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Massasoit (died 1661) was a principal leader of the Wampanoag people in the early 1600s who encouraged friendship with English settlers. As leader of the Wampanoag, Massasoit exercised control over a number of Indian groups that occupied lands from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod in present-day Massachusetts.
In concluding his article on Massasoit for the Dictionary of American Biography, James Truslow Adams sums up the standard view of this influential New England chief: "Always inclined to peace, even among his own race, Massassoit remained a faithful friend to the English throughout his entire life." Though there is a large measure of truth to this opinion, along with generations of schoolbooks presenting a eupeptic and rather bland portrait of Massasoit, it also misses many of the likely conflicts both within this powerful Indian leader and swirling about him.
Massasoit and the Pilgrims
As to the bare facts of the matter, from his home village in Pokanoket, near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island, Massasoit held sway over a number of related tribes in southeastern New England. Some months after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620, the Indian leader appeared in the new colony and offered friendship. After some negotiations, the chief signed a peace treaty with the English, one vowing nonaggression and mutual defense in case either were attacked. It was a treaty and a friendship that Massasoit would keep for the next 40 years of his life.
Over the decades, the two groups exchanged amiable visits. When Massasoit took ill, Plymouth sent emissaries on the two-day trek through the forest to Pokanoket to help cure their ally. On several occasions, Massasoit or his fellow Wampanoags probably saved the colonists from slaughter by warning them of mischief brewing in warring tribes. When Roger Williams, a renegade religious thinker forced out of the rigid theocracy of the English towns, appeared cold and starving at Massasoit's door, the chief took the desperate man in and made him welcome.
Little is known personally of Massasoit except that he was physically vigorous and when treating with the whites "grave of countenance and spare of speech." Still, as might be expected, when in March of 1621 the great chief first appeared at the head of 60 warriors, face painted red and wearing a thick necklace of white beads, the sign of his authority, on a hill overlooking the hovels of tiny Plymouth, striking fear into the little band of Europeans huddled below, much more was going on than the beginning of friendship between a good-souled Anglophile holding out the olive branch and the English settlers eager to return the gesture to their new Indian brothers.
For his part, despite his authority, Massasoit was in a threatened state. Disease had recently swept through the tribe, ravaging his people. And he had enemies eager to take advantage of the sharp reduction in the number of his warriors. To the west, across Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay roved the powerful Narragansett tribe, eager to slaughter both Massasoit and the Wampanoags. To the east, the English, whatever their troubles, were rumored to have valuable trade goods and strange, new, fire-breathing weapons. Caught in the middle, then, between his traditional enemies to the west and the English on the coast to the east, Massasoit may well have thought he had little choice than to throw in his lot with the potentially helpful newcomers.
As to the situation of the English, when the Mayflower sailed back to England in the winter of 1620, it left behind a group of men, women, and children almost totally unprepared to deal with the realities of their new situation in a wild land. Around them as they shivered in their brush huts against the New England cold was the "howling wilderness," an endless, impenetrable forest full of, so they had heard, bloodthirsty savages, wolves, and, some thought, devils. The new settlers knew neither how to hunt, fish, plant, or build adequate shelters. They had few supplies to carry them through to spring. In their grinding circumstances, staying alive itself became the foremost issue. One by one they started dying of malnutrition, disease, and gnawing hunger. Only half of them survived that first winter, and those who remained, weakened, confused, had little hope for the future. It seemed they would soon all be gone, dying thousands of miles from home on this wild, foreign shore, their bones dragged into the forest by the fierce beasts who would consume their dead flesh.
Thus, when Massasoit and his 60 warriors stepped out of the wilderness and stood on the hilltop fearsomely looking down on Plymouth, and the few able-bodied colonists left scrambled for their guns, then slowly realized they were confronting not enemies capable of killing off the remainder of the weakened settlers but friendly human beings who would give them food in exchange for baubles and, on top of that, help protect them against marauding tribes, Massasoit seemed a Godsend, a blessing sent by Providence.
Massasoit and Squanto
What we have, then, in this meeting is not so much two human groups coming together in mutual benignity but in pledged cooperation, each for its own, self-serving advantages. Actually, the situation was far more convoluted than the immediate interactions of these two, small groups, and to catch the complexities requires some comment on the historical background behind the meeting of Massasoit and the colonists. Insights into this can be seen in the related story of Squanto, famous to schoolchildren for helping the Plymouth settlers even before the friendship with Massasoit began.
Years before, in 1614, an English sea captain had kidnapped a number of Indians in the area where the Plymouth colonists would later land and sold them as slaves in Spain. Through a fantastic turn of events, monks ransomed Squanto, who made his way to England and from there gained passage to his homeland. To his dismay, however, upon his arrival Squanto found his home village abandoned, ravaged by disease. Tribeless, he became a subject of Massasoit. When a year later the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto stepped out of the forest to greet them in English, and through his woodcraft he helped them survive their harsh conditions. Squanto's earlier friendship, then, helped ease the way for the friendship of the far more powerful Massasoit. Whatever the twists and turns of Squanto's story, it illustrates a larger set of negative circumstances. European contact with the Indians in the New England area had gone on for decades before the colonists set foot on Plymouth Rock, and it often was not kindly. Not only kidnappings and other violence took place between the sea captains and fishermen touching the New England shore and the Indians they met, but the Europeans unwittingly introduced diseases, among them smallpox, typhus, and measles. Lacking immunity to the new maladies, whole Indian villages fell before wave on wave of virulent epidemics sweeping up and down the coast. Understandably, most of the Indians, even those who had not yet seen white men, considered the newcomers to be both ruthless deprecators and bearers of deadly illnesses. In short, Indian societies already were in an unfriendly turmoil upon the colonist's arrival, and in light of this Massasoit's friendship was the decided exception.
Given the problems, despite some earnest efforts at good will, such as Massasoit's, the situation almost inevitably became worse. New colonists starting other settlements cared nothing about an old, carefully nurtured friendship. Land-poor in Europe, they had not pulled up stakes and risked the dangerous, months-long voyage across the stormy Atlantic Ocean to be restrained upon their arrival. What they wanted was land of their own, land that seemed theirs for the taking, except for the obstacles the native peoples, waxing ever fiercer in their resistance as the pressures of the invasion increased, represented. Further complicating the situation was the diversity of the settlers and the consequent rivalry among them. Originally conceived as a religious community with central and, hence, consistent, authority, Plymouth soon found itself assailed by Englishmen with a variety of often conflicting sacred and secular notions. In light of the turmoil within the white community itself, it was impossible to carry out a humane and consistent policy toward the Indians. Massive, bloody conflict was all but inevitable.
In the face of these building pressures and loss of land to the new colonists, Massasoit kept mending his good relations with the whites. In hindsight, depending on the perspective one wishes to take, the chief of the Wampanoags might be seen as exchanging his people's birthright for the trade goods, renown, and personal power he gained against the enemy Narragansetts through his associations with the whites. Whatever one's view, however, in Massasoit's friendship lies one of the grand ironies of New England history. Massasoit had taken a minority position by casting his fortunes with the English. As pressures against the Indians mounted, many of them resolved to unite and either drive out the invaders or die in the attempt. In this the peacemaker Massasoit became an unwilling instrument. Fourteen years after his death, his son Philip angrily burst into patriotic fervor and flew to the opposite extreme of his father by becoming the leader of what is known as King Philip's War, the bloodiest Indian-white conflict to rake New England.
Further Reading on Massasoit
Adams, James Truslow, "Massasoit," in Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 6, Part 2, New York, Scribner's, 1933; 380-381.
Biographical Dictionary of Indians of the Americas, Volume 1, Newport Beach, American Indian Publishers, 1991; 400-401.
Peirce, Ebenezer W., Indian History, Biography, and Genealogy: Pertaining to the Good Sachem Massasoit, North Abington, Zerviah Gould Mitchell, 1878.
Weeks, Alvin Gardner, Massasoit of the Wampanoags, Fall River, privately printed, 1919.
Wood, Norman B., Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, Aurora, American Indian Historical Publishing Company, 1906; 65-84. □