The Wampanoag

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Part 2: A New Alliance

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 settlement—that 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.)

Next page > Suspicions and War > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

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David White