The passengers on the Mayflower knew the New World was populated with people; people they referred to as savages primarily because they dressed and worshiped differently than folks back in England. Some of these Natives belonged to the Wampanoag Nation of communities, numbering an estimated 30,000 in the early 1600’s. At the time the English Pilgrim and Adventurer settlers began exploring Cape Cod the Wampanoags were ruled by Sachem Massasoit (also known as Ousamequin) who lived in what is today Rhode Island. He and his brother, Ouadequina, are sometimes known as the Two Kings. Massasoit also occasionally looked for help from another Native leader, Samoset of the Monhegan community. Samoset spoke some English as a result of his encounters with earlier English fishermen.
About a year before the Mayflower dropped anchor a mile off the coast of Plymouth (modern Massachusetts), Massasoit took in a Patuxet man, named Tisquantum (also known as Squanto). Tisquantum was from the village where the English were setting up their Plimouth Plantation. The Patuxet people abandoned the village when a plague a few years earlier left most of the original inhabitants dead.
Tisquantum’s life was spared only because he had been captured and hauled off to Spain where Captain Thomas Hunt intended to sell him into slavery. Tisquantum’s biography reads like the cat with nine lives. He somehow managed to get from Spain to England, after a group of Catholic friars purchased his freedom from Hunt.
From Slave to Interpreter
In England Tisquantum met up with merchant John Slaney and learned a useful amount of the English language. Slaney saw advantages to having a bi-lingual interpreter go on trade expeditions with American Natives. He sent Tisquantum back across the Atlantic. When he returned home in 1619, he discovered there was no more home there. Tisquantum then made his way to Massasoit’s community and convinced the Sachem he needed someone around who was familiar with the ways of the English – and spoke their language. He was just that person.
The Mayflower first anchored off shore from what is now Provincetown. The settlers stayed there six weeks while teams of explorers searched for the best place to establish their settlement. The explorers saw, and sometimes heard, the Natives but never caught up with them. They did find a large stash of corn, which they took back to the ship, assuring themselves they would repay the Natives if ever they met them.
When an expedition party found a suitable place to settle, the ship sailed across the bay. They dropped anchor a mile out in the bay from Plymouth, the very same place deserted because of the epidemic that killed most of Tisquantum’s people. Over the next couple of months they saw and heard evidence of Natives nearby, but didn’t have any direct contact with them.
That changed in March when Samoset walked into the area where some of the settlers were working and greeted them, “Welcome, Englishmen.”
Samoset spent some time with the English settlers; then made a return visit, this time bringing Tisquantum. Together they told the settlers that Massasoit wanted to meet them. That was true, but Massasoit was understandably cautious. Other Europeans had kidnapped some of his people, killed others, and introduced diseases that wiped out whole communities. On the other hand, Massasoit was worried about the Narragansett people and feared they might attack his people. Additionally, he thought it would be mutually beneficial to establish a trade relationship with the settlers. They’d been prowling around the area for months and were constructing buildings, so it appeared they intended to stay. If this was so, Massasoit figured he’d rather have these strange people on his side than the side of any potential enemies.
Massasoit, along with some sixty of his men, moved in closer to where the settlers were hard at work building their settlement. Tisquantum delivered messages between Massasoit and the settlers. Finally, on March 22 a few of the Pilgrim leaders escorted Massasoit to one of the newly constructed houses. The Sachem sat with Governor John Carver, William Brewster, William Bradford, and others to work out a peace treaty.
Talk That Leads To Peace
The treaty basically stated that neither party would hurt the other in any way. If any of Massasoit’s people caused trouble, that person would be sent to the English for them to decide his fate. If a white man should do any harm to one of the Natives, the settlers would send that one to the Natives to determine his fate. If a third party attacked either group, the other would render aid.
Governor Carver died of the Great Sickness shortly after negotiating the peace treaty. William Bradford, just thirty-two years old, was elected to fill that position. Under the skillful leadership of both William Bradford and Chief Massasoit, the two vastly different cultures lived in relative peace for forty years. Massasoit and his people would have preferred fewer English moving to the area; but if he couldn’t stop them from coming, at least he would know what they were up to and keep an eye on them.
What were you taught about the Native Americans and the Pilgrims?