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. . . . "
Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford.
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 Page 200 | Top of Article 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.
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.
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 Page 203 | Top of Article 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.