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Transatlantic Ways Before ‘Pilgrim’ Arrival


A Native New England Late Woodland village, by David Wagner


    Listen to the "Native logic" behind Massasoit's and the Wampanoags' "welcome" of the Pilgrims---in this excerpt from Nanepashemet's interview for Kevin Costner's series 500 Nations (used with permission).

What were the norms of Transatlantic contact before the “Pilgrims” of Plimoth Plantation arrived in 1620 and began their own diplomacy in 1621? How and why did the Plimothers depart from those norms, and with what results?

This page and the next (Time Line 3) explore answers to these questions. You can discover far more --- from the key episodes to their detailed documents --- in Jack Dempsey, ed., Good News From New England and Other Writings on the Killings at Weymouth Colony (2001), and Thomas Morton: The Life & Renaissance of an Early American Poet (2000: see Books & Films on this website).


Kinship, Reciprocity, Gifting, & Justice


The coasts, rivers, uplands and mountains of the Northeast and New England present very different ecological zones. Each zone imposed different demands and, hence, life-ways on its first peoples. Furthermore, as noted in Time Lines 1 and 2, Native Americans living here by Late Woodland and “Historic”/Colonial times had many different roots. A regional map of their different and overlapping language-groups reflects that diversity --- each tribe or confederacy based in different Pioneer family ancestors, in their own histories of intermarriage and occasional blood-feud with neighboring groups; and in their preferences, from dress and adornments to the foods that made up a proper feast.

The stresses of differences on a shared landscape were met by many levels of Native New England social life, a web at times described as “circles within circles.” By the time of the extended family-group above, “seven great confederacies” (the Pennacook, Massachusett, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pocumtuck, Nipmuc and Pequot: Pritchard 56) were established in home regions, thoroughly intermarried, and invested in the land. Their ways combined Early Pioneer egalitarianism (“Each of us is a sovereign being,” in late Wampanoag leader Slow Turtle’s words) with new dynamics, born of the fixed agricultural village (circa 1000 A.D.) and the arrival of Europeans with “exotic” goods.



More often than not, the worst feud-foes were close kinsmen. Native New Englanders quarreled, married, waged intense rivalries, and shared intertribal yearly “revels” that mingled ceremony, hunting, feasting, speeches, justice, gossip, sports, trade, medicine, and socializing. Imagine a game like rugby with a mile of beach between the goals, which normally ran day and night for several days. When a young man got tired, for example, his Grandmother might go in. The goals were hung with gifts brought by each person: the winners had the privilege of giving them away.

White Tail Deer, and a winter game-drive (some built of stone), by Keith Wilbur

Kinship and bonds included particular blood-lines traced “to the eighth degree”; identities conceived around location (for example, the Massachusetts inhabiting the Neponset River watershed); different kinds of “transcendent kinship” based in alliances of clans and tribes; interpersonal bonds across tribal lines, ritual and “medicine” societies; and, intertribal adoptions, some of those taken in “mourning wars” to replace lost family-members (see Axtell Essays 14-50, and Malone). There were also nepotistic family-politics alliances, and teaching-bonds across generations; for example, the younger man “in the footsteps” of two leading Massachusett figures, Pecksuot and Wituwamat, who play their parts in the history below.

Reciprocity --- a code of obligations, and an economic principle of agreeable mutual exchange --- was a central value stemming from everyday life. So it was part of most endeavors from politics to trade. In governing themselves, tribal and larger groups, as de Rasieres observed in his 1620s visit to the Plimoth area, were “democratic”: “They smoke a pipe of tobacco…[the] stranger then states what he has to say [before all]. That being done, the Sachem announces his opinion to the people…and if they do not approve, they keep silence…and each sets forth his opinion till they agree” (72).

Gifting was central to diplomacy and relations. At high levels, gifts and courtesies were the show of wealth and, in places, rivalry by another name. Gifting, though, was the crucial balancing mechanism for perennial and harrowing episodes of feud-based challenge, bluff and brinksmanship.



"Awakening" by Ron Perry


“[They] revenge an injury from generation to generation, unless it be atoned for,” wrote DeRasieres (emphasis added). Morton, well-aware of their duels-to-the-death, also noted (Canaan 108) that “a privy knife or string of beads” was often “qualified” to resolve these conflicts --- if they were part of larger gestures of atonement and resolution. Visiting families, meanwhile, forged New England’s dense land-trail and water-travel systems from Maine to Connecticut, from Massachusetts Bay to Pequot and Mohawk: they gifted each other and grew by hospitality along and across tribal lines, in rhythms of the seasons and their festivals.

On these bases, tribal powers of decision and influence derived from the mother’s blood-line and the individual’s ability to persuade people one by one. Consistent with these values, countless observers wrote that Native people shared “all things in common” with few exceptions, and that their trade was also reciprocal --- barter (Something for Something) rather than profit.

While each Sachem did justice “for his own,” there were many documented “Squa Sachems,” as well, to hear and act upon appeals. Where interactions and exchanges might in fact issue in a one-sided “advantage” (which is the root-word of “profit”), there was a long-standing web of kinship adequate to answer and address resentments, and the most troubling imbalances --- different kinds and levels of justice, to deal with inevitable human grievances. Such are some of the habits of mind, and long-sanctioned expectations, in play through the documents and episodes below.


Fish, Furs, “Fair Means” and “Cautious Coexistence”

Native Americans and European fishermen learned the Transatlantic value of the fur-trade by at least the 1520s, as Portuguese sailors met and traded with Abenakis of Penobscot Bay. A very useful 2-shilling garden-hoe or hand-axe of iron brought choice pelts of beaver, otter, marten, sable and other animals, which then sold in Europe for about 800% profit (Eddy-Snow 100).

“Limitless” cod, fur-trade wealth, and natural resources were irresistible incentives for Europeans ---  whose centuries of wars in the East had left them hoping to find, just over the American horizon, a western water-route to Asia. Yet, by the time of Verrazano’s 1524 encounter with southern New England “civility,” he found outright “scorn” in the north. It was a trace of Transatlantic tragedies which, like Europe’s wars in the East, threatened to paralyze contact and trade altogether.

Richmond Island, Maine, an early fishing haven; and a lava-bed “whetstone” quarry there

In early 1500s reports Native peoples seemed “apparently completely at ease with Europeans,” “freely boarding” French ships, for example (Brasser 79). At first, Beothuk traded for fishing-nets and iron tools, while ships “salted their catch at sea and sailed directly home.” But toward mid-century, as cheaper “dry fishing” took over --- curing/packing codfish first at a camp established on the shore --- Europeans set huge fires to “clear” land for camps, in the process spoiling Beothuk food resources. When Beothuks mostly withdrew from trade, new orders spoke new policy:

“If you cannot [in] other ways deal with them, first making trial of all fair courses, then do your best to seize their corn and provisions, for that will enforce them to commerce, and supply your wants and necessities” (records cited in Brasser 80).

With so little contact, offenses grew too grave for the power of “fair means” detailed below. Historian Barrie Reynolds describes a disaster. On one side, Beothuks with unaddressed resentments stole equipment on the beaches. On the other side, English and French sailors and “furriers” held it necessary to kill them, “for the protection of their own property or, all too often, as a sport.” As this went on, they paid bounties to old rival Micmac hunters for Beothuk heads (106). 

Fishing and fur-trade afterward became what Colin Calloway described as “cautious coexistence,” or in J.F. Fausz’ terms, “patterns of Anglo-Indian aggression and accommodation.” Cartier’s near-decade of “New France” explorations through the 1530s signaled that England was finding its maritime hands full, fighting Spain’s from home-waters to the Caribbean.

Above, Nanepashemet reenacts a fur-trade encounter (courtesy of Plimoth Plantation). 
Below, kidnapped Native Americans,

feasted, pumped for information, “shown as curiosities” in Europe, 1500s-1600s


Almost 50 years passed before Frobisher, Gilbert and Davis became the next English names to promise better claims on American wealth. Something had to be tried, and Richard Hakluyt became a voice for “reform.” He published his 1585 “Inducements” to urge England to claim its “entitlements” in America. And, he made it clear that the will to force trade on Native Americans, if necessary, was still alive.

If Native peoples remained as they were, “content to live naked and to content themselves with few things, then traffic is naught. So, then, in vain seemeth our voyage --- unless [their] nature may be altered, as by conquest, and other good means…[namely] our soldiers trained up in the Netherlands, to square and prepare them for our preachers’ hands” (in Pennington 181, emphasis added).

There simply was no adequate foothold in America from which this “reform” could be launched. Till then, “fair courses” and “fair means” made their return.



For solace of our people and the allurement of the salvages we were provided of music in good variety, not omitting the least toys as Morris-dancers, hobby-horse, and May-like conceits, to delight the salvage people, whom we intended to win by all fair means possible.”        - Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 voyage (rpt. in Quinn ed. Voyages 2:385)


The [Native] people of the country, having espied us, made a lamentable noise, as we thought, with great outcries and screeching: we hearing them thought it had been the howling of wolves....We brought our musicians, purposing by force to rescue us, if need should so require, or with courtesy to allure the people. When they came unto us, we caused our musicians to play, ourselves dancing and making many signs of friendship.... [We] were in so great credit with them upon this single acquaintance that we could have anything they had. We bought five canoes...the clothes [furs] from their backs....They take great care of one another....They are very tractable people, void of craft or double  dealing, and easy to be brought to any civility and good order.”        -  (Capt. John Davis,1585 First Voyage:  rpt. in David ed. Hakluyt 336-38)



We had a youth in our company…play upon a Gitterne, in whose homely music [New England Natives] took great delight, and would give him many things, as tobacco, tobacco-pipes, snake-skins of six feet long which they use for girdles, fawns’ skins and such like; and [they] danced twenty in a ring, and the Gitterne in the middest of them, using many savage gestures; singing Lo, La, Lo, La, La, Lo. He that first broke the ring the rest would knock and cry Out! upon…”      - (Martin Pring, 1603: rpt. in Quinn, Early New England Voyages 220)


The next day, we determined to fortify ourselves in a little plot of ground [here Massachusetts Bay in 1602].... The second day after our coming from the main [ocean], we espied nine canoes or boats with fifty Indians in them, coming toward us...and being loth they should discover our fortification, we went out on the sea-side to meet them. And coming somewhat near them, they all sat down upon the stones, calling aloud to us (as we rightly guessed) to do the like, a little distance from them.

Having sat awhile in this order, Captain Gosnold willed me to go unto them...but as soon as I came up unto them, one of them...knew me (whom I also very well remembered).  And smiling upon me, [he] spake somewhat unto their lord or captain, who sat in the midst of them. [He] presently rose up and took a large Beaver skin...and gave it unto me, which I requited....While we were thus merry...the rest of the day we spent in trading.”  (John Brereton, 1602 Relation: see Gosnold, this website)



“Fair means” had their place in “New France” territories as well. In the histories of explorer Samuel de Champlain and attorney-turned planter Marc Lescarbot, who were part of the efforts of aristocrat Monsieur de Poutrincourt in “Quebec,” we read of shared hunting expeditions, of shared winter quarters, and of more than one “furrier” marrying into the local Native peoples’ families --- as a way, of course, to secure better profitable fur-trade. Nonetheless, when they shared the creation of a remarkable frontier entertainment called The Theater of Neptune at Port Royal in 1606, filled with poetry and dance, choral singing and a flotilla of boats, a great deal of their intention was, as Lescarbot wrote, “to show that we lived joyously.”


“Anxious about their old friends, [Native people] asked how they were all getting along, calling each individual by his name, and asking why such and such a one had not come back. This shows the great amiability of these people….And consequently by a certain gentleness and courtesy, which are as well known to them as to us, it is easy to make them pliant to all our wishes….”    -  (“Conversion” 69)

Both sides had “wishes.” Both sides imagined that they could “manage” the other and derive what they wanted from relations. “Fair Means,” then --- getting to know each other by name, family, “tribe” and temperament --- were evolving into a group of simple practices that led, far more easily than force and violence, to both immediate and repeated trade-encounters.

On a fundamental level --- that of mutual security --- Europeans were coming to understand the role of brinksmanship in Native diplomacy. Captain Rosier, for example, who visited New England in 1605, reported his revelation that Pemaquid people (of Maine) behaved with a rare “discourtesy” but only because their ritual protocols before trade had been neglected --- acting out in a “devious” half-hostile manner “though doing [the English] no harm” (in Quinn, Early New England Voyages 108).

Martin Pring:

“One day about noon-tide…there came down about seven-score [140] salvages armed with their bows and arrows, and surrounded our house and barricade, wherein were four of our men alone with their muskets, whom they sought to have come down unto them, which they utterly refused, and stood upon their guard….Our master caused a piece of great ordnance to be shot off…[and sent out] great Fool [one of their mastiff guard-dogs] with a half-pike in his mouth….whom the Indians beheld afar off, [and] in dissembling manner they turned all to a jest and sport, and departed away in friendly manner.”   - (qtd. in Ford’s edition of Bradford’s History 1: 184).

There were always suspicions and fears on both sides, as Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s “Treachery” details in “English Perceptions.” Each side worried that the other might be treacherous, given their circumstances, not because of racial categories, but “because they were men….Treachery was simply an important fact of life” (278).

Further, as Kupperman shows, there was “from the earliest writers on” a “genuine recognition that English mistreatment had been largely responsible for attacks by Indians” (274). Where Europeans lacked knowledge of Native ways, they were often “misled by their own assumptions” toward “a policy of intimidation.” In Thomas Harriot’s words, where colonists “showed themselves too fierce,” it was “upon causes that, on our part, might easily enough have been borne withall” (273-274).



A small episode sums it up in the words of Christopher Levett, who visited the region in 1623. Finding Abenaki hesitant to meet his trading-desires, Levett told them that “If they did not trade it was no matter, I would be good friends with them.” At this, the Abenaki “smiled and talked to one another, saying that I had the right fashion of the Abenaki Sagamores” (rpt. in Levermore 2: 623). And Levett won his trading-day.

As we can see in examples above (particularly Brereton’s), first came security; then personal recognition; then tobacco and gifting; then trade and hospitality. On the European and especially English side, this meant “Revels” (one of the first recorded Maypoles was raised at Damariscove in 1602) --- hunts, feasts, sports, wrestling, music and dances, cultural performances --- and, beyond doubt, alcohol, in the form of beer, wine, and brandy or “kill-devil.” Clearly, alcohol was another immeasurable disaster in itself for Native peoples, but it was part of this world and time as another kind of “social loosening” device, that people might begin to know each other.

Native women, as well, were at the forefront of diplomacy and trade, exchanging beaver-pelt garments for tools, sailor duffel-cloth or the beads and trifles of “truck.” As on every other frontier between different human beings, men and women cohabited, and children were born.




Native New England and European groups were beginning to learn their Transatlantic “mixed language” of signals, words and procedures; and to discover the minute ways in which each group of “them” was very different too.

“We do not know how the Native Americans felt when a company from [Champlain’s 1605] ship, armed to the teeth, marched through [a Cape Cod village] and circled into the back country…as Poutrincourt sent his soldiers among them, brandishing their swords….It is probable that [he] would have gotten away without an open break had not some Indian tried to hide a French hatchet. Instead of reporting the loss to the Head Men of the tribe, who undoubtedly would have brought the offender to justice according to Indian custom, the soldiers opened fire into a group of Natives among whom the offender had taken refuge.” - (F. S. Nickerson’s Early Encounters 62).


Champlain’s 1605 of Nauset Harbor (Malle Barre)

Such incidents left bad blood in the Nauset territories of Cape Cod. And yet, by the time of another French shipwreck there in 1614, and after Nausets had neutralized the perceived threat, at least one sailor “married in” and, when he died, left “a son alive” (Pratt 112).

Less than 10 years later came the “Pilgrims,” who on their first landing-and-exploration found an elaborate Native burial full of honorific goods covered with “a great quantity of fine and perfect red [ochre],” and “in it the bones and skull of a man. The skull had fine yellow hair still on it,” and with this man were “the bones and head of a little child” (Mourt’s Relation 27).

Soon (Spring, 1621) came their most famous moment of shock --- when Samoset and Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto) walked into their Plimoth camp speaking English, and offering help.

How did all this come to a massacre by 1623?




Related Pages

The Medlyn Site
A Connecticut Native
Scholar’s Dig
Gosnold, 1602



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