A view from those who met the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag.
“In 1600 the Wampanoag probably were as many as 12,000 with 40 villages divided roughly between 8,000 on the mainland and another 4,000 on the off-shore islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The three epidemics which swept across New England and the Canadian Maritimes between 1614 and 1620 were especially devastating to the Wampanoag and neighboring Massachuset with mortality in many mainland villages (i.e. Patuxet) reaching 100%. When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, fewer than 2,000 mainland Wampanoag had survived. The island Wampanoag were protected somewhat by their relative isolation and still had 3,000. At least 10 mainland villages had been abandoned after the epidemics, because there was no one left. After English settlement of Massachusetts, epidemics continued to reduce the mainland Wampanoag until there were only 1,000 by 1675. Only 400 survived King Philip’s War.
Still concentrated in Barnstable, Plymouth, and Bristol counties of southeastern Massachusetts, the Wampanoag have endured and grown slowly to their current membership of 3,000. The island communities of Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket maintained a population near 700 until a fever in 1763 killed two-thirds of the Nantucket. It never recovered, and the last Nantucket died in 1855. The community Martha’s Vineyard has sustained itself by adding native peoples from the mainland and intermarriage, but by 1807 only 40 were full-bloods. Massachusetts divided the tribal lands in 1842 and ended tribal status in 1870, but the Wampanoag reorganized as the Wampanoag Nation in 1928. There are currently five organized bands: Assonet, Gay Head, Herring Pond, Mashpee, and Namasket. All have petitioned for federal and state recognition, but only Gay Head (600 members but without a reservation) has been successful (1987). The Mashpee (2,200 members) were turned down by the federal courts in 1978.
Culture of the Wampanoag
Like other Algonquin in southern New England, the Wampanoag were a horticultural people who supplemented their agriculture with hunting and fishing. Villages were concentrated near the coast during the summer to take advantage of the fishing and seafood, but after the harvest, the Wampanoag moved inland and separated into winter hunting camps of extended families. Since New England was heavily populated before 1600, these hunting territories were usually defined to avoid conflict. Ownership passed from father to son, but it was fairly easy to obtain permission to hunt in someone else’s lands. The Wampanoag were organized as a confederacy with lesser sachems and sagamores under the authority of a Grand Sachem. Although the English often referred to Wampanoag sachems as “kings,” there was nothing royal about the position beyond respect and a very limited authority. Rank had few privileges, and Wampanoag sachems worked for a living like everyone else. It should also be noted that, in the absence of a suitable male heir, it was not uncommon among the Wampanoag for a woman to become the sachem (queen or squaw-sachem)
History of the Wampanoag
The earliest contacts between the Wampanoag and Europeans occurred during the 1500s as fishing and trading vessels roamed the New England coast. Judging from the Wampanoag’s later attitude towards the Pilgrims, most of these encounters were friendly. Some, however, were not. European captains were known to increase profits by capturing natives to sell as slaves. Such was the case when Thomas Hunt kidnapped several Wampanoag in 1614 and later sold them in Spain. One of his victims – a Patuxet named Tisquantum (Squanto) – was purchased by Spanish monks who attempted to “civilize” him. Eventually gaining his freedom, Squanto was able to work his way to England (apparently undeterred by his recent experience with Captain Hunt) and signed on as an interpreter for a British expedition to Newfoundland. From there Squanto went back to Massachusetts, only to discover that, in his absence, epidemics had killed everyone in his village. As the last Patuxet, he remained with the other Wampanoag as a kind of ghost.
To Squanto’s tragic story must be added a second series of unlikely events. Living in Holland at the time was a small group of English religious dissenters who, because of persecution, had been forced to leave England. Concerned their children were becoming too Dutch and the possibility of a war between Holland and Spain, but still unwelcome in England, these gentle people decided to immigrate to the New World. The Virginia Company agreed to transport them to the mouth of the Hudson River, took their money, and loaded them on two ships (Speedwell and Mayflower) with other English immigrants not of their faith. The little fleet set sail in July only to have the Speedwell spring a leak 300 miles out to sea. Accompanied by the Mayflower, it barely made it back to Plymouth without sinking. Repairs failed to fix the problem, so in September everyone was crammed aboard the Mayflower, and the whole mess sent merrily on its seasick way to the New World.
Landfall occurred near Cape Cod after 65 days and a very rough passage, but strangely enough, the Mayflower’s captain, who had managed to cross the Atlantic during hurricane season, suddenly was unable to sail around some shoals and take them farther south. This forced the Pilgrims to find a place to settle in Massachusetts and try to survive a New England winter with few supplies. For the Virginia Company, there was no problem, since in 1620, Great Britain claimed the boundary of Virginia reached as far north as the present border between Maine and New Brunswick. So the Pilgrims were still in Virginia (although perhaps a little farther north than originally promised), but remembering Britain’s concern at the time about French settlement in Nova Scotia, the misplacement of the Pilgrims to New England may not have been entirely an accident.
Skipping past the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the first concerns of the new arrivals were finding something to eat and a place to settle. After anchoring off Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, a small party was sent ashore to explore. Pilgrims in every sense of the word, they promptly stumbled into a Nauset graveyard where they found baskets of corn which had been left as gifts for the deceased. The gathering of this unexpected bounty was interrupted by the angry Nauset warriors, and the hapless Pilgrims beat a hasty retreat back to their boat with little to show for their efforts. Shaken but undaunted by their welcome to the New World, the Pilgrims continued across Cape Cod Bay and decided to settle, of all places, at the site of the now-deserted Wampanoag village of Patuxet. There they sat for the next few months in crude shelters – cold, sick and slowly starving to death. Half did not survive that terrible first winter. The Wampanoag were aware of the English but chose to avoid contact them for the time being.
In keeping with the strange sequence of unlikely events, Samoset, a Pemaquid (Abenaki) sachem from Maine hunting in Massachusetts, came across the growing disaster at Plymouth. Having acquired some English from contact with English fishermen and the short-lived colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1607, he walked into Plymouth in March and startled the Pilgrims with “Hello Englishmen.” Samoset stayed the night surveying the situation and left the next morning. He soon returned with Squanto. Until he succumbed to sickness and joined his people in 1622, Squanto devoted himself to helping the Pilgrims who were now living at the site of his old village. Whatever his motivations, with great kindness and patience, he taught the English the skills they needed to survive, and in so doing, assured the destruction of his own people.
Although Samoset appears to have been more important in establishing the initial relations, Squanto also served as an intermediary between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, the Grand sachem of the Wampanoag (actual name Woosamaquin or “Yellow Feather”). For the Wampanoag, the ten years previous to the arrival of the Pilgrims had been the worst of times beyond all imagination. Micmac war parties had swept down from the north after they had defeated the Penobscot during the Tarrateen War (1607-15), while at the same time the Pequot had invaded southern New England from the northwest and occupied eastern Connecticut. By far the worst event had been the three epidemics which killed 75% of the Wampanoag. In the aftermath of this disaster, the Narragansett, who had suffered relatively little because of their isolated villages on the islands of Narragansett Bay, had emerged as the most powerful tribe in the area and forced the weakened Wampanoag to pay them tribute.
Massasoit, therefore, had good reason to hope the English could benefit his people and help them end Narragansett domination. In March (1621) Massasoit, accompanied by Samoset, visited Plymouth and signed a treaty of friendship with the English giving them permission of occupy the approximately 12,000 acres of what was to become the Plymouth plantation.However, it is very doubtful Massasoit fully understood the distinction between the European concept of owning land versus the native idea of sharing it. For the moment, this was unimportant since so many of his people had died during the epidemics that New England was half-deserted. Besides, it must have been difficult for the Wampanoag to imagine how any people so inept could ever be a danger to them. The friendship and cooperation continued, and the Pilgrims were grateful enough that fall to invite Massasoit to celebrate their first harvest with them (The First Thanksgiving). Massasoit and 90 of his men brought five deer, and the feasting lasted for three days. The celebration was a little premature. During the winter of 1622, a second ship arrived unexpectedly from England, and with 40 new mouths to feed, the Pilgrims were once again starving. Forgiving the unfortunate incident in the graveyard the previous year, the Nauset sachem Aspinet brought food to Plymouth.
To the Narragansett all of this friendship between the Wampanoag and English had the appearance of a military alliance directed against them, and in 1621 they sent a challenge of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin to Plymouth. Although they could barely feed themselves and were too few for any war, the English replaced the arrows with gunpowder and returned it. While the Narragansett pondered the meaning of this strange response, they were attacked by the Pequot, and Plymouth narrowly avoided another disaster. The war with the Pequot no sooner ended than the Narragansett were fighting the Mohawk. By the time this ended, Plymouth was firmly established. Meanwhile, the relationship between the Wampanoag and English grew stronger. When Massasoit became dangerously ill during the winter of 1623, he was nursed back to health by the English. By 1632 the Narragansett were finally free to reassert their authority over the Wampanoag. Massasoit’s village at Montaup (Sowam) was attacked, but when the colonists supported the Wampanoag, the Narragansett finally were forced to abandon the effort.
After 1630 the original 102 English colonists who founded Plymouth (less than half were actually Pilgrims) were absorbed by the massive migration of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony near Boston. Barely tolerant of other Christians, the militant Puritans were soldiers and merchants whose basic attitude towards Native Americans was not one of friendship and cooperation. Under this new leadership, the English expanded west into the Connecticut River Valley and during 1637 destroyed the powerful Pequot confederacy which opposed them. Afterwards they entered into an alliance with the Mohegan upsetting the balance of power. By 1643 the Mohegan had defeated the Narragansett in a war, and with the full support of Massachusetts, emerged as the dominant tribe in southern New England. With the French in Canada focused to the west on the fur trade from the Great Lakes, only the alliance of the Dutch and Mohawk in New York stood in their way.
Boston traders had tried unsuccessfully to lure the Mohawk away from the Dutch in 1640 by selling firearms, but the Dutch had countered with their own weapons and in the process dramatically escalated the level of violence in the Beaver Wars which were raging along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. The barrier fell when the English captured New York from the Dutch in 1664 and signed their own treaty with the Mohawk. Between 1640 to 1675 new waves of settlers arrived in New England and pushed west into native lands. While the Pilgrims usually had paid or asked permission, the Puritans were inclined to take. There was an especially large amount of immigration after 1660 when the Restoration ended the military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and Puritans were in extreme disfavor with the new English monarchy of Charles II. At the same time there had been a fundamental change in New England’s economy. After the Mohawk treaty, many of the Boston fur traders left New England and moved west to Albany near the Iroquois. No longer restrained by the possibility of war with the English, the Iroquois fell on the Algonquin in western New England and began driving them east at the same time English settlement was rapidly swallowing lands in the east.
By 1665 Native Americans in southern New England were simply in the way. The English no longer needed their wilderness skills to survive, and fishing and other commerce had largely replaced the fur and wampum trade which had been the mainstays of the colonial economy during the early years. While there was nothing to equal the devastation of 1614-20, the native population had continued to decline from continuing epidemics: 1633, 1635, 1654, 1661 and 1667. The Puritans’ “humane” solution to this after 1640 was the missionary work of John Eliot and others to convert the native population. How “humane” these efforts actually were is a matter of opinion. Converts were settled in small communities of “Praying Indians” at Natick, Nonantum, Punkapog, and other locations. Natives even partially resistant to the Puritan version of Christianity were unwelcome. Attendance at church was mandatory, clothing and hair changed to proper colonial styles, and even a hint of traditional ceremony and religion was grounds for expulsion. Tribal culture and authority disintegrated in the process.
Even Massasoit fell in with the adoption of English customs and before his death in 1661, petitioned the General Court at Plymouth to give English names to his two sons. The eldest Wamsutta was renamed Alexander, and his younger brother Metacomet became Philip. Married to Queen Weetamoo of Pocasset, Alexander became grand sachem of the Wampanoag upon the death of his father. The English were not pleased with his independent attitude, and invited him to Plymouth for “talks.” After eating a meal in Duxbury, Alexander became violently ill and died. The Wampanoag were told he died of a fever, but the records from the Plymouth Council at the time make note of an expense for poison “to rid ourselves of a pest.” The following year Metacomet (Wewesawanit) succeeded his murdered brother as grand sachem of the Wampanoag eventually becoming known to the English as King Philip.
Metacomet aka King Philip
Philip does not appear to have been a man of hate, but under his leadership, the Wampanoag attitude towards the colonists underwent a drastic change. Realizing that the English would not stop until they had taken everything, Philip was determined to prevent further expansion of English settlement, but this was impossible for the Wampanoag by themselves since they were down to only 1,000 people by this time. Travelling from his village at Mount Hope, Philip began to slowly enlist other tribes for this purpose. Even then it was a daunting task, since the colonists in New England by this time outnumbered the natives better than two to one (35,000 versus 15,000). Philip made little attempt to disguise his purpose, and through a network of spies (Praying Indians), the English knew what he was doing. Summoned to Taunton in 1671, Philip listened to accusations and signed an agreement to give up the Wampanoag’s firearms. However, he did not stay around for dinner afterwards, and the guns were never surrendered.
As English encroachment continued, Philip eventually won promises of support from the Nipmuc, Pocumtuc and Narragansett. Because the Narragansett needed time to build a supply of ammunition and guns, it appears the uprising was planned for the spring of 1676. Meanwhile, the English saw what was coming, and the tension was becoming unbearable. In January, 1675 the body of John Sassamon, a Christian Indian informer, was discovered in the ice of Assowampset Pond. Three Wampanoag warriors were arrested, tried for the murder, and hanged. After this provocation, Philip could no longer restrain his warriors, and amid rumors the English intended to arrest him, Philip held a council of war at Mount Hope. He could count on the support of most of the Wampanoag except for those on the off-shore islands. For similar reasons, the Nauset on Cape Cod would also remain neutral, but most Nipmuc and Pocumtuc were ready for war along with some of the Pennacook and Abenaki. The Narragansett, however, had not completed preparations and had been forced to sign a treaty with the English.
In late June a Wampanoag was killed near the English settlement at Swansea, and the King Philip’s War (1675-76) began. The Wampanoag attacked Swansea and ambushed an English relief column. Other raids struck near Taunton, Tiverton, and Dartmouth. Despite being forewarned and their advantage in numbers, the English were in serious trouble. Well-armed with firearms (some French, but many acquired through trade with the English themselves), the Wampanoag and their allies even had their own forges and gunsmiths. Drawing from virtually every tribe in New England, Philip commanded more than 1,000 warriors, and even the tribes who chose to remain neutral were often willing to provide food and shelter. Only the Mohegan under Oneko (Uncas’ son) remained loyal to the English. Particularly disturbing to the colonists was the defection of most of the “Praying Indians.” When Puritan missionaries attempted to gather their converts, only 500 could be found. The others had either taken to the woods or joined Philip. Their loyalty still suspect, the Praying Indians who remained were sent to the islands of Boston Harbor and other “plantations of confinement.”
The English assembled an army at Plymouth in July and marched on Philip’s village at Mount Hope (near Bristol, Rhode Island) burning every Wampanoag village enroute. They trapped the Wampanoag in a swamp on Pocasset Neck, but they managed to evacuate their women and children by canoe across the bay to the Pocasset of Queen Weetamoo (Alexander’s widow). Philip and his warriors then slipped away leaving the English besieging an empty swamp! Leaving his women and children under the care of the still-neutral Narragansett, Philip moved west into the Nipmuc country of central Massachusetts. Although English accounts usually credit Philip as being present at almost every battle in the war, this would have been physically impossible. Philip provided political leadership, while others like Anawon, Tuspaquin, Sagamore Sam (Nipmuc), and Sancumachu (Pocumtuc) led the actual attacks. From Philip’s new location in the west, the war then resumed at an even more furious pace than before. The Nipmuc raided Brookfield and Worcester and then combined with the Pocumtuc to attack settlements in the Connecticut River Valley. After a raid at Northfield, a relief force under Captain Beers was ambushed south of town and more than half killed. Three survivors were captured and burned at the stake. In September Deerfield and Hadley were attacked forcing the colonists to abandon their homes and fort-up together in Deerfield. Facing a winter without food, 80 soldiers under Captain Thomas Lothrop were dispatched with 18 teamsters to gather the abandoned crops near Hadley. All went well until the return journey, when the expedition was ambushed by the 700 Pocumtuc at Bloody Brook south of Deerfield. Another English force with 60 Mohegan warriors arrived too late and found only seven survivors.
Having dealt with the northern settlements on the Connecticut River, Philip’s warriors began to work south attacking Hatfield, Springfield, Westfield, and Northampton (three separate times). Even with the help of the Mohegan, the English in western Massachusetts were hard-pressed, and by late fall, they were on the defensive and confined to a handful of forts. By this time Philip felt confident enough to return to the Narragansett in Rhode Island and collect his women and children. Travelling west to the Connecticut River, he moved north to the vicinity of Deerfield and then west into the Berkshire Mountains where he established his winter quarters just across the border from Massachusetts at Hoosick, New York. Gaining new recruits from among the Sokoki (and even a few Mahican and Mohawk), the population of Philip’s village at Hoosick grew to more than 2,000, and the winter of 1675-76 was a long, terrible battle with hunger.
For obvious reasons, the English considered neutral tribes who helped the Wampanoag as enemies, but their efforts to stop this widened the war. At the outbreak of the fighting, the Narragansett had gathered themselves in single large fort in a swamp near Kingston, Rhode Island. Although it appeared they were on the verge of annulling their treaty with the English and entering the war on the side of Philip, the only thing they had been guilty of during the first six months of the conflict was providing shelter for Wampanoag women, children, and other non-combatants. In December of 1675, Governor Josiah Winslow of Plymouth led a 1,000 man army with 150 Mohegan scouts against the Narragansett. The English demanded the Narragansett surrender of any Wampanoag who remained and join them against Philip. When this was refused, the English attacked. Known as the Great Swamp Fight (December 19, 1675), the battle almost destroyed the Narragansett. In all they lost more than 600 warriors and at least 20 of their sachems, but the English also lost heavily to and was in no condition to pursue the Narragansett who escaped. Led by their sachem, Canonchet, many of the survivors joined Philip at Hoosick.
Philip in the meantime had attempted to bring the Mohawk into the war against New England. New York’s governor Edmund Andros was a royal appointee with little love for the Puritans in Massachusetts and at first kept his colony neutral. This changed when he learned of Philip’s efforts to enlist the Iroquois. From long experience, the Iroquois were not comfortable with the presence of a large group of heavily-armed Algonquin on their borders (they had been at war with them for more than a century), and after several Mohawk were killed near Hoosick under questionable circumstances, refused Philip’s request. Encouraged by Governor Andros, the Mohawk became hostile and forced Philip to leave New York. He relocated east to Squawkeag in the Connecticut Valley near the border of Massachusetts and Vermont. Philip did not wait for warmer weather to resume the war. In February he launched a new series of raids throughout New England using his most effective weapon …fire. Victims included: Lancaster, Medfield, Weymouth, Groton, Warwick (Rhode Island), Marlborough, Rehoboth, Plymouth, Chelmsford, Andover, Sudbury, Brookfield, Scituate, Bridgewater, and Namasket.
As English soldiers rushed about trying to cope, they fell victim to ambushes. In March Canonchet and the Narragansett almost wiped out one command (60 killed), and in another fight shortly afterwards killed 70 more. With these successes Philip was able to gather a large number of warriors at Squawkeag, but he was unable to feed them. Although he was able to raid the English with impunity and fend off the Mohawk, Philip desperately needed to clear English settlement from the area so his people could plant corn and feed themselves. For this reason, the Narragansett and Pocumtuc joined forces in attacks on Northfield and Deerfield during the spring of 1676. Both raids were ultimately repulsed with heavy losses. Meanwhile, Philip’s followers needed seed corn for spring planting. Canonchet volunteered in April for the dangerous task of returning to Rhode Island where the Narragansett had a secret cache. He succeeded, but on the return journey was captured and executed by the Mohegan.
Canonchet’s death seemed to dishearten Philip and marked the turning point of the war. Philip moved his headquarters to Mount Wachusett, but the English had finally begun to utilize Praying Indians as scouts and became more effective. In May Captain William Turner attacked a fishing camp at Turner’s Falls killing over 400 (including the Pocumtuc sachem Sancumachu). Before forced to retreat by superior numbers, the English also killed several gunsmiths and destroyed Philip’s forges. Turner lost 43 men on his retreat to Hatfield , but the damage had been done. Philip’s confederacy began to break up, and it was everyone for himself. Some Nipmuc and Pocumtuc accepted an offer of sanctuary by New York and settled with the Mahican at Schaghticook. Others joined forces with the Sokoki (western Abenaki) and moved north to Cowasuck, Missisquoi, and Odanak (St. Francois) in Quebec. Philip and the Wampanoag, however, chose to return to their homeland in southeast Massachusetts.
Throughout the summer the Wampanoag were hunted down by Captain Benjamin Church’s rangers and Praying Indian scouts. Philip went into hiding near Mount Hope, but Queen Awashonks of the Sakonett surrendered and switched sides. On August 1st Philip escaped during an attack on his village, but the English captured his wife and son who were sent as prisoners to Martha’s Vineyard. Five days later, the Pocasset were caught near Taunton, and Weetamoo (Alexander’s widow) drowned while trying to escape. The English cut off her head and put it on display in Taunton. Philip and Anawon remained in hiding in the swamp near Mount Hope until betrayed by an informer, John Alderman. Guided by Alderman, Benjamin Church’s rangers surrounded Philip on August 12th. Alderman shot and killed Philip (for which he was given one of Philip’s hands as a trophy). Philip’s corpse was beheaded and quartered. His head was displayed on a pole at Plymouth for 25 years. Anawon was captured on August 28th and later killed by a mob, and Tuspaquin was executed by firing squad after he surrendered. Philip’s wife and son were reportedly sold as slaves to the West Indies, but it appears they were instead exiled from Massachusetts and joined the Sokoki at Odanak.
The war should have ended with Philip’s death, but peace treaties were not signed for another two years. Meanwhile, the English continued to hunt down Philip’s allies and those who had helped them. An expedition under Captain Richard Waldon attacked the Nashua in the midst of peace negotiations during 1676 killing 200. The prisoners were sold as slaves. Samuel Mosely followed this with an unprovoked attack on the neutral Pennacook. Other expeditions against the Androscoggin and Ossipee finally drew the Kennebec and Penobscot of the eastern Abenaki into the war. In November, 1676 an English army attacked Squawkeag and destroyed the corn needed for the coming winter. The Sokoki withdrew north to the protection of the French in Canada, but the English had provoked the Abenaki and Sokoki into at least 50 years of hostility.
With Philip and most of their leaders dead, the Wampanoag were nearly exterminated. Only 400 survived the war. The Narragansett and Nipmuc had similar losses, and although small bands continued to live along the Connecticut River until the 1800s, the Pocumtuc disappeared as an organized group. For the English, the war was also costly: 600 killed and more than half of 90 settlements attacked with 13 destroyed. Edward Randolph, an agent of the crown, estimated 3,000 natives were killed, but his estimate appears to have been very conservative. From a pre-war native population in southern New England of 15,000, only 4,000 were left in 1680, and the harsh peace terms imposed by the English placed them in total subjugation. In what has been called the Great Dispersal, the Algonquins in southern New England fled either to the Sokoki and French in Canada, or west to the Delaware and Iroquois.
Except for the villages on the off-shore islands which had remained neutral, the surviving mainland Wampanoag after the war were relocated with the Sakonnet or mixed with the Nauset in Praying Villages in western Barnstable County. The Wampanoag community on Martha’s Vineyard has persisted to the present day, although the one on Nantucket was destroyed by an unknown epidemic in 1763. The mainland Wampanoag became increasingly concentrated near Mashpee, but Massachusetts withdrew recognition during the 1800s. Without benefit of a treaty with the United States, only the Wampanoag at Gay Head have been able to gain federal recognition.