Pilgrims and Wampanoag: The Prudence of Bradford and Massasoit

By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, Ph.D

The Algonquin Nation inhabited New England and the mid-Atlantic states. The Wampanoag federation at its peak contained 20,000 to 30,000 individuals in two dozen tribes who occupied southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The Wampanoag was ruled by a Sachem, Massasoit, and a council of young men who had proven themselves in battle and older men chosen for their wisdom. Europeans explored, and in some cases planted settlements along the coast of New England since at least 1498.

1600s Map - This map indicates place names as they were known in the 17th century by capital letters; names in upper and lower case beneath are the modern day equivalents.

1002 — Icelanders sailed to Newfoundland and possibly New England.
1498 — Sebastian Cabot sailed along the coast of New England.
1524 — Giovanni da Verrazano, sailing for France, explored the coast of New England and possibly abducted an Indian boy.
1525 — Estevo Gomes abducted 58 Indians sold in Spain as slaves.
1527 — An English Captain observed 14 European (Portugal, Breton and France) boats fishing off St. Johns Newfoundland. Within a few years 200 ships/year fished these waters.
1602 — Bartholomew Gosnold was greeted by Indians wearing French clothing.
1604 — Samuel Champlain established a colony at the mouth of St. Croix River in Canada.
1605 — Squanto and four other Indians were abducted by Captain George Weymouth and given to Sir George Fernando Gorges who hoped to plant settlements in New England.
1606 — Jamestown colony began, but abandoned in 1608.
1607 — Fernando Gorges financed a settlement at mouth of Kennebec River, abandoned it in 1608.
1609 — Captain John Smith mapped the New England coast and engaged in skirmish with Nauset Indians on the upper leg of Cape Cod.
1611 — Captain Edward Harlow abducted five Indians including two Sachem in Martha's Vineyard.
1614 — Captain Thomas Hunt kidnapped 27 Nauset and Patuxet. Later the same year French and Nauset were killed in a skirmish.
1618 — Nauset were killed by English crew sent out by Gorges.

With the possible exception of fisherman who went ashore for provisions, Indian encounters with Europeans were of little benefit and often injurious. Thus it is not surprising that the Nausets were fearful, when they encountered the Pilgrims on Cape Cod in November 1620. In large measure the Pilgrims survived the early years because of the efforts four men: Samoset, Squanto, Hobbamock and Massasoit. This article is a retrospective review of these men and an opinion why the Pilgrims enjoyed 40 years of peace whereas settlers elsewhere had acrimonious relationships with the Indians.

Samoset was an Abenaki sagamore (second-tier leader) from Mohegan Island on Maine's southeast coast. He had been friendly with English fisherman and acquired a rudimentary command of English. Samoset was in Massachusetts on an 8-month visit to Massasoit when he walked boldly into Plymouth on 16 March 1621 and greeted the Pilgrims in broken English. At first the Pilgrims were apprehensive, but after sharing a meal and spending the night their apprehension gave way to trust. In the morning Samoset left but returned in on 22 March with Squanto as interpreter and several Wampanoag to ask that a delegation of Pilgrims accompany him nearby to meet Massasoit and discuss a peace agreement. Eighty percent of the Wampanoag died in the plague of 1616-18 and fearing attack by the Narragansetts, sought a peaceful alliance protection and peace with the Pilgrims. Following the 1621 meeting there is no record of Samosets activities and it is presumed he returned to Maine.

The Peace Treaty of 1621

John Carver and Massasoit agreed to a treaty containing only a few essential and enforceable conditions:

(1) Indians and Pilgrims vowed not to injure each other, and if it occurred the leader of one group would surrender the instigator to the other for punishment.
(2) Indians and Pilgrims would not steal from one another.
(3) If either party was engaged in an unjust war, the other party would aid them.
(4) All the Wampanoag tribes would honor the peace treaty.


                                                                      Plimoth Plantation interpreters as William Bradford & Tosowet

Squanto (Tisquantum) was born and raised in Patuxet (called Plymouth by the Pilgrims). In 1605 Squanto and four others were abducted by Captain George Weymouth and delivered to Sir Ferdinando Gorges who taught Squanto English to prepare him to be a guide and interpreter for expeditions Gorges planned to New England. In 1614 Squanto accompanied Captain John Smith to map Cape Cod. When Smith returned to England Squanto was turned over to Smith's colleague, Captain Thomas Hunt to accompany Smith on a trading expedition with the Indians. Hunt lured 7 Patuxet and 20 Nauset Indians aboard his ship, overpowered and bound them and Squanto and set sail for Malaga Spain where all would be sold as slaves. Friars in Spain discovered the plot and rescued the Indians. Squanto was instructed in the Christian faith and in 1618 was put aboard a ship bound for Newfoundland. When Squanto arrived in Newfoundland, he was recognized by Captain Thomas Dermer, another ship captain employed Gorges who returned Squanto to Gorges in England where he was assigned to accompany Dermer as guide and interpreter in an expedition to explore the natural resources of New England and to assuage Indians enraged about Hunts abductions. At the completion of the expedition Squanto returned to Patuxet and found that everyone had either died or vanished due to a plague. Squanto moved in with the Pokanoket tribe (Bristol, RI).

Following the 1621 peace treaty, Squanto took up residence near Plymouth and taught the Pilgrims how to plant crops Indians survived on, how to manure crops with fish, how to catch eels and other survival practices Indians mastered. He accompanied the Pilgrims as guide and interpreter visiting Indian tribes on trading missions. The peace treaty he helped negotiate enabled the Pilgrims to travel about the region without fear from Indian attack. In time Squanto intimidated some Wampanoag to settle near Plymouth where he acted as their leader and in so doing challenged Massasoit's authority. In accord with their peace treaty, Massasoit asked Bradford to deliver Squanto to face Wampanoag justice and possible execution. Bradford was in a quandary because Squanto had served the Pilgrims at their time of greatest need and delayed as long as he could. During a trading expedition with the Massachusetts Indian federation in November 1622, Squanto became ill and died.

Squanto was a resourceful man to survive kidnappings, sale into slavery and learn the language and practices of the English.


Following the 1621 peace treaty, Massasoit sent a trusted councilor, Hobbaomock who could speak some English to move his large family just outside Plymouth's palisade. After Squanto's death, Hobbamock became the primary interpreter and guide for Myles Standish in meetings with Massasoit and visits to other tribes on trade missions. Hobbamock was Massasoit's ambassador to Plymouth. On several occasions he proved Massasoit's friendship when Squanto created suspicion that Massasoit was unfaithful to the peace treaty. When rumors proved untrue, the Pilgrims opinion of Hobbamock increased. He served the colony faithfully for nearly two decades and became sympathetic to Christian beliefs. Hobbamock died sometime before 1643.


Massasoit was born ca 1580-82 in the Pokanoket tribe in Bristol, RI. He became Sachem of the Wampanoag federation between 1605 and 1615. He was known to have two brothers, Quadequina and Akkompoin who acted as his assistants. Late in life, Massasoit had three sons, later named by the Pilgrims as Alexander, Phillip and Metacomet. Those that met Massasoit describe him of able body, grave countenance and few words yet appreciating subtlety. In 1623 Massasoit became gravely ill. Edward Winslow treated him with Pilgrim medicines and a purgative duck broth that miraculously returned Massasoit to good heath. From this point on Massasoit and Winslow had a close relationship. As the number of English in the Bay colony grew, Massasoit sold more and more land to the settlers in return for modern agricultural tools. Under pressure from the Bay Colony, Massasoit was forced to amend the 1621 treaty by agreeing his people would live under English law and accept Christianity. Massasoit lived a long life and remained friendly to the Plymouth colony. After Massasoit's death in 1656, Indians resented the demands of the English and their encroachment of Indian lands. Younger Indians' displeasure festered and erupted into hostility in King Philips war of 1675/76.


Prior to 1621, the English were openly contemptuous of Indians. Bradford and Massasoit grew to respect each other. Their treaty brought harmony and more civil relations between Indians and Pilgrims that was unique in New England and outlasted Massasoit and the original Pilgrim leaders.

1. Peace Treaty Owing to past grievances, some Wampanoag wanted to drive the English from New England. Massasoit abjured revenge and pursued peace because he understood that revenge would never yield the allies they needed whereas a peace treaty could. Carver and Bradford understood that cooperation with the Wampanoag was the only way the Pilgrims could survive. Both men sought a limited and fair treaty with enforceable terms. To honor each other's existence and support each other if attacked is the paradigm essence of the today's NATO. Following Bradford's death the Bay Colony forced Massasoit to amend peace treaty in 1643/4 by forcing them to submit English law and accept Christianity. Bradford treated Massasoit with restraint and did not impose European Christian beliefs. Bradford achieved peace, the Bay Colony Puritans forced the Indians to obey European standards and religion contributed to the King Phillips War.

2. Massasoit and Squanto Massasoit reacted to Squanto's usurpation by Wampanoag standards of execution whereas Bradford would have resolved the issue politically. Massasoit's patience with Bradford's delay in turning over Squanto is evidence of his trust in Bradford and respect for the Pilgrim's appreciation of Squanto's service to them. Massasoit's prudence was rewarded when providence interceded and Squanto died of disease one year later.

3. Bradford and Allerton Isaac Allerton's pursuit of personal gain by exploiting his colleagues in Plymouth was reprehensible. Bradford did not seek resolution through the General Court, but chose a direct personal approach that recognized Allerton's long-standing contributions to the Leiden congregation and respect other Pilgrims had for Allerton. Bradford's removal of Allerton as London agent was restrained and brought about the restitution of money and did not divide the community.

4. Quakers and Puritans Quaker criticism of Puritan religious beliefs and practices was scathing. However, actions taken by the Plymouth General Court displayed restraint whereas actions taken in the Bay colony to religious descent, including hanging and banishment, lacked restraint and evolved into the irrational excesses of Salem witch trials.

5. Plymouth was a community of families Decisions taken in Leiden by Robinson, Carver and Cushman to settle families in Plymouth rather than single men was wise. The belief that settlements of only men would maximize the return of financial backers proved to be unsuccessful. The presence of wives and children created a civilizing environment, which restrained and riotous action a community of men alone might fall into. The community of only men alone without the authority found in the military was absent from Thomas Weston's colony at Wessagussett in 1622 and led to its demise.


Bradford and Massasoit were extraordinary leaders. Their political wisdom, prudence and restraint, allowed them keep in focus principles that enabled the Pilgrims and Wampanoag to live peacefully for decades. The appearance of Samoset and Squanto was fortuitous, but the leadership of Bradford and Massasoit was providential. Bradford's success as Governor required more than good luck. Football coaches know that luck may win a game but not a winning season. Good fortune comes to everyone from time to time; skillful coaches know that winning seasons come to teams that capitalize on good fortune. Bradford and Massasoit were imminently skillful leaders who were flexible adhering to the treaty when unpredictable events could easily have overwhelmed both men. They capitalized on fortunate situations and allowed the situations to evolve into sustained successes.

Bonfanti, L., Biographies and Legends of the New England Indians, Vol I & II, Pride Publications Inc, PO Box 1294, Burlington Ma, 01830
Plimoth Plantation Education Department, Wampanoag: People of the East, Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth MA, 02362