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The Wampanoag are a tribe of Native Americans that originally occupied parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In modern times, the Wampanoag tribe lives primarily in southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard. During the early 1600s, the Wampanoag were one of the first Indian cultures to make contact with the pilgrims. Relations between the two cultures began with a general spirit of cooperation but that quickly changed. In the end, the Wampanoag tribe was nearly exterminated due to a mix of disease and warfare.
Historical Wampanoag had a lifestyle that was partly nomadic and partly sedentary. During the summer and spring, most communities lived near the ocean so that they could exploit fishing opportunities. In the colder months, they moved inland and survived mostly by hunting. Agriculture was also an important source of food and when the weather was warm, they farmed several crops, including corn, beans, and squash.
Wampanoag houses were made by stretching woven mats over wooden frames. The mats were lightweight and removable. This made it simple for the Wampanoag tribe to change living locations seasonally, thereby carrying the mats with them and reusing them elsewhere. Wooden frames were generally left behind, allowing the tribe to return and rebuild quickly when the weather changed again.
Socially, the Wampanoag tribe had an organized hierarchy that involved leaders called sachems. At the head of the tribe was a chief, sometimes referred to as the grand sachem, with more authority than anyone else. Sachems were generally afforded more respect than regular Wampanoag but they were not treated like kings and they did not have unlimited power. It was not uncommon for a woman to become a sachem if no male heir was available.
When the pilgrims landed in 1620, the Wampanoag tribe helped them survive the difficult New England winters, and overall there was a good relationship between them. A peace treaty was negotiated and it lasted until the late 1600s. During that time, several severe epidemics greatly reduced the Wampanoag population. Some of these diseases most likely were European in origin.
Tensions between the two cultures increased over time as the settlers took more land for themselves. In 1675, there was an incident involving the hanging of three Wampanoag that were blamed for killing a Christian Native American named John Sassamon. Allegedly, Sassamon had warned of an upcoming Wampanoag rebellion and was killed for betrayal. The execution was one of the things that caused the Wampanoag grand sachem Metacomet — known by the English as King Phillip — to declare war on the settlers. Several other Native American tribes joined in the battle and the conflict is known in history as King Phillip's War.
The main part of the fighting lasted for approximately a year. During that time, the Wampanoag suffered significant losses, not only among their warriors but also among the women and children. A large number of colonists also died in the fighting but generally, the Native Americans suffered many more casualties. Other tribes that had initially joined the fight slowly peeled off, leaving Metacomet and the Wampanoag alone.
In the summer of 1676, Metacomet allegedly executed one of his own tribesmen for urging surrender and the man’s brother supposedly led the English to the Wampanoag encampment. The tribe was surrounded and Metacomet was killed in the fighting that ensued. This effectively ended the main part of the war but sparse fighting continued until a peace treaty was signed two years later. According to reports from the time, there were only about 400 surviving Wampanoag at the end of the conflict.
As of 2010, the Wampanoag have rebuilt their official population to about 3,000 individuals and many more people have Wampanoag ancestry. There is a Wampanoag reservation on Martha’s Vineyard with a local government, including schools and other facilities. Some modern tribal members have fought to maintain aspects of their ancient culture, and many still celebrate traditional festivals along with tribal holidays.