John Smith, Tisquantum, Slavery, Wampanoag vs Narragansett and Mass Death from Viral Hepatitis: a Backdrop for the first Thanksgiving.

Posted in History and Politics on December 2nd, 2015 by byronkho

John Smith, born in 1580 near Lincolnshire, left home in his sixteenth year to be a mercenary with King Henry IV of France. His first battles were against Spain, assisting with the Dutch struggle for independence from King Philip II; later, he traveled to fight in the Thirteen Years War with the Hapsburgs against the Ottomans. After being knighted by the Prince of Transylvania for valor in battle, he was captured by the Tatars and sold as a slave, finally ending up as a gift to the Greek mistress of an Ottoman nobleman in Constantinople. In 1604, during his 2nd year of captivity, Smith was able to escape through Muscovy into Polish-Lithuania and continuing on through Northern Africa on his way back to England as a free man. Life in the home country did not suit him and he quickly became restless, eventually signing up with the Virginia Company of London on a colonization expedition to the New World following the granting of a charter by King James I of England. While on board, Smith fell afoul of Captain Christopher Newport, leader of the Virginia expedition, and was charged with mutiny and sentenced to die once they made landfall. On April 26, 1607, the expedition landed in Cape Henry (the northeast corner of Virginia Beach) and Newport prepared to execute the mutineers. In a twist ending that was most probably surprising to Newport, the sealed orders from the Virginia Company – to be opened upon arrival – belayed Newport’s orders and made Smith one of the leaders of the new colony, thus saving him from an ignominious end on the gallows.

Over the next few years, their new colony of Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in America – became populated with additional settlers and Smith spent time mapping out the locality, establishing supply routes, farming the land and constructing viable housing and buildings for a permanent settlement. It was a harsh time, as unfortunate accidents, terrible weather, domestic feuds and starvation were constant worries. Many settlers died of disease and poor nutrition, and the land wasn’t as bountiful as they wished. Plus, they were on the territory of local Indian tribes who very much did not like the presence of foreign settlers on their land. In a desperate search for food during December of 1607, Smith found himself captured along the York River, 12 miles north of Jamestown, by chief Powhatan and his Tsenacommacah tribe. Allegedly, Pocahontas – the chief’s daughter – risked herself to protect Smith from his execution; in the probably apocryphal story that only exists in Smith’s autobiographical writings (a full 17 years later), her efforts allowed him to be released without harm and given safe conduct back to Jamestown.

Pocahontas maybe saving John Smith from Death. He kept this under wraps for more than 17 years – is it true?

That winter, Jamestown burned to the ground via fires inadvertently started by careless settlers. It was a freezing winter – the river froze quickly – and the colonists were forced to reside in the burnt ruins while attempting to rebuild. Though they made it through, their problems were not yet over. While preparing for a return run to England to secure more food and settlers, Captain Newport loaded his ship with worthless fool’s gold and found he could not trade it in England for the supplies necessary. He was forced to find alternate funding and eventually returned, but not before deciding to recoup his losses (and possibly achieving some level of revenge?) by providing Smith with false orders from the Virginia Company. Though it was clearly Newport’s fault, the fake orders claimed that Smith must pay Newport – again – for his efforts with items from the colony’s output. Furthermore, Newport alleged that they were to name Chief Powhatan as an emperor to make him an English client-king. The coronation did not go well: Powhatan refused to kneel as this would place him at a lower position than he was worth, and physical pressure from the English around him forced him to bend enough for Newport to place the crown on his head. Certainly, the records allude to the English belief that Powhatan had submitted to King James, but the Tsenacommacah did not later act as if this were true. In any case, Smith sent angry letters back to Company headquarters regarding Newport. Whether in appeasement or not, Smith was made president of the colony.

Newport crowning Chief Powhatan.

During 1608, Smith was involved in failing negotiations with Powhatan for more food supplies. These were not forthcoming as it was Powhatan’s intention to starve the Jamestown colonists out. Undeterred, Smith anted up by threatening Powhatan with invasion. He got his supplies, but the exchange did not do anything for cross-cultural exchange and even promoted additional tension with Jamestown settlers. The combination of starvation, a harsh work regimen and Indian hostility prompted mutiny and assassination plots from inside and outside the colony. Allegedly, Pocahontas helped save Smith’s life a second time by giving him early warning of an ambush masquerading as an invitation to parley. Smith stayed back and the attack never happened. At the same time, Smith began a series of harsh punishments to disgruntled settlers and instituted a policy of “who works, eats.” These were surprisingly effective in stopping complaints, as productivity actually began going up and food generation improved. However, this didn’t mean that they could rest on their laurels: they still needed trade partners to get rid of the settlement production (tools, beads, other salable products) in return for other sources of food and items that would be of value in England for coin.

As a result, Smith got back on the road to explore the Chesapeake Bay region and find new opportunities for Jamestown. He continued at this work for many years, though he missed out on the start of the Anglo-Powhatan Wars between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan’s tribe. [He also missed out on his alleged savior-exotic girlfriend Pocahontas marrying some other English dude and settling a peace between the Anglos and the Powhatans. Shrug.] Smith’s mapping work continued off and on through 1614, when he settled temporarily in Cape Cod and surrounding areas. After completing his work in the area, he tasked an associate – one Thomas Hunt – with the job of setting up a new colony, finding trading partners and established useful trading routes. Instead, Hunt went rogue. After inviting local representatives of the Wampanoag Confederation in Patuxet, he waited until they were all on board before he and his sailors attempted to force the Indians into their ship’s hold. A one-sided gun battle ensued, ending with a “great slaughter” and a total of 19 captured Indians. Hunt sailed for Europe immediately, making a single stop in Cape Cod to kidnaps seven more Indians. His destination: Malaga.

As a result of Hunt’s raid, the Wampanoags became extremely hostile and stopped the extremely profitable beaver trade (notably, but also all other trade), and occasionally attacking English and French ships and enslaving their crews. This reaction was noted by the colonies and the corporations. John Smith was aghast at the deterioration in relations between the colonies and the Indians via this one foul attack by his treacherous – and handpicked – subordinate, writing that Hunt had acted “most dishonestly, and inhumanely, for their kind usage of me and all our men.” Other noblemen noted that Hunt was much “more savage-like than They [the local tribes, implied to be less 'savages']” and “a worthless fellow of our nation.”

Hunt, meanwhile, found that he had made a terrible decision. While attempting to sell the Indians as slaves at the marketplace in Malaga, Spain, he found that the locals were extremely disapproving of the trade. Local clergy repatriated the Indians almost immediately and ran Hunt and his crew out of town. At the time, the Catholic Church in Spain was vehemently against slavery. Indeed, just a generation before, Pope Paul III stated in a 1537 decree that “Indians themselves indeed are true men.” In that spirit, many of the Indians were taken under the wing of the clergy who had freed them, and provided with education and opportunity.

Of the kidnapped Wampanoags, only Tisquantum – later known as Squanto – was able to make it back to North America. Tiquantum, an Indian word meaning essentially “wrath of the manitou” (aka “wrath of God”), was unlikely to be his given name but it was one that he adopted for his own use somewhere along the way. He was able to persuade the Malagan clergy that he would be of use in England, and he was sent to learn English and reside with John Slany, a shipbuilder in Cornhill, London. Slany was also treasurer of the Newfoundland Company and realized that Squanto’s unique situation made him a good hire as an interpreter and North American resources expert for the company colony in Cupper’s Cove, Newfoundland. In 1610, Squanto was shipped to Cupper’s Cove to begin work with Captain John Mason, the head of that colony.

After a couple of years employment in Newfoundland, Squanto ran into an English captain named Thomas Dermer who had worked with John Smith on the very expedition that had brought Thomas Hunt to Massachusetts. Dermer’s goal was to restart trade with the Massachusetts natives but that was an impossibility unless tensions were decreased. To that effect, Dermer’s employer – the New England Company – decided to hire Squanto to play peacemaker and hopefully reopen dialogues with his old tribe.

It was a sad homecoming for Squanto. Upon reaching Patuxet in May 1619, Squanto found that the village and surroundings was devoid of life: no one lived there, and skeletons littered the countryside for miles around. He had come home to a virtual cemetery, 200 miles long and 40 miles deep. While traversing the area, Squanto ran into a group of Wampanoag Confederacy led by a sachem named Massasoit. With the assistance of one of Massasoit’s other house guests, a French sailor who was the last survivor of a shipwreck at Cape Cod in 1616, Massasoit was able to tell Squanto the grisly story. Apparently, the sailor and his compatriots had been captured by the Wampanoags and in return for the hospitality, passed on to their captors an extremely infectious viral hepatitis that moved quickly, killing off 75% of the population. For this reason, the Wampanoags were not very happy with Europeans in general – a fact that would trouble Squanto later. A saddened Squanto returned with Dermer to Southern Maine, but found that he was homesick and traveled back to Patuxet. Big mistake. He was captured en route and sent back to Massasoit – but this time as a captive, as Massasoit considered him “converted” by the Europeans and not to be trusted.

Massasoit talking turkey with the English settlers.

Massasoit was borne right when Captain Dermer returned and borrowed Squanto for a trading expedition in June of 1620 to the island of Capaock, now Martha’s Vineyard. Dermer had been there before, in 1619, to investigate a very similar case to Squanto’s. A certain Captain Harlow had captured a sachem named Epenow in Capaock in 1611, paraded him around England for a time, and then after confessing that he knew were gold was in the New World, was sent back to the Colonies as both interpreter and guide towards riches. When they arrived and met an Indian welcoming party, Epenow called to his countrymen to save him and leaped from the deck of the ship. Captain Hobson, his escort, wrote – probably in an early case of CYA – that he had to retreat under heavy arrow fire and that Epenow had been killed. Dermer found that this was untrue: Epenow was very much alive, and a very useful man in trading. So Dermer had returned to the island… but not before stopping by the then not-so-important island of Manhattan, where he told the Dutch that they were trespassing on English claims. Did that discussion go anywhere? Hmm. In any case, they had arrived in Capaock not long before Dermer, Squanto and the trading party were attacked by the Capaock Indians. All the men were slain except for Dermer, Squanto and the boatmaster – who saved Dermer from a decapitation. Unfortunately, Dermer was not to survive his grievous wounds, finally giving in to death upon his arrival in Jamestown. In a published Manifesto, the New England Company memorialized Dermer by crediting him for “making peace between the Indians of those parts and the English… of which the colony of New Plymouth afterwards reaped the benefits.”

And then… the Mayflower rolled into town.

In November of 1620, the Pilgrims landed and began exploring the area. The Wampanoags were understandably upset with a new group of European settlers and attacked one of the exploration parties that the Pilgrims sent out. Nobody was injured and this did not deter the Pilgrims for long. After some months living offshore in the Mayflower, they eventually decided that they would settle in Patuxet. The fact that they were building their new home on the bones of an entire Indian community was considered “divine providence” to the Pilgrims: God had killed the native so that they may live there. It was a sign of divine will and favor, and bolstered their belief in their eventual, larger, destiny as owners and colonizers of North America. The Pilgrims named their colony Plymouth, adopting the name given to the village by John Smith during that eventful expedition in 1814.

During this time, the colony had seen little of any Indians after that essentially harmless first raid… but this did not mean that the Wampanoags had given up. Instead, it meant that they were changing tactics.

On March 17, 1621, an Abenaki sachem named Samoset walked into Plymouth colony and introduced himself in broken English. Samoset was originally from Maine and had picked up a few English words from European fishermen that sailed into the harbors there for seasonal fishing. He communicated that he would be coming back with another Indian who could speak better English than he could – and had even been to England. This was not a fishing expedition: the Indians were already aware that the colonists had not done well during the winter and were suffering from starvation and needed assistance. In fact, at least half of the colony was already dead and buried and the rest were pale and suffering obvious malnutrition.

Samoset and the Pilgrims, first meeting.

A few days later, Samoset showed up again with Squanto in tow. After an hour’s discussion, Massasoit and a large Indian contingent suddenly appeared on a nearby hill. Surprised, the colonists withdrew to another hill on which they had built a rudimentary stockade with cannon. After a standoff and impasse, Edward – later Governor – Winslow decided to give himself over as a hostage. The ploy worked: Massasoit’s brother Quadequina escorted Winslow as surety, and Massasoit, Squanto, Samoset and 20 other Indians entered the colony to talk turkey and drink moonshine with the colonists. During these talks, the Wampanoags agreed to help with farming and promised not to drive the settlers out of the colony on the condition that the English help them with their own political problem…

Before the massive viral hepatitis outbreak, relations had already broken down between the Wampanoag Confederation and another nearby tribe, the Narragansett. So when disease began culling the ranks of the Wampanoags, their previously markedly decreased contact with the Narragansett meant that the outbreak was never transmitted to their blood enemies at all – the Narragansett had suffered zero losses, and were thus in a much stronger position than the Wampanoag. Massasoit’s fear was that they could be overwhelmed at any time by the Narragansett and thus saw in the Pilgrims and Squanto a grand possibility: perhaps Squanto could be used to negotiate and set up a strong trading relationship with the Pilgrims. The assumption was that the settlers would be an effective buffer against the Narragansett and possibly even provide their guns to the Wampanoags one day. The Narragansett were also trading partners with other English colonies and Massasoit judged that they would be unwilling to fight the English settlers as it would likely have a fatal effect on their business relationships with the other English colonies. The only problem? Massasoit didn’t trust Squanto, whom he believed had spent too much time among the foreigners and might side with them in a crisis. That’s where Samoset came in: an ally uninterested in local political battles that could speak English, start the negotiations and sense any deception from Squanto.

Squanto, friend of the Pilgrims because all his old friends were dead and his surviving countrymen didn’t trust him and if he didn’t play nice with the Pilgrims, he’d probably be dead himself. Good times.

The months following were exceedingly good for the Pilgrims. Squanto took up residence in the colony – choosing to stay away from Massasoit, who continued to push for control of Squanto – and made himself invaluable, teaching the settlers to catch eels and use fish as fertilizer for the corn fields, increasing yields. With his language skills, Squanto was able to negotiate additional peace treaties with other Indian leaders in the areas and write up trade contracts between Plymouth’s governors and tribal leaders. Squanto became such a commodity for the settlers that the Pilgrims were quick to take up arms and fight for his return after Squanto was kidnapped by anti-British Indians. Massasoit wasn’t stupid. He knew that Squanto was proving very valuable to the settlers, and to ensure that he knew of any attempt by Squanto to decrease Wampanoag or Massasoit’s influence, he posted a man named Hobamok to Playmouth as a de facto monitor. With so many jealous eyes on Squanto, he was aware that he could not survive in that position forever. When the settlers no longer needed him, Massasoit would be quick to nullify his influence and very probably imprison or kill him. To ensure his survival, Squanto began to practice extortion schemes. He started small but soon realized this wasn’t enough: he needed to go big – and big it was.

Squanto’s multi-phase plan was to eventually strip the chiefdom from Massasoit. In order to achieve this, he started by rounding up Wampanoag tribesmen who were amenable to a move and settled them in a new village near Plymouth. He attracted more settlers from among the tribes by threatening them with his influence among the English. “Don’t cooperate,” the implication was, “and I’ll get the English to fire on you with their guns or release ‘another’ batch of the disease agent upon the Wampanoags.” The assertion that the British had biowarfare at their beck and call was an extremely effective threat. At the same time, Squanto went to work on the English, utilizing his influence in establishing trading routes and gaining favorable contracts to push them to using the new village as a trading center, and by the move in business, force the Wampanoag Confederation to make the new village the new capital of the Confederation. This would cut the importance of Massasoit’s village and oust him from his role as chief of the Confederation.

It’s upon this background that the first Thanksgiving happened, though nobody present actually called it Thanksgiving. In the fall of 1621, the 53 surviving English settlers at Plymouth decided to celebrate their first successful harvest with a huge feast to be shared with 90 warriors from the Wampanoag, plus sachem Massasoit. Winslow noted that the celebrations extended for three days, and “amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms.” The Wampanoag came armed and showed off their weapon skills and the Pilgrims shot off their guns into the air; this contest of bravado continued into provision for the feast itself. The Pilgrims displayed their hunting skills by providing enough fowl as could feed the crowd for a week; the Wampanoags hunted deer and wild turkey. Cornmeal made from their jointly produced Indian corn was present in great abundance. They ate.

Oh, happy day.

Meanwhile, Squanto was busy telling the Wampanoag that Massasoit was powerless in protecting them from English invasion, and then scaring the colonists with talk of collusion between the Wampanoag and Narragansett for a mass attack on Plymouth. In the spring of 1622, he had all the pieces of his plot in place. Squanto had arranged to be out of town on a trip with the colonists to the Massachusett Indians in Boston Harbor. While he was gone, one of Squanto’s settlers would act fearful and inform then-Governor Bradford of Plymouth that the Wampanoag-Narragansett alliance was about to attack. The reaction was supposed to be an English pre-emptive attack on the Wampanoags ending with the murder of Massasoit, but instead Bradford called back the delegation with a cannon shot, interrogated Hobamok and sent Hobamok’s wife to Massasoit to scope out the truth of the situation. Squanto returned to find that Bradford had not moved and that both Bradford and Massasoit were aware that he had lied to both of them. Furious, Massasoit demanded that Squanto be turned over for execution and even provided several sweeteners if the Pilgrims did so. Underneath the peace treaty they had all signed, Bradford was obligated to turn Squanto over. However, Bradford was more than aware that Plymouth would only survive with open communication with the Indian tribes. As Squanto was their only capable translator and negotiator, it would be suicidal for them to comply. And so he did not.

Hard times followed. Massasoit cut off all trade and communication with Plymouth and the Pilgrims were forced to fortify in case of military assault. Unluckily, that summer saw an extended drought and the Pilgrims’ crops failed. Unable to purchase supplies from the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims faced a very bad winter. Massasoit quickly became disinterested in asking for Squanto’s death when the Fortune – another boat of European settlers – showed up and founded a new colony nearby; this provided innumerable new stresses and Massasoit found it unwise to expend his energies pursuing a lost and futile cause. It wasn’t any fun and games for Squanto, either. For most of 1622, he was under house arrest again, this time from the settlers, and was only allowed out to begin peace treaty negotiations again alongside Bradford in Cape Cod. While under temporary shelter in Manamoyick Bay from storms, Squanto’s nose began to bleed uncontrollably. Squanto told Bradford this was a sign of impending death and asked Bradford to pray for him so that he could go to the English Heaven. He followed up with a spoken will, leaving his possessions to various friends among the colonists in Plymouth. None of his effects were to go to the Wampanoag. Then, he died.

A cold peace was had until 1675, when harsh laws passed by the colonists angered one of Massasoit’s sons. A brutal and terrible conflict followed in which New England was torn apart by brutal and horrific war. The Indians eventually lost, unable to combat several large-scale epidemics and a brand of total warfare in which the Europeans far surpassed the tribes in willingness to massacre whole villages without mercy for innocents and non-combatants.

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