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Colonel Caverly on the Wampanoags

 Native American Nations | Massasoit of the Wampanoags                    

Colonel Caverly, who has written a very interesting account of the early Indian wars in New England, seems to extend the territory or dominion of the Wampanoags much further than any other writer with whose works I am familiar, and further, I fear, than there is any well grounded warrant for, as he speaks of the Massachusetts as being of that federation, as though the fact were established beyond peradventure, and at least suggests that Massasoit's rule extended to and covered the Pennacooks, speaking of Passaconaway as holding sway "under, from and after Massasoit, from the Penobscot to the Merrimack." As we have already seen, Gookin, who wrote only fifty-three years after the landing of the Pilgrims, speaks of the Massachusetts and the Pawtuckets or Pennacooks as independent federations, and it is probable that their relations with the Wampanoags were nothing more than those of allies.
      Great as is the uncertainty concerning the exact limits of their territory, their numerical strength at the time of the landing of the Pilgrims is wrapped in even greater obscurity and doubt. Two recent events, however, had reduced them to a mere vestige of their former power. The first of these was a raid of the Tarratines, the conflicting opinions of whose identity and location I have attempted to reconcile in part in the preceding chapter.
     The exact location of the Tarratines is of interest at this time only as it directs our attention to the distances which they traveled in making their raid upon the Massachusetts coast; one hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty miles by water, and much further by land. If the raids were made by water, as seems probable, it certainly shows the Tarratines to have been daring navigators, when one considers the character of their craft, as far as known. It is recorded by men who received their information at first hand that they swept down on the coast tribes of eastern Massachusetts in 1615 or 1616 and inflicted severe losses upon them. These tribes were of the Massachusetts and Wampanoags, and while the extent of the ravages of the invader's is not certainly known, there is no doubt that this raid considerably weakened these two federation, as it is claimed by some that they swept clear across the Wampanoag country and attacked the Narragansetts. This method of securing a livelihood by wresting from their neighbors the fruits of their toil rather than by relying exclusively upon their own systematic efforts to sustain themselves by the pursuit of the usual vocations of their kind, hunting, fishing and the crude cultivation of the soil, appears to have been characteristic of them, for Bradford records the fact that on September 18, 1621, the Plymouth settlers sent out their shallop with ten men, and Squanto as guide to trade with the Massachusetts, and to explore the bay; that they accomplished their purpose and "found kind entertainment. The people were much afraid of the Tarrentines, a people to the eastward which used to come in harvest time and take away their come, and many times kill their persons."
     The second, and by far more disastrous visitation that ravaged the land of the Wampanoags, was a devastating pestilence which followed close on the heels of the Tarratine raid, and worked such havoc among the natives, who had no skill to combat it, that the early visitors from Plymouth to Massasoit's town Sowams, speak of seeing their bones in large numbers scattered along the route, the living not being able to bury the dead. The Patuxet tribe which had occupied the territory around Plymouth, was almost entirely wiped out by this plague, the exact character of which has never been definitely determined. While there is no doubt that the Wampanoags were reduced by these two agencies to a mere shadow of their former strength and power, there is so much conflict between the writers of old times concerning their numbers at the time of the landing of the Pilgrims that we are left almost entirely to conjecture concerning the matter. Certain facts, however, have been handed down upon such reliable authority, that perhaps a careful consideration of those indisputable facts will justify us in making our own estimate; and this leads us to an examination of the extreme claims. I am unable to find that any contemporary writers have left any word from which we would be justified in assuming that anything like an accurate estimate of their numbers was ever made or attempted by the early colonists; so perhaps we may fairly conclude that the truth of the matter lies somewhere between the two extremes.

Some authors, who put out their works with the intent to convey exact information to their readers, tell us that this federation numbered not more than three hundred in 160, having been reduced to this state from a former strength variously estimated at anywhere from eighteen thousand to thirty thousand, their five thousand warriors mentioned by some, leaning towards the higher rather than the lower of these two figures. This three hundred may be construed in so many ways that before rejecting it as an absurdity, it may be well to consider to what the number may have referred. If by it is meant the entire numerical strength of the federation, it seems to be capable of complete refutation, and, on the other hand, if it is limited to the warriors rather than the entire tribal membership, it is open to grave doubt. Another view is that it may have been intended to be confined to the village where their Great Sachem maintained his lodge, or to the three villages between which he seems to have divided a large part of his time. Before proceeding to a more general discussion of the numerical strength of the tribe or federation, let us look for a moment at these three villages. We find Massasoit sometimes spoken of as the Sachem of the Pokanokets. Pokanoket is or was the geographical name of all that territory now included in the towns of Bristol, Warren, Barrington and East Providence, Rhode Island, and parts of Swansea, Rehoboth and Seekonk, Massachusetts. The Great Sachem seems to have had a more intimate connection with this portion of his domain than with other parts; and while the tribes in other localities had their sub-sachems or sagamores, who acknowledged some sort of allegiance to the Great Chief, there is nothing from which we would be justified in inferring that the Pokanokets were under the direction or control of any of these secondary chiefs; and it may well be that the Great Sachem of the Wampanoags either in Massasoit's early days, or in the time of some of his predecessors, was simply the sachem of the Pokanokets, with hunting grounds limited to the territory already defined; and that at some time a federation of related, neighboring and conquered tribes was formed under the name Wampanoag, and that he retained the government of his original tribe, and governed the other tribes through their sachems.

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Massasoit of the Wampanoags

Massasoit of the Wampanoags


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