Bungled Diplomacy, Murder, & Healing: A New American Day at Wessagussett

Chief One Bear and 'English' speaker at Wessagussett 2004

Chief One Bear and ‘English’ representative at Wessagusset ceremonies 2004

On Saturday, April 6th, 2013, the town of Weymouth—only the second permanent English settlement in Massachusetts, and a founding-place of the public town meeting—held a gathering of Native and other American citizens determined to listen to each other.

This “little salt water cove,” called Wessagussett in Eastern Algonquian, was the place where, 390 years ago in the Spring of 1623, the “Pilgrims” of Plimoth Plantation sent their man at arms Captain Myles Standish, to ambush and kill several outspoken Massachusett leaders under the guise of a diplomatic council and feast.

After centuries of controversy and blame—ironically, over a place thoroughly neglected through those times—in 1999 the site of Wessagussett was cleaned up and re-opened as a Memorial Park and Nature Walk, followed by dedication-ceremonies in 2001. (Take a beautiful walk through in this short video at YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EZ5BOQYvPk .)

Then in Spring 2004, here at the meeting of Sea Street and Willow Avenue, came the first ceremonial “Laying Down of Arms” between Native people and representatives of the Pilgrims’ first English neighbors. (You can see more about that day with the Ancient Lights link just below.)

So, this 2013 gathering was a next step forward: a “Day of Recognition” that brought about 100 people of many backgrounds to the site. Quietly a Native man walked circles around the great circle, “smudging” everybody with smoke from sweetgrass burning in a shell. A ceremonial fire burned close by the drum of the Quabbin Lake Singers, and their voices and drumming honored everybody’s ancestors, to open the bright afternoon of open-minded listening and talk.

Before long, a dignified group of about 25 local men came marching down the street opposite, and joined into the gathering as  the presence of the first Wessagussett company. One big burly gentleman in olive overalls with a great gray beard seemed to have stepped from a history book. And through all the Native and other guests’ turns at speaking, there was a powerful meditative silence.

It was Thomas B. Adams who, as President of Massachusetts Historical Society, observed in 1970 that “the world cannot afford to bungle its diplomacy.” Adams spoke back in time to his family forebear, Charles Francis Jr., whose 1892 Three Episodes of Massachusetts History had studied the slaughter at Wessagussett, only to find it merely typical of American frontier necessity. So this day’s recognized Native and academic historians came together determined to follow Thomas, rather than Charles, into the future—with a common ground of new understandings to refute the claim of inevitable violence.

Below is the 20-minute talk I had the privilege to deliver as one of many voices. I had first studied Plimoth (1620) and Wessagussett (1621) as part of graduate studies at Brown University, creating a new edition of New English Canaan (1637/2000) and the biography of its author Thomas Morton—both of which involved Wessagussett history. The link and the contrast was that Morton’s infamous Merrymount (1624) used different older methods to establish successful relations with the same Massachusetts people whose families had been injured at Wessagussett. So I’d gone back into events from 1621-23, whose historiography underwrote the national frontier story, and published Good News from New England and Other Writings on the Killings at Weymouth Colony (2001). You can see a full time-line and web-page about these events at http://ancientlights.org/tl3.html .

Finally—because these “Crazy Pages” are to really speak my mind—I offer these frank observations. The original “Pilgrims” of Plimoth (and the secular “Strangers” with them alike) wished very much that “rude” and “uncouth” Wessagussett would just go away. It was after all an economic rival (like Merrymount), and most of its mainstream-English people made a laughing-stock of Plimoth’s frontier-evangelical fantasies—their dreams of “reforming” New England’s “howling wilderness” and “savages” which, in fact, for a century had carried on a cautious imperfect transatlantic coexistence.

Unfortunately and incomprehensibly likewise, today’s “living museum” of first-rate professional scholars and “interpreters” at Plimoth Plantation continue to ignore the increasing tide of informed dialogue, real understanding and civic recognition at Wessagussett. Take your education-starved family to Plimoth for a day and there’ll be worlds to learn about, from the church and fort and Main Street to the Wampanoag Village.

But you won’t see, on the palisade of Plimoth where “It’s Always 1627,” the piked-up head of the Native spokesman who was “pre-emptively” assassinated, in the midst of both sides’ terrified misunderstandings and mistakes. And you won’t see the linen cloth that Captain Standish dipped in the blood of his victims and posted like a first flag on top of those fortifications. You won’t hear either about the seasoned man who laughed and called them altogether “needless,” or about his 1627 May Day Revels, or his ongoing transatlantic trust and toleration. (Come to Maypole Hill in Quincy on May 11th, and you will!) (NOTE: Due to “rain” forecast, the date of Revels 386 is changed to SATURDAY MAY 18th, 2013, from 12 noon to 3pm.)

Morton invited Plimoth folk along with “all comers” to his feast. If they showed up, they remembered a dancing chorus of decadent furies and fairies too naive to know that their unlikely frontier success had doomed them. Plimoth since and to this day has ignored all like invitations to both plantation-sites, and even the skilled interpreter who handles the role of Myles Standish decided, after all, not to attend this Day of Recognition.

Why? It was Charles Francis Adams Jr. who wrote that “there is something appalling in the consciousness of utter isolation”; and, that in such a needlessly mistaken mental state, “it was impossible that [the ‘Pilgrims’] should not exaggerate the danger.” As my local fellow citizen-scholar Chet Austin observes, the news of massive Native attacks on Englishmen in Virginia (1621) must have understandably terrified Plimoth’s people, and only one thing could have saved them from the error of assuming all “savages” alike—authentic  relationships with Native New Englanders.

Back then, it seemed to be Plimoth families at stake. But history, public teaching, and public presentation have to know and go forward on the fact that that danger is over.

What is it, then? We know what it meant for the tame-as-custard Boston Globe when it declared itself “a family newspaper”: is Plimoth Plantation a “family history” site whose profession is to keep everybody smiling? It’s an odd new mission for the neighbors of a Renaissance man who was doing that. Wessagussett seems to be something that not even PBS, not even the BBC, not even The History Channel will touch (all of whom have filmed on location at Plimoth, with full casts of interpreters)—not with more than superficial and “tragically necessary” moments in familiar stories. It’s not as if these putative public teachers don’t love a good safely-dead political intrigue and murder. Maybe they too see something alive at Wessagussett.

Wessagussett was the first to teach, through its exculpatory histories, what became the full-blown Puritan approach to Native America; and that was the ground floor of national policy assumptions. Myles Standish, “Injun Expert,” and the stern bungler of Salem, John Endecott, became the ham-handed teachers of the next English comers’ men-at-arms. (Watch a 1992 interview-excerpt with Myles Standish at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHkM9faOH4w .) Ten years to the month after Morton’s 1627 May Day, those greenhorns made a fiasco of their extermination-war against the Pequots, and you can see this for yourself at http://ancientlights.org/mysticfiasco.html .

Their ministers, governors and gentles were the authors of the histories soon to be read in schools for three centuries after them. So, to see how deeply Wessagussett lives on in our national psyche, make a list of the crucial errors in its story: ignorance of the land, short-sighted priorities, uninformed plans, neglect of Native languages, inability to tell “them” apart, one-sided diplomacy with a tin ear, little idea of Native social structure or warfare, and fear-based actions that kept on needlessly creating new enemies. (All of this in tandem with multi-media reports of “progress” and “success,” and followed by shelf-feet of sad haunted imperial hagiography.)

If you sense familiar contemporary patterns in that list, they are the legacy of 1623. If education can’t or won’t find ways to address the whole story, we will keep on bleeding others and ourselves for the sake of an icon.

It’s silly, because the full facts are out there now: the first shock is that all these people were flawed, and not, in C.F. Adams words, either culture-bearers or “partially developed, savage human beings.” It’s strange, because people where you talk with them are starved for complex history, and what else can feed our genuine growth? It’s needless, because all but a few on any side have already given up their “Saints”: to smoothly sidestep the less-than-ideal is to weaken oneself by weakening one’s inheritance, validating willful ignorance and hypocrisy. And, it’s insulting, to Native and other citizens alike—as if, once again, this is all just too uncomfortable and painful for the children.

2020 is coming—the “Pilgrims'” 400th anniversary. Who’s going to tell it in the round? So far the wall around agents, studios, and accepted insiders (i.e., “ball carriers” who take a project to the right desk) stands impermeable, but maybe we shouldn’t expect this to come from inside anyhow. Want to make it happen? Let’s talk.

Liam (Thomas Morton) Neeson, are you out there? One day years ago, HBO’s Jeremy Sisto called by satellite-via-L.A.-agent from Malta about all this (he sounded cool and wired, filming Julius Caesar), and then he vanished with $200 in books/materials and the Merrymount script that gets it done, from Wessagussett to the Maypole and the Pequot War Fiasco. Tantoo Cardinal, why don’t you answer? Can we get more than a good local burger from Mark Wahlberg? Roger Deakins hails from Morton’s wild Devonshire: end of message. Oliver Stone‘s new American histories could use a foundation. Several years back, questing for a man who values our past, I left some Oscar-seeds at Ben Affleck‘s house in Cambridge, but his mother was busy ironing his super-hero leotards and flags. Howard Zinn (God bless him) told me personally that this story knocked his socks off. I wish he’d told Matt Damon.

Well, this is the kind of thing we do—and we hope, someday, you’ll join us.

Wessagussett Memorial Garden 2


Good afternoon. Weeg-Waman: Welcome. First, it is meet to thank our friend Jodi Purdy Quinlan, who brought this Memorial Garden into being 12 years ago. Welcome back, to those who remember the first memorial gathering here, 9 years ago, with our dear late friend Chief One Bear. We welcome and appreciate, too, the descendants of Massachusetts and other tribes-people who honor this place with their presence. And, Welcome all who come to share this Day Of Recognition.

The end of all our wandering, said the poet T.S. Eliot, is to come home and know the place for the first time. So, in these 20 minutes, let’s open our eyes—to Weechagaskas, Wessaguscus, or Wessagussett, the “little salt water cove” in Algonquian. A good place to live, to sit, to listen and ponder, with fresh water, deep soil, easy access to the blessings of the sea and three rivers: the Fore, the Back, and the Monatiquot.

This day, we look at Wessagussett in time. It’s a beautiful, peaceful garden, set aside for the purpose of remembering where the peoples of two continents met, and began to try to live together. And, this is a garden that has bloomed from a place of murder.

This is the site of a fatal misunderstanding at the root of our story. So, while this day in civic terms goes to recognize all our forebears and ancestors, it is also an act, toward all our elders, very much like what students do in the highest honor of their teachers.

We, like time and life, are going beyond them. We cannot undo the past. We can do better. It is what our best teachers want from us, and for us. It’s part of what makes each one of us American.

The soil of Wessagussett tells about extraordinary people: very different people, on the front line of a human frontier that was new to all of them. They had extraordinary strengths, courage, and freedom, and they were under extraordinary pressures, in the midst of their meeting.

The curtain really rises with a melting Wisconsin Ice Sheet, about 13,000 years ago. We still dredge up mastodon-teeth off Martha’s Vineyard, and Native stories tell of walking to visit relatives in Nantucket. We have finds of artifacts like old family-heirloom-collections, including every period of their life here—the oldest “Paleo” points, the brilliant “Archaic” tools from the Blue Hills to Quincy’s Caddy Park, and the beautiful things created in the “Woodland” days—which brought on the great gardens of Massachusetts Fields, and the times we now call history.

This goes to the long memory behind Massachusetts peoples and their neighbors. By the age of their settled-in villages, most of them called the Great Spirit Kiehtan. They understood the world of nature as a balance of differences, wholly alive: infused, to the waters and stones, with spirit.

They knew their lands and kinsmen through their mothers—including the Massachusetts’ Great Squa of Mystic, who outlived the Sachem Nanepashemet; and her sister of the Neponset band, named Passonagessit. Economically, Native New England lived by a barter system, with local and region-wide trails and waterways. And their family groups appointed Sachems, who spoke for them in matters of diplomacy, justice, trade—and sometimes like the rest of the world, in conflict. We know there were bad-blood rivalries among the Wampanoags, Narragansetts and Massachusetts. But, as in Europe of the time, that was the exception, not the rule, among peoples who were closely intermarried.

By the 1600s, at least 5,000 Massachusetts people were living in 5 main bands from the North to South Shores: the Saugus, the Mystic, the Neponset, the Ponkapoag and the Cohanit. From north to south, this coast is covered with the shell-heaps that mark the places of their seasonal feasts and festivals. And by that time, about 250 European ships were visiting these shores each year to fish and trade for furs where they could.

The Massachusetts’ close connections, though, also carried European diseases, and after 1618 there were only about 1,000 Massachusetts left. It was Plimoth’s great scholar Nanepashemet who compared this to the nightmare-impact of a nuclear weapon. Suddenly, generations were gone, and the region’s tribal relationships were thrown into new imbalance.

Among the survivors was Passonagessit’s son, the many-named Chikatawbak, or “House Afire.” By the 1620s his people had moved down the Neponset River from Unquity to seaside Moswetusett. At his sides were at least two very capable men, called Pecksuot and Wituwamat: they were pneise, or in Winslow’s words, men “of great stature and strength, but discreet, courteous and humane, who scorned theft, lying, and all manner of base dealings.” Their abilities combined the political roles of Sagamore or sub-chief with the healing and visions of the Powah, along with leadership where conflict called for diplomacy.

DeRasieres described such men as “eager and free in speech, fierce in countenance, but tempered with courage and wisdom.” Such was Plimoth’s Wampanoag friend Hobbamok. As will appear, it may have been a status also hoped-for by his fellow Tisquantum. And within those roles was a tactic called brinksmanship—a daring use of language and threat as the left hand of conflict resolution.

Consider that, if men like Pecksuot and Wituwamat reached their 30s by the 1620s, they were shaped by decades that brought more French and English strangers to these shores, along with “plague” and encounters that turned increasingly bad. It seemed that a century of older transatlantic ways—called “fair means” in English, and described by Chikatawbak as reciprocal gifting, socializing, and trade—was breaking down, under European pressures and Native New England’s new imbalances.

The young Pecksuot and Wituwamat could have met Gosnold, and Martin Pring, Champlain and Challons: Captains Argall, and Harlow, and John Smith himself, around 1614, who skirmished and killed people at Cohasset and Patuxet, future Plimoth. When the infamous Captain Hunt kidnapped at least 19 people, including Tisquantum, these two Massachusetts pneise knew about it.

Pecksuot himself, talking with a French crew shipwrecked on Cape Cod, was told by one what his holy book saw: Native peoples soon being driven from their lands. Was that why Pecksuot and others, soon after, attacked and burned another French ship in Boston Bay, upon “some distaste” given them? Now, all-told, we have an idea of why Pecksuot and Wituwamat were so out in front of encounters with the newest strangers. These English made it clear that, this time, they meant to stay.

Good News from New England

The great majority of these colonists were varying degrees of Christian: underground Catholics, mainstream Anglicans, or outright Protestants against their government and church. From sailors to soldiers and gentleman-investors, in their cosmos the Creation had “fallen” into sin, and in consequence, their religion focused around The Bible’s Old Testament, and an ancient Middle Eastern rabbi named Jesus, whom they believed would return one day to separate good from evil forever. In William Bradford’s words, “both reason and nature” excluded women from leadership. Meanwhile, these English family groups, centered around fathers and patriarchs, were going through different kinds of separation: leaving behind the medieval manor-farm with its common dining halls, living on lands and in households increasingly subdivided by social class, by economics, and by political and religious ideologies.

Economically, as Early Modern capitalism emerged from medieval ways, England was closing off more and more common lands for a new class of investors in the wool industry. While many protested, thousands of people roamed the land “penniless, naked and starving.” Thousands of hardened English soldiers were back from the wars against Spain, such as Humphrey Gilbert, John Smith, Myles Standish, and possibly Phinehas Pratt of the first Wessagussett men. Altogether, the stresses on England were making it too easy to run over any Native American rights in their ancient land. After all, they had no cattle. The first corporate ventures’ profits were meager, but the rivaling powers of states, aristocracies, and investments kept finding new means for them. America was already becoming a kind of safety valve for European problems.

At the bottom were the parish boys, youths without other hopes who answered calls from King James’ Council For New England for sailors and settlers, and signed themselves into years of indentured servitude. By Plimoth’s time, more than half these youths were dying each year in the malarial tobacco farms of Virginia.

There were still more distinct English groups: the mostly-secular families like the “Strangers” who came with Mayflower, interested only in a homestead-share of a colonial enterprise. That was also one goal of the evangelicals known as Separatists or Puritans. Such were Plimoth’s William Bradford and Edward Winslow, whose family groups, dedicated to dissent from state and church, left their first exile in The Netherlands to avoid fitting into an insufficiently-Biblical Dutch culture. If they could not endure the Dutch, the choice of a “wilderness,” filled with ideas of “savages,” tells us about their will to isolate themselves, if that was what it took to live their uncorrupted values.

Finally, at the top were the investors—-aristocrats on, or close to, The Council for New England. Their capital interest was profit, even by way of illicit gun-trade, with the best American pelts and furs. Such were the men who scolded the decimated Pilgrims for not returning Mayflower packed with commodities; and “middling” gentlemen like Thomas Weston, who was working for his and the Council’s interests.

And so let’s turn to the key moments on the way to what happened here. It may surprise you, that the most decisive error was at the very start. When Plimoth rose from the ashes to a major agreement with Wampanoag and Massachusett groups in September 1621, what did it stipulate? One thing—that all of them were subjects of King James. For this to have any meaning for Native people, it could only mean they were allies, expected to turn to each other in matters of conflict and justice.

However, the paper bore no Narragansett marks. They did not appreciate their old rival Wampanoags and Massachusetts seeming to have a new upper hand in European trade. It’s a tribute to Tisquantum’s help in all this, that the Narragansetts blamed him. So, they got their cousins at Nemasket to kidnap and shake up Tisquantum. Had they wanted him dead, they’d have killed him. But out marched Captain Standish to the needless rescue, wounding several Native people.

And still, the peace held around that year’s Thanksgiving. Now came the Fortune, with the first 35 of Weston’s men, and “scarce a bisket-cake amongst them.” The central mistake was soon to come, from a no-doubt shaken Tisquantum, and from Captain Standish.

You see, into that winter of 1621, the Narragansetts tried diplomacy again. But the men they entrusted made it a fiasco of bitter words, and in came the famous bundle of arrows wrapped in snakeskin.

bundle of arrows wrapped in snakeskin, by historical artist Michael F. McWade

Read Winslow’s first pages carefully. He says, that warning was for Tisquantum. But he, perhaps to protect himself, turned the warning into a threat to the whole plantation. So, first thing, Plimoth sent out Hobbamock’s wife. She found no bad feeling or intent in local villages. Yet, from late November into February, Plimoth fortified. They built a palisade in fear of the Narragansetts and, we can only suppose, of their local Native kind.

This meant that most manpower would not be planting food, and it forced more desperate encounters in the coming months. Fortification also alienated Plimoth’s own chief ally Wampanoags. “Many insulting speeches” started to hamper the older transatlantic ways of dealing with trouble—which we’ll hear from Chikatawbak himself.

In Charles Francis Adams’ view, it was impossible for Plimoth, in such self-isolation, not to magnify the danger beyond the facts.

Early that Spring 1622, Tisquantum was close again to being killed, when straight in came the Sparrow, full of more Weston men for Wessagussett. Governor Bradford turns his story to the English, for now he had his hands full of more men with no supplies. But he did see, right there, Native men turning away “in a great rage.” To them, it must have seemed clear that there was no real idea of shared justice. Soon, events would unfold to show them this again, and again.

A few weeks of bad blood passed. June 22 brought 60-70 more of Weston’s men on the Charity and Swan. Somehow out of their scant provisions, they did gift Chikatawbak for permission to live on this chosen ground. But by all accounts, they had few applicable skills. They built no storehouse, because they planted no crops. According to the outsider Captain Levett, they spent most of their time building “castles in air.”

Survival meant that they could not help but intrude into Native food sources, from shellfish to ground nuts and game. Now imagine the impact of summer’s news that, far south in Virginia, the Powhatan had risen up against the English, and slain about 400 people. Standish increased Plimoth’s “training days,” with booming shows of arms. And the tinder just kept building in everybody’s midst.

Wessagussett’s first leader Richard Greene died. His successor John Saunders soon sailed for supplies from Maine’s fishermen, but he never came back. The trajectory was more and more desperation in young men all but abandoned by their superiors’ incompetence and negligence.

Some tore into late summer’s Native corn harvest, and more did so through Autumn. Who would deny that most merely wanted some kind of new home and life here? Yet, where they tried to adapt, they were foiled. Some drowned in the salt flats, exhausted by digging shellfish. Some collected firewood for local village food. Three put their boat-wrights’ skills to work, and one found a Massachusett wife. But these men in the middle were scorned by their fellows as quasi-traitors, and by Native people as scapegoats for their ongoing, unanswered grievances.

So began that desperate winter of 1622, as Bradford, Winslow and Standish made astonishing voyages round the region, doing their best to barter food from Native villages. But, in their own reports, at every stop, there were Native people to be heard about wrongs committed, crucial food-stores stolen, and hunger of their own. What we find is Captain Standish threatening violence over a missing string of beads. Englishmen laughing in the face of Native peoples’ best diplomatic gestures.

No surprise that Wituwamat and Pecksuot gave Standish an earful of feedback, more than once. These words, half-understood by ears that were willfully closed, became a “threat.” On both sides, and between, was what the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole recently called the empathy gap: the failure to imagine how another party might react to something that would drive oneself to rage and maybe violence. 

Could things get worse without exploding? That December, an English ship, half-foundered off Cape Cod, decided to make the best of it by stealing furs, food, and people from the Nausets. If we know this only from minutes of a Council For New England meeting—through a report, relayed from Natives, by a Mass. Bay trader named Leo Peddock—we may be surprised if, by now, there was no “Native conspiracy” to end both colonies altogether. You be the judge, with the last indications we have.

Make a list of the months of rumors and alarms from Tisquantum and Hobbamock, and you can feel every Plimother’s head swimming with worry for their families. A court today would dismiss both players for their obvious failures to keep track of self-serving lies. Then, Tisquantum died suddenly that winter, and Plimoth lost another central help. Every avenue of diplomacy was either closing, cursed by luck, or bungled in anger.

That’s why we need to hear the most grounded and reasonable voice that spoke straight into these troubles. Somebody had to step forward, and try old means, to give resolution its fighting chance. Here came Sachem Chikatawbak, with a skillfully oblique show of strong, armed braves to Wessagussett: angry, but ready to talk.  “Well, Pecksuot—Tell him, if he be angry with us, we are angry with him.”

Not the right response.

“Englishmen,” Chikatawbak said. “When you came into the country, we gave you gifts, and you gave us gifts. We bought and sold with you, and we were friends. And now, tell me, if I, or any of my men, have done you wrong. Some of you steal our corn. And I have sent you word, times without number. And yet, our corn is stolen. I come to see what you will do. All Sachems do justice by their own men. If not, we say, ‘They are all in together.’ And then, we fight. I say, you all steal my corn.”

The English “stirred their arms.” Chikatawbak “went away in a great rage.” And then—Listen. “At this time, we strengthened our watch, until we had no food left.” It was Wessagusett now in the Plimoth boat.

 Honorably, Governor Bradford stopped a desperate Wessagusset proposal to take more food outright from Native families’ stores. Winslow’s diplomacy and doctoring for Massasoit brought a new “conspiracy” charge out of Hobbamock, whose list turned every ally on Plimoth paper into an enemy: including Nemasket, where Winslow stayed pleasantly on his way home.

The final choice—for a “pre-emptive strike” led by Standish, who was boiling in his brain against Wituwamat and Pecksuot—was sealed with the arrival of so-called intelligence from Wessagussett’s Phinehas Pratt. And not one historian, from Bradford to Philbrick, has scrutinized this final spark, even as they cite it.

Pratt was writing decades later to get a kind of “retirement” from Mass Bay, and long after all the other eyewitnesses were gone or dead. He proudly recounts his assault on a merely-saucy Massachusett woman for no apparent reason. When she cursed him out with a threat that braves would repay her bruises, Pratt struck off for Plimoth with her words.

Oh, yes—just before Pratt left, Pecksuot offered Pratt his own son, Nahamit, as a guide; for which, read “hostage.” Pecksuot wanted this naked “lie” of conspiracy exposed. Pratt refused, and slipped away.

Clearly, parlay was still possible, because that was the stated purpose of this Wessagussett meeting. Pratt says that 10 or 11 armed English arrived here with Captain Standish, and Hobbamok: the day was our April 5th. The next day came Wituwamat, with a brother of 18 “following in his steps,” and Pecksuot, with “another” man, maybe his son.

Philbrick at least brings out the assassination-mission on which Standish carried himself. He was determined to kill and terrify as many Massachusetts as possible, at the dawn of the English tradition called “one bloody good lesson.” Tellingly, he was shocked that Wessagussett’s own men seemed to feel no danger around them. But, Wituwamat saw the rage in Standish’s eyes, and told him to “begin whenever he liked.”

Where Standish “liked” was not in the open, toe-to-toe, but seated, at a closed-in feast of pork—offering, perhaps, some soothing liquids. The Captain seized Pecksuot’s own knife hung at his neck, and witnesses found it “incredible how many wounds these two pneises received before they died.” When Wituwamat and his brother were dead at other hands, Standish cut off his capital enemy’s head. Outside, they hanged “another,” and sent orders for killing two more by “another Company.” Then Standish, “to make spoil of them and theirs,” killed one more, and one fellow escaped him. A running skirmish, round a hill near here, came to one man wounded and a torrent of mutual rage. When Standish, back at Plimoth, showed the head around, a number of terrified “confessions” came forth. But it was too late to save the 2 or 3 Wessagussett men who were killed in the villages, where they had tried to do their best.

Pratt, by that summer, took part in more assaults and abductions at Cape Ann and Dorchester. A visiting Captain Emmanuel Altham saw Wituwamat’s head piked on Plimoth’s fortifications. Beside it hung a cloth dipped in his blood as an “ancient,” or flag. And Altham heard people wonder what had happened to their trade. Winslow knew.

“This sudden and unexpected execution…so terrified and amazed them, that they forsook their houses, running to and fro, living like men distracted, living in swamps, and so brought manifold diseases amongst themselves. Very many are dead; as Canacum, the Sachem of Manomet; Aspinet, the Sachem of Nauset; and Ianow, Sachem of Mattakiest. Certainly many of late have died, and still daily die. Nor will it easily cease, because through fear, they set little or no corn.”

Soon, three more Massachusetts people drowned, just trying to bring peace-presents to Plimoth. So the count went to at least 10 Native people dead, and 2 or 3 English.

Together now, we look. What we see is as much as historians can ask for by way of an experiment. First we have an imperfect but working set of methods in the first transatlantic century of contact. Then, the Plimoth approach. But what happened, the very next year, with the same Native people? They met some new English, men with a mind for those old ways. And together they made it work. Better than ever, until Boston arrived.

It wasn’t Utopia. Just mutual respect. Come see for yourself, because you are invited to Maypole Hill in Quincy on Saturday May 11th, 11am to 2, where Merrymount became the most notoriously “wrong” example on the books. True, it only worked for six years—but the cause of its end was not within itself. Maybe this year, the Maypole’s 389th, we’ll get the Plimoth folks to come and let their hair down.

And now, having looked with all our courage, this is a place to be proud of the town that rose from the first. A town whose town meetings built the foundation of democracy. A town that faced the fines and whips and exiles that punished their religious independence. And a town with the strength to comprehend its ambiguities and teach them to the public, rather than hope, as of old, that Wessagussett will go away. We are the unafraid proof that it will not. We want sophisticated children.

Sisters and brothers, here today, where all of us have lost our “saints,” we are come home, with new eyes. This is Recognition Day. The walls are down. See the garden again. This beauty is inside us, and around us. This is what goes on. Not fear. Not the lack of understanding.

What can close this better than the prayer of our great late friend, Chief One Bear, Raymond Tremblay, who grew up in this area, and helped the healing here in 2004: a man whose “merry jests and squibs” sustained his relentless dedication to cultural memory, and new learning.

“Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds, and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me! I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise, so that I may understand the things you have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength—not be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy: myself. Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands, and straight eyes; so that when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.”

This garden blooms from our learning, from this frontier-American place that made us, and makes us. The garden is living the recognition that, together and always, we are in it.

Wessagussett ceremonies Spring 2004


Head of Myles Standish State Park statue blasted off by lightning, Spring 1923In Spring 1623, the diminutive and fiery Captain Myles Standish piked the severed head of Massachusett spokesman Wituwamat on the palisade at Plimoth. In Spring 1923, a bolt of lightning blasted the head off his statue high atop the “world’s tallest historical monument” (to “Captain Shrimp”) at Myles Standish State Park in Duxbury. Photo courtesy of Weymouth’s most indefatigable native, Jodi Purdy Quinlan.



About Dr Jack Dempsey

Always good to hear from you! A life-long freelance writer/editor, Brown University Ph.D. (in Native & Early American Studies)---novelist ("Ariadne's Brother," "People of the Sea"), historian and biographer ("New English Canaan," "Thomas Morton," "Mystic Fiasco" and more), producer ("Nani: A Native New England Story"), Book Editor/Public Speaking Coach: Bentley University Adjunct Assistant Professor of English, Media Studies & Communications (Best Part Time Prof 2010). Latest works? Scientific nonfiction on the lunar/solar calendar of ancient Minoan Crete---"The Knossos Calendar: Minoan Cycles of the Sun, the Moon, the Soul & Political Power" (Iraklion, Mystis 2016), based on lectures drawn from "Calendar House: Clues to Minoan Time from Knossos Labyrinth" (2011). Come and enjoy multimedia resources including filmed Native American interviews at ANCIENTLIGHTS.ORG
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3 Responses to Bungled Diplomacy, Murder, & Healing: A New American Day at Wessagussett

  1. Jack great article so much rich and honest accounts of history! Thank You!

  2. bob says:

    its spelled plymouth not plimoth

    • “Plimoth” was the Pilgrims’ original spelling, and that’s also how it is today at “Plimoth Plantation” in Massachusetts. Thanks, though. Meanwhile, “its” is a possessive pronoun, while “It’s” is the contraction for “It is,” which is probably what you meant.

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