[March 22nd marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty, signed by Plymouth Governor John Carver and Wampanoag Confederacy sachem Massasoit. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Indigenous New England histories, leading up to a weekend post on the vital need to reframe the Pilgrims through this lens.]
On the most inspiring and most horrific sides to a foundational American life, and how to remember both.
I’ve made the case for an inspiring take on the life and influence of the Patuxet man named Tisquantum (and known to the English and in much of our collective memories as Squanto) both on this blog and in my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, and for this post’s first point will ask you to check those pieces out if you would and then come on back here for more.
Welcome back! In that Considering History column I also highlighted some of the far darker sides to Tisquantum’s story: his 1614 kidnapping and enslavement by English explorer and slaver Thomas Hunt; his five or so years of slavery across much of the early 17th century Atlantic world; and his discovery upon his return to New England in 1619 (with another English slave-owner, Thomas Dermer) that the rest of his Patuxet tribe had been destroyed by an epidemic brought upon them by European arrivals. Those horrors don’t just delineate the cost that Tisquantum had to pay for his status as a foundational cross-cultural American (a defining national identity for which I’ve been arguing since at least my second book, and even earlier on this blog); they remind us that the multiple layers of genocide (at times somewhat accidental but also and especially profoundly purposeful) we now rightly associate with Christopher Columbus were just as present and destructive for Indigenous cultures in New England, and indeed everywhere in the Americas.
Remembering Tisquantum requires us to recognize those historic horrors, and to consider their effects on individuals like him as well as on entire cultures. To celebrate the ways in which he sought to use his cross-cultural experiences and identity (such as his ability to speak English) to connect indigenous and European cultures does not and cannot mean eliding those horrors, nor the implication of all European arrivals to the Americas in them. But at the same time, it’s vitally important not to see Indigenous peoples solely or centrally as victims, no more in the 17th century than in the 21st. Even in the face of those settler colonial horrors and violences, individuals like Tisquantum—and cultures like the Wampanoag as a whole—chose to model a very different form of community, one that we can see as a distinct foundation for American history (a topic to which I’ll return throughout the week, and especially in the weekend post). That’s far from the only lens through which to view contact and conflict in 17th century New England, but to my mind it’s a crucial one.
Next Indigenous history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Indigenous or early American histories you’d highlight?