It is the year 1620. Along the coasts of what are now Canada and New England, busy settlements sprawl across the beaches and estuaries. They, like the water that laps against them are fluid, ever changing, as villages ebb and flow like the tide. Borders are well-defined, but constantly in flux. It is a centuries old vibrant network of small communities bound in trade and cultural exchange, managed by capable leaders called sachems.

Here and there are trading posts and small settlements established by odd people from across the ocean, who have been visiting these coasts for more than a hundred years. Small fishing vessels and giant merchant ships ply the waters, manned by these rather dirty people from Europe (the fishermen and whalers might have been visiting some of these waters even before Columbus made his voyage). The merchants and explorers bring valuable goods, but also devastating diseases, which, in the past hundred years, have destroyed 60% to 90% of the population of two continents.

The Europeans are also increasingly known to kidnap locals and bring them back to Europe. Sometimes, if these Europeans overstay their welcome or prove too aggressive, the locals fight back, take control of a ship, and navigate the coasts as traders themselves. Thus, relations between the indigenous peoples on eastern North American coast and the mostly French and English merchants and explorers are strained to say the least. The Europeans are increasing in number and frequency of appearances, and many leaders are nervous of their intentions. A short stay might be welcome, but they’d better not get any ideas about a long-term arrangement.

Patuxet, a community that is part of the Wampanoag confederation in what is now known as the Massachusetts Bay area, has been subject to raids by the English. At some point, some of their men are captured and brought back to Europe. One of these men is named Tisquantum or Squanto. Squanto learns English over in Europe, and eventually finds his way back to North America. He may actually have been kidnapped and brought over to Europe twice, as there are alternate accounts of his capture and return to North America. Regardless, he has learned some English, and tries to find his way back to Patuxet.

In charge of the Wampanoag confederation is Massasoit. Because of the increasing danger of European raids, he and the sachems of other nearby confederations have taken to an isolationist approach toward the Europeans – trade is refused, and any who attempt to land are killed on site. This has worked well, but Massasoit also faces another serious problem – disease. From 1615 to 1619, an epidemic sweeps through New England – the exact illness is unknown with certainty, but modern-day hypotheses include fulminating smallpox, viral hepatitis, or leptospirosis – and eliminates up to 90% of the population. When Squanto finds his way back to his people in 1619, he finds that his home is abandoned. The settlements at Patuxet, like many other coastal sites, are completely wiped out, a former vibrant community now left a lonely graveyard. Massasoit, who presided over possibly twenty to thirty thousand people may now oversee as few as two or three thousand people.

Even more unfortunate, the Wampanoag have a long-standing conflict with the Narragansett. Because of this long feud, contact between the confederations is restricted, and the epidemic that ravaged the Wampanoag spared the Narragansett. The latter may now outnumber the Wampanoag as severely as 10:1. This imminent threat is forcing Massasoit to consider new strategies, and reconsider old policies. While his people recover from disease, a batch of Europeans land at the old site of Patuxet.

That group of Europeans, unused to the new land, is devastated by this year’s (1620) winter. By the spring of 1621, out of 101 settlers who landed, 56 survive. Massasoit, having at first ignored the landing, must now take action. He decides that, instead of killing or driving off the Pilgrims, he will form an alliance with them – he will let them live at Plimoth (as the Pilgrims call their settlement), in exchange for military aid from the Pligrims should the Narragansett attack. Squanto, as someone fluent in English, offers to act as an interpreter, but Massasoit distrusts Squanto. He sees that Squanto is an ambitious young man who desires power, and, if the Pilgrim-Wampanoag alliance breaks down, Massasoit is unsure of which side Squanto will support. The dilemma is resolved when Massasoit is visited by a sagamore (chief) named Samoset from the Abenaki in what it is now Maine. Samoset knows some English, though not as well as Squanto, and, as an outsider, can act as neutral third-party. Samoset volunteers to greet the Pilgrims and propose the alliance, and then Squanto, under close watch from Massasoit, is sent in to help the Pilgrims learn to live in this new land.

This sets the backdrop for the first Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Wampanoag. Next week, I’ll present the history of the Pilgrims, and then the harvest dinner that, centuries later, becomes known as the first Thanksgiving festival.

 

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