americans in teaching the Pilgrims how to plant crops. After a bountiful harvest in the fall, the colonists had a feast of celebration to which they invited Massasoit and ninety of his men. Squanto was reportedly among them. This feast has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving, and Squanto in particular is associated with the event when it is commemorated each year in the United States.
"The first Thanksgiving"
When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they were not prepared to face a harsh winter in a strange environment. By spring 1621 many had died. Native American chief Massasoit and other Wampanoags came to the colonists' rescue, and an English-speaking Native American called Squanto taught them how to plant crops. After a bountiful harvest in the fall, the Pilgrims held a feast of celebration, to which they invited Massasoit and ninety of his men. In a letter dated 1621 and excerpted below, Plymouth governor William Bradford (see entry) described this event, which is now known as the first Thanksgiving.
A Letter Sent from New-England to a friend in these parts . . . .
. . . . We set the last Spring some twentie Acres of Indian-Corne, and sowed some six Acres of Barley and Peas, and according to the manner of the Indian, we manured our ground with Herrings or rather Shads [a type of fish], which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. . . . Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor [Bradford is referring to himself] sent four men on fowling [hunting for birds], that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms [fired their weapons], many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation [settlement] and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our planty [plenty]. We have found the Indians very faithful in their Covenant of Peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by Land in the Country with them; the occasions and Relations whereof you shall understand by our general and more full Declaration of such things as are worth the noting. Yea it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us, that not only the greatest King amongst them called Massasoit, but also all the Princes and people round about us, have either made suit unto us [appealed to us], or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us. . . .
Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, pp. 119–20.
Massasoit and the Pilgrims also signed a peace treaty, which promised that the Native Americans and the English would live in harmony and that they would defend each other from outside attacks. Massasoit honored the treaty for the next forty years. During this time, the two groups exchanged numerous friendly visits. When Massasoit became ill, for instance, Plymouth colonists went to Pokanoket to treat their ally (one who is associated with another as a helper). On several occasions, Massasoit or his fellow Wampanoags probably saved the colonists from slaughter by warning them of possible attacks by warring tribes.
Massasoit in a difficult situation
Massasoit would later be criticized by other Native Americans for being too friendly with English settlers. At the time, however, he was in a difficult situation. Disease had recently ravaged his people. For this reason the number of Wampanoag warriors had greatly decreased, and their enemies wanted to take advantage of this fact. To the west, across Rhode Island at Narragansett Bay, roved the powerful Narragansett tribe, eager to slaughter Massasoit and the Wampanoags. To the east, the English, whatever their troubles, were rumored to have valuable trade goods and strange, new, "fire-breathing weapons" (guns). Caught between his traditional enemies to the west and the English on the coast to the east, Massasoit may have had little choice other than to ally himself with the newcomers. After all, they might be able to help the Wampanoags defend themselves.
All relations between Europeans and Native Americans had not been so congenial (pleasant), however. European contact with Native American tribes in the New England area had been happening for decades before the colonists established the Plymouth Colony, and there were many conflicts. Kidnappings and other incidents took place when European sea captains and fishermen threatened Native American territory. The Europeans also carried diseases, among them smallpox (a disease causing skin sores), typhus (a disease transmitted by body lice that causes high fever and other symptoms), and measles (a disease that causes a red skin rash). Lacking immunity from these diseases, whole Native American villages were devas tated. Understandably, most of the Native Americans—even those who had not yet seen white men—thought of Europeans as bearers of deadly illnesses. Considering this, Massasoit's friendship was the exception to the general rule.
Copes with European invasion
Despite earnest efforts at goodwill, such as Massasoit's, the situation between the Wampanoags and their enemies was bound to get worse. New colonists starting other settlements cared nothing about honoring old agreements, such as the peace treaty between Massasoit and the Plymouth colonists. Having lived with little or no land of their own in Europe, these new colonists had not pulled up stakes and risked the dangerous, months-long voyage to be restrained upon their arrival. What they wanted was land of their own, and the land in the New World seemed theirs for the taking. All that stood in their way were the Native peoples, who fought back against the increasing invasion of the European settlers. Despite resistance from Native Americans, however, Europeans continued to expand into their territory.
In spite of these developments, Massasoit kept pressing for good relations with the Europeans. In his negotiations, he often valued the rights of the settlers over those of his own people. As a result, he weakened the Wampanoags in return for trade goods, personal fame, and security against his enemy, the Narragansetts. Critics claimed that while these things may have seemed necessary to Massasoit, they were hardly worth the price he paid for them.
Comes to resent colonists
Massasoit took an unpopular position by linking his fortunes to the English. As pressures against the Native Americans mounted, many of them decided to unite and either drive out the invaders or die in the attempt. Toward the end of his life, Massasoit, too, began to deeply resent the encroachment of the English settlers. Fourteen years after Massasoit's death, his son Metacom (also known as King Philip; see entry), initiated Metacom's War (also called King Philip's War; 1675–76) to win back the land his father had given away. Eventually involving several tribes and all the New England colonies, Metacom's War was the bloodiest conflict between Native Americans and colonists in the history of New England.
For further research
Biographical Dictionary of Indians of the Americas, Volume I. Newport Beach, Calif.: American Indian Publishers, 1991.
Bourne, Russell. The Red King's Rebellion: Racial Politics in New England, 1675–1678. New York: Atheneum, 1990.
Calloway, Colin G., ed. After King Philip's War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College, 1978.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, pp. 119–20.
Massasoit (died 1661) was a principal leader of the Wampanoag people in the early 1600s who encouraged friendship with English settlers. As leader of the Wampanoag, Massasoit exercised control over a number of Indian groups that occupied lands from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod in present-day Massachusetts.
In concluding his article on Massasoit for the Dictionary of American Biography, James Truslow Adams sums up the standard view of this influential New England chief: "Always inclined to peace, even among his own race, Massassoit remained a faithful friend to the English throughout his entire life." Though there is a large measure of truth to this opinion, along with generations of schoolbooks presenting a eupeptic and rather bland portrait of Massasoit, it also misses many of the likely conflicts both within this powerful Indian leader and swirling about him.
Massasoit and the Pilgrims
As to the bare facts of the matter, from his home village in Pokanoket, near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island, Massasoit held sway over a number of related tribes in southeastern New England. Some months after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620, the Indian leader appeared in the new colony and offered friendship. After some negotiations, the chief signed a peace treaty with the English, one vowing nonaggression and mutual defense in case either were attacked. It was a treaty and a friendship that Massasoit would keep for the next 40 years of his life.
Over the decades, the two groups exchanged amiable visits. When Massasoit took ill, Plymouth sent emissaries on the two-day trek through the forest to Pokanoket to help cure their ally. On several occasions, Massasoit or his fellow Wampanoags probably saved the colonists from slaughter by warning them of mischief brewing in warring tribes. When Roger Williams, a renegade religious thinker forced out of the rigid theocracy of the English towns, appeared cold and starving at Massasoit's door, the chief took the desperate man in and made him welcome.
Little is known personally of Massasoit except that he was physically vigorous and when treating with the whites "grave of countenance and spare of speech." Still, as might be expected, when in March of 1621 the great chief first appeared at the head of 60 warriors, face painted red and wearing a thick necklace of white beads, the sign of his authority, on a hill overlooking the hovels of tiny Plymouth, striking fear into the little band of Europeans huddled below, much more was going on than the beginning of friendship between a good-souled Anglophile holding out the olive branch and the English settlers eager to return the gesture to their new Indian brothers.
For his part, despite his authority, Massasoit was in a threatened state. Disease had recently swept through the tribe, ravaging his people. And he had enemies eager to take advantage of the sharp reduction in the number of his warriors. To the west, across Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay roved the powerful Narragansett tribe, eager to slaughter both Massasoit and the Wampanoags. To the east, the English, whatever their troubles, were rumored to have valuable trade goods and strange, new, fire-breathing weapons. Caught in the middle, then, between his traditional enemies to the west and the English on the coast to the east, Massasoit may well have thought he had little choice than to throw in his lot with the potentially helpful newcomers.
As to the situation of the English, when the Mayflower sailed back to England in the winter of 1620, it left behind a group of men, women, and children almost totally unprepared to deal with the realities of their new situation in a wild land. Around them as they shivered in their brush huts against the New England cold was the "howling wilderness," an endless, impenetrable forest full of, so they had heard, bloodthirsty savages, wolves, and, some thought, devils. The new settlers knew neither how to hunt, fish, plant, or build adequate shelters. They had few supplies to carry them through to spring. In their grinding circumstances, staying alive itself became the foremost issue. One by one they started dying of malnutrition, disease, and gnawing hunger. Only half of them survived that first winter, and those who remained, weakened, confused, had little hope for the future. It seemed they would soon all be gone, dying thousands of miles from home on this wild, foreign shore, their bones dragged into the forest by the fierce beasts who would consume their dead flesh.
Thus, when Massasoit and his 60 warriors stepped out of the wilderness and stood on the hilltop fearsomely looking down on Plymouth, and the few able-bodied colonists left scrambled for their guns, then slowly realized they were confronting not enemies capable of killing off the remainder of the weakened settlers but friendly human beings who would give them food in exchange for baubles and, on top of that, help protect them against marauding tribes, Massasoit seemed a Godsend, a blessing sent by Providence.
Massasoit and Squanto
What we have, then, in this meeting is not so much two human groups coming together in mutual benignity but in pledged cooperation, each for its own, self-serving advantages. Actually, the situation was far more convoluted than the immediate interactions of these two, small groups, and to catch the complexities requires some comment on the historical background behind the meeting of Massasoit and the colonists. Insights into this can be seen in the related story of Squanto, famous to schoolchildren for helping the Plymouth settlers even before the friendship with Massasoit began.
Years before, in 1614, an English sea captain had kidnapped a number of Indians in the area where the Plymouth colonists would later land and sold them as slaves in Spain. Through a fantastic turn of events, monks ransomed Squanto, who made his way to England and from there gained passage to his homeland. To his dismay, however, upon his arrival Squanto found his home village abandoned, ravaged by disease. Tribeless, he became a subject of Massasoit. When a year later the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto stepped out of the forest to greet them in English, and through his woodcraft he helped them survive their harsh conditions. Squanto's earlier friendship, then, helped ease the way for the friendship of the far more powerful Massasoit. Whatever the twists and turns of Squanto's story, it illustrates a larger set of negative circumstances. European contact with the Indians in the New England area had gone on for decades before the colonists set foot on Plymouth Rock, and it often was not kindly. Not only kidnappings and other violence took place between the sea captains and fishermen touching the New England shore and the Indians they met, but the Europeans unwittingly introduced diseases, among them smallpox, typhus, and measles. Lacking immunity to the new maladies, whole Indian villages fell before wave on wave of virulent epidemics sweeping up and down the coast. Understandably, most of the Indians, even those who had not yet seen white men, considered the newcomers to be both ruthless deprecators and bearers of deadly illnesses. In short, Indian societies already were in an unfriendly turmoil upon the colonist's arrival, and in light of this Massasoit's friendship was the decided exception.
Given the problems, despite some earnest efforts at good will, such as Massasoit's, the situation almost inevitably became worse. New colonists starting other settlements cared nothing about an old, carefully nurtured friendship. Land-poor in Europe, they had not pulled up stakes and risked the dangerous, months-long voyage across the stormy Atlantic Ocean to be restrained upon their arrival. What they wanted was land of their own, land that seemed theirs for the taking, except for the obstacles the native peoples, waxing ever fiercer in their resistance as the pressures of the invasion increased, represented. Further complicating the situation was the diversity of the settlers and the consequent rivalry among them. Originally conceived as a religious community with central and, hence, consistent, authority, Plymouth soon found itself assailed by Englishmen with a variety of often conflicting sacred and secular notions. In light of the turmoil within the white community itself, it was impossible to carry out a humane and consistent policy toward the Indians. Massive, bloody conflict was all but inevitable.
In the face of these building pressures and loss of land to the new colonists, Massasoit kept mending his good relations with the whites. In hindsight, depending on the perspective one wishes to take, the chief of the Wampanoags might be seen as exchanging his people's birthright for the trade goods, renown, and personal power he gained against the enemy Narragansetts through his associations with the whites. Whatever one's view, however, in Massasoit's friendship lies one of the grand ironies of New England history. Massasoit had taken a minority position by casting his fortunes with the English. As pressures against the Indians mounted, many of them resolved to unite and either drive out the invaders or die in the attempt. In this the peacemaker Massasoit became an unwilling instrument. Fourteen years after his death, his son Philip angrily burst into patriotic fervor and flew to the opposite extreme of his father by becoming the leader of what is known as King Philip's War, the bloodiest Indian-white conflict to rake New England.
Adams, James Truslow, "Massasoit," in Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 6, Part 2, New York, Scribner's, 1933; 380-381.
Biographical Dictionary of Indians of the Americas, Volume 1, Newport Beach, American Indian Publishers, 1991; 400-401.
Peirce, Ebenezer W., Indian History, Biography, and Genealogy: Pertaining to the Good Sachem Massasoit, North Abington, Zerviah Gould Mitchell, 1878.
Weeks, Alvin Gardner, Massasoit of the Wampanoags, Fall River, privately printed, 1919.
Wood, Norman B., Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, Aurora, American Indian Historical Publishing Company, 1906; 65-84. □