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Ten Interesting Facts About the Pilgrims and Massachusetts Indians

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall, 1882, at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall, 1882, at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

The Times They Were A Changin'

When the Pilgrims first arrived at Plymouth in 1620, Native American culture was already in transformation. Changes to the Native way of life were brought about by an increased European presence along the New England coastline. Not only did the new traders bring in more commerce between the two parties, but they also unleashed a deadly smallpox outbreak. The end results could have spelled disaster for the new arrivals, but by some strange twist of fate, the Pilgrims survived. Here are a few tidbits of history that might shed some light on how the Pilgrims survived.

A Thanksgiving feast with lots of Indians in attendance

A Thanksgiving feast with lots of Indians in attendance

The Ship

The Mayflower was a three or four-masted cargo ship, also known as a carrack. The boat is believed to have been around 100 feet long and was capable of carrying about 180 tons. The carrack, or nau, was developed by the Portuguese in the 15th century and subsequently became popular in New World exploration.

The Mayflower Compact

Originally, the Mayflower had been routed to the Virginia colony, but because of stormy seas, the ship was forced to land on the tip of Cape Cod. Here, in the isolated Massachusetts harbor, talk of mutiny was abundant, especially since many of the travelers did not want to spend the winter in the frigid north. In response to the internal dissent, the ship's captain, William Bradford, drew up a short document and then forced every free man on board to sign the paper before that person was allowed off the ship. As it was, the compact essentially said that each signer was obliged to stick with the Cape Cod settlement and abide by the Governor's rules until such time that a new charter could be agreed upon.

Lucky Strike?

After first reaching land, the colonists stayed on Cape Cod for about five weeks before crossing Massachusetts Bay and landing at a place that is now called Plymouth. In reality, the Mayflower put down its anchor adjacent to a Patuxet village that had been wiped out by smallpox. This streak of luck may have been instrumental in the Pilgrim's ultimate survival, for the local Indians quickly came to accept the new arrivals as suitable replacements for the village that had been destroyed by disease. Still, the Indians were initially wary of the strangers. As a result, they did not approach the new settlers for five months. During this time, about half of the pilgrims died from starvation and disease.

Samoset's Arrival

The first Indian to visit the new colony was named Samoset. He lived to the north near Monhegan Island in Maine, but was spending the winter at Plymouth so he could visit his friends among the Wampanoag nation. Through contact with English sailors, Samoset could express himself in basic English and had also acquired a taste for beer. As a result, the first words out of his mouth were a request for the popular alcoholic beverage, but the pilgrims had none to give him. Nonetheless, Samoset remained friendly, for he gave the pilgrims a quick geography lesson and informed the settlers that they had landed near a newly extinct Indian village.

Squanto, the World Traveler

In the years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Squanto had crossed the Atlantic and returned three times. The first voyage was courtesy of some English ruffians, who sold him into slavery in Spain. Eventually, Squanto escaped to England, where he was treated better and became proficient with the English language. After his first voyage, Squanto was sometimes hired as a translator by friendly English explorers in their travels around the northern region of the New World.

Squanto or Tisquantum teaching the Plymouth colonists to plant corn with fish.

Squanto or Tisquantum teaching the Plymouth colonists to plant corn with fish.

Squanto Abused His Power

A few days after Samoset's initial visit, he returned with Squanto, who could better assist with understanding the English language. At first, Squanto, or Tisquantum, as he was called in his Native tongue, was invaluable in teaching the Pilgrims how to feed themselves in the new land. But after a year or two, the Indian translator began to demand special favors from both the English and the Massachusetts Indians in return for his translating skills. In the end, Squanto died young, only a couple of years after the arrival of the Pilgrims. Some historians have speculated that Tisquantum may have been poisoned by his own people since it has been documented that he was distrusted by both groups.

Massasoit and governor John Carver smoking a peace pipe

Massasoit and governor John Carver smoking a peace pipe

Massasoit, The Peacekeeper

In the long run, the most valuable Indian ally to the English colonists may have been the Wampanoag sachem, named Massasoit. It was Massasoit who was able to maintain the peace between the two groups. Massasoit was a powerful chief with several lesser chiefs under his influence. What he did was negotiate a peace and alliance with the pilgrims. The alliance stated that the new arrivals would be allied with Massoit's people against their enemies, the Narragansett. This alliance included a mutual call to arms if either party was attacked. The Bay Colony pilgrims readily accepted these terms.

Massasoit's Death Brought Trouble

When Massasoit died in 1660, war soon broke out. After the chief's death, much of his tribal authority went to one of his sons, named Alexander. Unfortunately, Alexander did not live long and another son, Phillip, gained control of the local Indians. The war that resulted was called King Phillip's War, and it proved to be quite bloody and costly for the Indian groups affiliated with the Wampanoags.

First Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving in 1621 included a lot of different kinds of meat besides turkey. Wild game, fish (such as lobster), eels, goose, and deer were consumed along with the turkey. Pumpkin pie was not available at the time.

Squanto's Home Village

Squanto's home village was the very same Patuxet village that was located next to Plymouth and destroyed by smallpox. Squanto survived because he was in Europe at the time. The Patuxets were considered to be a branch of the Wampanoag.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why did the pilgrims leave cape cod?

Answer: The pilgrims only stayed a few weeks at the tip of Cape Cod before moving on to Plymouth, which was located on the other side of Massachusetts Bay. If you have ever been to Cape Cod, it won't take long to figure this one out. The place is just about all sand. The fishing might be good, but the possibilities for agriculture were very limited. So the pilgrims adventured across the bay and landed at a place we now call Plymouth. The terrain was more favorable for agriculture, but it took a lucky break (in the form of friendly Indians) to ensure their survival.

Question: What illnesses did the Massachusets colonists get?

Answer: About half of the colonists, who spent the first winter at Plymouth, died, mostly from starvation and malnutrition.

Question: Where did the Pilgrims last land?

Answer: Plymouth.

© 2012 Harry Nielsen


Amethystnevatton on March 25, 2019:

This was pretty helpful

Harry Nielsen (author) from Durango, Colorado on November 14, 2018:

Thanks for all the nice comments. Another Thanksgiving is upon us (about a week away) and I hope everybody has a nice modern-day feast.

Chad on November 14, 2018:

It was the best

tyshaun on September 25, 2018:

that is nice

Aiden on November 17, 2017:

I like it

Savage king on November 17, 2017:

I love it so much

xavier on November 09, 2017:

i liked it