Massasoit's strategic diplomacy kept peace with the Pilgrims for decades

Facing threats from local rivals and deadly epidemics, the Native American leader used his alliance with the English to protect his people.

Massasoit statue in Plymouth, Massachusetts
JOHN GREIM/AGE FOTOSTOCK

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.)

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