Wampanoag Indians

The Wampanoag Indians were also known as: Martha’s Vineyard Indians or Massasoit, and alternately spelled Wôpanâak, and Wapenock. After King Philip’s War, they were also referred to as Philip’s Indians.

Their name for themselves was Kaniengehaga, meaning  ‘people of the place of the flint.’

Wampanoag means “Easterners” or literally “People of the Dawn.” The word Wapanoos was first documented on Adriaen Block’s 1614 map, which was the earliest-known European representation of Wampanoag territory. 

The Wampanoag were a loose confederacy made up of several tribes in the 17th century, but today many Wampanoag people are enrolled in two federally recognized tribes:

and five state-recognized tribes in Massachusetts:

  • Assonet Wampanoag
  • Chappaquiddick Wampanoag
  • Herring Pond Wampanoag
  • Pocasset Wampanoag
  • Seaconke Wampanoag

The Wampanoag lived in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the beginning of the 17th century, at the time of first contact with the English colonists. This territory included Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket islands.

Their home territory was known in their Algonquian-Ritwan language as Noepe, or ‘land amid the streams.’  Approximately 2,300 Wampanoags still live on Noepe.

In 1616, John Smith erroneously referred to the entire Wampanoag Confederacy as the Pakanoket, which was just one of the tribes. Pokanoket was used in the earliest colonial records and reports. 

In the 1600s, the Wampanoag population numbered about 12,000 due to the richness of the environment and their cultivation of corn, beans, and squash. Three thousand Wampanoag lived on Martha’s Vineyard alone.

From 1615 to 1619, the Wampanoag suffered an epidemic, long suspected to be smallpox. Modern research, however, has suggested that it was leptospirosis, a bacterial infection also known as Weil’s syndrome or 7-day fever.

It caused a high fatality rate and decimated the Wampanoag population.

Researchers suggest that the losses from the epidemic were so large that English colonists were able to establish their settlements in the Massachusetts Bay Colony much easier than they could have otherwise.

More than 50 years later, the King Philip’s War of Indian allies against the English colonists resulted in the deaths of 40 percent of the surviving tribe.

Many male and some female Wampanoag were sold into slavery in Bermuda or the West Indies after the war, and some women and children were also enslaved by colonists in New England.

The Wampanoag tribe largely disappeared from historical records after the late 18th century, although its people and descendants persisted.

Survivors continued to live in their traditional areas and maintained many aspects of their culture, while absorbing other nationalities by marriage and adapting to changing economic and cultural needs in the larger society.

Wampanoag Culture

Traditionally, Wampanoag people have been semi-sedentary, with seasonal movements between sites in southern New England.

The men often traveled far north and south along the Eastern seaboard for seasonal fishing expeditions, and sometimes stayed in those distant locations for weeks and months at a time.

The women cultivated varieties of the three sisters (the intercropping of maize (a kind of corn), climbing beans, and squash) as the staples of their diet, supplemented by fish and game caught by the men.

Each community had authority over a well-defined territory from which the people derived their livelihood through a seasonal round of fishing, planting, harvesting, and hunting.

Southern New England was populated by various tribes, so hunting grounds had strictly defined boundaries.

The Wampanoag have a matrilineal system, like many indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands, in which women controlled property and hereditary status was passed through the maternal line.

They were also matrifocal so when a young couple married, they lived with the woman’s family.

Women elders could approve selection of chiefs or sachems.

Men acted in most of the political roles for relations with other bands and tribes, as well as warfare.

Women with claims to plots of land used for farming or hunting passed those claims to their female descendants, regardless of their marital status.

The work of making a living was organized on a family level. Families gathered together in spring to fish and in early winter to hunt, and in the summer they separated to cultivate planting fields.

Boys were schooled in the way of the woods, where a man’s skill at hunting and ability to survive under all conditions were vital to his family’s well-being.

Women were trained from their earliest years to work diligently in the fields and around the family wetu, a round or oval house that was designed to be easily dismantled and moved in just a few hours.

They also learned to gather and process natural fruits and nuts, other produce from the habitat, and their crops.

The production of food among the Wampanoag was similar to that of many American Indian societies, and food habits were divided along gender lines. Men and women had specific tasks.

Women played an active role in many of the stages of food production, so women had important socio-political, economic, and spiritual roles in their communities. 

Wampanoag men were mainly responsible for hunting and fishing, while women took care of farming and the gathering of wild fruits, nuts, berries, shellfish, etc. Women were responsible for up to 75 percent of all food production in Wampanoag societies.

The Wampanoag were organized into a confederation, where a head sachem presided over a number of other sachems. The colonists often referred to the sachem as “king,” but the position of a sachem differed in many ways from what the Colonials knew as the role of a king.

Sachems were bound to consult their own councilors within their tribe, but also any of the “petty sachems” in the region. 

They were also responsible for arranging trade privileges, as well as protecting their allies in exchange for material tribute. 

Both women and men could hold the position of sachem, and women were sometimes chosen over close male relatives. 

Pre-marital sexual experimentation was accepted, although once couples opted to marry, the Wampanoag expected fidelity within unions. 

Roger Williams (1603–1683) stated that “single fornication they count no sin, but after Marriage… they count it heinous for either of them to be false.” 

In addition, polygamy ( the custom of having more than one wife at the same time) was practiced among the Wampanoag, although monogamy (one wife) was the norm.

Some elite men could take several wives for political or social reasons, and multiple wives were a symbol of wealth because women were the producers and distributors of corn and other food products.

Marriage and conjugal unions were not as important as ties of clan and kinship.

Wopanoag Language

The Wampanoag originally spoke Wôpanâak, a dialect of the Massachusett language which belongs to the Algonquian languages family

The first Bible published in the colonies was a 1663 translation into Wampanoag by missionary John Eliot. He created an orthography which he taught to the Wampanoag. Many became literate, using Wampanoag for letters, deeds, and other historic documents.

The rapid decline of Wampanoag speakers began after the American Revolution.

Neal Salisbury and Colin G. Calloway suggest that New England Indian communities suffered from huge gender imbalances at this time due to premature male deaths, especially due to warfare and their work in whaling and shipping.

They posit that many Wampanoag women were forced to marry outside their linguistic groups, making it extremely difficult for them to maintain the various Wampanoag dialects.

The last native speakers of the Massachusett language Wôpanâak died more than 100 years ago, although some Wampanoag people have been working on a language revival project since 1993 and have produced new native speakers that are semi-fluent.

The Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) Language Reclamation Project is a collaboration of several tribes and bands led by co-founder and director Jessie Little Doe Baird.

The project is training adult teachers to reach more children and to develop a curriculum for a Wôpanâak-based school.

Baird has compiled a 10,000-word dictionary from university collections of colonial documents in Wôpanâak, as well as a grammar, collections of stories, and other books.

Wampanoag History

Early contacts between the Wampanoag and colonists date from the 16th century when European merchant vessels and fishing boats traveled along the coast of New England.

Captain Thomas Hunt captured several Wampanoag in 1614 and sold them in Spain as slaves.

A Patuxet named Tisquantum (or Squanto) was one of those captured and sold as a slave in Spain, where he was bought by Spanish monks, who attempted to convert him before eventually setting him free.

He accompanied an expedition to Newfoundland as an interpreter, then made his way back to his homeland in 1619—only to discover that the entire Patuxet tribe had died in an epidemic.

In 1620, the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, and Tisquantum and other Wampanoag taught them how to cultivate the varieties of corn, squash, and beans that flourished in New England, as well as how to catch and process fish and collect seafood.

They enabled the English pilgrims to survive their first winters. Squanto lived with the colonists and acted as a middleman between them and Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem.

The Wampanoag suffered from a devasting epidemic between 1616 and 1619 (see above). The groups most devastated by the illness were those who had traded heavily with the French, leading to speculation that the disease was a virgin soil epidemic. 

Alfred Crosby has speculated that the population losses were as high as 90 percent among the Massachusett and mainland Pokanoket.

Since the late 20th century, the event celebrated as the first Thanksgiving has been debated in the United States.

Many American Indians argue against the romanticized story of the Wampanoag celebrating together with the colonists.

Some say that there is no documentation of such an event, but there are two known primary accounts of the 1621 event. Others say that the first “thanksgiving” occurred two decades later and shortly after the Pequot War in 1638.

Massasoit became gravely ill in the winter of 1623, but he was nursed back to health by the colonists.

In the meantime, the Plymouth Colony continued to grow, and a number of Puritans settled along Massachusetts Bay.

In 1632, the Narragansetts attacked Massasoit’s village in Sowam, but the Wampanoag drove them back with the help of the colonists.

 After 1630, the members of Plymouth Colony became outnumbered by the growing number of Puritans settling around Boston.
The colonists expanded westward into the Connecticut River Valley. In 1637, they destroyed the powerful Pequot Confederation.
In 1643, the Mohegan defeated the Narragansett in a war with support from the colonists, and they became the dominant tribe in southern New England.

Between 1640 and 1675, new waves of settlers arrived. The Pilgrims had normally paid for land, but many of the later settlers simply took land for themselves.

The population of the native peoples continued to decline, due to recurring epidemics in 1633, 1635, 1654, 1661 and 1667, likely due to new infectious illnesses, such as smallpox, carried endemically by the colonists.

Massasoit was among those who adopted English customs. Before his death in 1661, he asked the legislators in Plymouth to give both of his sons English names. 

Wamsutta, the older son, was given the name Alexander, and his younger brother, Metacom, was named Philip. After his father’s death, Alexander became the sachem of the Wampanoag.

The English believed that he was too self-confident, and so they invited him to Plymouth to talk. On the way home Wamsutta became seriously ill and died.

The Wampanoag were told he died of fever, but many Indians thought he had been poisoned. The following year Metacom became sachem of the Wampanoag. He was later named “King Philip” by the English.

Under Philip’s leadership, the relationship between the Wampanoag and the colonists changed dramatically.

Philip believed that the ever-increasing English would eventually take over everything, not only native land, but also their culture, their way of life and their religion.

Philip decided to limit the further expansion of English settlements.

The Wampanoag numbered only 1,000, and Philip began to visit other tribes, to build alliances among those who also wanted to push out the English.

At that time the number of colonists in southern New England already numbered more than double that of the Indians—35,000 colonists against 15,000 natives.

In 1671 Philip was called to Taunton, where he listened to the accusations of the English and signed an agreement that required the Wampanoag to give up their firearms.

To be on the safe side, he did not take part in the subsequent dinner. His men never delivered their weapons to the English.

The English continued to take native lands. Gradually Philip gained the Nipmuck, Pocomtuc and Narragansett as allies.

The beginning of the uprising was first planned for the spring of 1676.

In March 1675 the body of John Sassamon was found. A week before his death, Sassamon reported to Plymouth governor Josiah Winslow that Metacom (Philip) was planning a war against the English. 

After Sassamon was found dead under the ice of Assawompsett Pond a week later, three Wampanoag warriors were accused of his murder by a Christian Indian and taken captive by the English.

After a trial by a jury of twelve Englishmen and six Christian Indians, the Wampanoag men were hanged in June 1675. This execution, combined with the rumors that the English wanted to capture Philip, was a catalyst for the beginning of King Philip’s war.

When Philip called together a council of war on Mount Hope, most Wampanoag wanted to follow him, with the exception of the Nauset on Cape Cod and the small groups on the offshore islands. Allies included the Nipmuck, Pocomtuc and some Pennacook and Eastern Abenaki from farther north.

The Narragansett remained neutral at the beginning of the war.

Religious Conversions

After 1650, John Eliot and other Puritan missionaries sought to convert Indians to Christianity, and the converted Indians settled in 14 “praying towns” and were often referred to as the “Praying Indians.”

Eliot and his colleagues hoped that the Indians would adopt practices such as monogamous marriage, agriculture, and jurisprudence. The high levels of epidemics among the Indians may have motivated some conversions.

Salisbury suggested that the survivors suffered a type of spiritual crisis because their medical and religious leaders had been unable to prevent the epidemic losses. 

By the latter half of the seventeenth century, alcoholism had become rampant among Indian men. Many turned for help to Christianity and Christian discipline systems.

Christianity also became a refuge for women from drunkenness, with its insistence upon temperance and systems of retribution for drunkenness.

Individual towns and regions had differing expectations for Indian conversions. In most of Eliot’s mainland “praying towns,” religious converts were also expected to follow colonial laws and manners, and to adopt the material trappings of colonial life.
Eliot and other ministers relied on praise and rewards for those who conformed, rather than punishing those who did not. 
The Christian Indian settlements of Martha’s Vineyard were noted for a great deal of sharing and mixing between Wampanoag and colonial ways of life.
Wampanoag converts often continued their traditional practices in dress, hairstyle, and governance. The Martha’s Vineyard converts were not required to attend church and they often maintained traditional cultural practices, such as mourning rituals.

The Wampanoag women were more likely to convert to Christianity than the men. Experience Mayhew said that “it seems to be a Truth with respect to our Indians, so far as my knowledge of them extend, that there have been, and are a greater number of their Women appearing pious than of the men among them” in his text “Indian Converts.” 

The frequency of female conversion created a problem for missionaries, who wanted to establish a patriarchal family and societal structures among them.

Women had control of property, and inheritance and descent passed through their line, including hereditary leadership for men.

Wampanoag women on Martha’s Vineyard were the spiritual leaders of their households.

In general, English ministers agreed that it was preferable for women to subvert the patriarchal model and assume a dominant spiritual role than it was for their husbands to remain unconverted.

Experience Mayhew asked, “How can those Wives answer it unto God who do not Use their utmost Endeavors to Perswade and oblige their husbands to maintain Prayer in their families?” 

In some cases, Wampanoag women converts accepted changed gender roles under colonial custom, while others practiced their traditional roles of shared power as Christians.





Famous Wampanoag


Article Index:

The Wampanoag Lifestyle

The Wampanoag are a Native American tribe from the northeastern United States.

They were there when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 and they are still there today. Learn about their lives long ago by meeting two modern-day Wampanoag girls.