Indian Heritage Month: Peace between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims

At the core of Thanksgiving is a foundation of peace that was substantially established between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrim people


SAN JOSE, Calif., Nov. 23, 2015 —   For a majority of Americans celebrating Thanksgiving this Thursday, the stories that are told of the first Thanksgiving may not hold much relevance anymore, and would not likely form at the forefront of their mental images as they contemplate the upcoming holiday. Yet to fully appreciate this American holiday, one needs to consider that in that time, some great feast lasting three days could have been shared between the Indians and the Pilgrims without some foundation of cordial relationship between the two peoples.

The old expression is that it takes two to tango holds true in the original celebration between these two diverse peoples, and at the core of this holiday is a foundation of peace that was substantially established between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrim people. The Wampanoag Indians had genuinely offered kindness of heart and a trusting generosity toward the English colonists from that point in their formal relationship. Their sachem, Massasoit, had extended the proverbial olive branch of peace to the Pilgrims. And, without genuine gratitude honestly demonstrated by the Pilgrim leaders for the help they received from the Indians, there would not have been an invitation extended for a harvest feast between the two peoples.

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At the end of March, William Bradford mentioned that a Wampanoag Indian named Samoset walked boldly into their makeshift community at Plymouth and surprised them by speaking in English. This meeting was the first official overture from the Wampanoags that Pilgrims had experienced, as previous meetings described in Bradford’s written accounts included the Indians running away or shooting arrows at the colonists. Samoset told of his people and related that the previous Wampanoag Indian village of Pautuxet had been destroyed by a plague, but there was one who still lived from the village and he spoke better English than himself. This Wampanoag Indian was Tisquantum, or Squanto. This Indian, Squanto, was a critical key to the establishment of peace between the two peoples.

On April 1, Squanto initiated a peace agreement between John Carver, the first duly elected governor of Plymouth Colony, and the sachem Massasoit. It was a very simple pact. The treaty, as recorded by William Bradford, said:

  • That neither he, nor any of his should injure or do any hurt to any of their people.
  • That if any of his did hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender, that they might punish him.
  • That if anything were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored: and they should do the like to his.
  • If any did unjustly war against him they would aid him; if any did war against them, he should aid them.
  • He should send to his neighbors confederates to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the condition of peace.
  • That when their men came to them, that they should leave their bows and arrows behind them.

Lastly, that doing thus, King James would esteem him as a friend and ally.

While this was a very earnest agreement of respect and trust between these two distinct peoples, it is not a part of English colonial history that is studied today. Instead, what is focused upon in middle schools and high schools as this period is the breaking of this peace treaty by Philip, or Metacomet, the son and heir of Massasoit’s position among the Wampanoag. Students are directed to focus on King Philip’s War against the English in 1675, which lasted one year. The peace lasted for over 50 years, but teachers focus their students on the one year of warfare. In reality, the peace prepared the way for the feasting in the autumn after the harvest – what we call the first Thanksgiving.

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It is important to note that John Carver died about one month after the signing of the treaty, and William Bradford was then elected governor of the struggling colony. This peace essentially lasted until Massasoit died in 1661. One who pursues peace may wonder why it is so essential to focus on the factors that highlight and emphasize the destructiveness of human beings and ignore the previous promotion of peace. The precedent of peace helps people to comprehend that a deeper relation between Indians and Pilgrims already existed as a foundation for greater friendship between the two races, the two diverse cultures.

Getting past all the emotional and intellectual baggage may be difficult, but it is possible. While Progressive-revisionist historians prefer to dispute the establishment of peace between these two peoples and to focus on the battles, raids and murders during that time, they do little to accept the fact of the peace prevented all-out war for over 50 years! There is almost denial of this reality – as there is almost a denial of some obvious realities today that exist between people of different races or cultures. Unfortunately, the absence of war does not equal peace, but the absence of calm does not equal outright war.

While this peace treaty may have been interrupted by the rebellious, or the lawless, and likely by the newer neighbors, those referred to as the Puritans, it is undeniable that a relative peace was maintained while the great chief, Massasoit, was alive. As Bradford writes, “This treaty was scrupulously observed on both sides as long as Massasoit lived…” It is true that a horrible all-out war erupted after he died, and much of that had to do with an angry second son and the Puritan’s treatment of the Wampanoag people peoples and less to do with the Pilgrims.

At the very heart of this initial peace there were mutual efforts to suspend adverse reactions   to cultural differences, racial prejudices and divergent religious perspectives. Earnest efforts to establish mutual trust and friendship germinated between Pilgrim leaders and key figures among the Wampanoag Indians. Massasoit proved to be a gracious leader by allowing the Pilgrims to settle at Pautuxet, he permitted Squanto to assist the Pilgrims in surviving in his territory, and he initiated the alliance and peace. At the very least this foundation of peace did demonstrate how two diverse groups of human beings overcame significant differences to live as neighbors. Maybe greater wisdom assured a more genuine and honest relationship, which  enabled them to live together in harmony.

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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.