MACHINATIONS

Tisquantum worked to prove his value to the Pilgrims. He was so successful that when some anti-British Indians abducted him the colonists sent out a military expedition to get him back. They did not stop to ask themselves why he might be making himself essential, given how difficult it must have been to live in the ghost of his childhood home. In retrospect, the answer seems clear: the alternative to staying in Plymouth was returning to Massasoit and renewed captivity.

Recognizing that the Pilgrims would be unlikely to keep him around forever, Tisquantum decided to gather together the few survivors of Patuxet and reconstitute the old community at a site near Plymouth. More ambitious still, he hoped to use his influence on the English to make this new Patuxet the center of the Wampanoag confederation, thereby stripping the sachemship from Massasoit, who had held him captive. To accomplish these goals, he intended to play the Indians and English against each other.

The scheme was risky, not least because the ever-suspicious Massasoit sent one of his pniese, Hobamok, to Plymouth as a monitor. (Hobamok, like Tisquantum, apparently adopted a new name in his dealings with the British; “Hobamok” was the source of evil in Wampanoag cosmology.) Sometimes the two men were able to work together, as when Hobamok and Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims negotiate a treaty with the Massachusett to the north. They also helped establish a truce with the Nauset of Cape Cod after Bradford promised to pay back the losses caused by their earlier grave robbing.

By fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with ninety people, most of them young men with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food, and complained about the Narragansett. Ecce Thanksgiving.

All the while, Tisquantum covertly tried to persuade other Wampanoag that he was better able to protect them against the Narragansett than Massasoit. In case of attack, Tisquantum claimed, he could respond with an equal number of Indian troops—and the Pilgrims, who might be able to intimidate the enemy. He evidently believed that the Narragansett did not have enough experience with European guns to know that they were not as fearsome as they first appeared. To advance his case, Tisquantum told other Indians that the foreigners had hidden away casefuls of the agent that caused the epidemic, and that he could manipulate them into unleashing it.

Even as Tisquantum attempted to foment Indian distrust of Massasoit, he told the colonists that Massasoit was going to double-cross them by leading a joint attack on Plymouth with the Narragansett. And he attempted to trick the Pilgrims into attacking the sachem.

In the spring of 1622 Tisquantum accompanied a delegation to the Massachusett in Boston Harbor. Minutes after they left, Bradford later recalled, one of the surviving Patuxet “came running in seeming great fear” to inform the settlers that the Narragansett “and he thought also Massasoit” were planning to attack. The idea clearly was that the colonists, enraged by the putative assault, would rise up and smite Massasoit. Tisquantum would be away, so his hands would seem clean. Instead everything went awry. In Indian villages people could only be summoned by shouting; once a canoe had gone a few hundred yards, it could not readily be called back. But when the news came of the impending attack, Bradford ordered the Pilgrims to fire a cannon to order back the expedition and Tisquantum. Meanwhile Hobamok, who had acquired some English, indignantly denied the story. In a move that Tisquantum apparently had not anticipated, Bradford dispatched Hobamok’s wife to Massasoit’s home to find out what the sachem was doing. She reported that “all was quiet.” Actually, this wasn’t entirely true. Massasoit was furious—at Tisquantum. He demanded that the Pilgrims send their translator to him for a quick execution.

Bradford refused; Tisquantum’s language skills were too vital. Tisquantum is one of my subjects, Massasoit said. You Pilgrims have no jurisdiction over him. And he offered a cache of fur to sweeten the deal. When the colony still would not surrender Tisquantum, Massasoit sent a messenger with a knife and told Bradford to lop off Tisquantum’s hands and head. To make his displeasure manifest, he summoned Hobamok home and cut off contact with the Pilgrims. Nervous, the colonists began building defensive fortifications. Worse, almost no rain fell between mid-May and mid-July, withering their crops. Because the Wampanoag had stopped trading with them, the Pilgrims would not be able to supplement their harvest.

Tisquantum, afraid of Massasoit’s wrath, was unable to take a step outside of Plymouth without an escort. Nonetheless, he accompanied Bradford on a trip to southeast Cape Cod to negotiate another pact. They were on the way home when Tisquantum suddenly became sick. He died in a few days, his hopes in ruins. In the next decade tens of thousands of Europeans came to Massachusetts. Massasoit shepherded his people through the wave of settlement, and the pact he signed with Plymouth lasted for more than fifty years. Only in 1675 did one of his sons, angered at being pushed around by colonists’ laws, launch what was perhaps an inevitable attack. Indians from dozens of groups joined in. The conflict, brutal and sad, tore through New England.

The Europeans won. Historians attribute part of the victory to Indian unwillingness to match the European tactic of massacring whole villages. Another reason for the newcomers’ triumph was that by that time they outnumbered the natives. Groups like the Narragansett, which had been spared by the epidemic of 1616, were crushed by a smallpox epidemic in 1633. A third to half of the remaining Indians in New England died. The People of the First Light could avoid or adapt to European technology but not European disease. Their societies were destroyed by weapons their opponents could not control and did not even know they had.

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