Of Patuxet

Paula Peters

From a hilltop overlooking the harbor the open ocean stretched across the horizon beyond two long arms of land reaching out, grabbing the Sound from opposite directions. The north arm was the muscle, a bulging peninsula deflecting a lusty sea and northeast wind while southerly, a long narrow sand bar tugged the tamed tide gently into the village of Patuxet protecting a safe and abundant harbor. The receding tide exposed beds of shellfish thriving between glacial boulders and returned teeming with mackerel, herring and trout. A thick forest of mature timber was flush with wildlife—deer, elk and bear—and prosperous with beaver, otter and fox that burrowed in the underbrush. At the coastal clearing a bubbling spring-fed brook broke brackish at the shore.

It was, “an excellent good harbor, good land; and no want of anything, but industrious people,” wrote the seventeenth-century explorer John Smith in his Description of New England of 1616 (21–22). Smith was touring the coastal region of New England in 1614 seeking trade partners among the Natives and potential sites for settlement amid the presumed wilderness. Coming upon this harbor he found the advantages and resources of the place undeniable and planted a figurative flag for his king by naming it Plymouth.

Omitting in his enthusiastic description that people, industrious people, already lived there was far less an oversight than a reflection of the overwhelming sentiment among Old World interlopers like Smith, that the indigenous people encountered in their “discovery” of the New World lacked relevance to their long-term goal.

In fact, an estimated 2000 Wampanoag people lived on that “good land” Smith found so desirable. It was a place they called “Patuxet.” While we cannot know how long they had made their seasonal village there, farming and fishing from that “excellent good harbor,” twenty-first-century archaeological evidence confirms the existence of the Wampanoag in that region for at least 12,000 years before Smith mapped it.

John Smith’s map of New England, A Description of New England (1616)

Perhaps if Smith had danced with the Natives and shared fishing techniques, as had the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, they might not have seemed so insignificant. In 1605 Champlain was charmed by a group of Wampanoag men he met while visiting their village. The men, who had just come ashore in their mishoon with an impressive catch of cod, “received us very cordially.” The French explorer’s map of the same harbor features the people, their boats, and their village.

There is no question people lived and thrived in Patuxet and Smith knew that. That he overlooked the significance of the Wampanoag themselves, seems calculated given the British thirst to dominate the New World with colonies. The Wampanoag were doomed to take a back seat to such desires, as Smith found their territory to be extraordinary, writing, “could I have means to transport a Colony, I would rather live here than anywhere” (Description of New England, 10).

Samuel de Champlain’s map of the “Port of St. Louis,” Les Voyages (1613)

Some 3,400 miles away, a group of godly English separatists were living in exile in the Netherlands. For those having forsaken their homeland for the freedom to worship purposefully and unencumbered, a New World colony had a utopian ring to it.

“The place they had thoughts on,” wrote William Bradford in Of Plimoth Plantation, growing weary of crowded and unholy conditions among the Dutch, “was some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation, being devoid of all civil inhabitants, where there are only savage and brutish men which range up and down, little otherwise than the wild beasts of the same” (16).

While it is unclear how Bradford formed his opinions about the people he had never personally encountered, his was a common misperception. Tribes throughout the region to become known as New England were organized in a social and hierarchal order that was in many ways far more civil than the one Bradford was fleeing.

Among the Wampanoag of the early seventeenth century the supreme leader was the Massasoit Ousamequin, who surrounded himself with a council of traditional advisors including a pniese, a person with superior ability, strength and spiritual awareness. Each village was served by a sachem and clan leaders who acted as advisors to the sachem. Surplus of food, skins and other commodities were collected by the sachems and redistributed to the needy among them. Peace-keeping was a matter left to a council of elders. Overall, the actions of the leadership were informed by the wishes of the villagers. It was a crude but effective model of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of leadership that gave the strongest voice to the people, in stark contrast to European monarchies. “[A]lthough they have an absolute Monarchy over the people,” wrote Roger Williams in Key into the Language of America (1643), “yet they will not conclude of ought that concerns all, either Laws, or Subsidies, or wars, unto which the people are averse, and by gentle persuasion cannot be brought” (134).

Had the English bothered to look for it, Native spirituality was everywhere. It centered on the tributes of the earth and the wonder of other worlds, honoring the Sun, Moon and four directions as well as animals and birds. No chapel was necessary since ceremonies were held wherever and as often as the occasion called for without an assigned place or day of the week. It required only a circle where each one was individually unique while still part of the whole. Birds and animals had spiritual significance, like the crow that delivered the first seed of corn from the southwest. There were many thanksgiving opportunities to honor the creator’s gifts, like the celebration welcoming the strawberry as the first fruit of the season. Drumming, singing and dancing had spiritual significance as did adornments, including beads of shells and copper pendants, and symbolically painted faces and tattoos, embroidered clothing, and feather headdresses. These are customs and traditions still honored by the descendants of those people today.

That Bradford had such a lowly opinion of the Natives he was set to colonize is distasteful today, but it was consistent with his puritan piety and with other assumptions of a superior race and faith. While the nineteenth-century phrase “Manifest Destiny” had not yet been coined to describe how indigenous people overall and the Wampanoag specifically were categorized and treated by explorers like Smith and settlers like Bradford, the term captures a prevailing lack of humanity toward Native people under a cloak of Christianity. This became a hallmark of colonization.

Ousamequin would most certainly have taken exception to Bradford’s heedless description of indigenous people. What Bradford did not know, or failed to consider, was that the Native lifestyle, although simple, was not unsophisticated in its understanding of a natural order that placed them within—and not on top of—the circle of life.

They understood the interplanetary significance of the Sun and Moon to Mother Earth in establishing a cycle of seasons for growing, harvesting, hunting and preparation. They were remarkable predictors of weather by using the direction and strength of the wind and cloud formations. They were people who managed their presence on earth to be in balance with nature, sustaining themselves without starving the living world around them. Their spirituality centered on the circle of life and their place within it.

The Wampanoag recognized their responsibility to all living things and the recurring gifts of the earth. They gave thanks to their creator Kiehtan with the regularity of gifts, not simply one time a year. Ceremony and prayer acknowledged the sacrifices of the prey as they hunted and fished with a cunning knowledge of the habits and habitats of the finned, winged and four-legged, and employed basic yet sound weaponry, weirs and traps. With that same gratitude they harvested wild growing roots, nuts, herbs and berries while cultivating other plants—especially coveted tobacco—for sustenance and for medicinal and spiritual uses.

Their dome-shaped dwellings, covered in woven mats and bark, and clustered in village settings, further reflected the simplicity of their lifestyle. More often than not they were multi-generational confines. Some dwellings were seasonal to afford access to coastal regions like Patuxet for fishing and planting. There was a hierarchy of governance practiced among Algonquin people such as the Wampanoag, which stemmed from the people, including women, to clan leaders, to the pnieses, to village sachems, to a supreme leader, or massasoit. Elders were called upon to enforce accountability, while powwows tended to the physical and spiritual health of the community.

By the time Bradford met Ousamequin face-to-face in the spring of 1621 his hard line on the “savage and brutish” Natives had necessarily softened. The gravity of his situation demanded tolerance of, if not humility toward the Wampanoag people who would become his neighbors and allies. Having endured the “long beating at sea” (46), a starving winter and the misery of sickness and death that followed, his original company of 102 was barely half of those who began the journey.

Ousamequin was also humbled by circumstance; a virgin-soil epidemic that came to be known as the Great Dying was introduced by contact with explorers in 1616 and wiped out tens of thousands of Natives from Maine to Cape Cod, devastating scores of Wampanoag villages including Patuxet. Just west and to the south of the Wampanoag territory the Narragansett were spared of the sickness and became emboldened by their good fortune to avoid it. They posed a threat to the Wampanoag that gave Ousamequin pause, prompting him to consider an alliance with the same ill-mannered settlers who, during the previous winter, had pillaged graves and food stores of the people of Nauset, a Wampanoag village just south of where the Mayflower first landed. Mounds of earth “newly paddled,” according to Bradford, gave way to “diverse fair Indian baskets filled with corn” (49). He and his men helped themselves to this obvious cupboard of storage, with little regard for who might be deprived of it—a desperate act to be sure, but also one counterproductive to establishing good will. And while the debt was eventually repaid out of a sense of obligation and not shame, Bradford defined the theft as “a special providence of god,” a justification that appears to cover a myriad of colonial sins.

Sustained with Indian corn, the Mayflower found its way to Patuxet through that excellent good harbor that Smith described. The passengers were greatly relieved to find a virtual paradise in an otherwise primeval forest. “Fit for shipping,” said Bradford, “and [they] marched into the land and found diverse cornfields and little running brooks, a place (as they supposed) fit for situation” (53).

In fact, they found themselves in a literal boneyard.

The Great Dying of 1616 to 1619 devoured the people of Patuxet like a smoldering ember on pulped wood. It began with head and body aches, unrelenting cramps and then yellowing skin, pockmarks and nose bleeds. Those who stayed to tend to the sick, as was the custom of entire clans, found their medicinal remedies and healing ceremonies useless as they too became victims of the plague. While the exact nature of the illness has never been determined, it is certain to have emanated from Old World traders, adventurers and fishermen with a hardy enough constitution to carry a virulent ailment symptom-free, or tolerate it without mortal consequences. But among an indigenous population with no history of exposure and no immunity to communicable disease, an illness as common as a simple cold would have been devastating. As a result, the sickness spread with abandon, debilitating victims so quickly few were left to bury the dead.

Bradford and his fellow colonists could not begin work on their settlement without first removing the sun-bleached skeletal remains of the dead people of Patuxet.

Most casual consumers of history are stunned to learn this part of the story. It was largely overlooked, or covered in scant detail, in textbook teachings on U.S. history and marginalized in many scholarly publications. Bradford makes short work of this episode, again as “a special providence of god.” He provides none of the detail necessary fully to understand the sacrifices and indignity endured by the Wampanoag, and wrote with negligible empathy that Patuxet was bequeathed to the Pilgrims by circumstance of a “late great mortality, which fell in all these parts about three years before the coming of the English, wherein thousands of them died. They not being able to bury one another, their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground where their houses and dwellings had been, a very sad spectacle to behold” (63).

Bradford’s strong religious disposition rationalized the pre-colonial Great Dying among the Wampanoag. He wrote that it consequently made way for a foundation “for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work” (16).

This was a morbid ideology shared by Capt. Smith, who was convinced the epidemic sickness killing Natives was a sign of God’s influence in the colonizers’ destiny. “[I]t seems God hath provided this Country for our Nation,” Smith asserted in his Advertisements for the unexperienced planters of New-England of 1631, “destroying the natives by the plague, it not touching one Englishman, though many traded and were conversant amongst them; for they had three plagues in three years successively near two hundred miles along the Sea coast, that in some places there scarce remained five of a hundred . . .” (9).

Smith was not alone. Mare-Mount Colony founder Thomas Morton, in his work New English Canaan (1637), endorsed the necessity of such ethnic cleansing to make New England “much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God” (24).

Could the Wampanoag ever have stood a chance to be treated fairly and with the regard due to a sovereign nation by people who thought of them as disposable? The initial feigned tolerance of the Wampanoag was a result of the vulnerability of the English after a “starving time” and sickness during the first winter in Patuxet. “But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in two or three months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate conditions had brought upon them,” Bradford wrote (55–56). So, as a means of survival, they would not choke on their courtesy in the company of the Natives.

Neighboring Wampanoags initially made their presence known—“skulking about,” as Bradford described it—and then by helping themselves to tools left at the site of a home under construction. This was a misdemeanor easily forgiven in the Native/settler honeymoon. Under English law, which was about to suffocate the Wampanoag, the same act would cost them their land and freedom.

The first visitor to the settlement would make himself known remarkably by speaking English. Samoset, an Abenaki sachem who was visiting among the Wampanoag and likely learned to speak the language as a result of relations with English and European traders, bid them “Welcome, Englishmen.” After establishing a modicum of good will, he left and returned with the borrowed tools and the Wampanoag Tisquantum, known commonly as Squanto, who spoke more fluent English.

That each of these men spoke English was hardly questioned before Squanto was introduced into historical genre as Bradford’s “special instrument sent of god.” Despite a compelling and dramatic backstory, he is all but a folk hero for his fast friendship with the English. He taught them to plant according to custom, using fish to fertilize the soil and planting beans and squash in a mound around the corn. It was a method, we learn, that settlers attempted and quickly abandoned, returning to their practice of planting in rows. Squanto’s enigmatic eloquence goes unquestioned and unexplained in many contemporary history texts, thus avoiding a more honest portrayal of him as the kidnapped, lost son of Patuxet, held hostage, spared of the plague, who returned as an orphaned Wampanoag.

His is such a seminal backstory to Plimoth Colony that the lack of historical reference to it is conspicuous. Squanto avoided the Great Dying but his life was none the less tragic. As a young man he was among twenty unfortunate men of Patuxet lured aboard the ship of Thomas Hunt in 1614 to be sold into slavery in Spain. He spent at least six weeks in the dank, dark belly of a ship, chained to his brothers, given just enough fresh water, raw fish and stale bread to keep them alive. He was spared from slavery to live in the home of a London gentleman, returning to Patuxet as a guide a year before the Mayflower sailed. When he greeted the Pilgrims, he was essentially meeting them in his own village amid the ghosts of the people of Patuxet, a startling truth that deserves a deeper explanation.

Squanto was able to dodge the sweeping plague that killed tens of thousands of Natives along some 200 miles of coast from Maine to Cape Cod, only because Hunt kidnapped him. The Englishman was master of the second ship in John Smith’s exploration of New England. Smith did not want to antagonize the Natives, as had been done in Virginia. Determined to leave a very different impression, Smith engaged with as many Natives as he could and took copious notes on the people, their language, customs, humor, as well as their relationships and alliances with other tribes. All that would be considered excellent preparation to establish neighborly goodwill, but for the duplicitous actions of Hunt. He was left behind to conduct trade, and instead captured the men from Patuxet and seven more from Nauset on Cape Cod.

In his Description of New England, Smith made clear his displeasure with Hunt. “Notwithstanding after my departure, he abused the Savages where he came, and betrayed twenty and seven of these poor innocent souls, which he sold in Spain for slaves, to move their hate against our Nation, as well as to cause my proceedings to be so much more difficult” (47).

In Malaga, Spain, Hunt attempted to unload his cargo of stunned and bewildered Wampanoag men in the slave market with little success, due to uninterested brokers and the intervention of a religious order of friars. Squanto ultimately made his way to London, where he found himself living with John Slaney, a man who had great potential to afford him passage home. He likely did all he could to appease Slaney, who was a merchant and shipbuilder and also a grantee of the land patent issued to the Newfoundland Company. Squanto bided his time, charming his host and earning celebrity as a novelty. The presence of a Native man fascinated Londoners. Not only were Native men set apart by their bronze skin, chiseled features, and dark eyes, but they were virtual giants to the small-statured Englishmen. Squanto’s faithfulness paid off. Slaney allowed Squanto to travel as a guide to Newfoundland where he met Thomas Dermer, an English explorer who brought him home in 1619.

In all likelihood, Squanto unwittingly came home with an agent of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who was not a friend to the Natives. Dermer was financed for the voyage by Gorges, a wealthy London merchant who financed the capture of scores of Native men. Gorges used the men primarily to discover the language and ascertain cultural information but also to satisfy his personal curiosity. Among his prized stock was Epanow, a sachem of Nope, the island of Martha’s Vineyard, who made an extraordinary escape and returned home the same year Squanto was taken captive. Having met Dermer in Newfoundland, Squanto may not have seen the connection, but Dermer’s reputation among the Wampanoag, and with Epanow in particular, made Squanto dubious as an ally to Gorges. He was forsaken, just as a baby bird fallen from the nest, once rescued by human hands, bears their scent and is rejected by the flock.

Very few personal details of Squanto’s life are known, not even his age or if he had a wife or children, and with the exception of a brief remark in Dermer’s notes, nothing is said about his homecoming. However, as news of the Great Dying had reached England, he almost certainly had been forewarned. But could Squanto have possibly been prepared for the stark stillness to the hum of life overtaken by weeds, windswept by neglect, abandoned but for the bones and rotting flesh of the dead, his loved ones, left as they clung to their last breath in gruesome repose? This defining moment was described by Dermer in remarkably few words: “We arrived at my savage’s native country (finding all dead).”

If the reality of Patuxet was mortifying—and despite the lack of descriptive text on the occasion, there is little doubt of that—the welcome home, or lack thereof, must have been a crushing anticlimax after Squanto’s five-year absence.

He was taken in, but as a captive of his own people living in Sowams, the village of Ousamequin, about forty miles inland from Patuxet. There he made contact with a few relatives who survived the sickness but was otherwise a man without a tribe. When the English settlers arrived, any foreboding was suspended, as he was lent to the alliance as an emissary, employing his uncommon capacity to interpret the settler’s intentions. While Squanto moved easily in the company of the English, he was under the watchful eye of Hobomock, who was a pniese, a trusted and powerful advisor in Ousamequin’s inner circle. Hobomock established a small compound with his family nearby the English settlement, where he was a convenience to the settlers, a surreptitious chaperone of Squanto and informant to Ousamequin.

Cast in the role of interpreter, Squanto was far more helpful to the English than he was to his own people. In fact, if we are to judge his effectiveness as an interpreter by his first and perhaps most important translation, he was an epic failure. He assisted in the construction of the treaty of peace between the settlers and the Wampanoag. Bradford outlined the treaty in the following terms:

  1. 1. That neither he nor any of his, should injure or do hurt, to any of their people.
  2. 2. That if any of his did hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender, that they might punish him.
  3. 3. That if anything were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do the like to his.
  4. 4. If any did unjustly war against him, they would aid him; If any did war against them, he should aid them.
  5. 5. He should send to his neighbours confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong ^them^ us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
  6. 6. That when their men ^came^ to them, they should leave their bows & arrows behind them (57).

To this day, this treaty is passed off as a harmless and friendly agreement. However, the authors, penning the document in English, took clear advantage of the language and cultural ambiguity to deceive Ousamequin, who was unable to discern the not-so-subtle threat to Wampanoag sovereignty. Among those with less confidence in the good intentions of the English newcomers was Corbitant, the sachem of the Pocasset tribe of Wampanoags, who objected to the settlement. But as a sachem, he was powerless to overrule Ousamequin, who misinterpreted key language in the treaty that was not in the best interest of the Wampanoag, specifically the requirement for them to disarm in the company of the English, which proved to be a harbinger of subjugation.

The English were allowed freely to don their armor and blast their muskets, and did so with regularity. A custom that was unnerving to neighboring sachems and especially Corbitant, as it contradicted the colonist’s proclaimed friendship. “If your love be such, and it bring forth such fruits,” he told Edward Winslow, “how cometh it to pass, that when we come to Patuxet, you stand upon your guard, with the mouths of your pieces presented to us?” (Good Newes from New-England, 33). Winslow suggested the guns were meant to salute his coming and honor him, but Corbitant was hardly convinced.

The treaty also empowered only the English to punish an offender and exercise the rule of law. The Wampanoag were served by their own system of justice to address disputes and breaches of conduct from thievery to homicide, not omitting treason.

The furtively overbearing treaty would establish a new law of the land that doomed the Wampanoag. Ousamequin expected a cooperative alliance, and while he was placated to his dying day in 1661, the colonists leveraged an oppressive rule over the Wampanoag, dissolving trust and setting the stage for an inevitable war.

Whether Squanto intentionally blurred the lines when translating the treaty terms or was himself duped is unknown, but his loyalty to the English quickly became apparent as he morphed into his diplomatic role. Perhaps to seek protection, or even as a result of a sort of Stockholm syndrome in which the hostage becomes allied with the captors, Squanto took up residence among the English where he was no doubt charming and entertaining in the ways he had learned while living in London.

The previously austere Wampanoag also assumed a new role with the English by interpreting the alliance as a sign of friendship. However, the social customs of the Wampanoag—which included frequent visits and mutual hospitality—quickly overwhelmed the settlers who were challenged to entertain their guests with their limited stores of food. Bradford arranged for Edward Winslow, Stephen Hopkins and Squanto to visit Ousamequin to seek a diplomatic solution to the overly friendly neighbors. “But whereas his people came very often,” wrote Winslow, “and very many together unto us, bringing for the most part their wives and children with them, they were welcome; yet we being but strangers as yet at Patuxet, alias New Plymouth, and not knowing how our corn might prosper, we could no longer give them such entertainment as we had done, and as we desired still to do” (Mourt’s Relation [1622], 41).

They brought gifts to Ousamequin including a horseman’s coat and a copper chain. The Wampanoag leader delighted in the coat. He was politely asked to urge his people to be less sociable and that he and his immediate companions be the primary visitors to the English village. If he was to send a messenger, they might bring the copper chain as a sign that the visitor was authorized by Ousamequin himself. This new protocol formalized the relationship between the English and Wampanoag but did little to help them to understand one another’s customs.

When the English celebrated their first harvest with a bullish muster performed by the colony’s militia, the repeated blast of muskets, considered entertainment by the settlers, was interpreted as a threat by the Wampanoag. Soon after, Ousamequin approached the settlement with about ninety warriors. The virtual army of Natives appearing without warning, contrary to the diplomatic efforts of Hopkins and Winslow just a few months earlier, was a clear show of force on the part of Ousamequin and his men in response to the muster that likely created a very tense situation.

Bradford’s history makes only a brief reference to this harvest feast, with no mention of the participation of the Wampanoag. Winslow, however, does write about the uninvited dinner guests, “Whom for three days we entertained and feasted,” no doubt in another act of diplomacy to ease the strained confrontation, which could only be achieved by each side letting down their guard. For his part, Ousamequin and his warriors contributed to the feast: “they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others” (Mourt’s Relation, 61).

But nearly 250 years later this event serves as the inspiration for one of America’s most popular holidays. On the third Thursday of November, American families gather together and celebrate a national day of unity and mutual gratitude inspired by a warped interpretation of that first harvest feast. The contemporary holiday perpetuates the myths of the Wampanoag and Pilgrim relations. It further buries the truths of kidnappings, pestilence and subjugation and ignores the scant details of the tense encounter, while it conjures up sterotypical images of happy Natives and Pilgrims feasting on a cornucopia of corn, pies, and meats, including a fully dressed roast turkey.

Squanto’s true circumstance as a man without a country is deleted from the pages of history. Orphaned or rejected by his own people, he found comfort among the English who took pleasure in his company and invaluable service. But there could be no solace in the arms of his new family for the loss and betrayal of his own people.

And the English were very protective of their adopted son. When word reached the settlement in the summer of 1621 that Corbitant had captured Squanto and intended to kill him so as to “cut out the English tongue,” they armed their militia and proceeded to Nemasket to rescue their valued interpreter. He was brought back to the English settlement and would not again leave without the security of his protectors.

Threatened by his own people, Squanto soon became empowered by his status and used his bilingual ability to his advantage. A transgression Edward Winslow reported in his Good Newes from New England: “Here let me not omit one notable, though wicked practice of this Tisquantum; who, to the end he might possess his countrymen with the greater fear of us, and so consequently of himself, told them we had the plague buried in our store-house; which at our pleasure, we could send forth to what place or people we would, and destroy them therewith, though we stirred not from home” (101).

Despite being discovered, Squanto continued to try to manipulate his people for his personal benefit. Bradford observed, “they began to see that Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself, making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would and make peace for whom he would” (71).

Enlisting the help of a surviving relative, Squanto contrived an ill-conceived plan to make it appear that Massasoit had joined forces with the Massachusett and the ever-wary Corbitant to attack the English settlement. The lie was quickly found out when Hobomock’s wife visited Ousamequin.

Here it becomes clear that Ousamequin could not have knowingly relinquished his judicial authority over his people, as implied in the treaty. If he understood the treaty he would not have demanded Squanto’s head when the Pilgrim’s ambassador attempted to manipulate the consciousness of the Wampanoag to serve his own purpose. Bradford wrote, “for after the discovery of his practices, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly, which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died” (71).

As outraged as he was, Ousamequin would never be avenged. Repeated requests to execute his authority under the Wampanoag rule of law were denied. Insisting on their own law at great risk to their alliance, the English flatly refused to turn over their “instrument of god” for execution. The rift caused Ousamequin, at least for a short time, to cease communication with the colonists.

And Squanto, despite being home in Patuxet, would never again be among the Wampanoag. His storied and dramatic life came to a tragic end when he suffered a common illness less than two years after the English settled in Plimoth. With his last breath, he begged to be delivered to the heaven of the Englishmen.

The English god would forgive Squanto’s scheming behavior, because he represented an important success for the colonists as a convert to Christianity. As it turns out, they had come to the New World for religious freedom—but only their own—and the Wampanoag would not be entitled to that same grace. Forged in a land of holy wars, for those puritans colonizing among savages to accept their spiritual beliefs would have required compromising hard-fought religious principles. Their godly mission was to convert and civilize their barbaric and savage new neighbors. If that was not achieved with willingness there was always threats, coercion and force.

The assumption that the Wampanoag had no religion, no god, no form of worship of a higher power was a convenient way of sanctioning the colonizers’ providential worldview that culminated in Manifest Destiny, but it overlooked an indigenous reality. Ousamequin politely declined the advances of the church of Plimoth. His sons would have to object more assertively. They had confidence in the people’s spiritual customs and a relationship with Kiehtan, the creator of all things, and his many under-gods.

Regardless, the Wampanoag soon became victims of bunk-based hysteria akin to that applied to the witches of Salem. Their natural ability, superior strength, and endurance, unlike that of any Englishman, was often called into question and attributed to witchcraft and devil worship. A Wampanoag man who ran fast and far or lifted extreme weight was thought to be influenced by evil forces. Even good vision was suspect. Wampanoag men proved able to spot ships on the horizon long before an English watcher, prompting Thomas Morton to write in New English Canaan, “I have observed that the Savages have the sense of seeing so far beyond any of our nation, that one would almost believe they had intelligence from the Devil . . .” (47).

In terms of governance, the Wampanoag leadership appeared primitive to their short-sighted settler neighbors, but it shared practices of Iroquois democracy that ultimately informed the founding fathers of the United States. Their polity so impressed Benjamin Franklin that it became a feature of his “Join or Die” campaign for colonial defense. In a 1751 letter to his friend and publisher James Parker, Franklin made this appeal as passionate as it was insulting to the Iroquois: “It would be a strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests” (Franklin to Parker, Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 4:118). When it came to writing the Constitution, the Iroquois confederacy provided a model for a way in which semi-autonomous states might still be linked together by a federated sovereignty.

It was difficult if not impossible for colonial leaders to acknowledge the credibility of their Native neighbors. As governor of Plimoth Colony, Bradford forged ahead with colonial objectives, ignoring indigenous dominion and sovereign rights. Plimoth, as it overspread Patuxet, launched a wave of colonialism that would ultimately consume the Wampanoag territory that included as many as sixty-nine villages throughout the coastal region of what is known today as Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It was all sanctioned by their sense of higher purpose and Manifest Destiny. In England, the crown began issuing patents for land in America as early as the sixteenth century. A patent, the highest evidence of title of land ownership, was a serious matter in England requiring notice to all interested parties and public posting before a land grant could be issued. However, patents for land in the New World were routinely distributed to companies seeking to exploit the land, resources and people while dismissing the rights of Native tribes without consultation or notice that their territory had been appropriated.

It is fair to say Ousamequin would have objected had he been given a voice in this process. Within a decade, there came as many as 400 settlers to Patuxet, but the real flood gates were kicked open in 1630 when a new colony just north of Plimoth, Massachusetts Bay, was established, bringing a throng of settlers fleeing crowded conditions in England. From that point forward settlements appeared like a pox on the landscape with no end in sight. The primary draw: Native land.

The founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony acknowledged a legitimate Native title to the land, but dismissed it as a mere stumbling block that could be overtaken by legalese. “This savage people ruleth over many lands without title or property; for they enclose no ground, neither have they cattle to maintain it, but remove their dwellings as they have occasion, or as they can prevail against their neighbours. And why may not Christians have liberty to go and dwell amongst them in their waste lands and woods (leaving them such places as they have manured for their corn) as lawfully as Abraham did among the Sodomites? For God hath given to the sons of men a twofold right to the earth; there is a natural right and a civil right” (Higginson, “General Observations,” Winthrop Papers, 2:120).

Natural right would carry little weight in New World probate courts. Which had to have been quite a shock to Ousamequin. But by the time the true intent of that purportedly harmless treaty became clear, the Wampanoag were overwhelmed by the sheer number of their new allies and their impact both on their land and way of life. In the decade following the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, the Great Migration brought nearly 9,000 settlers to that colony while more than 1000 more settlers were added to Plimoth colony. They came with their families, farms, cattle, industry, church, and laws. Laws that favored the English way of life and made the lifestyle that had sustained the Wampanoag for thousands of years on their ancestral homeland almost criminal behavior.

The settlements encroached not only on the Wampanoag villages, but also on hunting and fishing territory. Deer, elk, bear, and smaller game, particularly beaver and otter that the Wampanoag depended upon for sustenance, clothing and trade, were driven out and often into the territory of other competing villages and tribes where Wampanoag hunting would be considered a trespass. As the game became scarce, colonial cattle were introduced to the environment. That an animal other than a dog or perhaps a hawk might become domesticated and actually owned as property was certainly a very new concept to the Wampanoag. Suddenly, cows and pigs roamed free to trample the crops of Wampanoag villagers; pigs rooted sloppily through clam beds on the shore line, crushing what they did not devour. But despite the destructive nature of these beasts, the Wampanoag were forbidden to interfere with the colonial livestock or harm them in any way. If they did, they would be held responsible under the strict new English laws that gave the animals more rights than the Wampanoag. Even when wayward cows fell victim to traps set for deer, the Wampanoag hunters who set the traps would be ordered to pay restitution. There was little recourse for the Wampanoag, who were urged by the English to build fences to protect their property. For people who had never drawn boundaries to deed land, and never possessed land or cattle, the idea of creating a barricade to protect their gardens while the English domestic animals roamed freely on the other side must have made them begin to feel isolated in their own ancestral homeland for the first time.

When a Wampanoag did land in English court, a clear pattern of browbeating emerged, leading to excessive fines, making it necessary for Wampanoags to sell land to settle debts. This duplicity and arrogance, which assumed the Wampanoag would not realize they were being treated with outright bias, would fuel a looming insurrection against the colonists.

But as the English sought to subjugate their Native neighbors under the crown, they also were driven to convert them to Christianity. “Praying Indian” towns sprang up throughout the region to shield Natives from the evil effects of their devilish ways and introduce a “civility” that was inherent in the bible, the king’s rule, homes built like boxes, even owning domestic animals. Converts would be spared harsh treatment and rewarded for their loyalty to the crown and church—ironic, given the very nature of the pilgrimage that brought the Mayflower passengers to Patuxet in the first place. Nonetheless, the conversions were considered a major victory among colonists like Roger Williams, who saw the efforts as taking the Natives from “Barbarism to Civility, in forsaking their filthy nakedness, in keeping some kind of Cattle” (Williams, “To the General Court,” Correspondence, 2:413).

The converted were gathered in Praying Indian towns and separated both physically and philosophically from their traditional brethren, then weaponized against them. The colonized Wampanoag became valued interpreters and recruits to further the colonial mission and support colonial interests in conflicts with Natives people—a stark division that made a unified confrontation to the inequities the traditional Wampanoag were enduring impossible. In clothes made of animal skins and carrying a musket, the Native was portrayed as depraved; in a suit of wool and linen and carrying a bible, he was a picture of piety. The two images would be pitted against each other, one side seeking justice and desperate to preserve their way of life and their land, the other, victims of a cult intent on taking their land as a tithe.

Colonists could not ignore that the indigenous inhabitants of New England had a claim to the land. However, having rationalized their rightful position as the more civilized people, the colonists deemed their claim to be more significant and commonly usurped or manipulated the rights of the Natives.

Towns were being founded with regularity under the assumption that land patents were derived from the English monarchy’s inherent right to distribute property among its subjects. This bold assumption may not have initially been seen by the Wampanoag as particularly invasive. For the Wampanoag, there was no consideration of owning land, but rather the need to maintain a territory sufficient to sustain the people living there.

Regardless of their ignorance, the colonies recognized that it was necessary to acknowledge Native rights to land and required those rights be purchased. By 1643, any land transaction with Natives had to be sanctioned by the court, so as at least to give the impression that indigenous rights were being upheld; however, the deeds reflect a very different story, as colonists struck considerable deals for themselves, paying Natives only a fraction of the land’s actual value.

We cannot be surprised that the trust initially granted by Ousamequin eroded in the surge of colonialism. It was only a matter of time before the Wampanoag began to recognize the hypocrisy of the brand of “civility” the English were peddling.

In the days before the outbreak of King Philip’s War, in June of 1675, the attorney general for the Rhode Island colony, John Easton, attempted to mollify the mounting frustrations of the Wampanoag. Easton met with Metacom, the son of Ousamequin and heir to his leadership, and urged him to seek adjudication in the colonial court. The Wampanoag leader scoffed, telling him, “by arbitration they had much wrong; many miles of land so taken from them, for English would have English arbitrators.”

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Four hundred years after the Mayflower anchored at Patuxet, those two protective arms of land are still tucked around the harbor. The strong arm is led by Gurnet Point punching at the open sea, while the narrow spit below, Long Beach, is patched with stone dykes shoring up damage done by the Portland Gale of 1898.

Plymouth Harbor is flush with vessels. Fishing boats clearing the catch of the day on the town pier, tour boats that ferry the curious out to sea to glimpse the flash of a whale’s tail, and pleasure boats stacked neatly at the marina. At the state pier Mayflower II, a replica of a seventeenth-century wooden sailing vessel with her canvas sails furled under triple masts and tarred rigging, stands out as the pride of the fleet.

On the shore between the mouth of the town brook and the state pier, a grandiose stone portico supported by Doric columns provides a canopy for a sea-level enclosure protecting a celebrated boulder. Plymouth Rock, a storied stone that legend claims was the Pilgrim’s natural wharf as they debarked the Mayflower, is the epicenter of the tourism that fuels the economy of modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts. “The Rock” is a 7,000 pound silent witness to the vitality of the indigenous lives that thrived there for as many as 12,000 years before colonization. It also serves as a monument to forgetting them. Engraved on the face of the stone, in large-point Times New Roman font, is “1620.”

It is a testimony to the length to which historical memory is encouraged to go to avoid knowing what came before it.

In 1970, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts planned a grand celebration, inviting citizens, dignitaries, and Mayflower descendants to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower. Perhaps feeling enough time had passed, they even extended an invitation to an outspoken Aquinnah Wampanoag elder, Frank “Wamsutta” James, to address the ceremonial gathering. But upon seeing the text of his speech, they had second thoughts and Wamsutta was asked to edit certain unpleasant elements of his remarks or be uninvited to speak.

His response would have a profound and lasting impact on the way the state and in particular the town of Plymouth would regard the struggle of the Wampanoag and indigenous people across the country, as well as affect one of the nation’s most popular holidays. The contemporary Wamsutta, whose name was taken from the son who succeeded Ousamequin after his passing in 1661, chose on Thanksgiving Day in 1970 to take his uncensored remarks to the top of Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock. Supporting the Wampanoag, hundreds of Native people attended from tribes throughout New England and across the country, including members of the freshly minted American Indian Movement. AIM had been established to bring Indian rights not addressed in the Civil Rights Movement to the forefront of American politics, and their presence assured Wamsutta’s speech would be heard. The spectacle interrupted the town of Plymouth’s annual “Pilgrim’s Progress” event that invited Mayflower descendants and Plymouth families to parade through the streets in Pilgrim attire in honor of the founding fathers of the nation. They paraded through “America’s Hometown,” oblivious of Patuxet, of the unmarked graves under their feet, and that they passed the location where, after the death of Metacom signified an end of King Philip’s War, his head was posted on a pike and left to rot for twenty-five years. That was the ugly history not to be discussed. But ultimately, what was hoped to be avoided came center stage under a looming bronze statue placed in honor of Massasoit Ousamequin atop Cole’s Hill. The statue was dedicated upon the 300th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival in 1920 to celebrate the Wampanoag leader for his diplomacy with the Pilgrims, before he had any idea of the injustice his people would suffer as a result. It was there, in the shadow of that monument to Ousamequin, that Wamsutta became the keynote speaker in an organic uprising inspired by a disingenuous invitation to address the Mayflower commemorative event.

He gave the speech that organizers of the Mayflower 350th dreaded, to an audience they had specifically not invited. He spoke eloquently and with deep regret and sadness of human beings kidnapped and sold into slavery, of the disease that devastated so many tribes, of the injustice that robbed them of their land and sovereignty, all of which he found neatly documented by their oppressors.

“History gives us facts and there were atrocities; there were broken promises—and most of these centered around land ownership. Among ourselves we understood that there were boundaries, but never before had we had to deal with fences and stone walls . . . ,” Wamsutta told the crowd of an estimated 200 people, bringing forth the taboo truths and reclaiming the dignity of the Wampanoag (James, “Suppressed Speech”).

“History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal,” he continued. “A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white man. The Indian feels pain, gets hurt, and becomes defensive, has dreams, bears tragedy and failure, suffers from loneliness, needs to cry as well as laugh. He, too, is often misunderstood.”

The speech he gave was the very one he would have delivered to that audience of Mayflower descendants on the 10th of September. Wamsutta, allowing them their joy, declared, “What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail. You the white man are celebrating an anniversary. We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate in the concept of a beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now, 350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian.”

The gathering on Cole’s Hill that cold Thanksgiving Day established an annual event of remembrance of indigenous ancestors, to honor them and acknowledge their sacrifices. Native Americans and their supporters continue to gather on the third Thursday of November in Plymouth and in indigenous communities across the nation to recognize the National Day of Mourning.

Works Cited

Champlain, Samuel de. Map of the “Port of St. Louis.” In Les Voyages. Paris: Jean Berjon, 1613.

Franklin, Benjamin, to James Parker, March 20, 1751. In The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 4, July 1, 1750-June 30, 1753. Ed. Leonard Labaree et al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961. Pp. 117–121.

Higginson, Francis. “General Observations for the Plantation of New England.” In The Winthrop Papers. 6 vols., Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1863–1892, Vol. 2, 1623–1630.

James, Frank B. “The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag, To have been delivered at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1970.” United American Indians of New England website, uaine.org (accessed 5 Sept. 2019).

Smith, John. A description of New England. London: Humfrey Lownes, for Robert Clerke, 1616.

———. Advertisements for the unexperienced planters of New-England, or any where. London: Iohn Haviland, 1631.

Morton, Thomas. New English Canaan. London: Printed for Charles Greene, 1637.

Williams, Roger. A key into the language of America. London: Gregory Dexter, 1643.

———. “To the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, 5 October 1654.” In The Correspondence of Roger Williams. Ed. Glenn W. La Fantasie. 2 vols., Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1988.

Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New-England. London, I. Dawson for William Bladen and Iohn Bellamie, 1624.

Winslow, Edward. A relation or journall of the beginning and proceedings of the English plantation setled at Plimoth in New England (Mourt’s Relation). London: Printed for Iohn Bellamie, 1622.