Wampanoag (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Wampanoagtmp2035_thumb, "Eastern People."

They were formerly known as Pokanoket, which originally was the name of Massasoit’s village but came to be the designation of all territory and people under that great sachem. The Wampanoag or Pokanoket also included the Nauset of Cape Cod, the Sakonnet of Rhode Island, and various tribes of the offshore islands. See also Narragansett.

Location Traditionally, Wampanoags lived in southern New England from just north of Cape Cod, but including Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, to Narragansett Bay. Today, there are Wampanoag communities in southeastern Massachusetts and around Bristol, Rhode Island.

Population There were approximately 6,500 Wampanoags in 1600, including tributary island tribes. The contemporary (mid-1990s) population is about 2,700.

Language Wampanoags spoke the Massachusett dialect of an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History Wampanoag/Pokanoket culture developed steadily in their approximate historical location for about 8,000 years. The people have lived in their historic territory at least since the fifteenth century. They had already been weakened from disease and war with the Penobscot when they encountered non-natives in the early seventeenth century. They had also been forced by the Narragansett to accept tributary status.


The people greeted the Pilgrims in 1620, although there had been contact with the British some years earlier. The Grand Sachem Massasoit made a treaty of friendship with the British. His people helped the Europeans survive by showing them how to grow crops and otherwise survive in a land alien to them. Men named Squanto and Samoset are especially known in this regard. Largely as a result of Massasoit’s influence, the Wampanoags remained neutral in the Pequot war of 1636. Many Indian residents of Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were Christianized during the mid-seventeenth century.

Massasoit died in 1662. At that time his second son, Metacomet, also known as Philip, renewed the peace. However, relations were strained by British abuses such as the illegal occupation of land; trickery, often involving the use of alcohol; and the destruction of resources, including forests and game. Diseases also continued to take a toll on the population.

Finally, local tribes reached the breaking point. The Pokanoket, now mainly relocated to the Bristol, Rhode Island, area and led by Metacomet, took the lead in uniting Indians from southern and central New England in King Philip’s war (1675-1676). This was an attempt by the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and other tribes to drive the British out of their territory. However, the fighting began before all the preparations had been completed. In the end, hundreds of non-native settlers died, but the two main Indian tribes were nearly exterminated. The tribal name of Pokanoket was also officially banned.

Most Wampanoags were either enslaved or killed. Survivors fled into the interior or onto the Cape and the islands, whose tribes had not participated in the war. Some also fled to the Great Lakes region and Canada. For centuries following this event, local Indians were cheated, discriminated against, used as servants, or, at best, ignored.

The Indian population on Nantucket Island declined from possibly 1,500 in 1600 to 358 in 1763 to 20 in 1792, mainly owing to disease. The last of the indigenous population died in 1855. Indians at Mashpee, on Cape Cod, were assigned 50 square miles of land in 1660. Self-government continued until 1788, when the state of Massachusetts placed the Indians under its control. Most of their lands were allotted in 1842. Trespass by non-natives was a large problem during the entire period. Near Mashpee, the 2,500-acre Herring Pond Reservation was allotted in 1850.

Indian land in Fall River was divided into lots in 1707, and a 160-acre reservation was created in 1709. The people’s right of self-government was abrogated in the early nineteenth century. The reservation was eliminated entirely in 1907. Of the three reservations on Martha’s Vineyard in the nineteenth century— Chappaquiddick, Christiantown, and Gay Head— only the latter remained by 1900. This group was never governed by non-native overseers, and its isolation allowed the people to retain their identity and cohesion to a far greater extent than other Wampanoag communities.

Other groups of Wampanoag descendants maintained a separate existence until the nineteenth century, when most became fully assimilated. The Wampanoag Nation was founded in 1928 in response to the pan-Indian movement of the times.

Religion The people recognized a supreme deity and many lesser deities. Priests, or medicine men (powwows), provided religious leadership. Their duties included mediating with the spirit world in order to cure, forecast the weather, and conduct ceremonies.

Government A hereditary chief sachem led the tribe. In theory his power was absolute, but in practice he was advised by a council of village and clan chiefs (sagamores). The village was the main political unit. Villages were led by chiefs with limited power; important decisions were made in consultation with influential men of the village. There was a hereditary element to village leadership. This factor may be responsible for the existence of women chiefs. Villages may have made their own temporary alliances. Overall political structure consolidated and became more hierarchical after the epidemics of 1616-1619.

Customs Wampanoags were organized into a number of clans. Their annual round of activities took them from winter villages to gathering sites at summer fields. Women had clearly defined and significant political rights. Social stratification was reflected in leadership and marriage arrangements. Leading men might have more than one wife. The dead were wrapped in mats and buried with various possessions. Mourners blackened their faces. The souls of the dead were said to travel west.


Dwellings There were at least 30 villages in the early seventeenth century, most of which were located by water. People lived in wigwams, both circular and rectangular. The largest measured up to 100 feet long; smaller ones were about 15 feet in diameter. The houses consisted of pole frames covered with birch bark, hickory bark, or woven mats. There were smoke holes in the roofs. The wigwams were often semiexcavated and lined with cattails, pine needles, or other such material.

Wigwams tended to have central fires, but longhouses featured rows of several fires. Some houses may have been palisaded. Their larger structures were probably built in winter villages. Mat beds stood on platforms against the walls or directly on the ground. Skins served as bedding. All towns featured a central open space used for ceremonies and meetings. The people also built sweat houses.

Diet Men hunted fowl and small and large game, with the white-tailed deer being the most important. They stalked, trapped, and snared deer and may have hunted them in communal drives. They also grew tobacco. The people ate seals and beached whales, and they gathered shellfish, often steaming them over hot rocks. They fished for freshwater and saltwater species in winter (through the ice) and summer. Women gathered roots, wild fruits, berries, and nuts as well as maple sap for sugar. Women began growing corn, beans, and squash in the late prehistoric period. Fish may have been used as fertilizer. Dried corn was stored in underground caches.

Key Technology Hunting equipment included traps, snares, nets, witch hazel bows, and arrows. People caught fish with nets, bone hooks, and weirs. Cordage was made mainly of Indian hemp. Hoes were made of hardwood and clamshell. Women wove mats and baskets of rushes and grasses, including Indian hemp. Other material items included stone, bone, and shell tools; wooden bowls; and dishes and other items of stone and clay. Shell wampum was used for adornment and later for trade.

Trade Wampanoags were part of regional trade networks. There were few professional or longdistance traders; most trade was very local. Items traded included wampum, agricultural products, chestnuts, skins, pottery, and wooden bowls.

Notable Arts Carved wooden items, such as bowls, were especially fine.

Transportation Dugout canoes could hold up to 40 men, with the average being 10-15. There may have been some number of birch-bark canoes. Women carried burdens on their backs.

Dress Women wore skirts and poncho-style blouses as well as soft-soled moccasins. They donned rabbit and beaver robes in cold weather. Men wore skin leggings and breechclouts and soft-soled moccasins. They also wore turkey-feather cloaks and bone and shell necklaces. They tended to pull out all their hair except for a scalp lock.

War and Weapons Allies included the Massachusett; enemies included the Penobscot and Narragansett. The main weapons consisted of witch hazel bows; wooden arrows with stone, bone, eagle claw, and crab tail tips; and ball-headed war clubs. Men painted their faces for war.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Wampanoag Nation is divided into five groups: Gay Head, Mashpee, Assonet, Herring Pond, and Nemasket, each with a written constitution, a chief, and an elected tribal council. There is also a council of chiefs, and the mainland groups recognize a supreme medicine man.

The Wampanoag Reservation (Gay Head Wampanoags), also known as Aquinnah, is located at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Fewer than half of the roughly 600 members live on the island. The tribe owns several parcels of land— about 150 acres—in trust.

More than half of the approximately 1,000 Mashpee Wampanoag live in the town of Mashpee, Massachusetts. The Pokanoket Tribe of Wampanoag Nation is located in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Economy Most Wampanoags are integrated into local economies. At Gay Head, tourism and small Indian-owned businesses are important.

Legal Status The Gay Head Wampanoags are a federally recognized tribal entity. The Mashpee Wampanoags have petitioned for federal recognition. The Pokanoket Tribe of Wampanoag Nation plans to petition for federal recognition.

Daily Life Contemporary Wampanoag events, many of which have both sacred and secular/public components, include a powwow on the Fourth of July (Mashpee), Indian Day and Cranberry Day (Gay Head), and new year’s ceremony and the Strawberry Festival (Assonet). Many Gay Head people have left the island, but many also plan to return. Recent construction on the island includes housing and a multipurpose building. The people hope to make remaining on the island a viable option.

In 1978, the Mashpee people lost a court case in which they sought the return to tribal ownership of the entire town of Mashpee. They continue to seek a land base and hope that federal recognition will advance their prospects. The community is in the process of working out a fair relationship with the increasingly non-native population of the town.

The Pokanoket tribe, led by descendants of Massasoit, seek federal recognition and as well as stewardship of 267 acres of land in Bristol, Rhode Island.

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