One of the shipwrecked French sailors had learned enough Massachusett to inform his captors before dying that God would destroy them for their misdeeds. The Nauset scoffed at the threat. But the Europeans carried a disease, and they bequeathed it to their jailers. Based on accounts of the symptoms, the epidemic was probably of viral hepatitis, likely spread by contaminated food, according to a study by Arthur E. Spiess, of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Bruce D. Spiess, of the Medical College of Virginia. The Indians “died in heapes as they lay in their houses,” the merchant Thomas Morton observed. In their panic, the recently infected fled from the dying, unknowingly carrying the disease with them to neighboring communities. Behind them the dead were “left for crows, kites, and vermin to prey upon.” Beginning in 1616, the pestilence took at least three years to exhaust itself and killed up to 90 percent of the people in coastal New England.
Massasoit had directly ruled a community of several thousand people and held sway over a confederation of as many as 20,000. Now his group was reduced to 60 people and the entire confederation to fewer than a 1,000. Both the Indians and the Pilgrims believed that sickness reflected the will of celestial forces. The Wampanoag, wrote Salisbury, the Smith historian, came to the obvious conclusion: “their deities had allied against them.”
Similarly, Governor Bradford is said to have attributed the plague to “the good hand of God,” which “favored our beginnings” by “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives...that he might make room for us.” Indeed, more than 50 of the first colonial villages in New England were located on Indian communities emptied by disease. The epidemic, Gorges said, left the land “without any [people] to disturb or appease our free and peaceable possession thereof, from when we may justly conclude, that GOD made the way toe effect his work.”
Much as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed tens of thousands, prompted spiritual malaise across Europe, the New England epidemic shattered the Wampanoag’s sense that they lived in balance with an intelligible world. On top of that, the massive death toll created a political crisis. Because the hostility between the Wampanoag and the neighboring Narragansett had restricted contact between them, the disease had not spread to the latter. Now Massasoit’s people were not only beset by loss, they were in danger of subjugation.
After learning about the epidemic, the distraught Tisquantum returned with Dermer to southern Maine—the home he had been trying to find no longer existed. But he couldn’t stay with the Europeans, either. He ended up returning to Massachusetts on foot—the long, risky journey through war-torn territory that he had wanted to avoid. Almost inevitably, Tisquantum was seized on his journey home, perhaps because of his association with the hated Europeans, and sent to Massasoit as a captive.
Once again, Tisquantum tried to talk his way out of a jam, filling Massasoit’s ears with tales of the English, their cities and powerful technology. Tisquantum said, according to a colonist who knew him, that if Massasoit “Could make [the] English his Friends then [any] Enemies yet weare to[o] strong for him”—in other words, the Narragansett—“would be Constrained to bowe to him.” Massasoit demurred, apparently keeping Tisquantum in a kind of house arrest. Within a few months, word came that a party of English had settled at Patuxet. The Wampanoag observed them as they suffered through the first punishing winter. Eventually Massasoit concluded that he should ally with them—compared to the Narragansett, they were the lesser of two evils. Still, only when the need for a translator became unavoidable did he allow Tisquantum to meet the Pilgrims.
Massasoit told the Pilgrims that he was willing to leave them in peace (a bluff, one assumes, since driving them away would have taxed his limited resources). But in return he wanted the colonists’ assistance with the Narragansett. To the Pilgrims, Massasoit’s motive for the deal was obvious: the Indian leader wanted guns. “He thinks we may be [of] some strength to him,” Winslow said later, “for our pieces [guns] are terrible to them.”
From today’s perspective, though, it seems likely that Massasoit had a subtler plan. He probably wanted more to confront the Narragansett with the unappetizing prospect of attacking one group of English people at the same time that their main trading partners were other English people. Faced with the possibility of disrupting their favored position as middlemen, the Narragansett might think twice before staging such an incursion. If this interpretation is correct, Massasoit was trying to incorporate the Pilgrims into the web of Native politics. Not long before, he had expelled foreigners who stayed too long in Wampanoag territory. But with the entire confederation now smaller than one of its former communities, the best option seemed to be to allow the Pilgrims to remain. It would turn out to be a drastic, even fatal, decision.
Tisquantum worked hard 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. Never did the newcomers ask themselves why he might be making himself essential. But from the Pilgrims’ accounts of their dealings with him, the answer seems clear: the alternative to staying in Plymouth was returning to Massasoit and renewed captivity.