Visitors to the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts, finally have the opportunity to learn about 400-year-old historical events that lay buried beneath the myths of settling Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Paula Peters, Wampanoag, producer of the exhibit “Our Story: A Wampanoag History,” said of the May 28 opening, “The exhibit was received more enthusiastically in Provincetown than in Plymouth last November.”
Since the exhibit features Plymouth’s darker history, perhaps it struck a nerve. The kidnapping of Wampanoags, the disease that cleared the way for the settlers, and Squanto, a returned hostage, fluent in English, paved the road for the settlement of Patuxet, today known as Plymouth.
A larger-than-life panel gives a timeline of the kidnappings that created antagonism between Natives along the eastern seaboard and the pre-Mayflower explorers during the early 1600s.
In 1605, five Native men were tricked into boarding a ship, and a third was seized and brought aboard. James Rosier wrote in his journals, “…we used little delay, but suddenly laid hands upon them. And it was as much as five or six of us could do to get them… For they were strong and so naked as our best hold was by their long hair on their heads.”
“They didn’t have the same sentiments about what it might be like to see your son kidnapped and taken away,” Ramona Peters, Wampanoag tribal elder and tribal historic preservation officer, said. “One of the mothers of the captured boys would show up every time a new sailing ship would arrive, looking for her son. She was wailing on the beach and making quite a commotion. She imagined he would return, and some of them did find their way back.”
In 1611, Captain Edward Harlow captured three Native men: one from Maine, one from Nantucket, and two from Nope, which is today Martha’s Vineyard. A Wampanoag man named Epanow was captured in Nope and brought to London where he lived for three years, “paraded around as a curiosity,” Ramona said.
After three years in England, Epanow convinced the captain he knew where to find gold. On the trip back, Epanow led the ship to his homeland, where he escaped by jumping overboard while surrounding canoes of Wampanoag peoples shot arrows at the ship.
In what is seen as the most historically significant act of abduction, 27 Wampanoag men—20 from Patuxet, 7 from Nauset—were captured in 1614 to be sold as slaves in Malaga, Spain. Tisquantum, who came to be known as Squanto, was one of the captives.
Working for Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame, Captain Thomas Hunt made the decision to kidnap the 27 men, some of whom escaped slavery with the help of friars who freed them in the hopes of converting them.
Squanto, the only one to return, came home two years later and found his entire village had perished in a plague. Alexandra Pocknett, a Wampanoag tribal member who works seasonally at the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum in Mashpee, Massachusetts, said the plague, thought to be yellow fever, killed people within 48 hours. “There was no immunity to it,” she said.
The Wampanoags, who lived away from the Massachusetts coastline, fared better. “Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Wampanoags—the people on the islands—stayed more intact because it swept down the coast from Maine.” The disease killed people so quickly there wasn’t even time to warn the others, Pocknett said.
By the time the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, the Patuxet people were gone. “How many people know that when the Pilgrims arrived in Patuxet to build their homes, they literally had to sweep away the bones of the dead?” asked Paula.
Throughout Squanto’s enslavement, he learned to speak English and greeted the Mayflower’s Pilgrims with a hearty “Welcome,” when he met them in 1621. Squanto became an important emissary between the tribes and a translator for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Pocknett believes the exhibit will surprise Americans who didn’t know there was contact between Natives and Europeans before the Mayflower landed.
“We are telling the story in our own voice, and it really comes full circle,” Paula said. “Through the exhibit, they cannot ignore it anymore. It’s a huge piece of history that is integral to the arrival of the Mayflower. If there was ever an opportunity for the Plymouth 400 Committee to show they were sincere about giving us a voice, this was it. And they did.”
The multimedia exhibit is filled with photographs and short videos of the time period’s perspectives. Pocknett appears in a scene in which she is pregnant and her husband has been kidnapped. “I thought about my children, and what it would be like growing up without their dad… I thought about 27 of our men to represent the 27 men that were taken and the different characteristics that make them unique, that make them Wampanoag, and make them the amazing men that they are.”
Ramona said, “Our exhibit is to try to get people to humanize us, and to realize what a horrific experience people had, both those who were left behind and those who were kidnapped. We still have to fight that. There are a lot of insensitivities that we still have to deal with on a regular basis.”
The exhibit can currently be seen at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum in Massachusetts, and will move to the 94th annual Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow at the Barnstable County Fairgrounds on Friday, July 3-5, 2015.