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Mayflower, Day by Day - Wednesday, 9 June 1621

9 Jun 2021 3:11 AM | Soule (Administrator)

Tribal Politics

Why did Canacum, the sachem of the Manomet Indians, send young John Billington to the Nauset Indians, several days’ journey away, rather than straight home (where he knew he had come from) or to Massasoit and the Pokanoket Indians (whom he knew had a treaty with the Pilgrims)? The plagues that had decimated the Pokanoket Indians had, apparently, not been as disastrous to other tribes in the area, and by turning the Billington boy over to the Nausets instead of to the Pokanokets, Canacum made a conscious effort to defer to a neighbour whose relative strength had increased dramatically since the plague.  It may also have been a way for Canacum to express his displeasure with Massasoit’s decision to ally with the Pilgrims.  The Nausets could pretty much do as they wanted in the area, while the Pokanoket, hemmed in by enemies on every side, had to be very, very careful.  It is significant that the Nausets, from a position of strength, had early on taken the offensive against the Pilgrims, while Massasoit’s Pokanokets, from a position of weakness, had tried to negotiate a deal.  Massasoit’s influence in the region was apparently not as dominant as he had led the Pilgrim leaders to believe -- this may also have been yet another reason why the settlers decided to send Winslow and Hopkins to meet with Massasoit on his home turf next month -- so they could see exactly how much of what he said was bluster, or a front, or a con job.  It became crystal clear that Massasoit could not protect the Pilgrims.  As Philbrick relates it, “With the boy in their possession, the Nausets were able to send an unmistakable message to the English: ‘You stole something of ours; well, now we have something of yours’” (Mayflower, p. 111).

These rivalries continue: as I mentioned in a recent review in the Mayflower Quarterly, the descendants of the Pokanoket Indians have exaggerated their tribe (under the name of Wampanoag, a name that only comes into use about fifty years after these events), and on the map produced by Plymouth 400 to show the location of various tribes, several of the more powerful tribes, such as the Massachusetts, are erased completely -- the ultimate in cancel culture!  The small, weak Pokanoket Indians are elevated by the phrase “Four Nations” to the level of a nation state such as England and Holland -- which they manifestly were not -- and they can finally take revenge on their neighbours by grabbing their land and erasing their names, even if it is 400 years later. 

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