A trail of misunderstanding and betrayal

Martin Pring, after becoming the first known European explorer of the Piscataqua River in 1603, then continued south to Cape Cod, where his party engaged in harvesting sassafras tree bark and roots, “a plant of sovereign virtue for the French pox,” as he elaborated in his journal. It was highly lucrative back in Europe and would handsomely repay the Bristol investors backing his journey.

French pox, do note, was what we now call syphilis. If only it worked as a remedy or a cure.

Sassafras was also touted as “good against the plague and many other maladies,” as well, just in case. And you thought it was merely a “tonic” served as tea or the flavoring for root beer?

During their six weeks ashore at Truro, Pring’s crew built a barricaded encampment. It was often visited by as many as 60 Wampanoag at a time, sometimes bringing different kinds of food to the party.

In one instance, in response to the playing of a kind of guitar, groups of up to 20 broke into dancing in a ring and singing “lo, la, lo, la, la, lo,” which works when you don’t know the words. For his part, the young musician was rewarded with gifts of tobacco and pipes, fawn skins, and snake skins up to six feet long, “which they used for girdles.”

But it was an uneasy relationship. Pring’s two mastiffs in particular terrorized the Natives. Anytime the sailors felt threatened, they’d release the big canines. As Pring recorded, the Wampanoag were more afraid of the two dogs than they were of 20 men.

The tension finally exploded when about 140 “savages armed with their bows and arrows” approached the barricade and a “a piece of great ordinance” was shot off in response as a warning and call to arms.

Recognizing that they’d worn out their welcome, the Englishmen quickly packed up and scooted off behind the protection of the mastiffs and set off for home while the Wampanoag set a mile-width of forest aflame and chased the ship in their canoes.

Of course, we’re never told what so soured the relationship. I doubt that the mariners were very tidy or respectful in their ravaging the forest, and I suspect that may have had something to do with their reaction.

Still, when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, remains of Pring’s palisades were still visible.

What do you imagine had so enraged the Wampanoags?

Whatever it was, it seemed to set the pattern for much of what followed.


The episode is rarely told in American history, and, when it is, it’s quickly skimmed over.

Like so much of the New England record that follows, we’re rarely given the Natives’ side of the events.

One thing we can be sure of, though, is that there were huge differences in expectations and values, to say nothing of hygiene or manners.

For instance, as I’ve heard, the Wampanoag word for “treaty” translates as “making relatives,” which is hardly what English settlers had in mind for their part. Far from it. Something similar no doubt happened when the colonists “purchased” land from a sachem.

As the Wampanoag believed, “the land knows you,” more than the other way around.

Quite simply, from their end of these transactions, they were betrayed.


These days, residing in Downeast Maine – that is, Passamaquoddy country, which stretches over into Canada as well – I’m learning of another series of these one-sided deals.

Joe Clabby’s excellent A History of Eastport, Passamaquoddy Bay, and Vicinity chronicles much of the federal and state maltreatment, misrepresentation, and mismanagement regarding the tribe and its members. One instance, by no means the most outrageous, is this, from 1950: Indian Agent “Hiram Hall allowed the state to charge the Passamaquoddy Fund $8,000 per home for home construction (the homes are worth only $2,500).” This came more than a year after the tribe requested that the state remove him for misappropriation of state aid, favoritism, and disinterest in tribal government.

Driving to and from Eastport, I pass many of these houses, now in serious need of repair. Don’t blame the residents.

As I relate in my new book New England relations with the Natives got off on the wrong foot, starting with the kidnapping of Squanto and four  others. (Virginia hadn’t done any better.)

Shame, shame, shame.

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