Massasoit, a vital ally of the Massachusetts pilgrims, was born near the present day town of Bristol, Rhode Island. An abundant spring, located near his birthplace, still flows today and also bears his name. His date of birth is believed to have been 1581 and his name in the Wampanoag language meant “Great Sachem”.
In 1600 the Wampanoags lived in southeastern Massachusetts, nearby Rhode Island, as well as the occupying the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The people survived on hunting and fishing, combined with an abundant production of corn, beans and squash. Since the New England area had a large Native population, each town had well-defined hunting and fishing boundaries. Land was usually inherited through matrilineal lineage.
During the years before the settlement at Plymouth, the Wampanoags had fought two wars with neighboring tribes and had also been victim of a series of incurable diseases that may have included both smallpox and the plague. One village that was located very near Plymouth had been completely wiped out by the strange, new diseases. Knowledge of all these events is important in understanding why Massasoit may have taken such a strong interest in the survival of the pilgrims.
However, Massasoit did not spend much time in the Plymouth colony. This task fell to Samoset, an Abenaki visitor from the north and Squanto, a local Wampanoag, who had lost many relatives and neighbors to the smallpox plague. Still, Massasoit’s presence and efforts to form an alliance with the new English arrivals turned out to be crucial to the Pilgrims and also beneficial to the several tribes of the Wampanoag.
And so on March 22, 1621, the pilgrims and the Wampanoags under the direction of their “Great Sachem” forged an alliance that lasted as long as Massasoit remained alive. Basically, the peace treaty was an article of mutual defense, where one party would come to aid the other, if they were attacked. This resulted in the English coming to aid of Wampanoags, when the Narragansett attacked in 1632 and was also instrumental in the Wampanoag remaining neutral during the Pequot War, which occurred a few years later.
Despite all the good will between the two groups, the peace was a delicate affair. Land was sold to the Pilgrims after they first landed, partially because the native village in the immediate area had died off by disease. On the other hand the Indians had resisted Christianity, and kept to their pre-Christian beliefs. When Massasoit died in 1661, the task of keeping peace with the colonists fell to two of his sons. This lasted just over a dozen years, when a bloody war broke out between the English colonists and an Indian alliance, forged by one of Massasoit’s sons. In the end only one of Massasoit’s five children survived the war.
These events that followed the Great Sachem’s passing further underscore the importance of Massasoit’s insight and vision, which enabled him to forge and maintain a peaceful co-existence with the Pilgrims for so long. It is also a simple reminder of how easily nations can be consumed by armed conflict and war.