The North American Native before the Pilgrims and the Puritans

The Algonquians

The natives living in Massachusetts and Virginia, where the English planted their first colonies, belonged to various tribal nations of Algonquian Indians. These people had been living there for more than 12,000 years. The Powhatan nation lived in Virginia where the London Virginia Company built Jamestowne. The Massachusetts Indians lived along the Charles River in northern Massachusetts where the Massachusetts Bay Company built their colony. The Wampanoags lived in lower Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, where the Pilgrims established Plymouth Colony.

The Dutch explorer Adrian Block, whom we mentioned in the article about Mapping New England, was the first to note the location of the Wampanoags. He spelled the word Wampanoos on the survey he made in 1614. The word Wampanoag is thought to mean The People of the First Light, or the People of the Dawn, referring to the Indians who lived on the East Coast and were the first people to see the sunrise each day. According to today’s Mashpee Wampanoag web site, there were sixty-nine Wampanoag nations in New England at the time the English arrived.

The Algonquian tribes were led by a head chief who presided over a number of smaller chiefs. In Maine, such as among the Penobscots, the chiefs were referred to as sagamores. In Massachusetts and surrounding areas, they were called sachems. And among the Powhatan Indians in Virginia, they were called weroances. In some areas, a sagamore was a lesser chief than a sachem. Occasionally, women held the leadership position. Two women, Wummatuckquannumou of Martha’s Vineyard Island and Askamaboo of Nantucket, were granted this position over men rivals because they held hereditary superiority. The Powhatans called their female rulers weroansqua.

Inheritance among the natives passed through the woman’s family, not through the man’s, as was the tradition in England. The only things an American Indian man owned were his clothing and his weapons of war, such as his bow and arrows. It was the women who owned and cultivated the land and took care of the wigwams.

Ownership did not mean the same thing to the American native that it did to the European. Possession was ten-tenths of the rule. If a tribe was not strong enough to retain possession of the land, then it became the property of the conqueror. There were no written deeds claiming land possession, or governments in place to protect ownership rights. There was no transfer of money when one tribe took possession of land from another. And if a young man did not look out for his bow and arrow, then it was his tough luck if another young man stole it.

With that in mind, women owned their property in common with other women in their family. Several families, all related through the women, lived together in a wigwam, or lodge. The Wampanoags built round or oval wigwams called wetu that, in a few hours, were easily dismantled and moved. When a man married, he left the wetu of his parents and moved in with his wife’s family. Several lodges grouped to form a village, or clan. Many clans formed a nation or tribe.

Premarital sexual experimentation was accepted. In fact, a woman was considered more desirable [not less-so, as in England] if she had had multiple partners before marriage.(1) The Indians graciously shared their women with the foreigners not knowing about the diseases they would contract.

Once a couple’s marriage was solemnized by the consent of their parents and a public approbation [approval or praise], the man and woman could no longer fool around. The Puritan/Baptist leader Roger Williams described it this way: “single fornication they count no sin, but after Marriage, … they count it heinous for either of them to be false.” Some of the powerful Algonquian leaders practiced polygamy, but monogamy was more common. Clan and kinship relationships were much more important than marriages. A marriage could dissolve. Kinship could not.

The Algonquians obtained their livelihood from fishing, planting, hunting, and harvesting. The Wampanoags, in particular, cultivated corn, beans, and squash, and supplemented them with fish and game. They also gathered nuts and fruits from their natural habitat.

Before the Europeans arrived with their diseases, many of which were spread by their domesticated animals, the hunting grounds were crowded. The Algonquians tended to live in well defined areas with the borders of their hunting grounds strictly defined.

The men were the political rulers, though they often inherited their powerful status from their mother. The men did the hunting, the fighting, and the trading – everything outside the home and the farm. Groups of the older and wiser men were chosen as sachems or counselors for the clan and tribe. The sachems made decisions together for the tribe and acted as the arbitrators when there were disputes. It was they who negotiated with other tribes, declared war, and planned military operations. American native tribes were constantly at war with each other. It was because of those wars that much of their male population was lost. Wars were customarily fought over land and its resources [i.e. territorial disputes, just as in England].

The fighting was just between the men, but it could be as brutal as fighting in Europe. The natives tortured enemy captives in numerous ways. Whereas the English cut off heads as proof of victory and mounted them on spikes, the natives sliced off only the scalp – usually when the victim was still alive. The natives did not sack [plunder and destroy] their enemies’ villages, like the English did. They considered that wasteful. Nor did the men rape the women. But, men, women, and children of the conquered tribe were often captured and forced into slavery by the victors.

There was no Indian church as Europeans knew the term. The Algonquians believed that every man, woman, child, family, clan, and tribe had a mystical or spiritual connection to a living creature of nature. The women had a spiritual connection to the ground they cultivated. Whereas the English were taught by scripture that the Lord placed man on earth to have dominion over other living creatures, the natives felt themselves to be equal to other living beings.

In the way the English believed God to be intangible [something you can not touch, like a spirit or an idea], the natives believed there were intangible divine forces that expressed themselves in the form of such things as wind, rain, thunder, sun, fire, water, and floods. The natives believed they were bound to submit to these divine forces. But they also believed that the forces could be placated. Ceremonies were held several times a year, such as the harvest, during which time the men chanted and danced to their deities. They submitted offerings such as grain and meat, just as the forefathers of the English made offerings to their god.

Next article: How DNA studies have helped traced American native ancestry.


  1. Estes, Roberta. Reference from Lawson, 1709 “Where Have All the Indians Gone, Native American Eastern Seaboard Dispersal, DNA and Genealogy in Relation to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony of Roanoke,” Journal of Genetic Genealogy ‘Vol.5, No.2, Fall, 2009.