[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 English account of the Peace Treaty, and what it does and doesn’t help us remember.
At the start of Book Two of Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford details the colony’s first encounters with Samoset (an Abenaki chief) and Tisquantum (Squanto), the two men who together helped arrange the meeting and peace treaty with Massasoit (I’ve modernized the spelling in the quote):
“His name was Samoset; he told them also of another Indian whose name was Squanto, a native of this place, who had been in England & could speak better English than himself. Being, after some time of entertainment & gifts, dismissed, a while after he came again, & 5 more with him, & they brought again all the tools that were stolen away before, and made way for the coming of their great Sachem, called Massasoit who, about 4 or 5 days after, came with the chief of his friends & other attendance, with the aforesaid Squanto. With whom, after friendly entertainment, & some gifts given him, they made a peace with him (which hath now continued this 24 years) in these terms.
1. That neither he nor any of his, should injure or do hurt to any of their people.
2. That if any of his did any hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender, that they might punish him.
3. 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.
4. If any did unjustly war against him, they would aide him; if any did war against them, he should aide them.
5. He should send to his neighboring confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
6. That when their men came to them, they should leave their bows & arrows behind them.”
This treaty, and more exactly the way it reflects the Plymouth colony’s perspective on Massasoit and his people, helps us understand the communal event that took place nearly a year later, in the autumn of 1621, and that was known at the time as the Harvest Festival (and more recently as the First Thanksgiving). Massasoit and his Wampanoag tribe were not just friendly neighbors to the Plymouth settlers, they were political and military allies, and the Harvest Festival was very much the equivalent of a State Dinner, hosting the leader of an allied nation to cement such diplomatic relationships through a formal culinary occasion.
Bradford’s not wrong that that alliance and peace continued for decades (long beyond the 1640s moment in which he wrote this passage), and certainly helped ensure the Plymouth colony’s survival in those early years. But during that same period, the English fought an extensive, brutal war against another neighboring tribe, the 1637 conflict that came to be known as the Pequot War (and on which more in tomorrow’s post). There are all sorts of ways to analyze the almost thoroughgoing absence of that war from our collective memories and narratives of the Plymouth colony and early America, but I would certainly argue that our emphases on the peaceful origins and relationship between the English and the Wampanoag plays into that elision. So while we can and should celebrate this cross-cultural diplomacy, we can no longer let it contribute to the disappearance of the Pequot and the Pequot War from our historical awareness.
Next Indigenous history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Indigenous or early American histories you’d highlight?