On November 21, 1620, the Pilgrims were a new people in a new land. Winter was approaching and they had little time to prepare. After 66 days at sea, they stepped out into a rocky, cold and inhospitable land. The Pilgrims had barely survived their first winter and were unsure of how they would make it through the spring of 1621. However, they were not alone in the New World.
In the 1600s, the Wampanoag Confederacy lived in southeastern Massachusetts, including the Islands of Cape Cod, and Rhode Island. The Confederation consisted of over 50 groups, which included the Pawtuxet and their population numbered close to 12,000. The Wampanoag, ”People of the First Light” were a semi-sedentary people with a head sachem as their leader. The Wampanoag tribesmen first encountered the English around 1614. And, as a result of these early encounters, some of its members were kidnapped, killed or sold into slavery. The Plymouth branch of the Pawtuxet was wiped out by disease secondary to exposure from European exposure.
From reports, the first reported encounter between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims occurred on December 18, 1620. While scouting the New World, a group of Pilgrim men were attacked by a group of Wampanoag. Using musket fire, the attack ended.
Over time, the Pilgrims would find baskets of seeds left for them. There were no major conflicts between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims in the early years of the Plymouth settlement.
The Spring of 1621
When the Pilgrims barely survived their first winter in the New World, the Head Sachem of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, sent Samoset to investigate the Europeans intentions. On March 16, 1621, the settlers were more than surprised when Samoset, a minor chief of the Abenanki tribe of Maine, entered their settlement and spoke English to them. After some time, Samoset returned to Massasoit with a report. Soon, Massasoit sent Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, to assist the Pilgrims.
Squanto lived with the Pilgrims and taught them how to grow and catch food. Many school children are told the story of how Squanto showed the Pilgrim farmers how to plant corn in the rocky soil. Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to find edible native foods, such as berries and nuts. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to hunt deer, bears and turkeys and how to catch fish using nets.
Peace Treaties and Alliances
On a warm day in spring, Samoset and Squanto returned to the Plymouth settlement. When they arrived they brought skins and rations. They explained that the Head sachem of their tribe, Massasoit wanted to enter into an agreement regarding trade and peace.
Instead of sending Governor John Carver to speak with Massasoit, the Pilgrims sent Edward Winslow to serve as diplomatic ambassador and went to Massasoit. Winslow wrote of his the encounter in his journal as follows:
“We sent to the King a payre of Knives, and a Copper Chayne, with a jewell at it. To Quadequina we sent likewise a Knife and a Jewell to hang in his eare, and withall a Pot of strong water, a good quantity of Bisket, and some butter, which were all accepted: our Messenger [Winslow] made a speech unto him, that King James saluted him with words of love and Peace, and did accept him as his Friend and Alie, and that our Governour desired to see him and to trucke with him, and to confirme a Peace with him, and his next neighbour: he liked well of the speech and heard it attentively, though the Interpreters did not well expresse it; after he had eaten and drunke himselfe, and given the rest to his company, he looked upon his messengers sword and armour which he had on, with intimation of his desire to buy it, but on the other side, our messenger shewed his unwillingness to part with it: In the end he left him in the custodie of Quadequina his brother, and came over the brooke, and some twentie men following him, leaving all their Bowes and Arrowes behind them. We kept six or seaven as hostages for our messenger.”
With some pomp and circumstance, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag met and ironed out an agreement. The treaty of mutual support they negotiated covered everything from mutual consideration, cessation of any harm or hostilities, and aid in times of war. The treaty created a unique relationship and bond between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, and lasted for more than 50 years.
The First Thanksgiving
Through Squanto efforts the Pilgrims had a wonderful harvest in the fall of 1621. Unlike the prior winter, the Pilgrims would have sufficient food and better survive the winter. The Pilgrims were grateful to good and the Wampanoag for their help. In celebration, the Pilgrims invited their Wampanoag friends to feast with them. The 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag tribesmen gathered.
Similar to the Wampanoag celebration called Nikkommo, the Pilgrims offered their own Thanksgiving feast. There was plenty of food- fish, deer, boiled vegetables, stewed squash and pumpkins, duck, geese and wild turkey. During the three day celebration, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag sang and danced.
By 1624, the Plymouth Colony grew from 50 men, women and children to almost 200. However, by the 1630s, the Plymouth Colony was absorbed by the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded by Puritans from England. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had a different view of the Wampanoag and other Native Americans and were less friendly and cooperative.
Over time, the European expansion continued and many members to the Wampanoag nation succumbed to epidemics and declining numbers. Some Wampanoag converted to Christianity, modified their way of life and turned to trade with the new settlers and adopted English as their language.
Their relationship with the Wampanoag was crucial to the Pilgrims survival in the New World. The Wampanoag shared knowledge and friendship with the First Comers, which created a brief, but peaceful period in the New World.
There are a number of resources for children and adults available that offer more information on this subject. Local libraries and book stores offer resources. In addition, there are a number of useful web sites as well, such as: