They lived in villages and had men in charge called sachems. The tribes also had a Great Sachem, who was a sort of leader of all the tribes. European settlers referrred to the Great Sachem as a king, but he wasn't a king as Europeans thought of kings. He was the tribes' leader, yes, but he was more of a spokesman and role model and not so much a powerful man who sat on a throne and imprisoned people who didn't do what he told them to do. (The sachem, also, could be a woman, provided that no male heir was available when a sachem died.)
During the 16th Century (the 1500s), European fishing boats began appearing more and more along the Atlantic coast. Most of these fishermen's encounters with the Wampanoag were friendly. This friendliness can be seen in their reaction to the landing and settlement actions of the Pilgrims in 1620.
An exception to these friendly meetings was a group of English sailors who made a living selling slaves to others in Europe. These sailors made a habit of sailing to America, capturing Native Americans, and bringing them back to Europe to sell as slaves to the highest bidder. One such victim of this deplorable practice was none other than Squanto, the Wampanoag who was so friendly to the Pilgrims.
Squanto was a member of the Patuxet settlement. He was carried off as a slave by an English captain named Thomas Hunt in 1614. He served as a slave for Spanish monks for a few years and then escaped. By this time, he spoke English rather well and decided to go to England itself. He got a job as an interpreter on a ship that sailed back to America. Once there, he discovered that an illness brought over by Europeans had wiped out his entire village. Had he been there, he might very well have died as well. His family and friends all gone, Squanto went and lived with another Wampanoag tribe.
It was at the very site of his tribe's former home that the Pilgrims finally landed in 1620 (after a few false starts because of bad weather).
The Wampanoag knew that the Pilgrims had arrived but, suspicious of their motives, did not approach them for some time. The Pilgrims suffered through the brutal winter of 1620. Half of them died. Those who survived were startled to see Samoset, a sachem from the Abenaki tribe, walk into their settlement one day in March and say, "Hello, Englishmen" (in English). Samoset, it seemed, had spent some time with English at the Kennebic River colony a few years before. He had avoided the kind of illness that had killed Squanto's people, but he did manage to pick up a few words of English, which came in very handy when he and Squanto decided to make contact with these new English settlers.
The Pilgrims obviously needed help in farming the new land, growing new crops, and surviving in the New World. But the Wampanoag needed something, too.
In the decade before the Pilgrims arrived, sickness wasn't the only means of death for many Wampanoag. A series of three separate and deadly illnesses had wiped out three-quarters of their population, but they also fought wars against neighboring tribes and then eventually came under the control of a rival group of Native Americans, the Narragansett. When the Pilgrims arrived, the Wampanoag were being required to pay tribute to the Narragansett. In effect, the Wampanoag were paying the Narragansett not to attack them. It was the fervent hope of Massasoit, the Wampanoag Grand Sachem, that the Pilgrims could provide some assistance in turning back the power of the Narragansett.
Massasoit himself visited the Pilgrims and, in a historic turn of events, signed a treaty that granted the English settlers the right to settle on 12,000 acres of land that became the Plymouth Plantation. (Historians have often wondered whether Massasoit truly understand the European concept of settlementthat they were taking it over, not sharing it. However, the Grand Sachem needed friends badly, and he didn't see how a ragtag population decimated by a simple thing like a cold winter could pose a threat to his Wampanoag even though they, too, were hurting.)
The English, then, threw in their lot with the Wampanoag, who were equally dependent on this strange new people for helping them survive. The Narragansett, meanwhile, saw this treaty for what it was: a prelude to an alliance. As they were getting ready to attack the English, however, they themselves were attacked, by the Pequot, another neighboring tribe that had a warlike history. Not long after that attack ended, the Mohawk took their turn. The Narragansett, it seemed, weren't much liked by their neighbors.
Meanwhile, the Plymouth settlement grew, with the help of Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit, and other Wampanoag. Another English ship arrived in 1622; rather than become suspicious, the Wampanoag brought food and welcomed more of their new "allies." The English returned the favor the following year by nursing a gravely ill Massasoit back to good health.
This friendship continued for a decade. The Narragansett came calling again in 1632, but by then the English-Wampanoag partnership was strong enough to withstand and attack and drove the invaders back (it turns out, for the last time).
As the years went by, the English grew stronger, both from continued self-reliance and from regular infusions of settlers from England. The Wampanoag, meanwhile, were protected from attack by other Native Americans but didn't exactly grow in population or stature. They soon discovered that the English, in addition to refusing to give back any land, were looking to take over more. (A distinction should be made here between the initial settlers, the Pilgrims, and subsequent settlers. The Pilgrims were willing to pay or trade for the food and land that they got and the skills that they learned from the Wampanoag. Later English settlers, for the most part, came with the attitude that whatever they could lay their hands on was theirs to take.)
Expanding westward into other Native American territory, English settlers defeated the powerful Pequot and made an alliance with the powerful Mohegan. At the same time, the only other powerful Native American gathering of the period, the Mohawk, had an alliance with the Dutch, who were settled in and around what would become new York. The English "purchase" of New York in 1664 made the Dutch settlements an afterthought and produced a new alliance between the English and the Mohawk.
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