ABOUT SIXTY MILES southwest of Provincetown Harbor, at the confluence of two rivers in the vicinity of modern Warren, Rhode Island, lived Massasoit, the most powerful Native leader, or sachem, in the region. He was in the prime of his life—about thirty-five, strong and imposing, with the quiet dignity that was expected of a sachem.
Despite his personal vigor and equanimity, Massasoit presided over a people who had been devastated by disease. During the three years that the Pilgrims had been organizing their voyage to America, the Indians of southern New England had been hit by what scientists refer to as a virgin soil epidemic—a contagion against which they had no antibodies. From 1616 to 1619, what may have been bubonic plague introduced by European fishermen in modern Maine spread south along the Atlantic seaboard to the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay, killing in some cases as many as 90 percent of the region’s inhabitants.
So many died so quickly that there was no one left to bury the dead. Portions of coastal New England that had once been as densely populated as western Europe were suddenly empty of people, with only the whitened bones of the dead to indicate that a thriving community had once existed along these shores. In addition to disease, what were described as “civil dissensions and bloody wars” erupted throughout the region as Native groups that had been uneasy neighbors in the best of times struggled to create a new order amid the haunted vacancy of New England.
Massasoit’s people, known as the Pokanokets for the area they occupied at the head of Narragansett Bay, had been particularly hard hit. Before the plague, they had numbered about twelve thousand, enabling Massasoit to muster three thousand fighting men. After three years of disease, his force had been reduced to a few hundred warriors. Making it even worse, from Massasoit’s perspective, was that the plague had not affected the Pokanokets’ neighboring enemies, the Narragansetts, who controlled the western portion of the bay and numbered about twenty thousand, with five thousand fighting men. Just recently, Massasoit and ten of his warriors had suffered the humiliation of being forced to do obeisance to the Narragansetts, whose sachem, Canonicus, now considered the Pokanokets his subjects.
Wasted by disease and now under the thumb of a powerful and proud enemy, the Pokanokets were in a desperate struggle to maintain their existence as a people. But Massasoit had his allies. The Massachusetts to the north and the Nausets on Cape Cod shared the Pokanokets’ antipathy to the Narragansetts. Numerically the Pokanokets were at a decided disadvantage, but this did not prevent Massasoit from attempting to use his alliances with other tribes to neutralize the threat to the west. “A small bird is called sachem,” the Englishman Roger Williams later observed, “because of its sachem or princelike courage and command over greater birds, that a man shall often see this small bird pursue and vanquish and put to flight the crow and other birds far bigger than itself.” The Narragansetts might feel that they were now the Pokanokets’ masters, but, as they would soon discover, Massasoit was the consummate small bird.
No one was sure how long ago it had occurred, but some of the Indians’ oldest people told of what it had been like to see a European sailing vessel for the first time. “They took the first ship they saw for a walking island,” the English settler William Wood recounted, “the mast to be a tree, the sail white clouds, and the discharging of ordnance for lightning and thunder, which did much trouble them, but this thunder being over and this moving-island steadied with an anchor, they manned out their canoes to go and pick strawberries there. But being saluted by the way with a [cannon’s] broadside…, [they turned] back, not daring to approach till they were sent for.”
As early as 1524, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano had put in at Narragansett Bay in the vicinity of modern Newport. There he encountered “two kings more beautiful in form and stature than can possibly be described…. The oldest had a deer’s skin around his body, artificially wrought in damask figures, his head was without covering, his hair was tied back in various knots; around his neck he wore a large chain ornamented with many stones of different colors. The young man was similar in his general appearance. This is the finest looking tribe, the handsomest in their costumes, that we have found in our voyage.” Almost a century before the arrival of the Mayflower, Verrazano may have met Massasoit’s great-grandfather.
By 1602, when the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold visited the region, European codfishing vessels had become an increasingly familiar sight along the New England coast. After giving Cape Cod its name, Gosnold ventured to the Elizabeth Islands at the southwestern corner of the Cape, where he built a small fort on the outermost island of Cuttyhunk. Gosnold began harvesting sassafras, the roots of which were used by Europeans to treat syphilis and rheumatism, with the intention of creating a small settlement.
A few days after his arrival, a delegation of fifty Indians in nine canoes arrived from the mainland for the purposes of trade. It was apparent to Gosnold that one of the Indians was looked to with great respect. This may have been Massasoit’s father. It is possible that the sachem’s son, who would have been in his early teens, was also present.
Gosnold presented the sachem with a pair of knives and a straw hat, which he placed experimentally on his head. Then the Indians “all sat down in manner like greyhounds upon their heels” and began to trade. With the exception of mustard ( “whereat they made a sour face” ), the Indians appeared to enjoy all the strange foods the English had to offer. For their part, Gosnold and his men took an immediate fancy to the Indians’ tobacco, a dried green powder that when smoked in carefully crafted clay pipes proved addictively pleasant.
Gosnold was at a loss to understand the Natives’ language, but the Indians proved to have an unnerving ability to mimic the Englishmen’s speech. At one point, a sailor sat smoking beside an Indian and said, “How now, sir, are you so saucy with my tobacco?” The Indian proceeded to repeat the phrase word for word, “as if he had been a long scholar in the language.”
But Gosnold’s enchanting introduction to the area and its people turned as sour as his mustard. While foraging for food, two of his men were attacked by four Indians. No one was hurt (in part because one of the Englishmen had the presence of mind to cut the strings of the Natives’ bows with his knife), but Gosnold decided to abandon his plan for establishing a year-round trading post and sailed for England.
It was a pattern that would be repeated over and over again in the years ahead. Soon after Gosnold returned to England with word of his discovery, the explorer Martin Pring sailed for Cape Cod and built a fort of his own in the vicinity of modern Truro. After a summer of harvesting sassafras, Pring also began to wear out his welcome with the local Natives. When an Indian-lit fire almost consumed his fort, Pring took the hint and sailed for home.
Beginning in 1605, the Frenchman Samuel Champlain began an extensive exploration of the Cape and produced detailed maps of several harbors and inlets. In 1611, the year that Shakespeare produced The Tempest, the English explorer Edward Harlow voyaged to the region. By the time he returned to London, he had abducted close to half a dozen Indians and killed at least as many in several brutal confrontations. One of his Indian captives was quite tall, and Harlow helped defray the cost of the voyage by showing him on the city streets “as a wonder.”
The Indian’s name was Epenow, and he soon realized that there was nothing the English valued more than gold. He told his captors that back on Martha’s Vineyard, an island just to the south of Cape Cod, there was a gold mine that only he could lead them to. An expedition was promptly mounted, and as soon as the English ship came within swimming distance of the island, Epenow jumped over the side and escaped.
Around this time, in 1614, Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame led a voyage of exploration to the region. There were several vessels in Smith’s expedition, and one of the commanders, Thomas Hunt, decided to take as many Native captives as his ship could hold and sell them as slaves in Spain. As Smith later lamented, Hunt’s actions grievously damaged Indian-English relations in New England for years to come.
The following year, a French ship wrecked on the north shore of Cape Cod, and the Indians decided to do to the French what the English had done to them. Indians from up and down the coast gathered together at the wreck site, and William Bradford later learned how they “never left dogging and waylaying [the French] till they took opportunities to kill all but three or four, which they kept as slaves, sending them up and down, to make sport with them from one sachem to another.”
One of the Frenchmen was of a religious bent. He learned enough of the Natives’ language to tell his captors that “God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them and give their country to another people.” Scorning the prophecy, a sachem assembled his subjects around a nearby hill and, with the Frenchman beside him on the hilltop, demanded if “his God had so many people and [was] able to kill all those?” The Frenchman responded that he “surely would.” In three years’ time, everything the captive had predicted had come to pass.
In the spring of 1619, the English explorer Thomas Dermer sailed south from Maine in a small open boat. Accompanying Dermer was a Native guide who’d been abducted by Thomas Hunt in 1614. The Indian’s name was Tisquantum, or Squanto, and after five long years in Spain, England, and Newfoundland, he was sailing toward his home at Patuxet, the site of modern Plymouth. In a letter written the following winter, Dermer described what they saw: “[We] passed along the coast where [we] found some ancient [Indian] plantations, not long since populous now utterly void; in other places a remnant remains, but not free of sickness. Their disease the plague, for we might perceive the sores of some that had escaped, who descried the spots of such as usually die. When [we] arrived at my savage’s native country [we found] all dead.” Squanto’s reaction to the desolation of his homeland, where as many as two thousand people had once lived, can only be imagined. However, at some point after visiting Patuxet, he began to see the catastrophic consequences of the plague as a potential opportunity.
Upon Epenow’s return to Martha’s Vineyard, the former captive had become a sachem, and it seems that Squanto had similar, if not greater, ambitions. Squanto took Dermer to Nemasket, a settlement about fifteen miles inland from Patuxet, where Squanto learned that not everyone in his village had died. Several of his family members were alive and well. He may already have begun to think about reestablishing a community in Patuxet that was independent of Pokanoket control. In the wake of the plague, Massasoit was obviously vulnerable, and as Bradford later said of the former Indian captive, “Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game.” But first he had to see for himself the condition of Massasoit and the Pokanokets, so he convinced Dermer that they must push on to the sachem’s village.
It took about a day to walk from Nemasket to Pokanoket. There they met what Dermer described as “two kings,” who were undoubtedly Massasoit and his brother Quadequina, and fifty warriors. In the immediate and stunning aftermath of the sickness, Massasoit was quite happy to see the Englishman and his Native guide. Dermer wrote that the sachem and his brother were “well satisfied with [what] my savage and I discoursed unto them [and] being desirous of novelty, gave me content in whatsoever I demanded.” Massasoit still had one of the French captives in his possession and agreed to hand him over to Dermer. After redeeming yet another Frenchman and meeting Epenow on Martha’s Vineyard, Dermer left Squanto with Native friends near Nemasket and headed south to spend the winter in Virginia.
When Thomas Dermer returned to the region the following summer, he discovered that the Pokanokets possessed a newfound and “inveterate malice to the English,” and for good reason. That spring, an English ship had arrived at Narragansett Bay. The sailors invited a large number of Massasoit’s people aboard the vessel, then proceeded to shoot them down in cold blood.
Almost everywhere Dermer went in the summer of 1620, he came under attack. He would certainly have been killed at Nemasket had not Squanto, who had spent the winter in the region, come to his rescue. But not even Squanto could save Dermer when he and his men arrived at Martha’s Vineyard. Epenow and his warriors fell on Dermer’s party, and only Dermer, who was badly wounded, and one other Englishman escaped, while Squanto was taken prisoner. Soon after reaching Virginia a few weeks later, Dermer was dead.
Epenow appears to have distrusted Squanto from the start. He more than anyone understood the temptations that went with an intimate understanding of a culture that was a wondrous and terrifying mystery to most Native Americans. If the English should ever achieve a foothold in this land, those such as Squanto and himself, who could speak the Englishmen’s language, would possess a powerful and potentially dangerous advantage. They could claim to know what the English were saying, and no one would know whether or not they were telling the truth. For his part, Epenow had proven his loyalty to his people by attacking Dermer and his men. But Squanto’s true motives were anyone’s guess.
It wasn’t just that Squanto had spent some time in England that set him apart. He also possessed a strong relationship with the Indians’ spirit world. The cosmology of the Pokanokets included as many as thirty-eight gods and spirits, most of them linked to various aspects of the physical world—the sun, moon, sea, fire, and a wide range of animals. First and foremost in this pantheon was the god they regarded as their creator, Kietan, who, as Edward Winslow later wrote, “dwelleth above in the heavens, wither all good men go when they die, to see their friends, and have their fill of all things.” Kietan was the one who had provided the Indians with their corn and beans, and sachems such as Massasoit called on him for support.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the spirit known as Hobbamock or Cheepi. Unlike Kietan, who was benign and remote, Hobbamock was very much a part of this world: an ominous spirit of darkness who appeared at night and in swamps and assumed a variety of disturbing forms, from eels to snakes. The Pokanokets’ spiritual leaders or shamans, known as powwows, looked to Hobbamock to cure the sick, cast a curse, or see into the future. And as it turned out, in addition to Hobbamock and Cheepi, there was a third name for the spirit Massasoit’s people associated with death, the night, and the bitter northeast wind: Tisquantum, or Squanto for short. By assuming the spirit’s name, Squanto was broadcasting his claim to an intimate relationship with an entity that the Pilgrims later equated with the devil.
Massasoit shared Epenow’s distrust of Squanto, and by the fall of 1620, Squanto had been moved from the Vineyard to Pokanoket, where he remained a prisoner. When the Mayflower arrived at Provincetown Harbor in November, it was generally assumed by the Indians that the ship had been sent to avenge the attack on Dermer. In the weeks ahead, the Pilgrims would do little to change that assumption.
In the meantime, Squanto waited for his chance.