Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

3.6 The Uninvited Guest: Massasoit
November 30, 2008, 12:10 am
Filed under: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving? | Tags: , , ,

We are so used to the image of Native Americans sitting down with the Pilgrims as one of our national symbols of harmony during the holiday season—complete with grade school reenactments and costumes of Pilgrims and Indians—that few of us have questioned why the Wampanoag were at the meal in the first place.  We have always assumed they were gathering with the Pilgrims as good neighbors, rejoicing with them in their good fortune.

Massasoit smokes a peace pipe with Pilgrim leader John Carver, 1621

Massasoit smokes a peace pipe with Pilgrim leader John Carver, 1621

But the truth is, they probably weren’t even invited.  (At least not the entire retinue.)

No, if you remember Edward Winslow’s description of the event, their arrival is precipitated by something specific:  “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so we might after a special manner rejoice together…At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted…”

So, essentially, having guaranteed a famine-free winter for the Pilgrims, Governor Bradford declared there would be a party.  And one of the things the Pilgrim men did in celebration—in their infinite wisdom—was to fire off a bunch of guns.  In the colonial territories at that time, no doubt, the sound of repetitive firing of multiple muskets must have carried for some distance; hence the arrival of Massasoit with his 90 braves, who were there to investigate the situation (and not necessarily to crash the party.)  The Wampanoag were brought to Plymouth that day both by distrust as well as a political pact.  They were distrustful—and logically so—because they were concerned about what the discharge of such firepower might mean for them (were the Pilgrims launching an offensive?)  And the political pact drew them there because they owed the Pilgrims military support in case other Native American tribes were on the attack. (In return, the Wampanoag had the Pilgrims’ allegiance against the tribe’s sworn enemies, the Narragansett.)

One can only imagine what the Pilgrims must have thought when the Wampanoag arrived among them—quite unexpected and in numbers that dwarfed the colony’s own population (only 52 had survived the winter of 1620-21.)  Note that Edward Winslow declares that the Pilgrims “entertained and feasted” Massasoit and his associates for three days—so what has been historically interpreted as celebration, might as readily have been a placation.  It was incredibly important for the Pilgrims to keep their new allies happy.

But whether celebration or placation, the moment of unity was not to last.  One of Massasoit’s lasting legacies to the Pilgrims was approximately 40 years of relative peace in their new home.  However, the newcomers were quick to press their advantage with the Wampanoag.  They put lasting pressure on Massasoit for more and more land grants, which quickly began to absorb much of the valuable real estate in key tribal areas, challenging the Wampanoag lifestyle geographically.  During his lifetime, Massasoit complied with these requests, keen to keep the good graces of the white man who had previously left so much destruction in his wake.  And during the latter years of Massasoit’s life, the Pilgrims and their Puritan cousins in Massachusetts Bay colony also began to actively convert Native Americans to Christianity, threatening the Wampanoag way of life culturally.  It was an a symbolic assault on two fronts.

When Massasoit died in 1661, he was succeeded as sachem (chief) by his son, Wamsutta.  Wamsutta did not have long to reign, as he died quite suddenly during negotiations at the Plymouth Colony in 1662.  The next in the line of power within the family, Metacom, was not so favorable toward the colonists.  A witness to the expansion of white power under his father’s reign, and suspicious of his brother’s unexpected passing, Metacom led a rebellion against the colonists that became the bloodiest in American history (as a proportional percentage of the population killed.)  The war—called King Philip’s War (Metacom was known as “King Philip” by the Pilgrims) had a lasting impact on the Native American population in southern New England, almost eliminating multiple tribes completely. It also was a profound setback for the colonists’ expansion—many small and outlying towns had been completely destroyed during the 2 year conflict, and hundreds had been killed.

It’s a very unhappy ending to the Thanksgiving story.  But it is one we must constantly remember—because it reminds us how frail peace can be, and how quickly greed can destroy alliances.  And it reminds us that everything we have now was, in a sense, taken from someone else.

It’s an object lesson we have often forgotten during these 200+ years of our nationhood; even in recent times our political agenda has been about taking, endless taking.  But in this season of giving, as we look towards a new President, a new administration, a new foreign policy, let us hope that we can change.  Let us hope that we can invite the world to our table and this time, actually endeavor to give.       


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