In March 1621, representatives of the Wampanoag Confederation–the indigenous peoples of the area that is now Southeastern Massachusetts–negotiated a treaty with a group of English settlers who had arrived on the Mayflower several months earlier and struggling to build a life in the Plymouth Colony.
The peace accord, which would be honored on both sides for the next half century, was the first formal treaty between English settlers and Native Americans, and a rare example of cooperation between the two groups. On the orders of their leader, Ousamequin (known to settlers as Massasoit), the Wampanoags taught English men and women how to plant crops, where to fish and hunt, and other skills that would prove essential to the survival of the new colony. To celebrate the first harvest in Plymouth, Governor William Bradford and the other settlers invited the Wampanoags for a celebratory feast in November 1621, now considered the first Thanksgiving.
As the Wampanoags left little written record, most of what we know about the treaty and its aftermath comes from the English chroniclers of the history of the Plymouth Colony, namely Bradford and his companion Pilgrim Edward Winslow. But focusing on the settlers of Plymouth, familiar versions of the story often overlook the Wampanoags, their motivations for seeking a peace treaty with the English settlers in 1621, and the benefits they reaped from it.–at least temporarily–acquired from the alliance.
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Previous encounters with Europeans and a devastating plague
From the time the Mayflower arrived off the coast of Massachusetts in November 1620, the Wampanoags in the area kept a close watch on the new arrivals, but kept their distance. Previous European explorers, starting with Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524, were first welcomed for trade opportunities. This changed after 1614, when Captain Thomas Hunt kidnapped a group of Wampanoags from the community of Patuxet (the future site of the Plymouth settlement) to sell them into slavery.
Around 1616, an unknown disease likely brought by European traders struck the Wampanoags and other Native American tribes in the region. Candidates for the mysterious disease ranged from smallpox or measles (or a combination) to yellow fever to cerebrospinal meningitis, while a 2010 study suggested a bacterial infection known as leptospirosis.
While contemporary accounts from English sources referred to “the plague,” the bubonic plague has been largely ruled out, according to historian David J. Silverman. He argues that the most likely culprit was confluent malignant smallpox, which is believed to have caused the combination of symptoms – headaches, pimples, sores (smallpox), yellowing of the skin – that the victims allegedly showed.
Whatever the plague, it decimated the native groups in the area where the Plymouth colony would soon be founded. According to one account, the Wampanoag Nation has lost about two-thirds of its population, or up to 45,000 people.
Need an ally against the Narragansett
By 1620, Wampanoag’s weakness had provided an opportunity for a rival group in the west, the Narragansett, who had largely escaped the impact of disease. When the settlers from Plymouth arrived, Ousamequin was struggling to prevent the Narragansett from subjugating the remaining Wampanoags and forcing them to pay tribute. While he initially kept his distance from the inhabitants of the Mayflower, fearing further assault and disease, Ousamequin evidently came to the conclusion that an alliance with the English newcomers to the region could help protect his people.
After sending Samoset, an Abenaki chieftain (possibly a Wampanoag captive) who knew some English, as an emissary to the Plymouth settlers on March 16, 1621, Ousamequin arrived about a week later. He and Governor John Carver negotiated the treaty with the help of Tisquantum (Squanto), a Wampanoag from Patuxet who had been part of the group captured by Hunt in 1614. Tisquantum had managed to escape slavery and lived briefly in England before returning home in 1619 aboard another English ship.
As Bradford and Winslow wrote later in Mourt’s relationship (1622), “[Ousamequin] has a powerful opponent in the Narragansetts, who are at war with him, whom he thinks we can be of some strength for him, for our pieces [guns] are terrible for them. In the treaty, the Wampanoags and the settlers of Plymouth, on behalf of King James I, agreed to keep the peace between themselves, as well as to defend themselves against potential attacks from other native groups.
Lasting impact of the 1621 peace treaty
For the Pilgrims and other settlers of the Plymouth Colony, the peace treaty with the Wampanoag meant acquiring the skills they needed to achieve that successful first harvest and to survive. For Ousamequin, the treaty meant preserving the autonomy of his people and his own power and influence, as even some Wampanoags bitterly disagreed with his decision to align with the English colonizers.
Carver died in April 1621, but Bradford and Winslow, his successors, continued to honor the treaty with the Wampanoags. Despite periodic tensions, the peace between the two groups survived until Ousamequin’s death in 1661, making the treaty of 1621 the only one between Native Americans and English settlers to be honored throughout the lives of all. who signed it.
Peace, however, will not last. Ousamequin’s first son and successor, Wamsutta, died in 1662 amid negotiations with settlers over the land. He was replaced by his brother Metacom, later known as King Philip, who claimed that Wamsutta had been poisoned. Escalating tensions between the colony of Plymouth and a coalition of tribes under the command of Metacom would explode in King Philip’s War (1675-1678), a bloody conflict that led to Metacom’s execution in 1676 and the murder or capture of thousands of Native Americans.