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Plimoth Patuxet: Acknowledging the First Native Americans the Pilgrims Encountered

Among the many things 2020 will be remembered for, one stands in a positive light. This year the living history museum, Plimoth Plantation, is changing its name to better reflect the true history of the land on which it stands.

It is timely, as this is 400 years since the European Pilgrims landed for the first time off the Mayflower in 1620 in Massachusetts.

The final name has not yet been finalized, however, in the interim, it will be known as Plimoth Patuxet.

When the Pilgrims of 1620 landed and began their settlement in what is now Massachusetts, one of the colonists named the colony “Plimoth”- after the point in England from which the Mayflower embarked. But to the local Native American people, the Wampanoag tribe, the land was “Patuxet”.

Combining these two names now provides much overdue acknowledgement of the story of the land before the Pilgrims arrived, and the crucial part the local Native American Wampanoag tribe played in their ability to survive the early years of their settlement there.

The Wampanoag Nation

Plimoth Patuxet: Acknowledging the First Native Americans the Pilgrims Encountered

Mashpee Wampanoag – Cape Cod 1929 (Boston Public Library)

Algonquin peoples, the Wampanoag began settling in what is now coastal New England between 9000 and 12000 years ago. They were originally primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazano encountered Wampanoag tribes at Narragansett Bay in 1525, and he described them as tall, majestic men, fearlessly boarding his ship and being very charitable people towards their neighbors.

The next hundred years saw many encounters between the Wampanoag and explorers from England, France, and Portugal. There was mistreatment of the Wampanoag people by these explorers (including kidnap into slavery), alongside legitimate trade, but the Wampanoag learned to manage the presence of the visiting Europeans. The foreigners were welcomed for short periods only to exchange goods, and the coastally-based Wampanoag were able to position themselves as middlemen between the Europeans and other tribes from the interior – controlling access to the products traded between each.

When the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, they found many tribal Wampanoag towns to have been decimated by the plague of 1615-19 (possibly smallpox). It was this loss of numbers which enabled the Pilgrims to so easily take up residence on Wampanoag land.

Overall, however, though they rightly saw the Pilgrims as a threat, the Wampanoag were helpful to the Pilgrims. They knew the Europeans were critical to their own survival against the larger rival Narragansett Nation. Helping the Pilgrims was a way for the Wampanoag to increase their numbers to defend themselves and their culture against other native tribes. They did not foresee the future influx of Europeans which would ultimately decimate the population of Native Americans of all Nations.

Wampanoag men were described by the Pilgrims as being very tall, very strong, and fearsome. Yet they visited the Pilgrims unarmed a month after they landed. Tisquantum (Squanto), Tokamahaman, and Hobomok acted as translators, ambassadors, and advisors between the Pilgrims and their own people.

Tisquantum was the most notable for actively helping the struggling Pilgrims, who were floundering during their first harsh winter. He ultimately lived among them. Having been previously kidnapped by Europeans, and being returned before 1620, he spoke some English. He taught them how to survive on the edge of the wilderness, to plant maize alongside beans and squash, and to defend themselves against other unfriendly native tribes. He taught them to bury fish alongside their seeds to fertilize the soil. In turn, the Pilgrims provided much-needed assistance when the Wampanoag had to defend themselves against Narragansett warriors.

Living History Museum

At Plimoth Patuxet, the name change to reflect the Wampanoag alongside the Pilgrims has been considered for more than a year and is today very much welcomed by the local Mashpee Wampanoag Nation.

The living history museum has long reflected the Wampanoag people alongside the Pilgrims, and this renaming and rebranding of it is a much better representation of what the museum offers as well as its authentic history (additionally removing any negative connotations of the word “plantation” and its association with the antebellum South of later years).

The final name for the 75-year-old museum is expected to be announced by the end of 2020.

Indian Traders

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