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The Treaty That Saved Plymouth Colony

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A black and white illustration showing a group of indigenous people meeting with a group of pilgrims.
Meeting of Governor Carver and Massasoit / drawn by H.L. Stevens; eng’d. by Augustus Robin, N.Y.  Massasoit handing Governor John Carver a piece pipe [Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]
Today is the 396th anniversary of the conclusion of a treaty between the English settlers of New Plymouth Colony–among whom were the Pilgrims of Thanksgiving fame–and the Wampanoag people, the indigenous people of the area that comprises what is now southeastern Massachusetts. At the time of the treaty, it had only been four months since the Mayflower arrived on the shores of America. The English settlers were still living either in temporary dwellings on the shore or onboard the Mayflower. The first winter had been brutal. In that short time, nearly half of all the people who arrived in the Mayflower, 50 out of 102, died from disease or exposure.

The indigenous people were also suffering. A plague had devastated Wampanoag society in the years preceding the arrival of the English. When the English surveyed the country around their settlement, they discovered totally depopulated villages, mass graves: signs of catastrophic loss of life. In fact, the plague, perhaps an outbreak of smallpox, perhaps leptospirosis, lasted from 1615 to 1619; some estimates suggest that population loss was as high as ninety percent.

After the plague, another people in the region, the Narraganset, took advantage of the Wampanoag’s weakened state and tried to subject the remaining Wampanoag to their rule. The Wampanoag leader, Massasoit (1581?-1661), quickly took steps to prevent this. Massasoit was aware of the size and power of English society and recognized the potential of an alliance with the English to help him carve out independence from the Narraganset. After a series of minor encounters, Massasoit and a party of his men approached the English on March 22, 1621, and made their hopes of a peace accord known. Plymouth’s governor, John Carver (1584-1621), was not immediately willing to come forward to meet with Massasoit and the parties negotiated until they arranged to exchange hostages and lay down their arms for the talks. With the help of one of Massasoit’s men, Squanto, a Patuxet man who had been taken as a slave by an Englishman and had lived briefly in England, they were able to communicate sufficiently at least to understand each other in broad terms. In the course of the morning, Massasoit came to terms with the newcomers, agreeing to make common defense with them against other indigenous people, especially the Narraganset.

This is how the English recorded the details of the agreement:

  1. That neither he [Massasoit] nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people
  2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.
  3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people were at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to them.
  4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.
  5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
  6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our peace when we came.
  7. Lastly, that doing thus, King James would esteem of him as his friend and ally.

The book "Mourt's Relation" open to the page titled, "[J]ourney to Packanokik, the Habitation of the Great King Massasoti."
Mourt’s Relation (London, 1622) [Photo by Eric Frazier]
According to Nathaniel Morton, a later chronicler of the Plymouth colony, Massasoit kept this treaty for the rest of his life. He lived forty years after its signing. In the short run, the treaty and the cooperation that it promoted with the Wampanoag people led to a prosperous planting season for the English settlers at Plymouth and a good harvest. In other words, it probably saved Plymouth Colony from destruction.

It also led, by some accounts, to the original story of Thanksgiving. The treaty, and the narrative of the events that led to it, was first published by John Bellamy (1596-1653) in London in 1622 in a short pamphlet that is typically known as Mourt’s Relation. Bellamy had a lasting connection with the Separatists and printed a number of other tracts related to the settlement in New Plymouth. The title, Mourt’s Relation, is generally supposed to be a misnomer. The name Mourt probably refers to George Morton, who was a member of the community of Separatists in Leiden before its departure for America. Morton apparently stayed behind to manage some of its remaining affairs. It is likely that he saw to the printing of this publication and that his involvement with its publication is somehow the source of the attribution. He later crossed the Atlantic with his family and joined the community in America. His son, Nathaniel Morton, went on to become one of the important historians of Plymouth Colony. It is probable, however, that the authors of the pamphlet were William Bradford (1590-1657) and Edward Winslow (1595-1655). It recorded the events of the first year and a half of the Separatists’ experience traveling to America. For a flavor of its disciplined but fascinated tone, this is the description the authors give of Massasoit and his men:

The book "Mourt's Relation" open to the page containing the Mayflower Compact, the page is titled "In America".
Mayflower Compact as it appears in Mourt’s Relation [Photo by Eric Frazier]
“In his person he is a very lusty man, in his best years and able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech: in his attire little or nothing differing from the rest of his followers, only in a great chain of white bone beads about his neck, and at it behind his neck hangs a little bag of tobacco, which he drank and gave us to drink: his face was painted with a [deep red color], and oiled both head and face, that he looked greasily [sic]: all his followers likewise, were in their faces in part or in whole painted, some black, some red, some yellow, and some white, some with crosses, and other antick works, some had skins on them, and some naked, all strong, tall men in appearance…”

Parts of the work subsequently appeared in John Smith’s General Historie (1624); Samuel Purchas’ Purchas His Pilgrims (1625). It appeared in its entirety in Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (1841); Rev. George B. Cheever’s Mourt’s Relation (1848) and Henry Martym Dexter’s Mourt’s Relation (1865).

Mourt’s Relation is also well known because it is the earliest extant source for the text of the Mayflower Compact, the agreement that the settlers at New Plymouth entered into to form a new civil body politic as they set out to build a community in America. The Mayflower Compact will celebrate its 400th birthday in 2020. Look for more news and blog posts on the tradition of American self-government here on In Custodia Legis in the coming months.

Update: added additional links.


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