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Canonicus' Challenge

 Native American Nations | Massasoit of the Wampanoags                     

At the time of Canonicus' challenge to the settlers in November, 1621, Bradford, for some reason, came to the conclusion that it was his desire to "lord it over the weaker Pokanoket and Massachusetts"; and, from what we know of that wily and ambitious chief, we may well believe that Bradford's suspicion, even if it was nothing more than that, was well founded. The Narragansett had escaped the ravages of the pestilence, and Canonicus, taking advantage of his neighbor's weakness, had begun an offensive warfare against Massasoit, and had wrested from him the Island of Aquidnick. This probably could be accomplished only by force; but the encounter is likely to have been limited to the occupants of the island, with possibly such assistance as could be hurried to them from tribes in close proximity. The wars among the natives were undoubtedly of short duration, a single combat sometimes deciding the issue, and it might well happen that Canonicus could muster his warriors in sufficient force to conquer the island before any assistance could reach its people, and to hold it against any attempts of the weakened Wampanoag to retake it. According to the best authorities, from three to four thousand warriors stood ready to take up the War Cry of Canonicus at that time and to pass it along from village to village, like Rhoderick Dhu's summons to Clan Alpine. If he was as ambitious to extend his domain and power as some writers think, and as his attack upon the island seems to indicate, it is inconceivable that he should have refrained from further conquest if the Wampanoag, Massachusetts and Pawtucket, or Pennacook, were as weak as some writers seem to think, Drake placing the strength of the Pawtucket at that time at two hundred and fifty souls, not warriors but all combined, and another writer saying that the Massachusetts were the weakest of all the three federations.

     It is true that the Pequot at some earlier date had subjugated the Mohicans, Niantic and other minor tribes in Connecticut and had settled down upon the land contiguous to that of the Narragansett on the west; and that the bitterest hostility existed between these two tribes or federations; but they seem to have been at peace at this time; and from our reading of the records of dissensions between the Pequot and the conquered tribes which they evidently were trying to join to themselves, we may well believe that they were then bending all their energy to the task of consolidating the conquered territory, a task at which they were never entirely successful. However much the Narragansett may have feared attempts at further conquests on the part of the Pequot, there is no evidence of any Pequot aggressions against them at that time; and it is more than likely that the hostility of later days was first manifested by the Narragansett themselves, being aroused in part at least by the raid of the Pequot upon the hurting grounds of the Niantic and the Mohicans, the former of whom were more closely related to the Narragansett than either of them were to the Pequot; and the Mohicans not being held in such dread as were their conquerors.

     So the fear of Pequot invasion may be eliminated as a possible deterrent to further Narragansett aggression against the Wampanoag, and we are compelled to look for another reason for Canonicus' failure to follow up his seizure of Aquidnick. There seems but one logical conclusion, and that is that the Wampanoag strength on the mainland, where the destruction of a few villages would result only in driving their occupants back upon the inland tribes by which they would be constantly augmented was sufficient to hold Canonicus in check.

     These reflections lead us directly to a consideration ion of Massasoit's purpose in approaching the English with the olive branch of peace. Any suggestion that he did it from purely disinterested motives would be a reflection upon his sagacity. That he was running counter to the wishes of his most powerful sub-sachem, Corbitant of Pocasset, is clearly established, and it is inconceivable that he voluntarily trailed to Plymouth for the purpose of giving up something for nothing. On the other hand, he knew enough about the English not to expect something for nothing from them. The territory of his own tribes had been invaded by 'Harlow and Hunt, who had carried away many of his people, some to be sold into slavery, and others to be held in virtual slavery to those who desired to utilize them in further trade among the tribes. Squanto had returned, and, of course, had related his experiences; and Massasoit must have known of similar outrages perpetrated upon other tribes along the New England coast. Virginia Baker in her excellent little book, "Massasoit's Town of So- warns in Pokanoket," speaks of him as wise statesman and shrewd politician; and it is in this character that we are impelled, by a consideration of his acts, to look upon him. Squanto's account of what he had seen in England where he had spent much time and had been kindly treated must have seemed to his simple listeners like tales from the "Arabian Nights." Massasoit had heard his story and had been impressed by it; and, when he learned that voyagers from that wonderful land had settled upon his territory, he went to them, not to surrender any portion of his sovereignty, but as a king to treat with the representatives of a king. There was no thought of submission or subjection. he came to ascertain the purpose of their visit and their intentions, and when he learned that they contemplated a permanent settlement, he sat down with them to discuss terms on which they might live side by side in perfect harmony.

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Massasoit of the Wampanoags

Massasoit of the Wampanoags


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