Massasoit, Wampanoag Leader

During the first part of the seventeenth century, the Wampanoag Confederacy controlled a large portion of what is now New England. Wampanoag territory ranged from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod. The leader of this confederacy during the first part of the seventeenth century was Massasoit, who is generally described as the Great Sachem. His main village was located near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island.

The Wampanoag were hit hard by the epidemics which swept through New England in 1616-1619. Prior to the epidemics it is estimated that there were 24,000 people living in Indian communities affiliated with the Wampanoag confederacy led by Massasoit. As a result of the epidemics, 75% of the population died.

With the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1621, Massasoit saw an opportunity to increase the power of the Wampanoag confederacy. By signing a treaty of mutual support and protection with the Pilgrims, Massasoit insured that there would be peaceful relations with these people, but more importantly, this alliance would give the Wampanoag better access to European trade goods. With these goods, particularly firearms, the Wampanoag were able to increase their power among the tribes in the region. Historian John Humins, in an article in New England Quarterly, writes:

“This treaty was a bold move by the Wampanoag sagamore, who, as a result, bolstered his economic, military, and political control. He may well have assumed that the pact made the newcomers members of his confederation.”

Writer Frank Waters, in his book Brave are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten, describes Massasoit:

“He wore a deerskin robe and a great chain of white beads to which were fastened a long knife and a leather tobacco pouch.”

In 1621, Massasoit had two of this people—Hobomok and Squanto—teach the Pilgrims agricultural techniques. Without these lessons and without the food supplied to them by the Indians, it is doubtful that the little colony would have survived. That fall, following the harvest, Massasoit brought 60-100 Wampanoag to Plymouth for a traditional harvest feast and with this action set the pattern for a holiday which Americans would later call Thanksgiving. The Wampanoag brought with them five deer to provide venison for the feast, as well as turkey, geese, ducks, eels, shellfish, cornbread, succotash, squash, berries, wild plums, and maple sugar.

In 1621 there was a rumor that Massasoit had been captured by the Pocasset sachem Corbitant. Squanto, Hobamok, and Tokamahomon, who were living with the Pilgrims, went to Corbitant’s village where they found that the rumor was not true, but Corbitant took them captive. Hobamok managed to escape and told the English who then attacked the village, wounding several Indians and freeing Squanto and Tokamahomon. Massasoit then negotiated a peace between the English and the Pocasset.

In 1622, the Narragansett sent a bundle of arrows tied with a snake skin to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The Pilgrims interpreted this message as a challenge and returned the skin with bullets in it. Historian John Humins reports:

“By doing so, the Pilgrims committed a major diplomatic blunder: they ignored Hobamok’s urgings to confer with Massasoit before responding.”

In 1623, Massasoit became sick and was treated by English physicians. At this time, he warned the Pilgrims that some of the tribes—Narragansett, Massachuset, and some Wampanoag—were plotting against the settlers. Massasoit’s war chief, Annawan, led a series of raids against the insurgent groups.

Over the years, however, Massasoit found that his alliance with English was not beneficial to his people. With the great English hunger for land, more and more Wampanoag land was taken from them. When the Indians complained, they were punished by the English courts who viewed them as trespassers on their own homelands.

Massasoit died in 1661 and the peace which he had helped forge with the Europeans began to crumble. His son Alexander (Wamsutta) became the Grand Sachem briefly. Then his other son Philip (Metacom) became Grand Sachem and led the Wampanoag into the uprising against the English known as King Philip’s War.

American Indian Biography: Masasoit, Wampanoag Leader

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

During the first part of the seventeenth century, the Wampanoag Confederacy controlled a large portion of what is now New England. Wampanoag territory ranged from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod. The leader of this confederacy during the first part of the seventeenth century was Massasoit, who is generally described as the Great Sachem. His main village was located near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island.  

The Wampanoag were hit hard by the epidemics which swept through New England in 1616-1619. Prior to the epidemics it is estimated that there were 24,000 people living in Indian communities affiliated with the Wampanoag confederacy led by Massasoit. As a result of the epidemics, 75% of the population died.

With the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1621, Massasoit saw an opportunity to increase the power of the Wampanoag confederacy. By signing a treaty of mutual support and protection with the Pilgrims, Massosoit insured that there would be peaceful relations with these people, but more importantly, this alliance would give the Wampanoag better access to European trade goods. With these goods, particularly firearms, the Wampanoag were able to increase their power among the tribes in the region.

In 1621, Massasoit had two of this people-Hobomok and Squanto-teach the Pilgrims agricultural techniques. Without these lessons and without the food supplied to them by the Indians, it is doubtful that the little colony would have survived. That fall, following the harvest, Massasoit brought 60-100 Wampanoag to Plymouth for a traditional harvest feast and with this action set the pattern for a holiday which Americans would later call Thanksgiving. The Wampanoag brought with them five deer to provide venison for the feast, as well as turkey, geese, ducks, eels, shellfish, cornbread, succotash, squash, berries, wild plums, and maple sugar.

In 1621 there was a rumor that Massasoit had been captured by the Pocasset sachem Corbitant. Squanto, Hobamok, and Tokamahomon, who were living with the Pilgrims, went to Corbitant’s village where they found that the rumor was not true, but Corbitant took them captive. Hobamok managed to escape and told the English who then attacked the village, wounding several Indians and freeing Squanto and Tokamahomon. Massasoit then negotiated a peace between the English and the Pocasset.

In 1623, Massasoit became sick and was treated by English physicians. At this time, he warned the Pilgrims that some of the tribes-Narragansett, Massachuset, and some Wampanoag-were plotting against the settlers. Massasoit’s war chief, Annawan, led a series of raids against the insurgent groups.

Over the years, however, Massasoit found that his alliance with English was not beneficial to his people. With the great English hunger for land, more and more Wampanoag land was taken from them. When the Indians complained, they were punished by the English courts who viewed them as trespassers on their own homelands.

Massasoit died in 1661 and his son Alexander (Wamsutta) became the Grand Sachem briefly. Then his other son Philip (Metacom) became Grand Sachem and led the Wampanoag into the uprising against the English known as King Philip’s War.  

How I Learned to Savor Thanksgiving

I’ve again been entreated by numerous people to post the Thanksgiving Diary that I’ve put up here the past four years. I’m reposting a slightly edited version of last year’s entry. For those of you who’ve read it before, I apologize.

• • •

I forced myself to watch the History Channel’s Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower last weekend. I don’t feel as if I totally wasted my time. Including performances and interviews of some Wampanoags, descendants of the indigenes who saw the Pilgrims make landfall 388 years ago, made the program a good deal more palatable than it might have been.

I would have preferred a bit more about how one reason the Pilgrims were “persecuted” in England and Holland was because of their efforts to get everyone to comply with their own crabbed view of religion. Something they and the Puritans who followed them also did here in America. Not dissimilar from what some modern day others would like to do now. But what an improvement the program was over past efforts.

For the past few years, my wife – who supervises the largest English as a Second Language program in the United States – and I have had numerous conversations with Los Angelenos of various ethnic and religious backgrounds about the turkey they’ll be eating three days from now. Doesn’t matter if they’re originally from Senegal or Guatemala, Belarus or Vietnam, Scotland or China, it’s the same story with all of them: turkey has to be on the table.

Not that it’ll be a traditional turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and yams and stuffing. Trimmings can range from Libyan tajeen to a cold Vietnamese egg soup whose name I’ve forgotten. And everybody’s bird seems to be done just a little differently. Two years ago, I got to taste Thai turkey, which is definitely not for mild palates.

I don’t buy the “melting pot” theory of American history, nor am I a sappy kind of guy. On the other hand, since I had my Thanksgiving “conversion,” I’ve found something distinctly appealing, yes, even uplifting, about this widespread integration of cultures through the medium of food and family get-together.

I love conversation, I love food and I love celebrations. This year, as last, we’ll be celebrating with friends at the Santa Clara Pueblo home of a college friend. A few years ago, I wouldn’t’ve done this.

Because, when I was a child, we never celebrated Thanksgiving. My grandfather forbade it. A white man’s holiday based on white men’s lies, he said. His take on the holiday was no distortion. But his opposition to commemoration was doubly disappointing for me. I was born on Thanksgiving. Actually, November 28. But, that year, 1946, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th, and ever since, it’s been my designated birthday, whatever the actual date.

While other kids, including other kids with Indian roots, celebrated Thanksgiving with all kinds of food, our house might as well have been shrouded in crepe. Based on what made it to our table, I think he may even have told my grandmother to cook less than usual. Nobody grumbled. My grandfather was an honest, principled man, but quick-tempered, and although he rejected almost every other teaching in the Bible, he believed fully in the bit that sparing the rod would spoil the child. We were not spoiled.

We left the South and my grandfather when I was 9. I had half a dozen guests at my first-ever birthday party – on Thanksgiving Day – when I was 12. I was ecstatic. Thereafter, until my senior year in high school, I celebrated Thanksgiving and my birthday with a party. Cake and turkey. It was then, 45 years ago, that I began reading in earnest about America’s historical treatment of indigenous people, including my ancestors.

That year, November 28 again fell on Thanksgiving. But I didn’t celebrate. No party. And that’s the way it was for the next 29 years, during which I reiterated my grandfather’s warning. He had not been mistaken about the holiday being founded on the fruits of mass murder instead of some friendly, integrated get-together.

The Wampanoags who arrived on what many of us were taught in school was the “first” Thanksgiving, were not invited to the feast with the Plymouth Pilgrims in 1621 after having rescuing them from certain starvation. Massasoit and about 90 of his men just showed up. What followed, we are told, was three days of eating and entertainment, much of which included large quantities of beer. The tension was surely palpable. In the sole firsthand, contemporaneous account we have, nobody called it “thanksgiving.” Not long afterward, in an act of raw treachery that was precursor to a thousand others over the years, Captain Myles Standish, military commander of Plymouth colony – determined to make a pre-emptive strike against a non-existent military threat – strode into a Wampanoag village with his men on the pretext of trading. He left with the severed head of Wituwamat, which he stuck on a wooden spike at Plymouth.

The real first Thanksgiving was declared in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, he of the famous “city upon a hill” speech. That celebration capped off the Mystic, Connecticut, massacre of 400-700 Pequots, southern neighbors of the Wampanoags, remnants of a tribe already deeply wounded by epidemics of smallpox and measles. Survivors were executed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. Proclaimed Winthrop, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

The descendants of Massasoit’s Wampanoags who had sat down in 1621 were treated to their own slaughter during King Philip’s War 54 years later. After decades of being pushed off their old lands, the Wampanoag were led in resistance by “King Philip,” known among his own people as Metacom. When the year of fighting was over, his wife and son were captured and sold into slavery in Bermuda. Metacom was decapitated and his head publicly displayed for more than 20 years. Once again, survivors were executed or sold into slavery, with a bounty of 20 shillings offered for every Indian scalp and 40 shillings for any captive able-bodied enough for enslavement.

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed:

“…It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions:

The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour…”

That slaughter of “heathens” and the round-up of survivors which followed allowed more European immigrants to squat on what had once been Indian land. It was a theme that kept being repeated for the next 220 years right across America. My own people – Seminoles, an amalgam of Creeks, Apalachees, runaway slaves and “renegade” whites – eventually fought three wars, and kept a few slivers of their traditional lands, although most were force-marched to “Indian Territory,” where their descendants still live today.

Every year, I ranted about these brutal injustices, about the hypocrisy of Thanksgiving, and the fate of the people who suddenly were in the way. And then, 14 years ago, I let it go. Not that I changed my mind about the atrocities that had occurred or the lies that had been told about them. Far from it. Not that I became enamored with the foolish iconography of Thanksgiving, including elementary school displays of construction paper Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands. Not that I did not and do not fully understand the feelings of those who cannot bring themselves past their rage at this celebration which has been given a full platter of historical up-is-downism.

But I got tired of missing out on the celebration and the food … and I missed having a birthday party. And I realized, finally, that I also had missed the point that this holiday can be a healer, a remembrance of our roots but with our eyes on the present and the future. So, this year, as in the past few, I’ll be together with some of my best friends, white, red and black. As we have for several Thanksgivings, we’ll tell the children (and grandchildren) the true story of Thanksgiving.

And we’ll give thanks that we live in a country where remembering the past need not shackle us to it.  

How I Learned to Savor Thanksgiving

What follows is a heavily edited version of my last year’s Diary on Thanksgiving.

I forced myself to watch the History Channel’s Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower last weekend. I don’t feel as if I totally wasted my time. Including performances and interviews of some Wampanoags, descendants of the indigenes who saw the Puritans make landfall 387 years ago, made the program a good deal more palatable than it might have been.

I would have preferred a bit more about how one reason the Pilgrims were “persecuted” in England and Holland was because of their efforts to get everyone to comply with their own crabbed view of religion. Something they also did here in America. Not dissimilar from what some modern day others would like to do now. But what an improvement the program was over past efforts.

For the past few years, my wife – who supervises the largest English as a Second Language program in the United States – and I have had numerous conversations with Los Angelenos of various ethnic and religious backgrounds about the turkey they’ll be eating three days from now. Doesn’t matter if they’re originally from Senegal or Guatemala, Belarus or Vietnam, Scotland or China, it’s the same story with all of them: turkey has to be on the table.

Not that it’ll be a traditional turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and yams and stuffing. Trimmings can range from Libyan tajeen to a cold Vietnamese egg soup whose name I’ve forgotten. And everybody’s bird seems to be done just a little differently. Two years ago, I got to taste Thai turkey, which is definitely not for mild palates.

I don’t buy the “melting pot” theory of American history, nor am I a sappy kind of guy. On the other hand, since I had my Thanksgiving “conversion,” I’ve found something distinctly appealing, yes, even uplifting, about this widespread integration of cultures through the medium of food and family get-together.

I love conversation, I love food and I love celebrations. This year, as last, we’ll be celebrating with friends at the Santa Clara Pueblo home of a college friend. A few years ago, I wouldn’t’ve done this.

Because, when I was a child, we never celebrated Thanksgiving. My grandfather forbade it. A white man’s holiday based on white men’s lies, he said. His take on the holiday was no distortion. But his opposition to commemoration was doubly disappointing for me. I was born on Thanksgiving. Actually, November 28. But, that year, 1946, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th, and ever since, it’s been my designated birthday, whatever the actual date.

While other kids, including other kids with Indian roots, celebrated Thanksgiving with all kinds of food, our house might as well have been shrouded in crepe. Based on what made it to our table, I think he may even have told my grandmother to cook less than usual. Nobody grumbled. My grandfather was an honest, principled man, but quick-tempered, and although he rejected almost every other teaching in the Bible, he believed fully in the bit that sparing the rod would spoil the child. We were not spoiled.

We left the South and my grandfather when I was 10. I had half a dozen guests at my first-ever birthday party – on Thanksgiving Day – when I was 12. I was ecstatic. Thereafter, until my senior year in high school, I celebrated Thanksgiving and my birthday with a party. Cake and turkey. It was then, 44 years ago, that I began reading in earnest about America’s historical treatment of indigenous people, including my ancestors.

That year, November 28 again fell on Thanksgiving. But I didn’t celebrate. No party. And that’s the way it was for the next 29 years, during which I reiterated my grandfather’s warning. He had not been mistaken about the holiday being founded on the fruits of mass murder instead of some friendly, integrated get-together.

The Wampanoags who arrived on what many of us were taught in school was the “first” Thanksgiving, were not invited to the feast with the Plymouth Pilgrims in 1621 after having rescuing them from certain starvation. Massasoit and about 90 of his men just showed up. What followed was three days of eating and entertainment, much of which included large quantities of beer. The tension was surely palpable. In the sole firsthand, contemporaneous account we have, nobody called it “thanksgiving.” Not long afterward, in an act of raw treachery that was precursor to a thousand others over the years, Captain Myles Standish, military commander of Plymouth colony – determined to make a pre-emptive strike against a non-existent military threat – strode into a Wampanoag village with his men on the pretext of trading. He left with the severed head of Wituwamat, which he stuck on a wooden spike at Plymouth.

The real first Thanksgiving was declared in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, he of the famous “city upon a hill” speech. That celebration capped off the Mystic, Connecticut, massacre of 400-700 Pequots, southern neighbors of the Wampanoags, remnants of a tribe already deeply wounded by epidemics of smallpox and measles. Survivors were executed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. Proclaimed Winthrop, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

The descendants of Massasoit’s Wampanoags who had sat down in 1621 were treated to their own slaughter during King Philip’s War 54 years later. After decades of being pushed off their old lands, the Wampanoag were led in resistance by “King Philip,” known among his own people as Metacom. When the year of fighting was over, his wife and son were captured and sold into slavery in Bermuda. Metacom was decapitated and his head publicly displayed for more than 20 years. Once again, survivors were executed or sold into slavery, with a bounty of 20 shillings offered for every Indian scalp and 40 shillings for any captive able-bodied enough for enslavement.

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed:

“…It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions:

The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour…”

That slaughter of “heathens” and the round-up of survivors which followed allowed more European immigrants to squat on what had once been Indian land. It was a theme that kept being repeated for the next 220 years right across America. My own people – Seminoles, an amalgam of Creeks, Apalachees, runaway slaves and “renegade” whites – eventually fought three wars, and kept a few slivers of their traditional lands, although most were force-marched to “Indian Territory,” where their descendants still live today.

Every year, I ranted about these brutal injustices, about the hypocrisy of Thanksgiving, and the fate of the people who suddenly were in the way. And then, 13 years ago, I let it go. Not that I changed my mind about the atrocities that had occurred or the lies that had been told about them. Not that I become enamored with the foolish iconography of Thanksgiving, including elementary school displays of construction paper Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands. Not that I did not and do not fully understand the feelings of those who cannot bring themselves past their rage at this celebration which has been given a full platter of historical up-is-downism.

But I got tired of missing out on the celebration and the food … and I missed having a birthday party. And I realized, finally, that I also had missed the point that this holiday can be a healer, a remembrance of our roots but with our eyes on the present and the future. So, this year, as in the past few, I’ll be together with some of my best friends, white, red and black. As we have for several Thanksgivings, we’ll tell the children (and grandchildren) the true story of Thanksgiving.

And we’ll give thanks that we live in a country where remembering the past need not shackle us to it.