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Native Intelligence

The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school. But that wasn't enough to save them

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Recognizing that the colonists would be unlikely to keep him around forever, Tisquantum decided to gather together the few Native 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. To accomplish these goals, as Governor Bradford later recounted, he intended to play the Indians and English against each other.


The scheme was risky, not least because the ever-suspicious Massasoit had sent one of his pniese, Hobamok, to Plymouth as a monitor. Sometimes Hobamok and Tisquantum worked together, as when the pair 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 Governor Bradford agreed to pay back the losses caused by the colonists’ earlier grave robbing.


By fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with “some ninety men,” Winslow later recalled, most of them 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, Bradford wrote, Tisquantum “sought his own ends and played his own game.” Covertly he tried to persuade other Wampanoag that he could better protect them against the Narragansett than Massasoit. In case of attack, Tisquantum claimed, he could respond with as many Indian troops—plus the Pilgrims. To advance his case, Tisquantum told other Indians that the foreigners had “buried in the ground” a cache of the agent that had caused the epidemic and that he could manipulate them into unleashing it.


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


In the spring of 1622 Tisquantum went with a delegation of Pilgrims to the Massachusett in Boston Harbor. Minutes after they departed, according to Bradford, one of the surviving Patuxet “in seeming great fear” informed the settlers that the Narragansett and Massasoit were planning to attack. Apparently Tisquantum believed that the colonists, upon hearing this news, would rise up and kill Massasoit. Since Tisquantum was away, his hands would seem clean. Instead, everything went awry. Upon hearing the news of an impending attack, Bradford ordered the firing of a cannon to call back the delegation, including Tisquantum. Meanwhile Hobamok, who had acquired some English, indignantly denied the rumor. Then in a move that Tisquantum had not anticipated, Bradford sent Hobamok’s wife to Massasoit’s home to find out what he was up to. She reported that “all was quiet.” When Massasoit found out about the plot, he demanded that the Pilgrims send Tisquantum 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 load of furs to sweeten the deal. When the colony still would not surrender Tisquantum, Winslow wrote, Massasoit sent a messenger with a knife and told Bradford to lop off Tisquantum’s hands and head. To make his displeasure even clearer, he summoned Hobamok home and cut off all contact with the Pilgrims. Nervous, the colonists began building defensive fortifications. Between mid-May and mid-July, their crops withered for lack of rain. Because the Wampanoag had stopped trading with them, the Pilgrims would not be able to supplement their harvest.


Now a marked man, Tisquantum 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 after a few days.


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 50 years. Only in 1675 did one of his sons, angered by the 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 was manpower—by then the colonists outnumbered the Natives. Groups like the Narragansett, which had been spared by the epidemic of 1616, had been crushed by a smallpox epidemic in 1633. A third to half of the remaining Indians in New England died of European diseases. The People of the First Light could avoid or adapt to European technology but not to European germs. Their societies were destroyed by weapons their opponents could not control and did not even know they possessed.

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