This Date in Native History: The Avalon Project at Yale University has one of the most comprehensive digital databases of Indian treaties and other documents relating to the settler colonial project on Turtle Island.
What it doesn’t have is the little known first peace treaty between American colonists and an indigenous nation: the 1621 Wampanoag-Pilgrim Treaty. According to History.com, the peace treaty between Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag Nation, and the leaders of Plymouth Colony, acting on behalf of King James I, was signed on April 1, 1621, less than a month after first contact was made between the settlers and members of the indigenous nation.
The Mayflower, with its 101 pilgrims, arrived on Turtle Island in November 1620 in what’s now known as Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. No contact was made with Wampanoag people at that time. In December, the explorers went ashore in Plymouth, where they found cleared fields and fresh running water. A few days later the Mayflower came to Plymouth and settlement began, according to History.com.
The first direct contact between Pilgrims and Wampanoags took place in March 1621, and soon after, Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, paid a visit to the settlement, the site says. After an exchange of greetings and gifts, the two peoples signed a peace treaty agreeing to do no harm to each other, to come to each other’s aid if attacked by third parties and to have equal jurisdiction over offenders: if a Wampanoag broke the peace, he would be sent to Plymouth for punishment; if a colonist broke the law, he would be sent to Wampanoag. In addition, the Wampanoag leaders agreed to tell neighboring indigenous nations about the treaty. It was honored for over 50 years, the site says.
History.com doesn’t explain the gap between the time the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth and the time the Wampanoag came forward to meet them, but the Mashpee Wampanoag website does.
In 1616, European traders brought yellow fever to Wampanoag territory, which covered present day Provincetown, Massachusetts to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Two-thirds of the entire Wampanoag Nation (estimated at 45,000) died from the epidemic. When the Mayflower arrived in Wampanoag territory, “The Pahtuksut Wampanoag [did] not approach the Europeans for another three months for fear of more disease being brought ashore.”
As that explanation reveals, the Wampanoag people have a different perspective on the events surrounding their first contact with the settler colonists, including the treaty.
“It looked like a treaty of mutual convenience,” Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, told Indian Country Media Network. “We were having a lot of trouble with our neighbors. And the Wampanoag Nation was familiar with the English by virtue of their presence and kidnappings and other doings. We knew who they were and what they were capable of, more or less—well, actually not to the scope and degree, but we learned the hard way. We did know that they had cannons and they had muskets and their arsenal was stronger than anyone else’s on the mainland so they were better to have as allies than not and so we entered into treaty with them.”
“Having a lot of trouble with our neighbors” is an oblique way of referring to the hostility that existed between the Wampanoags and the Narragansetts, who took a dim view of the treaty. So the treaty was a defensive act. “It was quite a tense moment in our history when we were being attacked quite frequently and there were quite a few different [tribal] groups roaming around—some were doing it just because and some were trying to expand their territories. So when those Pilgrims arrived with the guns we basically made a treaty with their guns!” Peters said, laughing.
As for the Pilgrims’ motives, they knew what they had to do to survive those early years. “Those folks—the first batch—knew they were in a foreign land and they had to take their lead from our customs,” Peters said. “They made efforts to find out what Jehovah wanted of them and they pursued that on a moment by moment basis, but they also knew they needed to adjust and do things as we do in order not to become exterminated—like what had happened in Jamestown.”
This story was originally published April 1, 2014.