Ideas

Ideas | Christopher Klein

After the first Thanksgiving, things went downhill

Chief Massasoit visited by Governor Winslow, Plymouth Colony, 1620s. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration. (North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)
North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images
Hand-colored woodcut of Edward Winslow visiting Chief Massasoit.

While Pilgrims such as Myles Standish and William Bradford are household names in New England, we might not be gathering around Thanksgiving tables this week if not for a lesser-known Mayflower passenger — Edward Winslow. A keen diplomat and the founder of Marshfield, Winslow recorded one of the only two primary source accounts of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, a feast made possible by the extraordinary friendship he cultivated with Massasoit, leader of the Pokanoket Wampanoag.

In her new book, “The Mayflower: The Families, The Voyage, and the Founding of America,” author Rebecca Fraser chronicles the history of the Plymouth Colony through the lens of the man she calls “the unknown Pilgrim.” Fraser spoke by phone with Ideas from her home in Hammersmith, England, about the friendship between Massasoit and Winslow and how deteriorating relations led their sons to take up arms against each other in King Philip’s War in 1675. Below is an edited excerpt:

Ideas: Why did Winslow befriend Massasoit and other Native Americans?

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Fraser: Edward had been in London when Pocahontas visited in 1617, and he worked at a publisher where travel literature about North America was a growth industry, so I think that made Edward especially fascinated by Massasoit. He had a real enthusiasm and passion for learning about people. Edward was so intrigued by the civilization he was seeing unfolding before him that it made him want to get close to them, and it made them want to get closer to him.

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Ideas: Given the language barrier, how were Winslow and Massasoit able to communicate?

Fraser: One of the Pilgrims, Stephen Hopkins, had learned a bit of Algonquin, and John Smith’s “A Description of New England” also had a vocabulary list that served as a starting point. Some Native Americans knew English as well, and some actually lived in Plymouth town. Although Edward said he was not a very good linguist, all the experts say he clearly was. He was so interested in the Native Americans and wanted to know what their words meant.

Ideas: What drew Massasoit to become friends with Winslow and help the Pilgrims?

Fraser: Massasoit needed the Pilgrims just as much as they needed him. He wanted European technology to guard against the Narragansett, who had become the dominant tribe after a terrible plague wiped out much of the Pokanoket. Edward actually saved Massasoit’s life by giving him chicken soup when he was sick, and an extraordinary, very tender friendship arose between the two. Massasoit was always going to want to help the Pilgrims, but he particularly wanted to do so because Edward saved him. That grafted them together.

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Ideas: How did the arrival of the Puritans in Boston and the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 change the dynamic between the Pilgrims and Native Americans?

Fraser: The people who arrived in 1630 in huge numbers were much more opinionated and less open-minded than the Pilgrims. They also came in much larger numbers. Twenty thousand arrived in New England between 1630 and 1640. That’s a massive number, and they were more powerful and wealthier than the Pilgrims. After the Anne Hutchinson affair [in which the Puritan woman was excommunicated and exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading her own interpretation of the Bible], ministers started to see her as a sign that Satan lurked in the wilderness. They started preaching that the Native Americans were satanic, whereas the Pilgrims didn’t have these preconceptions. Boston overreacted and thought that all the tribes would rise up against them, although the Pilgrims kept telling them otherwise. Boston was much less knowledgeable about the Native Americans and failed to reach out to them.

Ideas: You write that Winslow “began to adopt the learned Boston clergy’s hostile views.” Why?

Fraser: The relationship was fine until the Pequot War in 1637, which changed everything. Plymouth was very reluctant to get involved, but in the end they were convinced the Pequot might attack. Winslow himself was almost killed after the Pequot War at a trading post in Maine by Native Americans who began to believe they either had to rise up against the English or be driven out.

Winslow spent more time in Boston because he had friends there, and he represented Massachusetts as well as Plymouth in London. Boston clergymen preached sermons against the Native Americans, and Winslow began to think that maybe John Winthrop and his company were right that the tribes were not the settlers’ friends.

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Massasoit was also alarmed by the punitive way the English behaved after the Pequot War. He certainly sold much more land after it had taken place, which made his sons very angry, but Massasoit was anxious to stay in favor with his English neighbors. My reading is that Massasoit began to fear them and the Massachusetts colony especially. They had caused the young king of the Narragansett to be executed and kept fining the Narragansett and confiscating their land on any excuse.

Ideas: What happened to the friendship between Winslow and Massasoit?

Fraser: We have to assume there was a cooling off in the great friendship, because it’s really clear that Edward’s son Josiah didn’t have any of his father’s feelings about the Native Americans. Josiah didn’t like the children of Massasoit. He didn’t believe they were equivalent to him, and he wanted to be a magistrate over the Native Americans. If he had been brought up in a household where his father’s friendship with Massasoit was sacrosanct, he wouldn’t have been that arrogant toward them. Something had cooled between the two families. Everything started to disintegrate after the first generation is no longer alive.

Ideas: How did the relationship between Josiah Winslow and Massasoit’s son King Philip differ from that of their fathers?

Fraser: Josiah became very aggressive toward the Native Americans, and the Pokanoket were amazed at suddenly being told what to do after living in the area for thousands of years. They were nervous that the English wouldn’t stop taking over their territory, and the English were alarmed by the behavior of the Narragansett and their possible conspiring with the Dutch. So there was a climate of fear on both sides. The Pokanoket were hemorrhaging territory so that by 1675 King Philip could no longer fish off his tribal land in Rhode Island. Nothing was stopping the march of Anglicization, and in the end Philip decided he didn’t want to live being told what to do. I think Philip regarded the war as his people’s last stand.

Christopher Klein, the author of “Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero,” can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com. Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.