Exploring the 400-year-old friendship that made America possible

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 3/29/23

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the friendship and pact formed between Plymouth Colony's leader Edward Winslow and the Massasoit Ousamequin, which enabled America as we know it today to be formed.

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Exploring the 400-year-old friendship that made America possible


Last Wednesday evening, Roger Williams University celebrated the 400th anniversary of Plymouth Colony leader Edward Winslow’s second visit to Sowams, the home of the Massasoit Ousamequin, with an expert panel including Richard Pickering, Deputy Executive Director of Plimoth Patuxet Museums, and Po Menuhkesu Menenok, Historian of the Pokanoket Tribe/Pokanoket Nation.

The presentation was hosted by RWU professor Dr. Charlotte Carrington-Farmer, and Dr. David Weed, Coordinator of the Sowams Heritaget Area Project.

The panel discussed Winslow’s visit with Massasoit Ousamequin — a visit that, in the hindsight of history, may well have been the key to the very survival of the American Colonies. It was an event that we only know of in such great detail because it was recorded in the 4th chapter of Edward Winslow’s 1624 book “Good Newes from New England, A True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimoth in New England.”

In it, Winslow tells of the trip he made with John Hampden and Hobbamock (a Pokanoket pniese, an elite warrior, who lived with the Colonists) traveled on foot from Plimoth to the Massasoit’s home in what today is Warren, on the news that the Pokanoket leader was ill and about to die. Winslow was able to administer some fruit preserves and tea made from sassafras root and strawberry leaves, and within two days the Massasoit had recovered and said, “Now I see the English are my friends and love me.” It was that revelation that may well have changed the course of history.

“To understand the importance of this in context, we have to go back a few years to the great dying,” said Po Menuhkesu Menenok. “The majority of our people died, including the first family of Massasoit Ousamequin. And so we're looking at a society that's going through tremendous crisis. And many of us can in some ways relate because we're also lived through a pandemic and we can see what the effect is on the government's institutions and people and leaders. And so this is society that was shaken.”

It was a society that used to be able to send out 3,000 warriors, but could now barely send a retinue of 300. In this new world, all of Massasoit Ousamequin’s considerable skills of diplomacy were called into play.

“He’s feeling pressure from his enemies and rivals — the plague hasn't reached them yet and they take full advantage,” said Po Menuhkesu Menenok. “They press him for his territory that's in Rhode Island. And so he's on the run. His people have known defeat, they have tasted bitterness, and they are now in a state of embarrassing impoverishment.”

It is this context that Massasoit Ousamequin is reaching the 1621 treaty with the Colonists: you have two societies from two different worlds, both are extremely vulnerable and they may mutually benefit from working together. “I have no doubt that if the great dying had not happened there would be no room for a colony,” said Po Menuhkesu Menenok.

Then, in 1623, Winslow received word that Massasoit Ousamequin was ill, and dying.

People from near and far came to see him, to pay tribute and to show their loyalty, and Winslow, in what history has interpreted as a real act of bravery, joins them.

According to Pickering, this was a critical juncture that is often missed by the casual student of history. As a young research assistant at Plimoth, Pickering’s mentor, a great Wampanoag historian, told him something he’s never forgotten: “You need to let every historical moment live on its own.” In hindsight, knowing what happened years later with what is known as King Philips’s War, people will immediately jump to that tragedy.

“What gets lost is the diplomatic skill of Massasoit Ousamequin,” said Pickering. “His mastery within the region; his ability to make relationships between indigenous communities and maneuver the ever-changing world of the introduction of the Dutch and the French as well as the English.”

“And so if you look and these moments of the 22nd of March 1621 with what happens in March of 1623, these men have known one another at times of tremendous physical and emotional fragility…and when Hobbamock and John Hampden and Edward Winslow are coming to make that visit, they are terrified…they have no idea what they are walking into and how they will be received.”

According to Winslow's account, the house is jammed with people who are there to pay their respects.

“When he hears Winslow is present and calls for him to come over to him and offers his hand and says, ‘Winslow I shall never see thee again’…the fact that there is enough trust between those two men, that when asked to touch the body of this Sachem he is given that permission. To me that is absolutely huge,” said Pickering.

Winslow offered Massasoit Osamequin a sugar and fruit confection that was the first thing that he had swallowed in two days. Massaoit Osamequin would recover, and live another four decades.

“His treaty and his idea that we should let these newcomers stay and settle on our land…being the leader he commanded so much respect,” said Po Menuhkesu Menenok. “The other Sachems might have grumbled about it, but they still followed him.”

“And when he said, ‘Winslow, you are my friend’, that is a pivotal moment because now he sees Plimoth colony is coming into the fold and it would create a bond.” That bond led to the Massasoit warning Winslow about a plan to attack Colonists at Weymouth.

“Sometimes we look at history. We're plagued with hindsight. We look at the end because you know, what's going to happen,” said Po Menuhkesu Menenok. “By warning (Winslow) about this it sent a clear message: one, they allow Plimoth colonies to prepare and preemptively strike and disperse this attack before it has the chance to happen; two, it let all the Sachems know that as far as Massasoit Osamequin was concerned, if you attack the English Colony, you are also attacking him.”

That peace held for the next 40 years.

“Peace is not just the word, it’s a relationship, and (Winslow), by coming there, cemented a relationship that would last till Ousamequin’s death in 1661,” said Po Menuhkesu Menenok. “What if Winslow was scared and walked away. How vulnerable would that peace have been? It really is something that you have to wonder — if Winslow acted differently would we have a United States?”

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