Massasoit was considered one of the great sachems (chiefs) of the seventeenth century. A Wampanoag leader, he allied himself with the settlers in Plymouth upon their arrival in 1620. Throughout his life, he fought with the English settlers against other native tribes, thus affording protection not only for his own people but also for the fledgling settlers. Along with other great chiefs of the time, however, he resisted the missionary attempts at converting the Native Americans and saw those attempts as threats to his people’s survival.
Plymouth, different from most other colonies, often paid the Native Americans for the land taken from them. This unique breed of colonists ordinarily settled around Native American villages, because the native peoples had invited them. This commonsensical approach to the indigenous population lessened encroachment on the colonists by other tribes or Europeans wanting to settle in the same area. In this friendly atmosphere, it is not surprising that Massasoit signed a nonagression treaty with the Pilgrims, which he honored until his death.
Much legend surrounds the events that preceded the treaty between Massasoit and the Pilgrims, including the part played by Squanto, the Native American translator and liaison with the Pilgrims. The true extent of the part he played in the story of their initial survival that is, the legend, in which the friendly, ever helpful native taught the settlers how to raise corn and provided them with much-needed food is uncertain. Squanto’s importance to the Pilgrims may indeed have been somewhat exaggerated, however, as he was serving as an agent of Massasoit.
The Pilgrims were a quick study when it came to the native peoples’ agricultural practices, and their first harvest, in 1621, was bountiful. While it may be true that there was a celebration of that harvest a feast to which Massasoit and other Wampanoags were invited as well as a ceremony, historians note that the simple celebration has been given religious overtones that were not apparent at the original event. It is true that the foods present, including pumpkins, turkeys, corn, and squash, were indigenous to the Americas and were surely provided by the local tribe or at the very least grown with their aid.
In any case, the event itself proved to be premature, as the harvest was good but not sufficient to support the addition of the thirty-five new settlers who arrived in November 1621. Once again, short rations forced the Pilgrims to rely on the generosity of Massasoit for the food they needed to survive. Massasoit, great Sachem of the Wampanoags, Protector and Preserver of the Pilgrims, 1621, is memorialized in a statue that overlooks the harbor in Plymouth where the Pilgrims landed. (Library of Congress, LC-D419-14 DLC)
Massasoit died in 1661, but his legacy continued as his sons, Wamsutta and Metacom (who also was known as King Philip), presided over the Wampanoag and continued to honor the treaty Massasoit had signed with the colonists. This was not an easy task, as the tribe’s position was rapidly deteriorating.
A period of resentment toward white authority began when Wamsutta died under suspicious circumstances while he was being questioned by Plymouth authorities about a possible uprising. Conflict and increasing tension between the colonists and the Native Americans finally led to Metacom’s declaring an all-out war on the Plymouth Colony in 1675. Decades of peaceful relations, as well as a long-honored coalition, came to an end. Penny M. Sonnenburg See also: Native American-European Relations; Native Americans; Pilgrims; Plymouth; Squanto. Bibliography Langdon, George D. Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth 16201691. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966. Nash, Gary. Red, White, and Black. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.
Massasoit d. 1661 Photo Gallery