Northeast: 1620–1730

European Relations with Northeast Native Americans

Native American Culture before European Settlement

Prior to the arrival of Europeans to North America's northeast coast, most indigenous tribes in the region lived in agricultural communities with strong social structures and cultural traditions.

The indigenous tribes of the Northeast region of North America were among the first to have extended contact with European colonizers. Though members of numerous and separate tribes, the native people generally fell under the umbrella category of two main groups: the Iroquoian speakers and the Algonquian speakers. Among the principal tribes within these groups were the Iroquois, Algonquian, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, Mohican, and Mohegan.

Algonquian-speaking tribes lived primarily along the coast in socially and economically stable villages suited to fishing and farming. They were the larger of the two groups. Iroquoian-speaking tribes lived inland in smaller hamlets, near rivers and lakes, and relied on wild food. They tended to be warlike. Within both groups, a tribe consisted of several villages or hamlets joined in an alliance, called a confederacy. However, the stabilizing influence of these alliances provided no guarantee of peace among the tribes. Tribes within the Iroquois Confederacy would often raid others outside the protection of their alliance.

Territories of the New England Tribes, c. 1600

The Wampanoag people were one of many tribes who lived in what became New England. The Wampanoag people now live on several reservations in Massachusetts.
Farming along the coast produced crops such as corn, squash, and beans. During winter, the coastal tribes lived within the protection of forests but moved closer to the coast during warmer seasons to take advantage of the arable land. The native method for growing crops amounted to subsistence farming, which is farming that provides a family with enough to survive on but does not serve as a source of profit or income. Other sources of food were wild game, fish, and birds. All tribes hunted and fished the rivers, lakes, and ocean waters. Small game included turkeys and waterfowl, while larger game included deer, elk, and moose. Pelts and skins were used for clothing.

Native American tribes in the Northeast developed a democratic system of governance. Decisions were made by communal agreement, which included the input of women. Tribal leaders exerted their power when necessary, but cooperation was the primary rule of law. Cultural traditions of songs, stories, dances, and ceremonies among allied villages and hamlets formed richly complex social networks that flourished, though not without conflict, prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Generally speaking, Native American women exercised more authority and had more autonomy than their English counterparts. While men were responsible for hunting, fishing, and the protection of the tribe, women were responsible for the internal management and welfare of the community. They owned the family housing and property. They raised the children and planted, harvested, gathered, and prepared foodstuffs. Their importance to the community gave them political, social, and economic clout. Their life-giving role further invested them with maternal authority. Their power within the tribe was a power as yet unrealized by European women.

Native American Response to European Settlement

The arrival of Europeans and the subsequent spread of their colonies forced changes to the Native American ways of life and intensified the conflict between Iroquoian- and Algonquian-speaking groups. This intrusion also sparked two major conflicts between Europeans and native people: the Pequot War (1636) and King Philip's War (1675).

The relationship between European settlers and Native American tribes was a complex issue shaped by mistrust, misunderstanding, and open hostility on both sides. European colonists brought new economic, religious, cultural, and political ideas to the New World.

Perhaps the most troublesome of these was the concept of land ownership. To Europeans, ownership of land equated to wealth, and the New World seemed to offer unlimited possibilities to become land-rich. The native tribes, however, did not believe an individual could own land in this sense. Land could be used but not possessed, just as air might be used but not owned or kept. When Native Americans first shared the land with settlers, they did not understand that the settlers now would consider that land their property, would build fences, and would bar anyone else from using it.

Another point of contention involved spiritual beliefs and religion. The native people held spiritual beliefs at odds with the colonists' Christian religion. While the settlers had come to the New World seeking freedom from oppression for their own religious convictions, they were fearful and intolerant of beliefs they did not understand and could not accept. Native people, on the other hand, had little interest in changing their spiritual ideas.

Differing political ideas posed yet another problem. Common language bound tribes together in a collection of independent bands, each governed by its own set of rules and laws. Unlike Europeans, the idea of a central government was foreign to Native Americans. Yet in a collision of cultures, the two factions would be forced to interact as they tried to negotiate terms for living together in peace.

Through interaction between the native tribes and European settlers, differing ideas inevitably led to serious problems. Disease—an unintentional and devastating source of conflict—was added to the mix. Native people had no immunity to many diseases, such as smallpox, carried to the New World by Europeans. Entire tribes were wiped out. Over time, tensions mounted between the two groups, resulting in two all-out wars: the Pequot War and King Philip's War.

Pequot War

When English colonists arrived on the New England shores, the coastal Algonquian tribes generally welcomed the newcomers. Among the tribes were the Wampanoag people. Their grand sachem, or intertribal chief, Massasoit, would maintain peace between the Wampanoag tribe and the settlers for half a century.

In contrast, the Pequot tribe (also Algonquian-speaking), though initially welcoming, soon grew resentful of European ever-expanding intrusion into their territory and encroachment on their fur and wampum trade. Wampum were the strung beads of polished shells used as money or ornamentation by Native American tribes. The Pequot came to view the colonists as invaders that must be repelled. In 1634, clashes over trade culminated in the murder of the captain and crew of an English trading vessel on the Connecticut River. The Pequot argued that the killings were justified, as two of their men had been abducted by the ship's captain and forced to act as river guides.

Though the matter was settled by treaty, the violent disputes continued. Finally, murder of another trader in 1636 sparked a bloody 11-month conflict called the Pequot War. Thousands of combatants engaged in battle, and the two sides were well-matched in military force and tactics. Nevertheless, by September 1637 the Pequot War ended in victory for the colonists. It had claimed the lives of 500 to 600 Pequots, including women and children, and the survivors had scattered. Some were caught and killed, while others were sold into slavery or handed over to other tribes. The general peace that ensued would last until King Philip's War in 1675.

King Philip's War

The utter destruction of the Pequot tribe in 1637 had shifted the balance of power in the region—economic and political—in favor of the colonists. The remaining New England tribes were now keenly aware of the colonists' willingness to engage in ferocious, all-out war. For several decades, the tribes endured further encroachment on their land, the overhunting of game, and a general disregard for their rights and cultural heritage. They were compelled to sign treaties that weakened their power and undermined their indigenous sovereignty. Some tribes were subjected to forced labor. Growing resentment and smoldering anger simply waited for a fatal spark.

That spark came when a "praying Indian" suspected of spying was murdered by his tribe. Among the native people were converts to Christianity. Referred to as "praying Indians," some became trusted spies for the English. One such native convert, John Sassamon, served as an interpreter for Metacom, now grand sachem, or chief, of the Wampanoag confederacy. Metacom was also known as Philip, his adopted English name, and called King Philip in honor of his high rank. Sassamon believed King Philip and his council were preparing for war against the English and carried the story to Plymouth. For this betrayal, he was killed by his own tribespeople, on Philip's orders. Three of Philip's warriors were tried by the English, found guilty, and executed in Plymouth for Sassamon's murder. King Philip, fearing he would be similarly captured and put on trial, launched war at once.

Regional Indian groups joined King Philip's forces in a fierce 14-month-long conflict that began in June 1675 and ended with Philip's death in August 1676. With terrible losses on both sides, the colonists emerged victorious and more fully entrenched in the New World than ever before. The tribes had been decimated, and opposition to European presence in the Northeast had been, on the whole, destroyed.

Depiction of King Philip, by Paul Revere, 1772

In 1621 King Philip's father, Massasoit, welcomed the Plymouth colonists. A half century later, King Philip's war against English settlers was among the bloodiest clashes in America's history.
Credit: Mabel Brady Garvan Collection/Yale University Art Gallery