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Mayflower, Day by Day - Thursday, 10 June 1621

10 Jun 2021 2:54 AM | Soule (Administrator)

Native Government

The government of the various Indian tribes displayed a highly structured and rigid class structure.  A chief, known as a sachem, was usually the largest property owner and the supreme ruler.  The position of sachem (among the Pokanoket, this was Massasoit when the Mayflower arrived, and later his son, Metacom, who called himself King Philip) was inherited, usually passed on from father to son.  In the absence of a son, a daughter could inherit the position -- which was exactly the same provision for succession as in most European monarchies.  The sachem, once in place, had to prove himself: he could be replaced, or just ousted, for cowardice, poor judgement, ignorance, or a lack of leadership.  The sachem ruled with a council, not unlike a parliament.  The Manomet sachem Canacum had to show himself decisive, but also subordinate to his more powerful neighbours, and young John Billington was the perfect bargaining chip to show both of those things.  The sachem had both a civil and a religious role (no separation of church and state here, either): as Glenn Cheney rather breezily notes, “To remain worthy of his title, [the sachem] had to keep the tribe in harmony with the spirits of nature.  If the relationship between the tribe and nature went sour, it was his fault.  The consequences could be anything from hunger to invasion.  But as long as things went well, he was king” (Thanksgiving, p. 211).  The sachem exacted an annual tax in kind or in service from all members of the tribe, as well as any others dependant on his authority; this was a series of interconnections not unlike the feudal system in Europe in the Middle Ages.

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