Massasoit Ousamequin. Ever heard of him? He was a famous leader among the Wampanoag people – the people who had lived on the land we call New England for thousands of years before the Mayflower showed up in 1620
The history of what happened following that famous voyage nearly four-hundred years ago, assigns only a minor part to Massasoit Ousamequin. However, without his leadership and intervention, more famous people such as William Bradford, Myles Standish, William Brewster, John Carver, and Edward Winslow might not have lived long enough to make the history books at all.
Well-known and Respected Leader
Ousamequin, meaning Yellow Feather, was born near what is modern Bristol, Rhode Island in 1581. His people were one of many smaller communities loosely connected as the Wampanoag community. The Wampanoag people occupied modern eastern Rhode Island, through modern Connecticut, Massachusetts and into modern Maine. He was a well-known and respected leader among other Native leaders. The title Massasoit roughly translates as the Sachem (Leader) of the Sachems, or Great Leader. When Massasoit Ousamequin learned more Europeans were exploring along the coast, he decided he needed to meet these hairy-faced strangers for himself. He’d encountered other Europeans. Ships had been coming from Europe for nearly a century before the Mayflower arrived.
The past decade had been horrendous for the Wampanoag people. War parties from the north and northwest had swept through in raids from 1607 to 1615. But by far Massasoit Ousamequin’s greatest enemy proved to be the invisible epidemic that left three of every four Wampanoag people dead. He and his warriors could fight human enemies, but they had no defense against this invisible, and previously unknown, great sickness.
Bring in an Interpreter
In May 1619 the Massasoit and his brother, Quadequina, met Englishman Captain Thomas Dermer. Dermer was accompanied by Tisquantum, from the Patuxet village where the English would soon get to work on their first buildings. When Dermer took Tisquantum back to Patuxet, they found the village deserted, as a result of plague. Tisquantum was spared the plague because an earlier English Captain Hunt had kidnapped him several years before the plague came through. Captain Hunt took Tisquantum and a couple dozen other Natives to Spain to be sold into slavery. A few Catholic friars bought his freedom.
Tisquantum somehow ended up in England, living with merchant Thomas Slaney. Slaney was engaged in Transatlantic trade with North American Natives. Once Tisquantum could speak fairly good English, Slaney sent him back to North America with Captain Dermer, to serve as an interpreter. He was with Dermer when Massasoit Ousamequin met their party. The Massasoit came with fifty warriors to make sure no one kidnapped any more of his people. Tisquantum assured the Great Leader this particular Englishman only wanted to trade.
Seize the Opportunity
Ousamequin quickly saw the advantages of having a Native around who could speak English should he meet any more English wandering around the area. A year and a half after his encounter with Dermer, Ousamequin heard that more English were anchored in Cape Cod Bay and exploring the area. His runners told him this time they came with women, children, and building supplies. For six months Natives watched the English settlers and sent reports to Massasoit Ousamequin. The English saw evidence of their presence, and even caught occasional glimpses of Natives. However, their efforts to make direct contact failed every time they tried.
Meet the New Neighbors
In March of 1621, when it was clear the English intended to establish their village on the site of the abandoned Patuxet village, Massasoit Ousamequin decided it was time to act. First Samoset walked into the English village and greeted them, in English, with “Welcome, Englishmen.” Samoset soon returned with Tisquantum; whose English was better than his.
Tisquantum announced that Massasoit Ousamequin wanted to meet with them. Edward Winslow went with the Natives the Great Leader had sent to escort an Englishman to meet him. Winslow took a few knives and a copper jewel chain as a gift. Speaking through Tisquantum as the interpreter, he assured Massasoit Ousamequin that his group wanted only peace and trading. Winslow told the Great Leader their English Great Leader, King James, saluted him with love and peace and considered him an ally. Winslow then stayed with Ousamequin’s brother, and the Massasoit went to the brook separating his people from the English.
Crossing Over to a New World
The Great leader came down the hill where he was greeted by Captain Myles Standish as the settlers’ military leader, and William Brewster as their spiritual leader. They went into one of the new houses and for the rest of the afternoon worked out the details of a treaty. The treaty basically assured that each group would do the other no harm and would come to the other’s aid should that be necessary.
For the remainder of his life, Massasoit Ousamequin and is people lived peacefully with the new settlers. Several of the Pilgrim leaders became friends with Ousamequin. Edward Winslow visited the Great Leader often and is even credited with bringing him back to health when he became desperately ill. Winslow described the Great Leader as “A very lusty man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.
A few years later Emmanuel Altham described him as “a proper a man as ever was seen in this country, and very courageous.”
After the treaty-making day, Massasoit invited some of the settlers to visit him. Standish and Isaac Allerton went and were greeted with gifts of ground nuts and tobacco. Standish and Allerton presented Massasoit with a kettle of peas.
Changes in Leadership
Both parties honored the treaty until Ousamequin died in 1661. By then thousands of additional English settlers had arrived, coming on ship after ship. All were eager to remake the area to resemble the England they’d left behind in their quest to establish religious colonies or lucrative trading posts. New England’s landscape filled with fledgling places like Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Ousamequin had two sons, Wamsutta, who the English renamed Alexander; and Metacomet, who the English named Philip. The Great Leader died, along with many of the original founders of Plymouth Plantation. Tensions escalated between the groups. The Natives wanted their homeland to remain as they’d known it for centuries. The newcomers wanted more and more land to accommodate their growing colonies. Things finally erupted in a bloody battle that, in terms of the percentage of the population killed, caused more casualties than the Civil War would nearly two hundred years later. The war is recorded in history as King Philip’s War. It started in June, 1675. When it ended in April 1678 the chances of the Natives and the English living together peacefully as neighbors were gone.
Today there are an estimated 35 million descendants of those first hundred starving, desperate settlers that Massasoit Ousamequin and his people befriended. There are an estimated 12,000 Wampanoag people today, with about a third of them still living in the Cape Cod area.
Last Monday was Columbus Day. There is a movement gaining traction to re-name it as Indigenous People Day. What do you think? Perhaps it’s time for us to teach the whole story of what happened at the start of what is now the United States of America.