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Massasoit, Chief Who Signed Treaty With the Pilgrims, To Be Reburied

After a 20-year search, members of the Wampanoag Nation have collected his remains from museums

Massasoit statue in Plymouth, Massachusetts (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

When the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts in 1620, one of the first native leaders the Pilgrims met was Massasoit, the intertribal chief of the Wampanoag Nation. The Wampanoag, whose people still live in New England today, once had tribal lands that stretched from Cape Code to Rhode Island.

At first, for the most part, the relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims was friendly and cooperative. In fact, they signed a treaty in 1621 and the reign of Massasoit, also called Ousamequin, marked a 40-year-period of peaceful relations.

For almost two centuries, the chief's final resting place in an area now known as Burr’s Hill Park was also peaceful. Then a railroad was routed through the area in 1851, and Massasoit's remains and burial goods, as well as those from other native people buried in the area, were dug up by collectors and museums. Now, after 20 years of tracking down the materials, Massasoit and dozens of Wampanoag ancestors will return to their original burial site in mid-May, reports Cape Cod Today.

Ramona Peters the repatriation coordinator of the Wampanoag Confederation who led the project tells Smithsonian.com that some of the materials recovered from museums show that the burial area at Burr's Hill was used by the Wampanoag and their ancestors for 2,500 years. After the railroad came through, locals continued to chip away at the burial ground through nearby sand mining, looting and archaeological digs.

It wasn't until the passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which allows tribes to request the return of remains and grave goods held by Federal agencies and institutions that receive Federal funding, that the Wampanoag began to get a handle on the materials removed from the burial ground and realized that some of Massasoit's remains and possessions were still around. That led to the decades-long effort to get the burial objects back from various museums.

Cape Cod Today reports that the museums cooperating with the repatriation include the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of the City of New York and several other institutions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In fact, the Wampanoag Nation have been able to recover 658 objects from 42 burials that were originally in the burial ground, which overlooks the Narragansett Bay in the present-day town of Warren, Rhode Island.

“Ousamequin is a significant figure in our shared history,” Peters tells Sam Houghton of the Mashpee Enterprise. “He stands at the crossroad between the indigenous people of this land and the origins of what would eventually become the United States of America. In the 17th century, when the Wampanoag first encountered the early settlers, Ousamequin had a vision of how we could all live together. There was 50 years of peace between the English and Wampanoag until he died in 1665. That was 10 years before the King’s Phillips War, which changed the whole course of history in this country.”

King Philip's War was a brutal, 14-month battle between the expanding English colonists and a confederation of local Indian nations led by Massasoit's son Metacom.

Peters tells Smithsonian.com that the re-burial site will be temporarily marked by a boulder etched with Massasoit's signature pictograph though the tribe and town of Warren hope to build a more substantial monument down the line. Having their ancestors back in their burial place and acknowledged is a big deal for the Wampanoag. "This is huge for us emotionally and spiritually and is having a major impact on us already," Peters says. "We're hoping to put it on the National Register of Historic places and in that regard hope there be international interest. I would hope Americans would be interested too. Massasoit made it possible for the colonization of this continent."

According to Jennifer McDermott at the Associated Press, the repatriated objects associated with Massasoit include a pipe, a knife, beads and arrowheads. All of the materials from the 42 graves will be re-buried in the park during a private ceremony.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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