Known to his own people as Ousamequin (“Yellow Feather”), Chief Massasoit was the most influential Native American to welcome the Pilgrims when they arrived at Plymouth.
Massasoit was born around 1600 and became chief of the Pokanoket group of Wampanoag Indians. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1620, Massasoit sent men to watch the newcomers from a distance. He wanted to know something about these strangers before he met them face to face. Therefore, it was Samoset, and then Englishspeaking Squanto, who were the first Native Americans to meet the Pilgrims. Then Massasoit decided to meet the newcomers himself.
On March 22, 1621, Massasoit and 60 warriors arrived at Plymouth. Massasoit met with the Pilgrim leaders and he soon made a treaty of friendship and peace between their two peoples. The pact called for mutual defense in case either people was attacked by a third party. The final clause read, “That so doing, their sovereign lord, King James, would esteem him as his friend and ally.”
American historians have long noted that Massasoit kept the treaty for the next 40 years of his life. This is undoubtedly true, but what is often overlooked is the fact that Massasoit felt trapped between two potential enemies: the Narragansett Indians to his west and the Pilgrims to the east. Therefore, it was essential for him to be at peace with at least one of those groups.
Massasoit and 90 of his people went to Plymouth to celebrate the first Thanksgiving in November, 1 62 1 . They brought five deer with them, and the feast confirmed an era of peace and respect between the two peoples.
As the years and decades passed, Massasoit witnessed the arrival of more and more European settlers. Though he left no record of his thoughts on the matter, Massasoit encouraged his people to adapt and use some of the tools and farming methods the settlers brought.
The Wampanoags began to use iron hoes; they also began to raise chicken and sheep. By the time of Massasoit’s death in 1660, many of his people were practicing skills learned from the Europeans.
When the Pilgrims broke the spirit of the 1 62 1 treaty by trying to make the Wampanoags subjects instead of allies, Plymouth and other English settlements faced the last strong effort by the native population to resist their expansion. This effort was led by Metacomet (see no. 50), Massasoit’s son and heir.