Published on April 1, 2012 by Amy
North American tribe of the Algonquian-Ritwan language family and of the Eastern Woodlands culture area. They formerly occupied the territory between the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic coast, including the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
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In 1620 the Wampanoag were said to be settled in about 30 villages. Massasoit, a Wampanoag chief, signed the first peace treaty with the English colonists. Some decades later Massasoit’s son Philip led the tribe in an unsuccessful uprising known as King Philip’s War.
In 1990, 2175 people claimed to be of Wampanoag descent.
For 50 years the settlers and Native Americans in New Hampshire maintained friendly relations. Even when most of New England was involved in King Philip’s War (1675-1676) between settlers and native people led by the Wampanoag chief Philip, New Hampshire native groups tried to remain neutral. But as white settlements increased, so did tensions. The Europeans introduced livestock that often ruined crops in the Native Americans’ fields, and disputes arose over access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds.
These conflicts turned to bloodshed from 1689 to 1760, when New Hampshire became a battleground between France and England in their struggle for control of North America. During a series of wars known as the French and Indian Wars, the European powers formed alliances with rival native groups. The Algonquian-speaking native people of New Hampshire, increasingly displaced from their lands by English settlers, fought with the French against the English settlers and the Iroquois, the Algonquian peoples’ traditional enemy.
The English colonists first settled on present-day Aquidneck Island in the year 1638 in the region called by the Indians “Pocasset” (meaning “where the stream widens”), the northern part of Portsmouth, RI. The word “Aquidneck” is from the word aquidnet in the local Indian language, and literally means “floating-mass-at” or simply “at the island”. At one time, what we now call Aquidneck Island was controlled by the Wampanoag Indians, whose leader was the famous Great Sachem or The Massasoit (1580?-1662?). The Massasoit greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. We believe that Aquidneck Island was used primarily as a hunting territory although it was probably a summer residence as well.
The Wampanoags were decimated by as much as 90% by the epidemics brought to this country by the Europeans in 1617-1619. The Narragansetts, who were unaffected by the diseases, fought for and obtained control of Aquidneck Island and other places. The Wampanoags regained control over their territories.
It is recorded that the Narragansett Sachems, Canonicus and his nephew, Miantonomi, signed a “deed” for Aquidneck Island, most likely at the time they were in control of the island. It was stipulated by the English that all the Indians had to be chased off the entire island. Later when some Indians wanted to hunt here, the English had to approve this request in a special meeting of the legislature. The English thought that they were “buying” the land for the money and other things they gave to the Indians. The Indians accepted these things as expressions of friendship and gratitude from the English. The English understood only “private property” whereas the Indians always understood these paper-signing ceremonies as just the way English did things. The Indian was just being friendly and kind by allowing the English to live and plant on their territory. Indians always understood these events to mean that the land still belonged to the Indian but was now being shared with the English.
Most non-Indians cannot understand this religious belief (even today). A careful reading of the Records of The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England (Vol. I, 1636-1663) will show a letter written by Roger Williams later in his life in which he attributes the kindness and generosity of the Wampanoag Massasoit Ousa Mequin years before for the gifts of Providence, all of Aquidneck Island, and Wappewassick (Prudence Island). The Massasoit gifted Roger Williams with Aquidneck Island, Providence and Prudence Island for his friendship and love of Indians. The Massasoit received no payment for these lands, and did not want any. Roger Williams said he was indebted to the Wampanoag Sachem until the day he died. Thus, Aquidneck Island may be one of the few places in our country that is truly in keeping with Indian traditions — Mother Earth cannot be bought or sold by anyone because it was created by and belongs to the Creator alone. Contrary to our history books, Indians never sold land, because this concept was totally alien to their religion.
The earliest human inhabitants of the Massachusetts area lived about 10,000 BC, after the glaciers had retreated. Archaeological sites indicate several other cultures developed in the millennia that followed. For centuries before Europeans arrived in the area it was inhabited by Algonquian-speaking groups of Native Americans.
When European colonization began in the early 1600s, seven major groups lived in the area. The Wampanoag and the Nauset were on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Island; the Massachuset had settlements along Massachusetts Bay; the Nipmuc were in central Massachusetts; the Pocomtuck lived in the northwest; the Pennacook were near the New Hampshire border; and the Mahican were in the Berkshire area.
The native peoples lived largely by hunting deer, catching fish and shellfish, and growing corn, beans, and squash, migrating from forest to coastal areas to take advantage of seasonal resources. Approximately 30,000 native people inhabited Massachusetts in 1614, but epidemics of disease brought by whites soon greatly reduced the population.
Five Algonquian-speaking groups of Native Americans inhabited what is now Rhode Island when the first white explorers arrived in the 16th century and early 17th century. The Narragansett occupied most of the region and were the largest and most powerful group, numbering about 5,000. The Wampanoag lived in the area east of Narragansett Bay. The Nipmuc lived in northern Rhode Island and adjacent areas of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Niantic inhabited southwestern Rhode Island and coastal areas of Connecticut. The Pequot held land along Rhode Island’s western border but lived mostly in what is now Connecticut.
Archaeological sites indicate the native inhabitants lived largely by hunting deer, catching fish and shellfish, and growing corn, beans, and squash. They migrated between inland and coastal areas during the year to take advantage of seasonal resources. The principal social unit was the village, led by a village chief called a sachem. Some sachems apparently held power over larger confederacies made up of several villages, and over some of the smaller, weaker native groups.
The first European known to have explored the Rhode Island area was the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano. Advertisement He sailed into Narragansett Bay in 1524, exploring its coasts and islands and finding large Narragansett and Wampanoag settlements. The Dutch navigator Adriaen Block explored Block Island and the coastal areas of the mainland in 1614, and Dutch fur traders were active in the region. In the next few years, epidemics decimated the Native American people throughout New England; the Wampanoag suffered heavy losses.
In 1635 William Blackstone, an Anglican clergyman, left Boston to seek solitude and settled at the site of Valley Falls, in an area that was then part of the Massachusetts Bay colony. A year later, a Puritan minister, Roger Williams, became the first European to establish an independent, permanent settlement in the Rhode Island region.
Williams had lived in the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, but came into conflict with the Puritan authorities there. An outspoken advocate of religious freedom, he challenged some of the civil and religious restrictions in the colonies. In January 1636 he was forced to flee Massachusetts to avoid deportation to England. He found refuge among the Wampanoag, whose chief, Massasoit, was his friend. Massasoit gave him a tract of land east of the Seekonk River, and Williams, together with friends from Salem, settled at the site of the present-day Rumford, in East Providence. However, the authorities of the Plymouth Colony had jurisdiction over the area and forced the dissenters to move across the river to land controlled by the Narragansett. The Narragansett sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi, gave Williams a large grant of land, and he established Providence, Rhode Island’s first permanent white settlement, in 1636.
Williams was highly respected by the Native Americans. Unlike many colonists, he viewed them as fellow human beings, not as savages. He learned their language and dealt fairly and honestly with them, insisting that settlers must compensate the native people rather than seize their lands. In turn, the native groups not only accepted the colonists but encouraged settlement. The Wampanoag and Narragansett were traditional rivals, and each tribe viewed the settlers as potential allies against the other. The settlers also created a buffer against the more aggressive colonies in Massachusetts. When war broke out in 1637 between the Pequot and colonists in Connecticut, the Narragansett aided the settlers, and the Pequot were nearly annihilated. In 1638 Williams and 12 other settlers formed the Proprietors’ Company for Providence Plantations to share the land deeded by the Narragansett.
European captains were known to increase profits by capturing natives to sell as slaves. Such was the case when Thomas Hunt kidnapped several Wampanoag in 1614 and later sold them in Spain. One of his victims – a Patuxet named Squanto (Tisquantum) – was purchased by Spanish monks who attempted to “civilize” him. Eventually gaining his freedom, Squanto was able to work his way to England (apparently undeterred by his recent experience with Captain Hunt) and signed on as an interpreter for a British expedition to Newfoundland. From there Squanto went back to Massachusetts, only to discover that, in his absence, epidemics had killed everyone in his village. As the last Patuxet, he remained with the other Wampanoag as a kind of ghost.
Southeastern Massachusetts between the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island to the western end of Cape Cod. This also included the coastal islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
In 1600 the Wampanoag probably were as many as 12,000 with 40 villages divided roughly between 8,000 on the mainland and another 4,000 on the off-shore islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The three epidemics which swept across New England and the Canadian Maritimes between 1614 and 1620 were especially devastating to the Wampanoag and neighboring Massachuset with mortality in many mainland villages (i.e. Patuxet) reaching 100%. When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, fewer than 2,000 mainland Wampanoag had survived. The island Wampanoag were protected somewhat by their relative isolation and still had 3,000. At least 10 mainland villages had been abandoned after the epidemics, because there was no one left. After English settlement of Massachusetts, epidemics continued to reduce the mainland Wampanoag until there were only 1,000 by 1675. Only 400 survived King Philip’s War.
Still concentrated in Barnstable, Plymouth, and Bristol counties of southeastern Massachusetts, the Wampanoag have endured and grown slowly to their current membership of 3,000. The island communities of Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket maintained a population near 700 until a fever in 1763 killed two-thirds of the Nantucket. It never recovered, and the last Nantucket died in 1855. The community Martha’s Vineyard has sustained itself by adding native peoples from the mainland and intermarriage, but by 1807 only 40 were full-bloods. Massachusetts divided the tribal lands in 1842 and ended tribal status in 1870, but the Wampanoag reorganized as the Wampanoag Nation in 1928. There are currently five organized bands: Assonet, Gay Head, Herring Pond, Mashpee, and Namasket. All have petitioned for federal and state recognition, but only Gay Head (600 members but without a reservation) has been successful (1987). The Mashpee (2,200 members) were turned down by the federal courts in 1978.
Wampanoag means “eastern people.” Also called: Massasoit, Philip’s Indians, and very commonly in the early records, Pokanoket (Poncakanet).
Like other Algonquin in southern New England, the Wampanoag were a horticultural people who supplemented their agriculture with hunting and fishing. Villages were concentrated near the coast during the summer to take advantage of the fishing and seafood, but after the harvest, the Wampanoag moved inland and separated into winter hunting camps of extended families. Since New England was heavily populated before 1600, these hunting territories were usually defined to avoid conflict. Ownership passed from father to son, but it was fairly easy to obtain permission to hunt in someone else’s lands.
The Wampanoag were organized as a confederacy with lesser sachems and sagamores under the authority of a Grand Sachem. Although the English often referred to Wampanoag sachems as “kings,” there was nothing royal about the position beyond respect and a very limited authority. Rank had few privileges, and Wampanoag sachems worked for a living like everyone else. It should also be noted that, in the absence of a suitable male heir, it was not uncommon among the Wampanoag for a woman to become the sachem (queen or squaw-sachem).