Pilgrims and Indians: Two First Encounters

Samoset's VisitSamoset's Visit. (Photo: Our Pioneer Heroes and their Daring Deeds, Internet Archive Book Images flickr)

In his famous account of the Pilgrims’ arrival in America, Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford described the first extended contact between the recently arrived Mayflower Pilgrims and a group of Native Americans (perhaps Wampanoags, although it is impossible to know for sure). Early on the morning of December 7th, following a long day of exploration and foraging and an even longer night pierced by the “hideous and great cry” of what seemed to be “a company of wolves or such like wild beasts,” an exploring party of Englishmen was confronted by another “great and strange cry, which they knew to be the same voices they heard in the night.” This time, however, a returning scout exclaimed that the voices were not beasts but “Men, Indians! Indians!”

What follows is perhaps the most action-packed paragraph in Bradford’s long historical chronicle, featuring flying arrows and firing muskets, repeated charges and counter-charges, swinging cutlasses and hatchets, and the like. The Pilgrims’ superior weaponry eventually enabled them to disperse the attackers, but Bradford attributed the victory to a different source:

Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance; and by His special providence so to dispose that not any one of them was either hurt or hit, though their arrows came close by them and on every side of them; and sundry of their coats, which hung up in the barricade, were shot through and through. Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of their arrows and sent them into England afterward by the master of the ship, and called that place the First Encounter.

Given the central role of Providence throughout Bradford’s narrative of the Pilgrims’ journey and early years, his perspective here is unsurprising. Yet by defining the event and site as the First Encounter, Bradford paired the narrative of a divine identity and path for the Pilgrims with a story of violent conflict with Native Americans.

But there was another, far different candidate for the Pilgrims’ first encounter with the local Indian nations. Elsewhere in his book, Bradford described the arrival of Samoset, “a certain Indian [who] came boldly amongst them and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand but marveled at it.” Samoset, a sagamore (a lesser chief) of the Eastern Abenaki tribe, was visiting the local Wampanoag chief Massasoit; he had learned some English from fishermen in his region of what would come to be southern Maine. Through his connections and influence, he introduced the Pilgrims both to Massasoit (with whom they made a six-part peace treaty) and, most significantly, to Tisquantum (known to Bradford as Squanto). Tisquantum was a local Patuxet Wampanoag who had been captured and enslaved as a young man by English explorer George Weymouth; he had subsequently spent time on transatlantic voyages and expeditions with John Smith and Thomas Hunt, among others. By the time he made it back to New England in 1619, the rest of his Patuxet community had been wiped out by a plague (likely smallpox), and he had found a home with Massasoit and his village.

Tisquantum would become a vital figure for the Plymouth Pilgrims. He served as their interpreter and translator, and as a guide and educator for the small and endangered community. Bradford defined him through the same providential lens, calling him “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” But the details of Tisquantum’s extremely complex life and relationships with European arrivals tell a profoundly human story, one that includes not only the most tragic effects of contact – the disease, slavery, and death – but also hopeful alternatives to that horrifying experience, including friendship, communal peace and interdependence.

While we cannot forget the kinds of violent conflicts embodied and foreshadowed by one of the Pilgrims’ First Encounters, redirecting that concept and our focus to the other one, the scene featuring Samoset and Tisquantum, offers a different vision of contact and community in early American history.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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3 Comments

  1. This is such an interesting article. I like the idea that the Pilgrims did not stumble across an untouched land or culture. In fact, contact with Europeans had already shaped Indian cultures before the Pilgrims arrived.

    I’d also be interested to know more about the treaty/ negotiation process, and how that process changed when the balance of power shifted in favor of the newcomers. It’s fascinating to see the moments of mutual accommodation and interdependence, but even this scene of cooperation seems to be set against a backdrop of power relations and conflict. Of course, this mindset may be a product of hindsight. Either way, this is a great piece that has made me curious to know more!

  2. Thanks Mike! In her great book *Brothers among Nations*, historian Cynthia Van Zandt goes into some of those details of the treaty process and other sides to these cross-cultural relationships during the early arrival/settlement era. Definitely a text well worth your time.

    Ben

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