In the beginning of the 17th century, at the time of first contact with the English, the Wampanoag lived in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a territory that encompassed present-day Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket islands. Their population numbered in the thousands due to the richness of the environment and their cultivation of corn, beans and squash. Three thousand Wampanoag lived on Martha’s Vineyard alone.
From 1615 to 1619, the Wampanoag suffered an epidemic, long suspected to be smallpox. Early twenty-first century research has suggested that it was leptospirosis, a bacterial infection also known as Weil’s syndrome or 7-day fever. It caused a high fatality rate and nearly destroyed the society. Researchers say that the losses from the epidemic were so large that English colonists were more easily able to found their settlements in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in later years. More than 50 years later, the King Philip’s War of Indian allies against the English colonists resulted in the deaths of 40 percent of the surviving tribe. Most of the male Wampanoag were sold into slavery in Bermuda or the West Indies. Many women and children were enslaved by colonists in New England.
Wampanoag Tribe Facts: Culture
The Wampanoag, like many indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands, have a matrilineal system, in which women controlled property, and hereditary status was passed through the maternal line. They were also matrifocal: when a young couple married, they lived with the woman’s family. Women elders could approve selection of chiefs or sachems. Men acted in most of the political roles for relations with other bands and tribes, as well as warfare. Women with claims to specific plots of land used for farming or hunting passed those claims to their female descendants, regardless of their marital status.
The work of making a living was organized on a family level. Families gathered together in spring to fish, in early winter to hunt, and in the summer they separated to cultivate individual planting fields. Boys were schooled in the way of the woods, where a man’s skill at hunting and ability to survive under all conditions were vital to his family’s well-being. Women were trained from their earliest years to work diligently in the fields and around the family wetu, a round or oval house that was designed to be easily dismantled and moved in just a few hours. They also learned to gather and process natural fruits and nuts, other produce from the habitat, and their crops.
The production of food among the Wampanoag was similar to that of many Native American societies. Food habits were divided along gendered lines. Men and women had specific tasks. Native women played an active role in many of the stages of food production. Since the Wampanoag relied primarily on goods garnered from this kind of work, women had important socio-political, economic, and spiritual roles in their communities. Wampanoag men were mainly responsible for hunting and fishing, while women took care of farming and the gathering of wild fruits, nuts, berries, shellfish, etc. Women were responsible for up to seventy-five percent of all food production in Wampanoag societies.
Wampanoag Tribe Facts: Political Structure
The Wampanoag were organized into a confederation, where a head sachem, or political leader, presided over a number of other sachems. The English often referred to the sachem as “king,” but the position of a sachem differed in many ways from what they knew of a king. Sachems were bound to consult not only their own councilors within their tribe but also any of the “petty sachems,” or people of influence, in the region. They were also responsible for arranging trade privileges, as well as protecting their allies in exchange for material tribute. Both women and men could hold the position of sachem, and women were sometimes chosen over close male relatives.
Ironically the Wampanoag were much more democratic and offered more basic rights than their counterparts who believed them to be “savages” at first.
Wampanoag Tribe Facts: European Contact
The Wampanoag Tribe is the tribe of Chief Massasoit, Samoset, and Squanto. They made contact with the Pilgrims and aided them. Without the help of the Wampanoag tribe it is possible that the colonists of Plymouth Colony would not have survived the first winter. They taught the colonists how to grow crops in the New World and allowed them to hunt in their hunting grounds without much resistance. The Wampanoag and Plymouth treaty lasted for generations until King Philips War.
However, the Pilgrims were not the first to meet the Wampanoag tribe. Early contacts between the Wampanoag and Europeans date from the 16th century, when European merchant vessels and fishing boats traveled along the coast of present-day New England. Captains of merchant vessels captured Native Americans and sold them as slaves in order to increase their earnings. For example, Captain Thomas Hunt captured several Wampanoag in 1614. After his return to Europe, he sold them in Spain as slaves. A Patuxet named Squanto was bought by Spanish monks, who attempted to convert him before eventually setting him free.
While Squanto was a blessing to the Europeans the Europeans brought a curse to the natives that nobody could see, disease. Disease would wipe out much of the Indian population and would gradually lead to the demise of the tribe.
Wampanoag Tribe Facts: King Philips War
Metacom was the second son of Wampanoag chief Massasoit, who had coexisted peacefully with the Pilgrims. He succeeded his brother in 1662 and reacted to rising tensions between the Wampanoags and the colonists. At Taunton in 1671, he was humiliated when colonists forced him to sign a new peace agreement that included the surrender of Indian guns. Officials in Plymouth Colony hanged three Wampanoags in 1675 for the murder of an Indian, and Metacom’s followers and allies launched a united assault on colonial towns throughout the region. His forces gained initial victories in the first year, but then the Indian alliance began to unravel. By the end of the conflict, the Wampanoags and their Narragansett allies were almost completely destroyed. Metacom anticipated their defeat and returned to his ancestral home at Mt. Hope, where he was killed fleeing Colonial militiamen.
The war was the single greatest calamity to occur in 17th-century New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in the history of European settlement in North America in proportion to the population. In the space of little more than a year, 12 towns were destroyed and many more damaged, the economies of Rhode Island and Plymouth Colony were all but ruined, and the population was decimated, losing one-tenth of all men available for military service in those two colonies. More than half of New England’s towns were attacked by Indians.