and territorial conflict likely made the Europeans' arrival on Wampanoag
Every American schoolchild
learns how Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive their
first year in what's now Massachusetts, but the full story
is far more complex. STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES
MORE THAN 400 YEARS AGO, the coastal community of Patuxet was one
of dozens belonging to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, spread across
much of what's now New England.
The Wampanoag called the region home for more than 12,000 years,
but most history books have reduced them to a footnote. Today, schoolchildren
typically learn only that the tribe helped the Pilgrims survive
their first year at Plymouth, established where Patuxet once stood.
To show their gratitude, the European arrivals invited the Native
Americans to a meal, with Patuxet-born Wampanoag Tisquantum (Squanto),
who happened to speak English, serving as translator. Missing entirely
from the familiar history, however, are critical details, such as
how Tisquantum learned English, and why Patuxet was abandoned before
the Pilgrims arrived.
Steven Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag, has developed content about
his ancestors' story for exhibits and cultural programs, most recently
Plymouth 400, a multinational collaboration examining the Pilgrims'
landing in 1620. Atlas Obscura spoke with Peters about the place
his ancestors called home, and how he is helping to bring its story
to a wider audience.
What was Patuxet like before contact with Europeans?
There were some 69 villages throughout the New England region that
were part of the Wampanoag nation. It's estimated that there were
upwards of a few thousand Natives per village. In the summer months,
we lived closer to the water where food was more abundant, and then
as the weather got colder, we moved inland. Beyond that, we know
there was a government structure, with delegates from each village
who would meet with each other, discussing issues and collectively
making policies and rules that would be in the best interest of
everyone. The villages were pretty much in constant communication
with each other. I have to think that it was really an idyllic setting
where you lived off the land. There seemed to be an abundance of
food for everyone.
For the centuries, the
tragic story of the Wampanoag community at Patuxet has been
forgotten in retellings of the Pilgrims' arrival to the area
on the Mayflower. "MAYFLOWER IN PLYMOUTH HARBOR," BY WILLIAM
HALSALL, 1882/PILGRIM HALL MUSEUM
The Wampanoag had contact with English traders and
explorers before the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620. What stands out
to you about those earlier interactions?
Around 1614, we really start to see a rapid shiftthe tipping
pointin the impact that the Europeans are having on the Wampanoag
nation, in part because of slavery, but also because of disease
and sickness that was brought with them as well.
In 1614, some traders came into the region. One of them was Thomas
Hunt, who docked off of the village of Patuxet. For one reason or
another he decided to take some of the young men as slaves. One
of them was Tisquantum, who they take back and sell (in England).
It's important to understand that's how Tisquantum learns English
(before being able to return to Patuxet around 1619).
The Europeans also desecrated Native graves. They referred to the
Natives as savages for a reason: it allows you to dehumanize. It
allowed them to not treat us with the same rules they would a European.
Desecrating graves would not have been against their moral code,
because (to them) we were not human.
You mention the Europeans brought disease with them
as well. How was Patuxet affected?
In 1616, we think the village of Patuxet becomes ground zero for
what became the Great Dying. There was a plague that ripped through
the Wampanoag nation where there are estimates of over 100,000 Wampanoag
dying in just three short years. There were accounts of a French
fishing ship that had wrecked off the coast of Patuxet, and of some
of the fishermen coming into the village exhibiting signs of sickness,
with yellowing of the skin and fever, and dying. Shortly after that,
the plague just starts to rip right through the Wampanoag nation.
Everyone in Patuxet either dies or fled the village, and they never
returned. And that's how the village of Patuxet ends up vacant in
1620 when the Pilgrims arrived. We know that the Pilgrims knew about
the Great Dying, and they also must have known that that village
of Patuxet was empty when deciding to make that Plymouth Colony.
Relegated to the background
of the first Thanksgiving narrativeoften literally,
as in this paintingthe full story of the Mashpee Wampanoag
is gaining more attention. JENNIE AUGUSTA BROWNSCOMBE, THANKSGIVING
AT PLYMOUTH (1925)/NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS
In 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived, why do you think
the Wampanoag allowed them to stay?
There's so much going on between 1619 and 1620, (including) a feud
going on with another tribe on our border in Rhode Island, the Narragansett,
who were encroaching on our territory. The Wampanoag are in desperate
need of an ally. That creates this awkward place where the Pilgrims
come in, it's a harsh winter, the Pilgrims need help, the Wampanoag
need help. Had the Pilgrims landed at any other point, I don't think
they would have been welcome.
Most of what's traditionally taught about the first
Thanksgiving comes from Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims
at Plymouth, written around 1621. But what really happened?
I think there's one tiny passage in (Mourt's Relation) that says
90 warriors arrived, they stayed for three days, they ate, they
played games and they left. Those 90 warriors would have vastly
outnumbered the Pilgrims. Typically, when you look at an image of
that quintessential Thanksgiving holiday feast, there's more Pilgrims
than Natives, there are men and women Natives, and the Pilgrims
are feeding the Natives and hosting them
I don't think the
Pilgrims would have sent out an invitation (for) 90 menit
would have been extremely uncomfortable! You would have immediately
been aware of just how precarious your position was, and that at
any moment you could be wiped out. I think as far as my ancestors
go, Ousamequin (the Wampanoag chief) was probably there to show
that they had some kind of force.
Together with his mother,
Paula Peters, Steven Peters runs Smoke Sygnals, a Mashpee
Wampanoag creative agency that has advised on numerous historical
exhibits. COURTESY STEVEN PETERS
Are attitudes about telling the full history of
the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims changing?
Oh, absolutely. Fifty years ago, the world was not ready to embrace
the story. There was absolutely no appetite to share the true history
of this nation's founding. Today, we're in an extremely different
place. People look at what we've done through videos, through panels
and museums, through art installations. We've taken our history,
and it's really our shared history, and put it into a lot of different
platforms for people to digest different ways. Overwhelmingly, people
appreciate the story we're telling.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.