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Who Were the Native People


"[The Natives] support themselves by hunting, and when the spring comes, by fishing ... At the end of March they begin to break up the earth with mattocks."

- Isaack de Rasieres, 1628

The Wampanoag have lived in southeastern New England for thousands of years, farming and fishing and hunting in a seasonal cycle.

The Native Peoples were familiar with Europeans, who had been exploring and fishing here since the 16th century. This European contact introduced, around 1615, an infectious disease for which the Native population had no immunity. Many villages suffered terrible losses. Others, such as the Wampanoag led by Massasoit, were weakened but survived. Not all communities were affected; the Narragansett in today's Rhode Island remained strong and threatened the Wampanoag.


Massasoit was the most powerful leader, or sachem, of the several tribes of the Wampanoag nation. His headquarters were in Rhode Island, 40 miles to the southwest of Plymouth.

In 1620, he was of middle years and firmly established as a strong, dignified and subtle leader. His people, who had been devastated by disease, were threatened by the powerful Narragansetts. Massasoit's mission was to forge alliances where he could - with other Native groups and with English colonists to ensure his people's survival.

Massasoit's relationship with the Pilgrims, part of his active diplomacy, was strengthened when Edward Winslow saved his life in 1623.

Today's Plymouth was the site of the thriving Wampanoag community of Patuxet. By 1620, Patuxet was depopulated; those who survived had left to join other communities.

Archaeological objects made of stone survive but represent only a small part of local Native material culture before 1600. Some activities represented by these stone artifacts are fishing, hunting, woodworking, cooking and recreation. Artifacts made of other materials, such as wood, plant fibers and hide, seldom survive.


The Native Peoples of New England were familiar with Europeans. Throughout the 16th century, the French fishermen and traders explored the coast. Samuel de Champlain explored the Northeast coast for the French in the early 1600s. In 1605, he sketched what is now Plymouth Bay.

Champlain's Map of Plymouth Harbor

In 1605, Samuel de Champlain (of France) explored the New England coast. His ship ran aground in Plymouth Harbor. While waiting for the tide to come in, he drew a map, the only drawing of Plymouth showing the Native community of Patuxet. The Native houses, known as "wetus," can be seen surrounded by cornfields.
Champlain's account of his explorations, including the map drawn during his stay in Plymouth Harbor, was published in Paris in 1613.
By the time of the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620, Patuxet had been devastated by disease and abandoned by its Native inhabitants.

Click here for a larger view of Champlain's map and for Champlain's written description of Plymouth Bay.

The French were joined by Basques, Dutch and, by the early 17th century, by the English.


Tisquantum, or Squanto, was a Wampanoag native of Patuxet (today's Plymouth). In 1614, Thomas Hunt, an unscrupulous English sea captain, kidnapped several Natives, including Squanto, and sold them in Spain. Somehow, Squanto made his way to London. There he became acquainted with English explorer Thomas Dermer, sailing back to New England with him in 1619.

He discovered his village was vacant, emptied by disease.

In 1621, Squanto served as guide and interpreter between Massasoit and the Pilgrims. He lost Massasoit's favor when his plot to create a personal power base was discovered. Squanto remained with the colonists until his death in 1622.

It was a short step from exploration to colonization. Economics were important in colonizing the Americas. England faced stiff competition in trade from Holland, Spain and France. Colonies would provide England with her own spices, medicines and dyes. Colonies would also be markets for English goods.

The English were moving into a region where Native Peoples already lived. Seventeenth-century Europeans believed that their colonizing effort was justified because they were "improving" the land in European ways of intensive farming and permanent villages. The Europeans also believed their colonizing effort was justified by the introduction of the Christian religion.


The weakened group of colonists worked hard to build houses and gather food. While they occasionally saw Native People from a distance, it was not until March 1 of 1621 that an Abenaki named Samoset entered the little village of Plymouth, "saluted us in English and bade us ‘Welcome!’ for he had learned some broken English among the Englishmen that came to fish at Monhegan [Maine]."

Samoset brought Tisquantum (Squanto) to meet the colonists. Squanto, a Wampanoag native of Patuxet, was kidnapped by an English sea captain in 1614, returning to his homeland with an English explorer in 1619. Massasoit, a sachem of the Wampanoag, then came to Plymouth.

Interview with Massasoit by Eastman

"And now to speak somewhat of Massasoit's stature. He is as proper a man as ever was seen in this country, and very courageous."

- Emmanuel Altham, 1623

The two groups approached each other cautiously, exchanging hostages. The Wampanoag sought to balance the dominance of the powerful Narragansett. The colonists sought to ensure security for their fledgling settlement. On April 1, 1621, they agreed upon an alliance of mutual support.


"... the coming of their great Sachem, called Massasoiet. Who, about four or five days after, came with the chief of his friends and other attendance, with the aforesaid Squanto. With whom, after friendly entertainment and some gifts given him, they made a peace with him (which hath now continued this 24 years) in these terms:

I. That neither he nor any of his, should injure or do hurt to any of their people.
II. That if any of his did any hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender that they might punish him.
III. That if any thing were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do the like to his.
IV. That if any did unjustly war against him, they would aid him; and if any did war against them, he should aid them.
V. That he should send to his neighbours confederates to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
VI. That when their men came to them, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them.

From: Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford,
edited by Samuel Eliot Morison
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 80-81

Treaty with the Indians by Botkin

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