American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Massasoit

Title: Massasoit
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The name "Massasoit" is a title meaning "Grand Sachem" or "Great Leader" that was bestowed on Ousa Mequin (Yellow Feather), sachem of the Pokanoket and the Grand Sachem (Massasoit) of the Wampanoag Confederation.

Little is known about Massaoit (ca. 1590– 1661/1662) prior to his contact with the Plymouth colony in 1621. He was born around 1590 in Montaup, a Pokanoket village near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island, and rose to leadership over eight large villages. The first documented contact of Massasoit with the English occurred in 1619. In that year, he met with Captain Thomas Dermer following the latter's voyage with Tisquantum (Squanto) to New England. William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth colony, described the Pokanoket sachem as "a very lust [sic] man in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech. . . . His face was painted with a deep red like mulberry and he was oiled both head and face" (Josephy, 1994, 211).

Traditionally, Massasoit is remembered for his alliance with the Pilgrims and his efforts to aid the Plymouth Colony. A calculating and skilled diplomat, he established personal relationships with the principal leaders of the Plymouth colony, including William Bradford and Edward Winslow. Concern over the possibility of conflict with the neighboring Narragansetts led Massasoit to forge an alliance with the colonists at Plymouth in March 1621. The resulting treaty was mutually beneficial, providing security for the colonists and military aid for the Wampanoags in case of hostilities with the Narragansetts. Cemented even further by Edward Winslow's resuscitation of the critically ill sachem in 1632, the alliance also served to keep the Wampanoags out of the Pequot War (1636–1637) and enabled Massasoit to resist Puritan efforts to Christianize his people.

Expanding English settlements around Massachusetts Bay brought pressures on Massasoit to cede land to the English. To this he relented, selling land in the 1650s to the colony in exchange for the maintenance of harmony. Until his death in 1661 or 1662, the Wampanoag under Massasoit and the people of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies remained at peace.

Alan C. Downs


Further Reading
Axtell, James. 2001. Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America. New York: Oxford University Press.; Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. 1994. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.; Philbrick, Nathaniel. 2006. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking.
 

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