The ship Mayflower that put in to the coast of New England in the fall of 1620 was not the first vessel full of white men the Wampanoag Indians had seen.
They’d had many encounters with the European fishermen, traders and sailors who had been poking around up and down the coast in recent years — not all of them positive. Sometimes the white sailors captured their people and carried them off across the sea into slavery. Though they could not be sure of its origin, the Wampanoag had reason to suspect that the strangers from the sea had brought a mysterious plague upon them, which had ravaged the people.
In 1620, the members of the Wampanoag Confederacy inhabiting what would become southern New England were living in a post-apocalyptic world. A scant few years before the Mayflower landed, this numerous and prosperous people was ravaged by a series of disease outbreaks lasting more than two years. Half or more of the Wampanoag died. In some villages, mortality approached 100 percent.
The Wampanoag had reason to be wary of these strangers. The landing itself was odd — the Mayflower came late in the season, much later than other ships had arrived. And the ship bore more than a crew of young, aggressive males. It bore men, women and children. Settlers. Colonists. We call them the Pilgrims.
The 102 people on the Mayflower were almost all Protestant Separatist Puritans who had come to the “New World” seeking a place in which to practice their faith without interference by kings or bishops and to find a way to make a living in what to them was a threatening wilderness. Their voyage across the Atlantic was an epic of fortitude, faith and courage. And they were totally unprepared to make a life and a living in the place where they finally came to shore.
What was a New World to them was an old world to the Wampanoag. And it was no howling wilderness. The Wampanoag actively managed the landscape, using fire to thin underbrush to improve hunting conditions, and building funnels for deer drives and impressive fish weirs to methodically harvest fish and game. Wampanoag women practiced a sophisticated form of horticulture, creating and storing surpluses of corn and beans.
Far from being innocent children of nature whose history started upon encountering the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag were a sophisticated, long-established polity with significant decisions to make. Their historic agreement to assist the Pilgrims was not an acceptance of being colonized — it was a political and strategic move determined by the sachems of the Confederacy to be the course of action that best aligned with the imperative to ensure their physical security, access to trade, and the sovereignty of the people.
Weakened by the scourge of disease and under pressure from the aggressive Narragansett people to the west, the Wampanoag made a calculated decision that they would aid the Plymouth colonists in an effort to create a mutually supporting alliance — and to obtain firearms, which they hoped would tip the native balance of power in their favor.
It wasn’t an easy decision and it could have gone a different way – one that would have smothered the Plymouth Colony in its infancy.
As David Silverman notes in his tendentious but deeply researched This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, And The Troubled History of Thanksgiving:
“Moving beyond the stock characters of the Thanksgiving myth in favor of a history peopled with three-dimensional Wampanoags reveals a much more dynamic and dramatic story. The real suspense in this historical encounter had nothing to do with whether the Wampanoags were innately friendly or hostile. Rather, it resulted from an informed debate within the Wampanoag ranks about whether to wipe out the strangers before they became a threat or to seek their trade goods and possibly military support. How could the Wampanoags not be conflicted?”
The Wampanoags chose the latter course, and provided material assistance and vital education in maize horticulture to the Plymouth colonists, who, despite losing half their population, managed to survive their first winter and gain a toehold in North America.
It was this decision and the formal agreement that grew out of it that marks the truly significant moment in the early colonization of New England. The feast that we commemorate was an afterthought and an outgrowth of an alliance drawn up by two powers — one dominant but vulnerable and one that could not survive without it.
The alliance between the Wampanoag and the Plymouth colonists would unravel in bloody conflict 50 years on, in the calamitous King Philip’s War of 1675-76. The Wampanoag survive yet, still living with the consequences that grew out of a choice made nearly 400 years ago.