Plymouth Colony authorities, William Bradford and Edward Winslow, describe the first interaction with the Massasoit and Quadequina (brothers and members of the Wampanoag Nation). This is an excerpt from part I of Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims as Plymouth, published in London in 1622. Parenthetical explanations by Stephanie Wood. A “relation” in this case means a “journal” or a narrative account. It comes from the verb, to “relate” something, as in to tell something.
“Thursday, the 22nd of March , was a very fair warm day. About noon we met again about our public business, but we had scarce been an hour together, but Samoset came again, and Tisquantum, the only native of Patuxet, where we now inhabit, who was one of the twenty captives that by [Thomas] Hunt were carried away [i.e. taken captive, enslaved], with three others, and they brought with them some few skins to truck [i.e. trade], and some red herrings newly taken and dried, but not salted, and signified unto us, that their great sagamore Massasoit was hard by [i.e. nearby], with Quadequina his brother, and all their men. They could not well express in English what they would, but after an hour the king came to the top of a hill over against us [i.e. facing us], and had in his train [i.e. group] sixty men, that we could well behold them and they us. We were not willing to send our governor to them, and they unwilling to come to us, so Tisquantum went again unto him, who brought word that we should send one to parley [i.e. talk] with him, which we did, which was Edward Winslow, to know his mind [i.e. his thinking], and to signify the mind and will of our governor, which was to have trading and peace with him. We sent to the king [i.e. Massasoit] a pair of knives, and a copper chain with a jewel at it. To Quadequina we sent likewise a knife and a jewel to hang in his ear, and withal a pot of strong water, a good quantity of biscuit, and some butter, which were all willingly accepted.
Our messenger made a speech unto him, that King James saluted him with words of love and peace, and did accept of him as his friend and ally, and that our governor desired to see him and to truck [i.e. trade] with him, and to confirm a peace with him, as his next neighbor. He liked well of the speech and heard it attentively, though the interpreters did not well express it. After he had eaten and drunk himself, and given the rest to his company, he looked upon our messenger’s sword and armor which he had on, with an intimation of his desire to buy it, but on the other side, our messenger showed his unwillingness to part with it. In the end, he left him in the custody of Quadequina his brother, and came over the brook, and some twenty men following him, leaving all their bows and arrows behind them. We kept six or seven as hostages for our messenger; Captain Standish and Master Williamson met the king at the brook, with half a dozen musketeers. They saluted him and he them, so one going over, the one on the one side, and the other on the other, conducted him to a house then in building [i.e. under construction], where we placed a green rug and three or four cushions. Then instantly came our governor with drum and trumpet after him and some few musketeers. After salutations, our governor kissing his hand, the king kissed him, and so they sat down. The governor called for some strong water [i.e. liquor or beer], and drunk to him, and he drunk a great draught that made him sweat all the while after; he called for a little fresh meat, which the king did eat willingly, and did give his followers. Then they treated [i.e. made a treaty] of peace, which was:
- That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.
- And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.
- That if any of our tools were taken away when our people are at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the likewise to them.
- If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.
- He should send to his neighbor confederates [i.e. other indigenous nations that formed a confederacy with the Wampanoags], to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
- That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.
Lastly, that doing thus, King James would esteem of him as his friend and ally.
All which the king seemed to like well, and it was applauded of his followers; all the while he sat by the governor he trembled for fear. 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 being his neck hangs a little bag of tobacco, which he and gave us to drink [i.e. to smoke or to inhale? or was it a tobacco juice?]; his face was painted with a sad red like murry, and oiled both head and face, that he looked greasily. All his followers likewise, were in their faces, in part or in whole painted, some black, some red, some yellow, and some white, some with crosses, and other antic works; some had skins on them, and some naked, all strong, tall, all men in appearance.
So after all was done, the governor conducted him to the brook, and there they embraced each other and he departed; we diligently keeping our hostages, we expected our messenger’s coming, but anon, word was brought us that Quadequina was coming, and our messenger has stayed till his return, who presently came and a troop with him, so likewise we entertained him, and conveyed him to the place prepared. He was very fearful of our pieces and made signs of dislike, that they should be carried away, whereupon commandment was given they should be laid away. He was a very proper tall young man, of a very modest and seemly countenance, and he did kindly like of our entertainment, so we conveyed him likewise as we did the king, but divers [i.e. some number, various] of their people stayed still. When he was returned, then they dismissed our messenger. Two of his people would have stayed all night, but we would not suffer it. One thing I forgot, the king had in his bosom, hanging in a string, a great long knife; he marveled much at our trumpet, and some of his men would sound it as well as they could. Samoset [a member of the Eastern Abenaki tribe of modern-day Maine, who was visiting Massasoit at this time] and Tisquantum, they stayed all night with us, and the king and all his men lay all night in the woods, not above half an English mile from us, and all their wives and women with them. They said that within eight or nine days they would come and set [i.e. plant] corn on the other side of the brook, and dwell there all summer, which is hard by [i.e. nearby] us. That night we kept good watch, but there was no appearance of danger.”
by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies
Historical sources authored by non-indigenous writers must be treated with special care when we are seeking reliable information about Native cultures and their histories. It is not something usually in the forefront of the authors’ thinking, but they bring what we might call “filters” to everything they observe and describe. These filters come from their own personal experiences and background, they can be influenced by their own family values, religious beliefs, and political positions. If we try to read such descriptions both at face value and “between the lines” (not literally what is said, but what is implied), we will sometimes learn as much or more about the observer than the person or people they are observing. This can be true of written descriptions as well as of sketches and paintings. In this exercise, we are going to examine an excerpt from an early account from the Plymouth Colony about interactions between English settlers and Native Americans. But we also recommend you take a look at the way the Massasoit and Tisquantum, for example, are represented in portraits, sculptures, and statues. (See the links below for the visual materials.)
The excerpts of the manuscript under close examination here are intended to set the stage for our consideration of encounters that would be repeated again and again as settler colonialism advanced westward. The details would change and the volume of knowledge that Native communities had about the advancing settlers would vary, but we ask that you look here for recurring themes of relevance for understanding contact phenomena more generally. The presence of a militaristic milieu and the presence of slavery speak volumes about the settlers approach to people who were different from them. David Treuer (Ojibwe) says that meeting and beginnings were neither “sudden” (they came from long traditions of expansionism) nor “inevitable” (things could have gone a different way). Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues, for instance, that settler colonialism in U.S. history meant the “founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.” Does Mourt’s Relation contain anything that would support her interpretation? Was this “encounter” just a benign meeting between equals, or do you see problems brewing?
Sample “entry” questions:
In the middle of the first paragraph, the English authors say “we could well behold them and they us,” which provides some drama, if we try to imagine it, of an early encounter between settlers and American Indians in significant numbers. What might that moment have felt like to the Massasoit and his group? Remember that contact had already been made in other parts of what is now Maine and Massachusetts, and the entire community of Patuxet had died from diseases brought across the Atlantic by earlier settlers.
Also in the first paragraph, we learn about the gifts the settlers gave to the Massasoit’s group. What kinds of things were given as gifts, why did the settlers believe these would be desirable, and how were they received? Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has suggested that gifts and an imbalance of trade were institutionalized as a way of keeping Indigenous communities dependent upon settlers and the federal government.
What are some important dimensions of the intentions of the settlers (and King James) that Winslow presented to the Massasoit?
What role (positive and negative) did interpreters play in the conversation?
Imagine yourself as one of the followers of the Massasoit and Quadequina. How would you react to having to set aside your bows and arrows (middle of the second paragraph) and go with the foreign settlers (armed with muskets) into a building under construction? Then the foreigners’ “governor” arrives with more musketeers and a trumpeter blowing his horn. Would this seem risky? Find three or four sentences in the primary source that indicate the indigenous men might have felt concerned.
What sentences can you point to that show that the English settlers were afraid or worried?
But, then there are kisses, alcoholic beverages, and food distribution. Would this have calmed the possible fears or worries? Consider whether you would or would not have understood the meaning of kissing of hands.
When the indigenous men are described, how are they dressed and painted? Why would the English authors remark on the way they are dressed or what kinds of technology they had? Are the colors black, red, yellow, and white significant in indigenous cultures?
Where do we learn anything about indigenous women in this excerpt? What were they doing and why might they have been present?
Why would Samoset and Tisquantum have been willing to spend the night with the settlers, while other members of the Native communities slept in the woods?
Sample “essential” questions:
In documents such as these, we can see how the Englishmen wanted others to perceive their intentions in establishing “peace” and a good “trading” relationship with the Wampanoags. Why would the settlers try to establish a good relationship with the Wampanoags?
The numbered section in the middle of the document relates to the “peace” treaty that the Plymouth leaders entered into with the Massasoit and his brother. What kinds of “peace” did this document prescribe? Could the treaty have benefited both the indigenous people and the foreign settlers?
Remembering how Thomas Hunt took Tisquantum and others as captives and sold them as slaves in Spain, what does this say about the varieties of English approaches and attitudes toward indigenous communities, for better or for worse? What international contexts (such as the slave trade across the Americas that was already well established in the sixteenth century) probably affected Hunt’s seeing people as commodities to be stolen and sold?
What is the larger significance of what seems a minor detail at the end of the document, about the indigenous people planting corn near the river and spending the summer next to Plymouth Colony (presumably to take care of the corn)?
Sample “big idea”:
Mourt’s Relation includes information about a treaty made between Massasoit (Wampanoag) and the English settlers at Plymouth Colony. This treaty represents a fairly early one in the history of settler-Native relationships. Robert A. Williams, Jr. (Lumbee), has written that treaties can be a “positive, purposive force in tribalism’s persistence in this country” (p. 6), but they also impose “a system of colonizing law” (p. 7). Williams, therefore, sees pros and cons in treaty history. He argues that we definitely find in history many examples of “Indian peoples” working these systems to “achieve justice” or at least advance their “decolonization struggles” (p. 7). So, while treaties are fairly uniformly negative on the surface, they can be used by indigenous communities to their own advantage at times. The Medicine Creek Treaty, discussed elsewhere on this website, had those aspects, in that it would be used years later to defend Native fishing rights.
Sample “enduring understandings”:
Tensions are evident on both sides in this record of an important encounter between Plymouth Colony settlers, the local indigenous community, and a few others on the scene. What is your enduring understanding of this “encounter”? Did things work out well, or not so well, and why? How might things have been done differently from the very beginning? How might tensions arise over time between the English and Native American communities? Does the treaty already portend some potential trouble, and if so, of what nature?
Consider how early the structures of settler colonialism were put in place. The militarization of Native/non-Native relationships is clearly present at Plymouth. The settlers were not invited onto this land, but they were preparing to worm their way into pacts with the Indigenous communities through gifting and promises of mutual defense, and thereby gain a foothold. If they met resistance, they were prepared to seize land and resources by force.
We have chosen to look at early Massachusetts because it can be worthwhile to see what the earliest intentions of English settlers were, and how patterns may have been established that would be carried forward across the hemisphere as settlers moved west.
The sad background of the devastation of the Native settlement at Patuxet as a result of diseases must be borne in mind when we consider the settlement of Plymouth Colony. Whether germs were introduced at that time inadvertently or intentionally, the effect was devastating. Imagine Tisquantum coming home in 1619 to find none of his community had survived the epidemics. He, too, would die young from a fever in 1622.
The presence of Europeans in what is now Canada and Maine from very early on surely helped prepare Massasoit and his followers for their encounter with the Plymouth settlers. Through trade and the formation of confederacies, one tribe would learn from others about the arrival of strangers and how they behaved.
What became Newfoundland, Canada, had a Viking colony that dated from about 1000 C.E.; it is called L’Anse aux Meadows today. Germs introduced by the earliest Europeans to reach the Atlantic coast of North America also probably sent shockwaves through American Indian communities long before the settlement of Plymouth.
A journey of healing:
Many will take pride in Massasoit’s efforts to establish peace with the settlers, a peace that would extend across his confederacy, even if it would not last forever. (Because the settlers began to go back on their word and encroach on lands outside of the treaty agreements, as later history informs us, wars would eventually ensue.)
Cultural intermediaries can provide another source of pride. These were men and women who were perceptive about the settlers and their ways, and figured out how to negotiate with them, even as relationships were constantly on the verge of deteriorating. Tisquantum and Samoset, for example, are two individuals worth studying in some depth, even if we have to read about them through settlers’ historical records. Remarkable is Tisquantum’s ingenuity, which led him to escape captivity in Spain, to find his way to England, and eventually to end up on a ship back to his homeland. Samoset, too, must have been very talented with languages in order to pick up some English from people sailing into harbors on the coast in Maine and then practice it with settlers in Massachusetts.
Observing and learning people’s coping mechanisms (e.g. negotiation and resistance) can also give us hope for the future. Not yet visible to us in this particular manuscript, we need to know that resistance to settler intrusions would increase in the years to come. And resistance is one of the means by which Indigenous communities have survived to the present day.
Glossary and Who’s Who:
Bradford, William (1590–1657): Originally a religious separatist who left England for Leiden, Holland, seeking to escape religious persecution from King James I. Bradford arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 in what would become New England, and he served as governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1621 until the year he died.
Hunt, Captain Thomas: An Englishman and an associate of Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame), Hunt did not return with Smith but stayed in New England ostensibly to develop trade relations. Instead, he captured twenty-four Nauset and Patuxet men who had come aboard his ship to trade, and he took them to Spain and sold them as slaves. Among them was Tisquantum.
Massasoit Ousemequin (1580–ca. 1661): The term “Massasoit” was the title given to a tribal leader/chief among the Wampanoags. The English settlers of Plymouth Colony mistook this title to be the name for Ousamequin, a member of the Wampanoag tribe and confederacy. The Massasoit Ousamequin is credited with ensuring the survival of the Plymouth Colony, entering into a treaty of mutual defense, the details of which are outlined in Mourt’s Relation.
Mayflower: The name of the ship that left Europe in 1620 carrying 102 passengers (50 men, 19 women, and 33 young adults and children, and some of these were indentured servants and orphans). Only 41 passengers were religious separatists, unhappy with the Church of England. The ship was supposed to land in Virginia, but it landed in Massachusetts instead. This caused a conflict about where to have the colony. Plymouth was the final destination; it was the site of a depopulated indigenous community (Patuxet).
Mayflower Compact: This was the agreement written and signed by many of the people aboard the ship. It was meant to maintain unity among the people and begin to codify how they would live, with rules/laws.
Ousamequin (Woosamequen, etc., meaning “Yellow Feather”): see Massasoit.
Patuxet: A term used both as a place name (by the English) and as the name of a band that was a part of the Wampanoag tribal confederation. This community perished as a result of epidemic diseases that swept Canada and New England ca. 1614–1620. Tisquantum was the lone survivor from this community, and he died in 1622.
Plymouth Colony (or Plymouth Plantation, Plimoth, etc.): An English colony in what is now Massachusetts, from 1620 to 1691, at the site of the Native American community of Patuxet. Its survival is attributed in part to Wampanoag Chief Massasoit (Ousamequin) who entered into a treaty with the settlers. Eventually, Plymouth would merge with the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1691).
Quadequina (also spelled Quadiquina): A sachem (chief, leader) of the Wampanoag tribe and confederacy and [half?] brother to the Massasoit named Ousamequin, whom he counseled. Quadequina was born in the late 1570s or early 1580s in what is now New England, and he died in 1623.
Relation: A “relation” in this case means a “journal” or a narrative account. It comes from the verb, to “relate” something, as in to tell something.
Sachem: An eastern Algonquian term from the North Atlantic coastal area, meaning chief, and with greater authority than a Sagamore.
Sagamore: An eastern Algonquian term from the North Atlantic coastal area, meaning chief, but with lesser authority than a Sachem.
Samoset (ca. 1590–1653): An Abenaki sagamore, Samoset (also called Somerset) was the first Native American to make contact with the settlers of Plymouth Colony. He visited the colony and caught the settlers by surprise because he knew some English that he had learned from people fishing along the coast of Maine. Here’s a mid-nineteenth-century image of Samoset’s meetings with the Pilgrims.
Slanie, Master John (Slaney): A merchant in London who housed Tisquantum after his escape from Spain and journey to England. Slaney would become the Treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, and Tisquantum would travel with him to Newfoundland (now Canada), and find his way home to Patuxet.
Squanto (or Squantum): see Tisquantum.
Standish, Captain Myles (ca. 1584–1656): An English military officer who traveled on the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth Colony, becoming the militia commander there, as well as one of the governors and one of the treasurers. His method included brutal, preemptive strikes against indigenous communities. The mere presence of a militia suggests that they colonists expected either to attack people already living on the land they settled or, at least, have a defensive posture against possible attacks.
Tisquantum (ca. 1585–1622): A member of the Wampanoag confederation and a native of Patuxet (the village that once stood at the site of the Plymouth Colony). His relatives had perished in plagues that swept Canada and New England ca. 1614–1620. Tisquantum survived those plagues because he was taken captive by Thomas Hunt and carried by ship to Spain, where he was sold as a slave. From there he escaped to England, where he lived and worked for John Slaney before ending up back in New England in 1619, just prior to the landing of the Mayflower. Knowing some English, Tisquantum held a role as a cultural mediator at the Plymouth Colony. He died fairly early into the history of Native-settler relations.
Williamson (Timothy?): The “Master Williamson” who appears in Mourt’s Relation appears to have been a subordinate to Captain Myles Standish, possibly with some authority in the militia. Other documents mention a Timothy Williamson as a settler of Plymouth Colony, dying in 1676 (possibly a stretch). An inventory of this Williamson’s possessions at death can be found in the Plymouth Colony Archive Project, and “arms and ammunition” are mentioned among the things his widow inherited.
Winslow, Edward (1595–1655): Born in England, Winslow moved to Leiden, Holland, in 1617 to escape religious persecution. He came to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. He was one of more than forty signers of the Mayflower Compact, which established the group’s interest in forming a colony. Winslow served as Plymouth’s third governor, among other positions. He enjoyed writing, and his portrait shows him holding a document in his hand. He co-authored Mourt’s Relation (London, 1622), the published document that includes a description of the first Thanksgiving and refers to relationships with Native people. Relevant to the question of how well Winslow might have known Massasoit is the fact that Winslow had served as a type of ambassador to interact with the indigenous nations in the region.
Blee, Lisa, and Jean O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe), Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit (forthcoming, to appear in 2019).
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 2.
A historical map showing Plymouth (1620) and Boston (1630). Creative Commons. Available for download in various sizes.
A photo of the statue of the Massasoit. By Leonardo DaSilva. Creative Commons.
Images of the Massasoit are found on this web page.
“Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims“ (an 1853 print).
The History of Plymouth Colony. This resource includes a list of the 50 settlers who died either on the Mayflower or during the first year of the Plymouth Colony. One could have students count how many men, women, and children make up those who died. The presence of women and children is evidence that the English envisioned a permanent stay.
The Mayflower Compact. This is the agreement made among the people who sailed from Europe to New England to form a colon where they would be free from the religious persecution that they suffered as a result of the policies of King James.
The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. Primary sources.
Treuer, David. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019). See the first chapter on “Meetings and Beginnings.”
Trevor, Terra. “With Thanksgiving: A Native American View.” 11/15/2017
Williams Jr., Robert A. Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600–1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).