The Wampanoag, originally a confederacy of 69 tribes inhabiting what is now southeastern Massachusetts, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Rhode Island, played a crucial role in the earliest days of contact between Native and European cultures on Turtle Island. Today, out of six Wampanoag communities, the Mashpee Wampanoag (People of the First Light), and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), are federally recognized sovereign tribes living in Massachusetts, Eastern Rhode Island, and Martha’s Vineyard, respectively.
The Wampanoag have inhabited this area for 15,000 years, and provided lifesaving survival skills and assistance to people arriving from Europe and Great Britain in the early 17th century. However, few Americans are fully aware that Native communities are still here and nurturing a beautiful living culture consisting of Earth-based spirituality, language revival, and environmental caretaking and consciousness.
The good news is that today Native people – and those who want a more complete and accurate history of this continent – are starting to receive more attention and traction. The not-so-good news is that many people in the United States are still perfectly content to ignore the history and rights of Indigenous people, even dismissing Native culture as past history. All too often, Indigenous people are still mentioned in the past tense in the schools, history classes, books, articles, and essays.
The traditional term for a Wampanoag community leader is sachem. The role of the sachem is to provide egalitarian leadership and facilitate consensus based decision-making. Historically, sachems worked alongside everyone else to provide food and shelter for the community. They have held specific roles, but not in the context of hierarchy as it is understood in European societies.
Women are Equals
One aspect of Wampanoag culture that truly baffled English men first negotiating trade and other deals was the matrilineal nature of Wampanoag community. Women wielded great influence within the community. Time after time an English man approached a Wampanoag man, only to be directed to talk to a Wampanoag woman. Wampanoag communities typically choose sachems through the mother’s line. If no qualified leader is available there, the community chooses someone else, usually with the consensus of the elder women. Leaders are chosen for their natural leadership abilities.
The Wampanoags, along with thousands of others in adjacent Native communities, had been taking care of the land for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. In Europe, a few wealthy people owned most of the land and controlled it with deeds. The Wampanoag and other groups view Mother Earth as sacred, and care for her accordingly. Owning land is as far fetched as the idea of owning the air or rain. In contrast, Europeans risked the treacherous trans-Atlantic journey hoping to own a piece of land, something not likely to ever happen for them back in Europe.
Tragedies to Address
In the years right before the Mayflower sailed into Cape Cod Bay the Native people had to deal with two assaults to their peaceful way of life. The first occurred in 1614 when English Captain Hunt kidnapped 19 young Wampanoag men and a half dozen other Native people to sell as slaves in Europe. These kidnappings naturally made Indigenous people suspicious of all Europeans. The second disaster was the series of epidemics from 1616 to 1619. Native people had no immunity to European-imported diseases like Yellow Fever that left three out of every four in their graves. Entire villages were wiped out. The Wampanoag refer to this period as the Great Dying.
By the time the Mayflower arrived, the Wampanoag population was reduced to around 30,000 inhabiting 40 villages. At that time, Ousamequin was the great sachem among
sachems – the Massasoit. He bore much of the responsibility for leading the Wampanoag after the devastation described above. As I wrote in a previous blog about Massasoit Ousamequin, this shaped how he and others interacted with the English settlers in 1620 and 1621.
Seasons of Change
Initially, the fledgling English settlements had little impact on the Wampanoag, who spent their summers closer to the ocean, tending their gardens and supplementing their diets with fish, lobster, and other creatures caught from the sea and rivers. Each spring Wampanoag women prepared the fields for planting, using fish caught by men in the annual herring run to the enrich the soil. They grew corn, squash and beans. When summer gave way to fall, they moved inland where they hunted in the forests. They also tapped maple syrup and dined on cranberries and other wild plants.
During this time period Wampanoag lived in wetus, dome-shaped homes built with wood poles, bark, and cattail reeds, leaving a hole in the roof for smoke to escape from fires used for cooking and warmth. People slept on benches along the perimeter. (Photos by author at Plimoth Plantation Wampanoag Village, Plymouth, MA)
Sleeping quarters for people in Europe weren’t much more luxurious. With the exception of royalty and the very wealthy, a typical “bedroom” in a European home of the same era might be an over-sized closet where adults slept sitting up. Children slept on bedding spread on the floor by night and stored in the closet by day. (Photo by author in a 15th-century home at American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden, Netherlands)
Adaptation of the Cultures
The Wampanoag are highly spiritual in nature. They believe a divine spirit blessed them with the gifts from the land and had well developed rituals to express their gratitude. The Wampanoag have a reciprocal relationship with the land that gives them life and they care for it in return.
Massasoit Ousamequin initiated a treaty with the first English settlers, and several friendships between the two cultures followed. A generation later two pivotal events pitted the two cultures against each other. The first was Ousamequin’s death in 1661. Before he died he asked the English to give his two sons English names. His older son, Wamsutta, was re-named Alexander. His younger son, Metacomet, was re-named Philip. Wamsutta/Alexander followed his father as the great sachem when Ousamequin died. After meeting with the English, he became violently ill and perished, leaving his younger brother to take his place. A record from the Plymouth Council from that era records the purchase of poison “to rid ourselves of a pest.”
Metacomet/King Philip, grew increasingly concerned about the second alarming situation. The first English settlers operated more or less under a “live and let live” philosophy, in part because they were desperate and needed Native assistance to survive; but also, because they got to know the Wampanoag as neighbors. Later arrivals, no longer in danger of starving, brought insatiable appetites for more and more land and drove Native peoples further and further away. King Philip decided the only way to preserve their way of life was to chase the Europeans away once and for all.
In terms of the percentage of the population dead because of it, King Philip’s War was more deadly than the Civil War. The Wampanoag lost the war, their land, their relatives, and much of their way of life.
Though significantly reduced in number, the Wampanoag people survived. Today there are an estimated 12,000 Wampanoag, living mainly in the Massachusetts and Cape Cod area. The few Wampanoag currently living in the Caribbean probably descend from ancestors taken there as slaves. Some Wampanoag live at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, some in Mashpee on Cape Cod, where there is a museum; and others are scattered in a variety of places.
So, what? you may ask. That happened 400 years ago. Who cares about that today?
I care for two reasons. First, a community founded on genocide is a community in need of repentance. Secondly, the earth groans with the consequences of centuries of neglect and abuse. Indigenous people know how to care for the earth. We do ourselves a great service when not only learn about the Wampanoag and their past; but also learn from them today.
We can’t undo history; but we can learn from it and do better going forward.
Thank you for taking time learn more about the history of the people who saved the lives of the people we credit with establishing our modern Thanksgiving tradition. I hope you found this informative and inspiring. If so, please take another minute to forward this to a friend. If you got this from a friend, you can have your very own free subscription by signing up at up at HowWiseThen. One of the gifts I have for you is a schedule of the many events scheduled to commemorate the first encounters between the English and the Wampanoag. Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures will be released next year to tell a more complete story of what happened 400 years ago.
If you enjoyed this blog you may also enjoy an earlier one I wrote about Ousamequin as the Wampanoag Massasoit