The Wampanoag

Recently, a subscriber sent me this wonderful excerpt.  I’ve published it below, intact, but then it made me wonder what more we know about these people being described.









It has been thought that the introduction prefixed to the first edition, and which was intended as a mere framework upon which to hang the traditions, was not satisfactorily contrived, and that the title did not set forth the true nature of the work. I think so myself, and have therefore suppressed that introduction, and given to the work a strictly accurate title. I have supplied the place of the introduction with a brief statement of the opportunities I have had of studying the Indian character, and with an exhibition of proofs of the genuineness of the traditions themselves. The public having been pleased to say that “_if_ the matter was genuine, the manner was good,” and that a successful attempt to “stamp the legends with the character of authenticity” would elevate them to the dignity of “historical records,” I have been at some pains to collect and offer the required proofs.


I was born within twelve miles of a principal tribe of Indians, within two miles of a small band, and within six miles of two other small bands, of that tribe. They were a remnant of the Pawkunnawkuts, who, at the first settlement of the country, were a very numerous, powerful, and war like nation, but at the time of my birth had dwindled in numbers to about five hundred souls, and were restricted in territory to some six or seven thousand acres. They then, and at present, sank their primitive appellation [Aquinnah] in the less poetic name of Gayheads, which was given them by the white people with reference to the little elbow or promontory of land where they lived. Though the manners and customs of the Whites had made sad inroads on the primitive Indian character, there yet remained, at the time of my birth, enough to make them objects of ardent and profitable interest.

The recollections of my earliest childhood are of Indians. My grandfather had an old Indian woman in his house for the greater part of the first fifteen years of my life. Our house-servants and field-labourers were chiefly Indians. It was my grandfather’s custom, and had been that of his ancestors, ever since their settlement, a hundred and fifty years ago, in the vicinity of the tribe, to take Indian boys at the age of four or five years, and keep them until they had attained their majority, when they usually left us, chiefly to become sailors–an employment in which their services were specially valued. During my minority we had three of these little foresters in our house, and these drew around them their fathers, and mothers,and sisters, and brothers: very frequently our house was an “Indian Camp” indeed. <End of transcription.>

We often wonder how Indians took English names.  The process described above may well be a hint.  Given that the “Indian Camp” was located on the land of a white family, the Indians likely became know as the Indians associated with that surname, and eventually, either adopted the surname or it was conferred upon them as a form of identification.

I found it very interesting that many of the Indians became sailors.  The records on Hatteras Island having to do with the whaling fleet show Indians as crew on these vessels as well, many identified as being from Nantucket.  The image below is of Amos Haskins, a Wampanoag of the Aquinnah band who became a whaling captain.

Who Are the Gayheads?

The Wampanoag people, Wôpanâak in the Wampanoag language, are a Native American tribe. Wampanoag people today are enrolled in two federally recognized tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) of Massachusetts, or four other tribes, recognized by the state of Massachusetts.

Wampanoag means “Easterners” or literally “People of the Dawn.”  The word Wapanoos was first seen on Adriaen Block’s 1614 map, shown below, and was the earliest European representation of Wampanoag territory. Other synonyms include “Wapenock,” “Massasoit” and “Philip’s Indians”.

In 1616, John Smith erroneously referred to the entire Wampanoag confederacy as the Pakanoket. Pokanoket continued to be used in the earliest colonial records and reports. The Pokanoket tribal seat was located near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island.

In the beginning of the 17th century, at the time of first contact with the English, the Wampanoag lived in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as within a territory that encompassed current day Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Their population numbered in the thousands due to the richness of the environment and their cultivation of corn, beans and squash. Three thousand Wampanoag lived on Martha’s Vineyard alone.  Tribal territories of New England aer shown below, including the Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.

One of the earlier contacts between the Wampanoag and Europeans dates from the 16th century, when merchant vessels and fishing boats traveled along the coast of present-day New England. Captains of merchant vessels captured Native Americans and sold them as slaves in order to increase their earnings. For example, Captain Thomas Hunt captured several Wampanoag after enticing them aboard his vessel in 1614. He later sold them in Spain as slaves. A Patuxet named Tisquantum (or Squanto), was bought by Spanish monks who attempted to convert him. Eventually he was set free.

Despite his prior experiences, Tisquantum boarded an English ship again to accompany an expedition to Newfoundland as an interpreter. From Newfoundland, he made his way back to his homeland in 1619, only to discover that the entire Patuxet tribe – and with them, his family – had fallen victim to an epidemic.

In 1620, religious separatists and others from England called “Pilgrims” arrived in present-day Plymouth. Tisquantum and other Wampanoag taught the starving Pilgrims how to cultivate varieties of corn, squash and beans (the Three Sisters); catch fish, and collect seafood.  So it’s really the Wampanoag we can thank for Thanksgiving.

From 1616 to 1619 the Wampanoag suffered an epidemic of what researchers now believe was leptospirosis, a bacterial infection also known as Weil’s syndrome or 7-day fever. It caused a high fatality rate and nearly destroyed the society. Historians believe the losses from the epidemic made it possible for the English colonists to get a foothold in creating the Massachusetts Bay Colony in later years.  King Philip’s War (1675–1676) against the English colonists resulted in the deaths of 40 percent of the tribe. Most of the male survivors were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Many women and children were enslaved in New England.

While the tribe largely disappeared from historical records from the late 18th century, its people persisted. Survivors remained in their traditional areas and continued many aspects of their culture, while absorbing other people by marriage and adapting to changing economic and cultural needs in the larger society. Although the last native speakers of Wôpanâak died more than 100 years ago, since 1993 the tribe has been working on a language revival project that is producing new native speakers, the first time this has been achieved in the United States.

You can read more about the historical GayHead and their interactions with Europeans in the History of Martha’s Vineyard.

You can read about the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head, on their website and Mashpee Wampanoag on theirs as well.

Hat tip to Steve for sending the original article my direction.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Aquinnah, Mashpee, Patuxet, Pokanoket, Wampanoag, West Indies. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Wampanoag

  1. Boyd Fulton says:

    Good day:
    Please allow me to offer an insight into the history of he Wampanoag Tribe.
    The resting place of many was The Rock at Rock Massachusetts.
    Currently the South end of a Middleboro Massachusetts .
    A part of the land is a reservation / park.
    The Rock is behind a private residence.
    If you could Reserch and reply as to this area I would be greatly appreciative.
    Boyd Fulton

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