Chief Sachem (Ousamequin) Massasoit

Inducted: 2007
Born: 1581
Died: 1661

The Wampanoags historically were a tribe of horticulturists, farmers, fishermen, and woodland hunters who inhabited eastern Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Their name means “People of the East” or “People of the Dawn.” Their tribal organization was in the nature of a confederacy of small bands. These varied sub-tribes, with their approximate areas of settlement, included the Aquinnah (Martha’s Vineyard), the Mashpee, Nauset, and Manomet (Cape Cod), the Seakonke (the Blackstone Valley from East Providence to Cumberland), the Pawtuxet (the area of present-day Plymouth), the Troy (Fall River), the Assonet (the town of Assonet northward to Taunton), the Herring Pond (near Wareham), the Nemasket (Middleboro and environs), the Pocasset (Tiverton and Portsmouth), the Sakonnet, or Sogkonate (Little Compton), and the Pokanoket (present-day Bristol County, Rhode Island).

In 1616-17, the Wampanoags were victimized by a severe smallpox epidemic, a disease introduced by Europeans for which the natives had no built-in immunity. The Pawtuxet, in particular, were devastated, leaving their area around Plymouth open to settlement by the Pilgrims and weakening the power of Massasoit, a Pokanoket and the reigning chief sachem of the Wampanoag confederation.

Massasoit, also known as Ousamequin (ca. 1581-1661), was born in present-day Rhode Island, probably in Bristol, but little is known of his parents or his early life. As chief sachem of the Wampanoag nation, which stretched from Narragansett Bay through Cape Cod and its islands and as far north as Middleboro and Plymouth, he befriended the Pilgrims, taught them farming methods, and joined with them in a legendary 1621 thanksgiving feast. Massasoit attended that three-day celebration in late autumn with approximately ninety Wampanoags and supplied the gathering with five deer and other food.

Massasoit was aided in his relations with Plymouth by Squanto and Samoset, two natives who had learned English due to their abduction by traders who plied the New England coast in the early seventeenth century. The chief sachem was described in 1621 as a “very lusty man” with “an able body, grave of countenance and spare of speech.” He was a cordial host to the original Pilgrim settlers and sheltered Roger Williams during that outcast’s winter exile in 1636. Although he allowed Protestant missionaries to work among his people, he steadfastly resisted conversion to Christianity.

Massasoit, who led the Wampanoags for about a half-century, is best remembered for his indispensable aid to the Pilgrims during their first year of settlement, for his great diplomatic skill, and for his successful policy of peaceful coexistence with the English settlers during the forty years, he dealt with them. The cornerstone of this policy was an agreement signed at Plymouth on March 21, 1621, between Massasoit and Governor Edward Winslow whereby each leader promised that he and his people would not harm the other, that they would give the other warning of danger, that they would assist if the other were attacked, and that they would work to maintain order and peace between the two peoples. This “league of peace,” welcomed by the weakened Wampanoag, alarmed their rivals, the Narragansett. However, according to one leading scholar, “it established expectations that would have a profound impact on relations between Indians and English throughout the remainder of the century.” This first treaty between these differing cultures addressed Massasoit as a “friend” and “ally” of King James, a signal to the Wampanoag that (at least at first) their relationship with the English was one of equality.

Unfortunately, the English gradually developed the position that all Indians stood beneath them in the colonial hierarchy of power and property rights. Although Massasoit is usually associated with the Plymouth Plantation, the Mount Hope lands in Bristol (Montaup) and the Indian village of Sowams in present-day Barrington were his places of residence because of his leadership of the Pokanoket band, the dominant sub-tribe of the Wampanoag confederation.

Upon his death in 1661, near his eightieth year, Massasoit was succeeded by his oldest son, Wamsutta, whom the English called “Alexander” (after Alexander the Great). When Alexander died suddenly in 1662, Massasoit’s second son, Metacomet (named “King Philip” after Philip of Macedonia), became the grand sachem of the Wampanoag nation.

Chief Sachem Massasoit was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2007.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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