Sunday, 25 May 2014

First Contact: When Wampanoags Met Europeans

Pilgrims and Wampanoags at Thanksgiving
When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, they were worried about how they would get along with New England’s ‘wild men.’ However, the Pilgrims found Cape Cod and Plymouth eerily quiet, and Native American villages had been emptied of occupants by a smallpox-like plague. The Pilgrims praised God for his foresight in clearing their new home of rivals, and survived their first New England winter by raiding the Indians’ cemeteries and storehouses for corn.

The Massachusetts tribe may have been nearly extinct, but it wasn’t long before the Plymouth settlers met other Indian neighbors. The Wampanoags, led by Massasoit, quickly allied themselves with the Englishmen. Other tribes proved less friendly. The Narragansetts sent a challenge to the English in the form of arrows tied with a snakeskin. The Pilgrim leaders filled the snakeskin with lead shot and returned it as a signal that they, too, were prepared for war.

Ships from England arrived steadily, and new settlements sprang up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Near New London, the Pequot tribe pushed back against encroaching settlers, and the first war between English settlers and Native Americans took place in 1637. Due to the English army’s overwhelming arms advantage – muskets and steel armor vs. bows and arrows – it ended quickly. Pequots who managed to escape death joined other tribes, and captives were sold into slavery. New England’s tribes remembered that harsh lesson, and it took nearly forty years for the next war to erupt.

However, by 1675 New England’s tribes were chafing under English rule. Game was disappearing, English cattle raided their crops, the fur-bearing animals they once traded to the Englishmen were trapped out, and the English settlers no longer wanted wampum manufactured by New England’s tribes. Worst of all, English settlers encroached deep into Indian land on all fronts. Wampanoag raids began in the summer of 1675, and quickly broke into open warfare.  They were led by Massasoit’s grandson, Metacomet, known as King Philip by his English neighbors. Though the Wampanoags were joined by Narragansetts, Nipmucks, Sakonnets, and Pocassets, the Indians’ defeat was inevitable.

I am now at work on the manuscript which will complete my trilogy about Herodias Long of Rhode Island, and King Philip’s War looms large on my horizon. The Pilgrims and Puritans left many descriptions of New England’s Indians, but I wondered if the Native American culture was altered by the time the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. After all, by the time the Pilgrims arrived, Europeans had been coming to America for many years for fish, furs, and timber. The Pilgrims found an iron kettle in a cache of corn, and the Indians possessed other English goods, so, how else had they changed? For comparison, I sought out the first contact between Europeans and New England’s Indians.

Giovanni da Verrazano
In January 1524, Captain Giovanni da Verrazano captained a single ship, manned by only fifty men. He hoped to find new lands for France (the sponsor of his journey) and a short cut to China. That hope was dashed, but Verrazano was the first European since the Vikings to explore the American coast.

Verrazano’s ship, La Dauphine, departed the Canary Islands on January 17, 1524. They reached Cape Fear, North Carolina about March 1, and Pamlico Sound soon afterward. In the Cape Fear area, Verrazano wrote, We had seen many people who came to the shore of the sea and seeing us approach fled, sometimes halting, turning back, looking with great admiration. Reassuring them by various signs, some of them approached, showing great delight at seeing us, marveling at our clothes, figures and whiteness, making to us various signs where we could land more conveniently with the small boat, offering to us of their foods.

Verrazano and his men made contact with the tidewater Indians, though not without trepidation. One young sailor swam near to shore with to toss bells and mirrors to the Indians, but was then overwhelmed by the waves. The Indians ran to carry him ashore, and the alarmed lad uttered very loud cries. The Indians replied in kind, hoping to show him that he should not fear. Then they laid him on the ground, stripped off his wet shirt and hose, and built a large fire nearby. Verrazano, watching from shipboard, was not the only one who thought the sailor was about to be roasted for food. However, the lad revived, and when he was ready to go back to the ship’s boat, the Indians, holding him always close with various embraces, accompanied him as far as the sea.

In the vicinity of Delaware, Verrazano found the inhabitants more fearful. He and his men met two women with a half-dozen children, but the rest of the villagers had fled. They gave the women food, which the old woman ate with gusto, but a younger one threw to the ground. Verrazano took a young boy to carry to France, and tried to take the young woman as well, who was of much beauty and of tall stature. She cried out so that the sailors released her, but kept the boy.

That unfortunate Indian lad was one of many who were kidnapped over the centuries, including Tisquantum/Squanto, who learned English from his captors before returning to New England in 1617. He proved to be a godsend to the Pilgrims in 1621, introducing them to Massasoit and other tribal leaders, and teaching the Pilgrims how to grow crops in weather harsher than they had known in England. However, the kidnapping of Squanto and other New England Indians no doubt added to the fear displayed by the Indians whom the Pilgrims encountered. 

1556 map of New York and Newport harbors
At the Hudson River Verrazano saw many inhabitants, clothed with the feathers of birds of various colors, [who] came toward us joyfully, uttering very great exclamations of admiration. Verrazano’s ship sailed along Long Island and passed Block Island, which Verrazano described like the island of Rhodes, full of hills, covered with trees. 

Then the ship entered Narragansett Bay. Verrazano found a beautiful port which he named Refugio – we know it as Newport. When La Dauphine entered the port, Verrazano said about twenty barges full of people approached the ship. They stopped about fifty paces away, then altogether uttered a loud shout, signifying that they were glad. Having them somewhat, imitating their gestures, they came so near that we threw them some little bells and mirrors and many trinkets, having taken which, regarding them with laughter, they entered the ship confidently.

Ninigret of the Niantics
This was the first meeting between Europeans and the Wampanoags, the tribe which would save the Pilgrims’ lives a century later. Verrazano’s account of the Wampanoags in their pre-contact state is worth relating here at length (slightly abridged): There were among them two Kings, of as good stature and form as it would be possible to tell; the first of about XXXX years, the other a young man of XXIIII years, the clothing of whom was thus: the older had on his nude body a skin of a stag, artificially adorned like a damask with various embroideries; the head bare, the hair turned back with various bands, at the neck a broad chain ornamented with many stones of diverse colors. The young man was almost in the same style.

This is the most beautiful people and the most civilized in customs that we have found in this navigation. They excel us in size; they are of bronze color, some inclining more to whiteness, others to tawny color; the face sharply cut, the hair long and black, upon which they bestow the greatest study in adorning; the eyes black and alert, the bearing kind and gentle, imitating much the ancient [manner]. Of other parts of the body I will not speak to your Majesty, having all the proportions which belong to every well built man. Their women are of the same beauty and charm; very graceful; of comely mien and agreeable aspect; of habits and behavior as much according to womanly custom as pertains to human nature; they go nude with only one skin of the stag embroidered like the men, and some wear on the arms very rich skins of the lynx; the head bare, with various arrangements of braids, composed of their own hair, which hang on one side and the other of the breast. Some use other hair-arrangements like the women of Egypt and of Syria use, and these are they who are advanced in age and are joined in wedlock.

They have in the ears various pendent trinkets as the orientals are accustomed to have, the men like the women, among which we saw many plates wrought from copper, by whom it is prized more than gold; which, on account of its color, they do not esteem; on the other hand rating blue and red above any other. That which they were given by us which they most valued were little bells, blue crystals and other trinkets to place in the ears and on the neck. They did not prize cloth of silk and of gold nor even of other kind, nor did they care to have them; likewise with metals like steel and iron, for many times showing them our arms they did not conceive admiration for them nor ask for them, only examining the workmanship. They did the same with the mirrors; suddenly looking at them, they refused them laughing.

Physical descriptions of Wampanoags and Narragansetts by 17th century settlers vary little from Verrazano’s writings. However, the Indians quickly came to prize English clothing, replaced dyed porcupine quills and wampum beads made from clam shells with glass beads, and used buttons, bells, coins, and other English trinkets as ornaments. Mary Rowlandson was captured by the Narragansetts during King Philip’s War, and described her captors at a dance: He was dressed in his Holland shirt with great laces sewed at the tail of it; he had his silver buttons, his white stockings, his garters were hung round with shillings, and he had girdles of wampum upon his head and shoulders. She had a kersey coat and [was] covered with girdles of wampum from her loins upward; her arms from her elbows to her hands were covered with bracelets; there were handfuls of necklaces about her neck and several sorts of jewels in her ears. She had fine red stockings and white shoes, her hair was powdered and face painted red.

Back to Verrazano: They [the Wampanoags] are very liberal, so much so that all which they have they give away. We formed a great friendship with them, and one day, before we had entered with the ship in the port, remaining on account of the unfavorable weather conditions anchored a league at sea, they came in great numbers in their little barges to the ship, having painted and decked the face with various colors, showing to us it was evidence of good feeling, bringing to us of their food, signaling to us where for the safety of the ship we ought anchor in the port, continually accompanying us until we cast anchor there.

Verrazano may have admired the hospitality, beauty, and civility of the Wampanoags, but New England’s settlers during the 17th century were less kind. They barred Indians from living among them, and even Roger Williams, who lived with the Narragansetts, described one of their chiefs as a ‘wise and peaceful prince,’ and wrote a dictionary of their language, described Indians as ‘barbarous scum and the offscourings of mankind.’ And though the Englishmen accused the Indians of theft, the Pilgrims raided Indian villages and cemeteries for artifacts which took their fancy, and stole their seed corn.

We remained XV days, supplying ourselves with many necessities; where every day the people came to see us at the ship, bringing their women, of whom they are very careful: because entering the ship themselves, remaining a long time, they made their women stay in the barges, and however many entreaties we made them, offering to give them various things, it was not possible that they would allow them to enter the ship. And one of the two Kings coming many times with the Queen and many attendants through their desire to see us, at first always stopped on a land distant from us two hundred paces, sending a boat to inform us of their coming, saying they wished to come to see the ship; doing this for a kind of safety. And when they had the response from us, they came quickly, and having stood awhile to look, hearing the noisy clamor of the sailor crowd, sent the Queen with her damsels in a very light barge to stay on a little island distant from us a quarter of a league ... And one time, our people remaining two or three days on a little island near the ship for various necessities as is the custom of sailors, [the king] came with seven or eight of his attendants, watching our operations, asking many times if we wished to remain there for a long time, offering us his every help. Then, shooting with the bow, running, he performed with his attendants various games to give us pleasure. This description of archery and games is very similar to the Thanksgiving the Pilgrims shared with their Indian neighbors.

My conclusion is that the Wampanoag and Narragansett cultures were not much altered between the arrivals of Verrazano in 1524 and of the Pilgrims in 1620. However, the Indians were quick to adapt, eagerly seeking English clothes and ornaments. They were equally avid to possess guns, but the English settlers tried to keep their armaments to themselves. As King Philip’s War demonstrated, those efforts were unsuccessful.

Verrazano's 1524 exploration
As for Captain da Verrazano, after his time with the Wampanoags, Verrazano and his crew passed along lower Cape Cod, then set off across the sea to France. In 1527 Verrazano returned to the New World, this time to Brazil, and returned to Europe with a cargo of brazil wood. A year later, Verrazano explored Florida, the Bahamas, and the Lesser Antilles. When he rowed ashore, probably on Guadeloupe, he was killed and cannibalized by the island’s Carib inhabitants.

Verrazano’s voyage along the Atlantic coast of North America, 1524  Giovanni da Verrazano
Of Plymouth Plantation  William Bradford
Flintlock and Tomahawk, 1958  Douglas Leach
The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, 1682   Mary Rowlandson

1 comment:

Christy K Robinson said...

Thank you for the research, Jo Ann!

Verrazano was one of the few Europeans of several centuries, who respected the Native Americans as intelligent human beings. He didn't make moral judgments on their non-Christian souls. And unlike some captains of the 17th century, he was able to prevent his crew from mayhem or assaulting women. Tragic that such an enlightened man should be killed by a more warlike tribe far to the south.