Wampanoag Tribe Helped the Mayflower Pilgrims Survive But Peace Was Fleeting
The Wampanoag nation was unfortunate to be among the first people in the Northeast United States to have contact with European explorers and later English colonists in the early 16 th and 17 th centuries.
At first things went okay between the Wampanoag tribes and the English, but after 20-some years the two peoples went to war. This was after the Wampanoag had fed the colonists and saved their lives when their colony was failing in the harsh winter of 1620-1621.
The meaning of the name Wampanoag is beautiful: People of the First Light.
In the 1600s they numbered around 40,000, says the website Plimouth Plantation. They lived in 67 villages along the East Coast, from Massachusetts’s Weymouth Town, to Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, to parts of Rhode Island.
Another site, though, gives Wampanoag population at its height as 12,000. Their language is extinct, but some people are trying to reconstruct it based on written texts.
Tribal members number 3,000 to 5,000 today
Now their number is estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000 in New England. They have a reservation on Martha’s Vineyard, an island in the Atlantic Ocean. At one time, after devastating diseases, slave raids and wars, including inter-tribal war, the Wampanoag population was reduced to about 400.
The sub-tribes are called the Mashpee, Aquinna and Manomet. Other groups are starting to form too, the Plimouth Plantation Web page says.
The site says:
These people are descendants of Native Wampanoag People who were sent into slavery after a war between the Wampanoag and English. We, as the People, still continue our way of life through our oral traditions (the telling of our family and Nation's history), ceremonies, the Wampanoag language, song and dance, social gatherings, hunting and fishing.
The Wampanoag had a bountiful harvest from their crops and the hunting and gathering they did before the English arrived. They lived in the forest and valleys during the cold weather and in spring, summer and fall they lived on the rivers, ponds and Atlantic Ocean.
The interior of a wigwam or wetu, the living quarters of the Wampanoag people in earlier times. (Image: Youtube Screenshot)
When Wampanoag saved the Pilgrims
The Pokanoket tribe, as the Wampanoag nation was also known, saved the Mayflower Pilgrims from starvation in 1620-’21 despite apprehension they felt because of violence by other explorers earlier in history. But early on the Pilgrims made a peace pact with the Pokanoket, who were led by Chief Massasoit.
One Indian, Tisquantum or Squanto could speak English. He and his people taught the Pilgrims what they needed to know about farming in the area that became known as New England. In November 1621 the natives and Pilgrims celebrated what we call Thanksgiving.
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Chief Massasoit statue looks over Plymouth colony harbor. (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0)
Peace did not endure
The peace did not last very long. Two Wampanoag chiefs had an altercation with Capt. Myles Standish. The two chiefs were killed, and the natives cut contact with their new neighbors.
The situation deteriorated into the Pequot War of 1634 to 1638. Though many of the Wampanoag had been killed in an epidemic shortly before the Puritans landed in November 1620, they thought they still had enough warriors.
After that war, the colonists made what they call “praying towns” to try to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity.
In 1675, another war broke out. In King Philip’s War, Chief Metacom (or Philip) led his braves against the settlers because they kept encroaching on Wampanoag territory.
The Pilgrims killed Metacom and beheaded and quartered his body. They stuck his head on a pole and exhibited it in Plymouth for 25 years. His people, the Wampanoag, were nearly wiped out, and as stated their population numbered just 400 after this last war.
This YouTube video by Scholastic shows how a family might have lived before the colonists arrived.
Before this devastation, the Wampanoag lived in wigwams or wetu in summer. Wetu were small huts made of sapling branches and birch bark. In the winter they lived in much larger, permanent longhouses.
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The exterior of a wigwam or wetu as recreated by modern Wampanoag natives (Image: swampyank/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
Game that the Wamapnoag took included deer, black bear, rabbit, squirrel, grouse, duck, geese, turkey, raccoon, otter and beaver. The bounteous ocean provided them with cod, haddock, flounder, salmon and mackerel. Further, they ate shellfish and lobster.
They grew and ate corn, squash and beans, pumpkin, zucchini and artichoke.
They had access to grapes, nuts and berries, all important food sources, says the site warpaths2peacepipes.com, which is written by an amateur historian.
These tribes made dugouts and birch bark canoes. Wampanoag weapons included bows and arrows, war clubs, spears, knives, tomahawks and axes.
A Wampanoag dugout canoe as fashioned by modern natives (Scholastic YouTube screenshot)
They made their clothing of animal skins and birch bark. They had long breechclouts, leggings, mantles and cloaks.
The women wore skirts, cloaks and tunics.
The tribe made moccasins from a single piece of moose hide. They applied grease to the outer surface of the moccasins for waterproofing.
Later the Wampanoag wore clothing made from European-style textiles.
Sold into slavery
Sadly, in 1676, after the devastating wars and diseases, some of the natives were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Others were sent to Deer Island.
The Plimouth Plantation page says:
Because of many changes in North America, we as the Wampanoag cannot live as our ancestors did. We adapt but still continue to live in the way of the People of the First Light.
Top image: Chief Massasoit statue looks over Plymouth Rock. The colony here initially survived the harsh winter with help from the Wampanoag people and other tribes. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
By Mark Miller