Settlers, Native Americans and Alliances

Unlike the later history of conflict, animosity and violence between North America’s immigrant settlers and their Native American natives, the colonists at Plymouth managed to carve out a relatively peaceful prolonged period of piece with several of the neighboring native tribes – at least compared to some of the other settlements at the time.

Within months of the Plymouth colony’s settlement on the shores of the brave new world, the leadership of the settlement had forged a peace and trade agreement with Massasiot, the leader of the local Wampanoag people.[1]  The negotiated peace dictated that neither the Wampanoag people nor the settlers would cause harm to each other, that any violations of the agreement would be dealt with by the offender being turned over to the side that was harmed, that they would not steal tools or resources from each other, and that each group would assist each other in the event of any military conflict.[2]  While both sides had their strengths and their weaknesses at the time this agreement was reached, both sides also benefited from the peace terms.  The settlers were incredibly few in number, especially after their first winter in the new world.  The Wampanoag people were decimated by disease in 1617, and their numbers were incredibly low compared to some of the other neighboring tribes.[3]  Signed in 1621, the peace treaty between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag lasted for 50 years until King Philips’ war – perpetrated by the son of Massasoit, Metacom, otherwise known as King Philip.[4]

Not all native/settler relations were positive, however, and it was clear that continued conflict between the settlers and other tribes like the Narragansets and ultimately King Philip’s war led to a shift in the delicate balance of the colonist/native relationship.[5]  Despite the assertion of equality under the law of the land, Native Americans were often treated more leniently (legally speaking) than their settler counterparts, and while this may initially seem like a nod to a different culture and belief system, it underlines the belief – subconsciously held or not – that the Native people of the new world were beneath the English settlers, and that they couldn’t possibly be expected to live up to the same standards due to being “savages” and not cultured, refined Europeans.[6]  This can be argued against, however, by pointing out that more lenient sentences helped maintain the tenuous and often strained relationship between the settlers and the Native Americans, but that argument seems to lose standing when considering the fate of a large majority of the native population by 1676.[7]  By the time King Philip’s war was over, there was a marked difference in the way that Native Americans were seen and treated, as evidenced by the fact that the Nipmucks, Wampanoags and Narragansetts were almost completely subjugated by the European settlers, and a large number of Native Americans were already enslaved, with many more in the process of becoming so.[8]  Thus began the terrible history of relations between immigrant Americans and the actual NATIVE Americans that continued on long into the future.

[1] James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony (New York: Random House, 2000), 63-64.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, pg. 142

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