America | History

The Pilgrims and Pokanoket

As you walk into the Mayflower Pub in London there’s a poster mounted high on the wall that shows the silhouettes of all the pilgrims and servants who sailed on the Mayflower to settle in America. The poster is divided in two, with the upper half showing the Pilgrims as they sailed from Europe. The lower half has the same image, but depicts those who perished before that first winter was over in gray. There’s a lot of gray… but by all rights it should have been all of them.

The Pilgrims sailed for America too late in the season, without enough food, and sailed for the wrong place. Their charter had them settling at the mouth of the Hudson River, and instead they found themselves at the fist of Cape Cod. Turning south they almost wrecked on the treacherous shoals that have claimed thousands of ships since then. Turning back northward, the Captain of the Mayflower considered present-day Provincetown but eventually worked their way to the area that would become Plymouth., Massachusetts. Pilgrims were starting to die as freezing temperatures, tough living conditions aboard and malnutrition conspired against them. The Native American tribes were well aware of their presence and had already skirmished with them on Cape Cod at First Encounter Beach. A more sustained attack could easily have wiped them out.

But the Pilgrims also had some lucky breaks that kept enough of them alive to establish a foothold in the region. They arrived at a place where just a few years earlier thousands of Native Americans lived. Contact with Europeans, most likely fishermen fishing the Gulf of Maine, triggered a plaque that killed thousands of people in the few years right before the Pilgrims arrived. So the native population was decimated and in no position to shove the Pilgrims back into the ocean they’d arrived on. They settled in an area with cleared fields and few adversaries. Truly fortunate to be there instead of landing in a place with a thriving and hostile Native American population.

The other lucky break the Pilgrims caught was landing at a place where the local Sachem, Massasoit, saw strategic advantage in an alliance with the Pilgrims. The Pokanoket tribe Massasoit was Sachem of had been hit hard by the plaque that hit the tribes along the Gulf of Maine, and he was feeling pressure from the Narraganset tribe. An alliance with the Pilgrims gave him some strength in numbers that proved mutually beneficial for the short term. Ultimately this alliance would give the Pilgrims the momentum to survive and grow, but would destroy the Pokanoket in the next generation. An accident of geography brought the Pilgrims and Pokanoket together, time would drive them apart. But in the winter of 1620-1621, it would prove the difference in keeping more Pilgrims from turning into gray silhouettes on a poster 400 years later.

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