The Life and Legacy of Chief Massasoit

Engraving illustration of Massasoit and his warriors with colonists

Library of Congress / Public Domain

The Grand Sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag tribe was known by the Mayflower pilgrims as Massasoit, but later by the name of Ousamequin (written Wassamagoin). Conventional narratives of Massasoit paint the picture of a friendly Indian 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. While this much is true, what is generally ignored about the story is the general historical context of Massasoit and the Wampanoag's lives.

Early Life and Colonist Arrival

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 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, he 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. 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 upwards of 45,000, or two-thirds of the entire Wampanoag nation had perished. Many other tribes had also suffered extensive losses throughout the fifteenth 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 fully half 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.

Peace, War, Protection and Land Sales

Thus 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 full-scale war with the Narragansett and 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) Wassamagoin is said to have gone to live the rest of his days with the Quaboag who maintained the highest respect for the sachem.

Final Words

Massasoit/Wassamagoin 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, Plymouth colonist Edward 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." This narrative dubiously insinuates that Winslow saved the life of Massasoit. 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.