Around 11 am on March 22, 1621, a fine warm day, two Wampanoag Indians appeared in the village of Plymouth with a favor to ask: Would the Pilgrim leaders meet with Massasoit?
The Indians both spoke English. The first, Samoset, learned a smattering from English sailors along the Maine coast. Squanto, the second, spoke the language well, because English explorers had captured him and taken him to England as a slave .
The Indians told the colonists that Massasoit, their great sachem, was nearby with his brother Quadequina and 60 men — an intimidating show of force. Massasoit wanted to parley with the Pilgrims, for he wished to have trade and peace with them.
The Pilgrims welcomed the Indians’ overtures. They had arrived in the New World nearly four months before and had a rough go of it. Forty-five of the 102 Pilgrims died that winter.
The meeting with Squanto and Samoset resulted in the first peace treaty between Native Americans and American colonists. The peace would last 40 years, with both parties holding to their agreement not to ‘doe hurt’ to one another.
Massasoit, A Lustie Man
As leader of the Wampanoag tribe, Massasoit practiced shrewd diplomacy. He viewed the Pilgrims as potential allies against the Narragansetts, his enemies in the region. A great plague had killed many of his own people.
Massasoit would have been about 40 when he paid that first visit to Plymouth. Pilgrim Edward Winslow described him as:
…a very lustie [strong] man, in his best yeares, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.
He dressed as his followers did, except for a great chain of white bone beads around his neck and a little bag of tobacco. He had painted his face dark red and oiled both his head and face so he ‘looked greasily,’ wrote Winslow.
Winslow volunteered to go with Squanto and Samoset to meet Massasoit. He brought with him a gift: a pair of knives and a copper chain with a jewel in it. To Quadequina he brought a knife and a jewel ‘to hang in his ear.’ He also brought liquor, biscuits and butter, all of which the Indians accepted.
Upon meeting Massasoit, Winslow made a speech. King James, he said, saluted him with words of love and peace, and accepted him as an ally, and they wished to have trade and peace with him. Squanto and Samoset translated.
Massasoit said he liked the speech. They ate and drank, and then departed the camp with about 20 of Massasoit’s men, who left their bows and arrows behind.
Myles Standish and William Brewster joined them at a brook with six armed men. They escorted Massasoit to a house under construction for William Bradford. It had a green rug on the floor and three cushions.
Gov. John Carver came to the house with drum and trumpet after him and a few musketeers. Massasoit, Winslow later noted, was quite taken with the trumpet. Carver kissed Massasoit’s hand, and Massasoit kissed him back before they sat down.
Carver called for liquor and toasted Massasoit, who ‘drank deeply.’ Then Carver called for fresh meat, which Massasoit ate and shared with his men.
They then agreed to the treaty:
1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.
2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.
3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people were at work, he should cause them to be restored; and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to them.
4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.
5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
6. 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.
Peace and Friendship
Winslow, who became Massasoit’s friend, wrote that he trusted him. Sometimes two or three Pilgrims had gone into the woods, working or hunting, and the Wampanoags didn’t harm them, though it would have been easy to do so.
“Hee hath a potent Adversary the Narowhiganseis [Narragansetts], that are at warre with him,” wrote Winslow, a”gainst whom hee thinkes wee may be some strength to him…”
Massasoit would also form friendships with Carver, Bradford and Standish. And he prevented the Pilgrims from starving to death during the early years of Plymouth Colony.
At the same time, Massasoit protected his people’s spiritual traditions, preventing their conversion to Christianity.
For the next four decades, the Wampanoags and the Plymouth colony lived in peace.
And then, King Philip’s War broke out.
Need some new ideas for your Thanksgiving feast? How about trying something old — and authentic — from the New England Historical Society’s latest ebook. Available from Amazon (click here).
This story was updated in 2022.