When the Wampanoag Ousamequin, popularly remembered as Massasoit, first visited Plymouth Colony in spring 1621, the English could plainly tell that he was the leader of his people. He marched at the head of 60 armed warriors, described by Pilgrim observers as “all strong, tall, all men in appearance.” He alone wore “a great chain of white . . . beads” made of drilled, polished shells. His face paint was not black like earlier Wampanoag visitors to Plymouth, but “a sad [or deep] red,” symbolizing blood, life, and war. Later, Ousamequin gave a “great speech” in which he “named at least thirty places” under his governance.
The Wampanoag called their community chiefs “sachems,” meaning “he that goes in front.” Ousamequin certainly fit that description, but for the wider Wampanoag people, stretching across what is now southern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, he represented something more. He was a ketassachemog, or great sachem, who led the Wampanoag in foreign trade, diplomacy, and war, and collected tribute from them in exchange. He was so prominent that most people knew him not by his proper name of Ousamequin (meaning “yellow feather”), but by the title Massasoit, meaning “the highest chief that speaks on behalf.”
Ousamequin projected authority, but his influence over the Wampanoag was tenuous. It rested on his ability to defend them against foreign enemies while negotiating trade and mutual protection with allies. Sometimes it also required him to use force against domestic rivals. Such challenges were daunting normally, but, in 1620, Ousamequin had to address them amid an unprecedented three-tier crisis: recovering from a devastating and unfamiliar epidemic, simultaneously warding off attacks by Narragansett enemies, and dealing with an unexpected settlement of Englishmen. The traditional Thanksgiving story ignores this context in favor of depicting Ousamequin as inherently friendly toward the Pilgrims. That is false. Rather, he was shrewd about how to use these newcomers when his authority and the very survival of his people were in peril. (400 years on, the Pilgrims get a reality check.)
The Wampanoag world
Southern New England, where Ousamequin’s Wampanoag lived, was among the most densely populated areas of Native North America, and, as such, a site of intense political intrigue. In the early 1600s it contained an estimated 130,000 people, all speakers of closely related Algonquian languages, though they belonged to different tribes.
This large population extended from the richness of the area’s natural resources and the people’s ingenuity. Coastal New England is among the best-watered places in America, full of natural resources. There was a seemingly endless supply of saltwater and freshwater fish, shellfish, waterfowl, sea mammals, and amphibians. Estuaries contained seagrasses that could be woven into mats, baskets, and clothing. Wild fruits thrived along the tree line; inside the forest was an abundance of game and raw materials including hardwood trees and stone.
Sometime around the 14th century, southern New England Indians added corn-beans-squash horticulture to their subsistence, spurring population growth and territoriality. In turn, the people developed two new forms of political organization to address the demands of this way of life: the local sachemship and the paramount sachemship. (Cranberries were a Native American superfood.)
Local sachemships were the locus of people’s daily lives and the most stable political unit, whereas the paramount sachemship was a regional confederation that ebbed and flowed according to shared needs and strong, charismatic leaders. Nearly everyone in southern New England belonged to a town-size group of interrelated families who followed a sachem when it came to distributing planting lands, resolving disputes, and dealing with neighboring communities. A sachem consulted with a council of family representatives and other respected figures, with decisions emerging from consensus rather than majority vote. To fund political activities, the sachem collected tribute from the people in the form of crops, furs, game, and labor.
Each community also paid tribute and deference to a prominent regional figure, the ketassachemog or paramount sachem, who, with his own council, managed foreign affairs and settled disputes between the smaller polities. Today, these paramount sachemships are commonly referred to as tribes. During the early phases of colonization in southern New England, these groups included the Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, and Mohegan.
All paramount sachemships consisted of a mix of voluntary and coercive political relationships. In the case of the Wampanoag, Ousamequin’s core support came from communities along the Taunton River, which flows southwest across what is now southern Massachusetts before emptying into the northeast side of Narragansett Bay. Ousamequin’s local sachemship of Pokanoket was located right at the river’s mouth; most of the sachems along the waterway were his relatives. Yet Ousamequin’s authority was weaker among more distant sachemships on Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. His kin did not rule there, and it appears that his collection of tribute from these communities depended on compulsion.
Nevertheless, Ousamequin served an important role for all Wampanoag by leading them in war against the Narragansett, who lived on the west side of Narragansett Bay. Ousamequin said that this conflict stretched back to at least the time of his father, but he did not specify the reason. It most likely involved competition for planting grounds and tribute payers along Narragansett Bay.
The tribute would have taken the form of wampum, or shell beads, that New England Indians manufactured from local quahog (in the case of purple beads) and periwinkle and whelk (in the case of white beads). Not only were these beads a coveted status symbol, but the powerful Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (or Five Nations Iroquois) of what is now upstate New York, raided coastal peoples who did not furnish wampum for Haudenosaunee rituals. It was incumbent on the Wampanoag and Narragansett to meet the Mohawk demand in order to escape their attacks.
Tumultuous 20 years
During his early adulthood between 1600 and 1620, Ousamequin confronted not only the Narragansett but also new dangers from Europe. Europeans began exploring the southern New England coast intermittently as early as 1524 and annually every summer after 1602, 18 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims.
Europeans commonly enslaved Native Americans, sometimes to work in the Colonies, sometimes for sale overseas. In the 1600s European explorers would seize Indians for sale or training as interpreters and guides. In 1611 Englishman Edward Harlow went on a captive-taking rampage stretching from Monhegan Island in Maine south to Cape Cod. One of his victims, Epenow of Martha’s Vineyard, returned home in 1614 after three years captivity in London. Likewise, in 1614, Englishman Thomas Hunt kidnapped 27 Wampanoags in two separate incidents and sold them into slavery in Málaga, Spain. In later years, the greatest threat of enslavement to New England Indians came from the English taking them prisoner in wartime. Thousands suffered that fate. One scholar recently estimated that Europeans and Euro-Americans enslaved as many as five million indigenous Americans in the Western Hemisphere during the colonial period.
These voyages presented both opportunity and grave danger for the Wampanoag. On the one hand, Europeans offered a variety of dazzling trade goods including metal tools and weapons, brightly colored cloth, and glass beads. On the other hand, Europeans tended to respond violently to real or imagined Indian threats. Additionally, Europeans often used trade as a pretense to take Indigenous people captive, either for slavery or for training as interpreters for future voyages. With the Wampanoag experiencing at least a dozen murderous clashes and abductions at the hands of the English and French before 1619, they soon learned to shoot first and ask questions later when sailing vessels appeared.
Remarkably, two Wampanoag captives managed to return home, after which they counseled their people about how to respond to the Pilgrims. The first was a Vineyard Wampanoag named Epenow, who was seized by English captain Edward Harlow in 1611. He spent three years in London before deceiving his captors that he could lead them to gold back in America. As soon as the ship carrying him reached familiar waters, he escaped. His ordeal made him an inveterate enemy of the English, including Plymouth Colony.
Another Wampanoag returnee was Tisquantum, better known today as Squanto. Tisquantum was one of two dozen Wampanoags seized in 1614 by the English and sold into slavery in Spain. Freed by Spanish friars and then brought to London by English merchants, five years later Tisquantum also orchestrated his way back home. He would go on to become Ousamequin’s interpreter and ambassador to the Pilgrims. However, first he had to confront the horror that had spread over Wampanoag country during his absence.
Between 1616 and 1619, an epidemic ravaged the Wampanoag as well as the Massachusett and Abenaki peoples to their north. Scholars have not been able to identify the specific disease (the best guess is smallpox). More certain is that the loss of life was incredible. Some Indians said that upwards of nine-tenths of their people had died. Afterward, unburied skeletons littered the landscape.
Entire villages disappeared as the survivors abandoned the scenes of this nightmare. The lost communities included Tisquantum’s home of Patuxet, on the very site where the English would later found Plymouth. What made things even worse for Ousamequin and the Wampanoag was that they were now vulnerable to the Narragansett, who had been spared this plague.
What was the mystery illness?
Between 1616 and 1619, an epidemic struck the New England coast and devastated local, closely knit populations. The only firsthand accounts of it come from the Englishmen Richard Vines and Thomas Dermer, both of whom referred to it as “the plague,” a term which could refer to epidemics generally as well as to the bubonic plague specifically. The noted symptoms did not match those of the Black Death; Dermer described “sores” and “spots.” Years later in 1671, missionary Daniel Gookin asked some Native elders to identify the disease, but they could only say “that their bodies all over were exceedingly yellow, describing it by a yellow garment.” Gookin conceded, “What this disease was . . . I cannot well learn,” though “doubtless it was some pestilential disease.” Scholars have proposed different culprits, including malignant confluent smallpox whose symptoms include not only the headache, spots, and sores but also the yellowing of the skin. The only thing that is known for certain is that Indians died in great numbers while Europeans seemed resistant to the disease.
Alliance with the English
Ousamequin was conflicted about the English of the Mayflower who landed on Cape Cod in November 1620 and then settled at the site of Patuxet. Many Wampanoag, particularly those of Cape Cod and the islands who had long suffered European raiding and slaving, favored wiping out the newcomers. It did not help the Pilgrims’case that they introduced themselves by ransacking several vacant Wampanoag summer villages, including stealing a load of seed corn, desecrating some graves, and then engaging in a shoot-out with Wampanoag bowmen.
At the same time, Ousamequin saw value in these outsiders. The Wampanoag would clearly benefit if they could employ firearms, metal weaponry, and even English soldiers against the Narragansett. Establishing control over the flow of English trade goods might even enable Ousamequin to maintain the loyalty of Wampanoag communities at risk of defecting to the Narragansett. Ultimately, he concluded that engaging these strangers was worth the risk given the alternative of subjugation to the Narragansett.
Ousamequin first visited Plymouth in the early spring of 1621 after closely observing the colony for months. Fortunately, he had the services of two English-speaking Indians, Tisquantum and Samoset (an Abenaki who had learned English from European fishermen). Through their strained translations, Ousamequin and the Pilgrims reached an agreement of mutual defense and trade, followed months later by the English sending a delegation to Ousamequin’s village. To the English, this alliance was the first glimmer of hope that their weak colony might survive. Little did they know that Ousamequin’s position was also fragile. (One film's efforts to preserve Native American languages in the Thanksgiving story.)
Ousamequin would not have reached out to the English without a base of support, but he still faced opposition to his policy from within the Wampanoag ranks. In the summer of 1621, a dissident Wampanoag sachem named Corbitant, backed by other leaders from Cape Cod and the islands, threatened Ousamequin’s life and briefly took Tisquantum captive. The English, in what amounted to the first real test of the alliance, rushed to Ousamequin’s defense and helped put out this fire. The question remained not if but when it would flare up again.
It was in this charged context that the so-called first Thanksgiving took place. Contrary to popular tellings, it did not involve inherently friendly Indians attending a formal dinner at the invitation of the English and then granting them their lands. Rather, 90 Wampanoag men led by Ousamequin showed up unexpectedly at Plymouth in the fall of 1621 upon hearing the colonists’ celebratory gunfire to mark their first successful harvest. The Wampanoag had rushed to the colony’s defense out of fear that it was under Narragansett attack. They wound up staying for what turned into an impromptu state dinner. Neither group appears to have attributed much significance to this occasion, though it certainly strengthened their relationship. (Explore the facts and fictions about American Thanksgiving.)
Challenges to the alliance
They would need it, for stark challenges to this partnership remained. By the next spring, Ousamequin had grown alienated from Plymouth because it refused his demand to turn over Tisquantum, who had been trying to draw off Ousamequin’s followers with the threat that he could control the English and their diseases. It took Tisquantum dying of an unknown ailment in November 1622 to defuse this crisis, but Ousamequin’s resentment lingered. He regained his trust of Plymouth months later only after Plymouth’s Edward Winslow doctored him through a bout of what was likely the same disease that killed Tisquantum.
Ousamequin signaled his ongoing friendship by sharing the alarming news that a group of Wampanoag and Massachusett sachems were plotting to wipe out Plymouth and an English fur trade post on Massachusetts Bay. He urged the English to assassinate two Massachusett sachems, who he claimed were the ringleaders. The Pilgrims readily obliged, which, as Ousamequin undoubtedly had anticipated, terrified the Wampanoag who been challenging his rule. Afterward, the dissident sachems came into Plymouth one by one to proclaim their alliance. More important to Ousamequin, henceforth they deferred to his leadership and paid him tribute.
A Different Path
Access to the English granted power to whomever had it, and Tisquantum (Squanto) may have been plotting to take it from Ousamequin. Plymouth’s own records suggest as much. The English believed Tisquantum sought to “make himself great in the eyes of his countrymen . . . not caring who fell, so he stood.” He also seemed to have wanted Native people to think “he could lead us to peace or war, at his pleasure.” Through these machinations, he extracted gifts from a number of local sachems “to work their peace,” which had been the role of Ousamequin. Some historians have dismissed Tisquantum as an opportunist, but perhaps he grasped the long-term danger posed by Europeans. He had traveled to European cities and possessed firsthand knowledge of how greed, religion, and technology not only propelled them across the oceans but also equipped them to sustain struggles against Indigenous adversaries. Tisquantum might have thought his experience better prepared him than Ousamequin—or anyone else—to lead his people in the face of this challenge.
Ousamequin’s gamble of aligning with Plymouth produced mixed results. In the short term, it had the desired effect of achieving Wampanoag independence from the Narragansett, enriching his followers with English goods, and consolidating his authority. In the long term, however, the consequences were disastrous. The migration of several thousand Englishmen to the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1629 and 1640 spilled over into Plymouth Colony and generated constant pressure on the Wampanoag to cede land.
Ousamequin sold the English huge tracts of territory in the mistaken expectation that they would respect the Wampanoag Indians’ continued use of the land and his jurisdiction. By the time he realized his error, the English already outnumbered the Wampanoag and controlled most of their country. Meanwhile, the Wampanoag of Cape Cod and the islands began hosting English missionaries despite Ousamequin’s outspoken opposition to Christianity, which they then parlayed into cutting off their tribute payments to Ousamequin’s sons and successors, Wamsutta and Pumetacom.
The sachem was reluctant to push back too forcefully because the English had responded to provocations by the Pequot in 1636-37 by massacring hundreds of those people and enslaving the survivors. It had taken barely 20 years before it was apparent that Ousamequin’s alliance with Plymouth had been a Trojan horse for an English invasion.
After Ousamequin died in 1661, his sons began forging an anticolonial military alliance of Indian peoples, including the Narragansett. When asked to explain why, Pumetacom, whom the English called King Philip, evoked the memory of his father. He recalled that “when the English first came, [Ousamequin] was a great man and the English as a little child.” What Pumetacom meant was that though the Wampanoag were far stronger than the colonists initially, Ousamequin did not exploit this advantage. Instead, “he had been the first in doing good to the English,” as if he were their father. After all, he “constrained other Indians from wronging the English, gave them corn, and showed them how to plant . . . and let them have 100 times more land than now the king [Pumetacom] had for his own people.”
Ousamequin’s protection had enabled the English to grow from a proverbial little child to a great man in just 50 years, but they did not return the favor. Instead, they pushed the Wampanoag toward landlessness, servitude, and subjection. In 1675 Pumetacom, his people, and their Native allies chose to fight rather than accept this fate, in what became known as King Philip’s War. The English, with a great deal of Native assistance, won this contest and did indeed subjugate the Indian survivors, many of whose ancestors remain in southern New England to this day. If Ousamequin could have known this result, he certainly would have chosen another path.