Montaup: A Search for Common Ground in the Native Northeast

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

After the arrival of, and first contact with, the Europeans in the Native lands in the 1600s, there was a search for common ground, mutual incorporation and transformation. Let’s explore this search for a common ground in the Native Northeast region of Montaup.

A statue of Massasoit.
The Wampanoags were led by Massasoit. (Image: Logan Bush/Shutterstock)

The Wampanoag Confederacy

Montaup was a Pokanoket village located in the heart of the Wampanoag Confederacy in present-day Rhode Island.

The Wampanoags had constituted themselves as a loose confederacy, and were led by a Pokanoket man named Massasoit.

First Contact with the Pilgrims

By the time a small group of radical Puritan dissidents, known as Pilgrims, established a presence at Plymouth late in 1620, the Native peoples of New England had been hammered by epidemics that may have wiped out 90% of the population.

In 1621, Massasoit entered into a treaty of friendship, mutual defense, and economic interdependency with the Pilgrims. The Puritans gained protection, influence, and a vitally important trade partner. Meanwhile, the Wampanoags secured an ally against their rivals.

Massasoit and the Wampanoag Confederacy prospered in the years that followed. Driving its wealth was an influx of European trade items.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, Wondrium.

A ‘Wampum Revolution’

An image of wampun beads.
Wampum beads were made from whelk and quahog shells. (Image: Pierre/ CC BY-SA/4.0/ /Public domain)

Perhaps, the most important trade item was wampum.

Indians along the Atlantic coast fashioned disc-shaped white and purple wampum beads from whelk and quahog shells. Before contact with Europe, this beaded artistry was highly prized throughout Northeastern America, and used in the context of trade, diplomacy, ceremony, and personal adornment.

After contact, the volume of trade increased the amount of wampum that was produced and circulated. The introduction of European tools also made it possible for Indian artisans to drill fine channels through the tubular beads, contributing to what historian Neal Salisbury refers to as a ‘wampum revolution’.

Although already deeply woven into the fabric of Native lives, wampum took on new meanings as a form of currency, eventually with European-defined exchange rate, no less.

The Natives as Evil

Massasoit expertly positioned his people as participants in the expanding colonial trade network. In combining trade with diplomacy, he maintained Wampanoag sovereignty as well.

However, to Massasoit and other Native people, the most challenging influence was the Pilgrims’ conception of God. Puritans believed that the world Native people lived in was evil—which, by extension, meant that Native people themselves were evil, too.

They also believed that it was their mission to redeem this fallen land by constructing what Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop called a city upon a hill. If world salvation required the dispossession and death of Indian people, so be it.

Massasoit probably understood that the Puritans defined Indians as a menace. But what was he to do?

Learn more about religious toleration in Colonial America.

The Pequot War and the Treaty of Hartford

The Pequot War, which erupted in the Connecticut River Valley in 1636   and quickly spread eastward, suggested how unenviable the situation had become.

A drawing of the Pequot War.
Hundreds of Natives were killed and sold to slavery after the Pequot War. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

The fighting climaxed in 1637, when the English—along with Mohegan and Narragansett allies—marched on a Pequot village along the Mystic River. Upon surrounding and setting fire to the palisaded village, the contest swiftly devolved into slaughter. 

In the wake of the bloodbath, Pequot women and children were sold into slavery or dispersed to the victors. At the Treaty of Hartford the following year, the Europeans took from the Pequot not only their land and sovereignty but also the name Pequot, the use of which was outlawed.

Situation Worsens for Wampanoag Confederacy

By the time Massasoit’s son Wamsutta became sachem in 1661, the wampum revolution had run its course. As Wamsutta began selling land to pacify the colonists, rumors swirled that he intended to wage war. Plymouth authorities responded by sending an armed party to escort Wamsutta to a meeting to berate him. Two of Wamsutta’s sons were kept as prisoners, and he died suddenly on his return trip.

This brought to the fore a younger brother, Metacom. Amid continuing settler encroachment, Plymouth Colony authorized the purchase of additional lands from any individual Indian willing to sell.

At the same time, the English extended their legal authority over the Wampanoag. In 1671, Metacom was forced to relinquish some of his people’s guns, and was expected also to submit to colonial authority.

Learn more about the first Americans.

War Breaks Out in 1675

War broke out in the summer of 1675. It was triggered by a complicated series of events.

Over the previous winter, a Christian Indian named John Sassamon—who served as an aide to Metacom—seems to have conveyed to the colonial governors the Wampanoag sachem’s plan to launch an intertribal assault. Sassamon, in turn, was found dead shortly afterward. Colonial authorities apprehended three Wampanoags, charged them with murder, and executed them. And then all hell broke loose.

Metacom’s forces launched a devastating attack against 52 English towns. They killed as much as one-third of the English settler population—some 2,500 people.

In retaliation, the English and their Indian allies burned Wampanoag villages. These campaigns, and disease, claimed upwards of 5,000 lives. Ultimately, Metacom’s alliance fell apart.

Wampanoag Confederacy Falls Apart

In August 1676, a force consisting of colonists and their Indian allies captured Metacom in the woods near the Pokanoket village of Montaup. Reminding us once more of Puritan views of God and Indians, Increase Mather, a Puritan minister, wrote this of Metacom’s death in his history of the war published in 1676:

He was taken and destroyed, and there was he cut into four quarters, and is now hanged up as a monument of revenging Justice, his head being cut off and carried away to Plymouth, his Hands were brought to Boston. So let all thine Enemies perish, O Lord!

Metacom’s death effectively brought an end to military resistance in New England, and it dealt a tremendous blow to tribal sovereignty throughout the region.

The Native–English Clash Persists

While war was endemic in the Northeast during the 17th century, the views from Montaup and other regions suggest that it wasn’t inevitable.

The lives of the Native people tell stories of a search for common ground, of mutual incorporation and transformation. The Europeans attempted to do the same, but as it turned out, they were much less tolerant. There really wasn’t a future for Native people in the Puritans’ city upon a hill.

Common Questions about the European Arrival in Montaup

Q: Where was Montaup?

Montaup was located in the heart of the Wampanoag Confederacy in present-day Rhode Island.

Q: What is a wampum?

Indians along the Atlantic coast fashioned white and purple discs from whelk and quahog shells which were called wampum beads.

Q: What happened in the Pequot War?

The Pequot War erupted in the Connecticut River Valley in 1636 and climaxed in 1637, when the English—along with Mohegan and Narragansett allies—marched on a Pequot village along the Mystic River, devolving into slaughter.

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