Biography of Chief Massasoit, Native American Hero

Engraving illustration of Massasoit and his warriors with colonists

Library of Congress/Public Domain

Chief Massasoit (1580–1661), as he was known to the Mayflower Pilgrims, was the leader of the Wampanoag tribe. Also known as The Grand Sachem as well as Ousemequin (sometimes spelled Woosamequen), Massasoit played a major role in the success of the Pilgrims. Conventional narratives of Massasoit paint the picture of a friendly Native American who came to the aid of the starving Pilgrims—even joining them in what is considered the first Thanksgiving feast—for the purpose of maintaining peaceful relationships and harmonious co-existence.

Fast Facts:

  • Known For: Leader of the Wampanoag tribe, who helped the Mayflower Pilgrims
  • Also Known As: The Grand Sachem, Ousemequin (sometimes spelled Woosamequen)
  • Born: 1580 or 1581 in Montaup, Bristol, Rhode Island
  • Died: 1661
  • Children: Metacomet, Wamsutta
  • Notable Quote: "What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?"

Early Life

Not much is known about Massasoit's life before his encounters with the European immigrants other than he was born in Montaup (now Bristol, Rhode Island) around 1580 or 1581. Montaup was a village of the Pokanoket people, who later became known as the Wampanoag.

By the time of the Mayflower Pilgrims' interactions with him, Massasoit had been a great leader whose authority extended throughout the southern New England region, including the territories of the Nipmuck, Quaboag, and Nashaway Algonquin tribes.

Colonists' Arrival

When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620, the Wampanoag had suffered devastating population losses due to a plague brought by Europeans in 1616; estimates are that upwards of 45,000, or two-thirds of the entire Wampanoag nation, had perished. Many other tribes had also suffered extensive losses throughout the 15th century due to European diseases.

The arrival of the English with their encroachments on Indian territories combined with the depopulation and the Indian slave trade, which had been underway for a century, led to increasing instability in tribal relationships. The Wampanoag were under threat from the powerful Narragansett. By 1621, the Mayflower Pilgrims had lost half of their original population of 102 people as well; it was in this vulnerable state that Massasoit as the Wampanoag leader sought alliances with the equally-as-vulnerable pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were impressed with Massasoit. According to MayflowerHIstory.com, Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow described the chief as follows:

"In his person he is a very lusty man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech. In his attire little or nothing differing from the rest of his followers, only in a great chain of white bone beads about his neck, and at it behind his neck hangs a little bag of tobacco, which he drank and gave us to drink; his face was painted with a sad red like murry, and oiled both head and face, that he looked greasily."

Peace, War, and Protection

When Massasoit entered into a treaty of mutual peace and protection with the pilgrims in 1621, there was more at stake than a simple desire to make friends with the newcomers. Other tribes in the region were entering into agreements with the English colonies as well. For example, the Shawomet Purchase (today's Warwick, Rhode Island), in which sachems Pumhom and Sucononoco claimed they had been forced to sell under duress a large tract of land to a rogue Puritan group under the leadership of Samuel Gorton in 1643, led to tribes placing themselves under the protection of the Massachusetts colony in 1644.

By 1632, the Wampanoags were engaged in a full-scale war with the Narragansett. That's when Massasoit changed his name to Wassamagoin, which means Yellow Feather. Between 1649 and 1657, under pressure from the English, he sold several large tracts of land in Plymouth Colony. After abdicating his leadership to his eldest son Wamsutta (aka Alexander), Massasoit is said to have gone to live the rest of his days with the Quaboag who maintained the highest respect for the sachem.

Later Years and Death

Massasoit is often held up in American history as a hero because of his alliance and assumed love for the English, and some of the documentation hints at an overestimation of his esteem for them. For example, in one story when Massasoit contracted an illness in March 1623, Plymouth colonist Winslow is reported to have come to the side of the dying sachem, feeding him "comfortable conserves" and sassafras tea.

Upon his recovery five days later, Winslow wrote that Massasoit said that "the English are my friends and love me" and that "whilst I live I will never forget this kindness they have showed me." However, a critical examination of the relationships and realities casts some doubt over Winslow's ability to heal Massasoit, considering the Indians' superior knowledge of medicine and likelihood that the sachem was being attended to by the tribe's most skilled medicine people.

Still, Massasoit lived for many years after this illness, and he remained a friend and ally of the Mayflower Pilgrims until his death in 1661.

Legacy

Peace between the Wampanoag Nation and the Pilgrims lasted for four decades after the 1621 treaty, and centuries after his death, Massasoit has not been forgotten. For more than 300 years, Massasoit, and many artifacts related to his time as chief were buried in Burr’s Hill Park, which overlooks Narragansett Bay in the present-day town of Warren, Rhode Island.

A confederation of Wampanoags, who still live in the area, worked for two decades to secure funding and dig up Massasoit's remains and the remains and artifacts of many other Wampanoag tribe members who were buried in Burr's Hill. On May 13, 2017, the confederation re-interred the remains and items in the park in a concrete vault marked with a simple boulder during a solemn ceremony. They hope the burial site will eventually be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Ramona Peters, the repatriation coordinator of the Wampanoag Confederation who led the project, explained shortly before the re-interment: "I would hope Americans would be interested too. Massasoit made it possible for the colonization of this continent."

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