Pilgrims and Native Americans in Massachusetts

When the first Pilgrims arrived to Massachusetts and formed the Plymouth Colony, they soon began interacting with the native populations of the plains, which led to an inevitable clash of cultures. The colonist and the Indian views upon social, political, economical structure, religious and cultural values confronted for some time, but in the end it led to multiple wars and future oppression of the Native Americans.

Religion was one of the most important issues in the upcoming clash of cultures. The colonists were initially a group of Anglican separatists, who emigrated from Great Britain to America in search of a new place to start a pious life. They ran away from repressions and wanted to live without sinning, but still they were able to kill the Indians. Bowden writes:

Early in the 17th century some Puritan groups separated from the Church of England. Among these were the Pilgrims, who in 1620 founded Plymouth Colony. Ten years later, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the first major Puritan migration to New England took place. The Puritans brought strong religious impulses to bear in all colonies north of Virginia, but New England was their stronghold, and the Congregationalist churches established there were able to perpetuate their viewpoint about a Christian society for more than 200 years” (n.d.).

The first settlers from Europe thought that the Native Ameticans do not have religion, which was not true. Their religion was animistic and they worshiped their great spirit Wakan Tanka. The Indians had so-called “medicine men” in their tribes, who could communicate with the spirits and heal all the illnesses. They performed various rituals that praised their love of nature like the Mandan Buffalo Dance and the Sun Dance. The Pilgrims considered these rituals to be horrible paganism that needs to be cured by imposing the right religion. In fact, it was the paganism, but the Native Americans never asked the settlers to change their life so drastically.

The political and social structures of the Plymouth Colony and the Indian tribe were also different. The settlers created a strong democratic basis for the further political development of the state. Fennell writes:

Plymouth Colony did not have a royal charter authorizing it to form a government. Still, some means of governance was needed; the Mayflower Compact, signed by the 41 able-bodied Separatists aboard the Mayflower upon their arrival in Provincetown Harbor on November 21, 1620, was the colony’s first governing document. Formal laws were not codified until 1636. The colony’s laws were based on a hybrid of English common law and religious law as laid out in the Bible” (1998).

Freemen, or full citizens, had the right to vote. Even though men and women were not having equal rights in the Plymouth Colony, they had more opportunities than women in Europe did. They were considered equal to males before God from the viewpoint of the Church. In the Puritan families, women had to cope with all traditional feminine tasks like doing all the daily household chores and bringing up children.

The Native Americans lived in tribes, and the Council of Elders ruled each of the tribes. Among the most well known tribes are Cheyenne, Sioux, Apache, and Blackfeet. Though. The colonists thought that the Indians did not have the government, so it was possible to take their land away. The new settles failed to understand that there was another way to organize the ruling. The main differences between the traditional European way of government and the Indian one are the minor details. For example, the chief in the Indian tribe respected a lot his people, but he had no executive power over them. Everyone had to obey his orders only during the hunt. There was no police in the Native American tribe except so-called “dog-soldiers”, who needed to stop scared buffaloes and take care of the old and week people. Another issue that was different from the colonists’ way of living is their attitude to marriage. The Native American males usually had several wives and married at the age of 17. The girls got married at the age of 12-15 years old.

The cultural values of the Indians were very different from the traditional Christian worldview the settlers had. For example, the person who stole the horse from the Indians from the other tribes was a hero to admire. The worst thing was to harm sick people and not to look after the parents. If the tribe was not able to afford feeding old people, they went away to die voluntarily. The Native Americans had a great sense of community and all their actions were made to support their family.

The Indians were nomadic and traveled around the Great Plains, following the buffalo migration. They were gathers and hunters, and even the only currency in the tribes was the horses.

The settlers in the Plymouth Colony had a more developed economy than the Native Americans had. The fur trade was one of the biggest sources of wealth for them. They also fished and sold the production to New Amsterdam, where the Dutch lives. The settlers adopted the crops the Native Americans raised and started developing agriculture. The colonists planted pumpkings, maize, beans and potatoes. They implemented the farming techniques they learned from the Indians like using dead fish to fertilize the soils.

With the time, the situation in the region became harsher. The clash of the European and the Indian cultures, and the division of the territories became a problem. The Indians were organized into the so-called “nations”, or the tribunal confederations. Among the most famous nations are the Wampanoag, the Mohegan, the Niantics, and the Narragansett. The Indian wars and the diseases the settlers brought on the continent from Europe, led to serious reduction of the Indian population. After the Standish’s raid the Indian leaders were scared and decided to abandon the places where they lives and move away from the white settlers. The King Philip’s War led to the most changes in the life of the Native Americans. Nearly 80 percent of the Indian population was killed, others were enslaved or ran away from the Great Plains.

Another ethnical group was taken to America and underwent slavery. Some emigrant families who moved to the Plymouth Colony took black slaves with them. They were the property of the family and passed from one generation to another on a hereditary basis. Greene writes:

Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in New England, though the exact beginning of black slavery in what became Massachusetts cannot be dated exactly. Slavery there is said to have predated the settlement of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1629, and circumstantial evidence gives a date of 1624-1629 for the first slaves. “Samuel Maverick, apparently New England’s first slaveholder, arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 and, according to [John Gorham] Palfrey, owned two Negroes before John Winthrop, who later became governor of the colony, arrived in 1630” (1942).

The current law in the Plymouth Colony did not allow to have sexual and marriage relationships between people of different ethnical background. For example, if a black male was unlucky to have a sexual intercourse with a white female, he would be sold to the plantations, where the working conditions were extremely severe and the slaves often died. In case when a white male had a relationship with a black woman, she was sold to plantations and the man needed to pay a 5-dollars fine.

It is evident that the situation was far from being democratic during this period of history. The settlers were trying to fix their life in the new place. They thought they were the best representatives of the civilized world. The settlers did not try to understand the way people lived before them in America and this despise to the unknown way of life led to several centuries of slavery and discrimination. As it was mentioned before, the clash of cultures in the main aspects like religion, cultural beliefs, social and political life led to the desire of a more equipped side to suppress their opponent. Even though the Native Americans did not initially want to kill the white settlers, the conflict arouse somehow. Perhaps, the Pilgrims needed not only to cooperate with the Native Americans, but also to try integrating them into their society. Both cultures had many things they could take from each other peacefully.


Bowden, H. (n.d.). What is Puritanism? The history, and differences, of English and American Puritanism. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/puritanism

Fennell, C. (1998). Plymouth Colony legal structure. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. Retrieved from http://etext.virginia.edu/users/deetz/Plymouth/ ccflaw.html

Green J. L. (1942). The Negro in colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press.

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