Wampanoag Tribe: People, History & Role in First Thanksgiving

Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Europeans were not well received by most Indian tribes because most Europeans came wanting to claim land and find riches, but the natives did not believe in true ownership of the land. The Wampanoag Tribe, however, tried to find a way to coexist with the Europeans. Learn about this tribe and why we celebrate them every year.

Before Europeans

The Wampanoag, which translates to Easterners, inhabited the eastern part of present day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Wampanoag consisted of many different smaller tribes, which totaled about 15,000 people before the arrival of Europeans. The individual tribes spoke the same language, had similar cultures, were friendly with each other but were politically sovereign. They lived in wetus, which were dome shaped huts formed of tree limbs and covered with tall, thick bladed grasses. They grew their own beans, squash and maize, fished, harvested berries, and hunted turkey, deer, rabbit, squirrel and a variety of other land animals. During the spring and summer, most tribes would live near the coast to fish while waiting for their harvest. Once the harvest was complete, they would move inland and separate into smaller groups for winter hunting. Their isolation, however, would prove fatal since they had no immunity to European diseases.

The Wampanoag inhabited modern-day eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island

European Disease

The Wampanoag first encountered Europeans some time in the 1500s. Most of the first encounters were friendly, but the Europeans still unknowingly spread disease to which the Indians had no immunities. Smallpox was an especially deadly disease that spread easily and quickly through the tribes. Some entire tribes, like the Patuxet, were completely wiped out by the diseases. By the 1610s when Europeans started deeper exploration, the Wampanoag population was thought to be as little as 2,000.

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith came to the Cape Cod area for exploration and received some help from local Wampanoag men. Captain Smith quickly returned to Europe and left Captain Thomas Hunt in charge of further exploration and trading. Captain Hunt lured the Wampanoag men on to his ship to discuss trade, but instead they captured the men and took them to Spain to sell into slavery. This did not sit well with Captain Smith or the Wampanoag. This would fuel later distrust and bitterness between Europeans and Indians.


The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in November of 1620. After a winter of starving, an Indian named Samoset walked into the Pilgrims' camp. To their surprise, he said 'Hello Englishmen!' Samoset had learned some limited English from explorers he had met on the coast of Maine. Samoset was not a Wampanoag and was only that far south for winter hunting, so he brought Squanto to interpret the language for the local Indians and to help them survive. Squanto, who learned English in England after being an escaped slave from Captain Hunt's ship, taught the Pilgrims how to use fish to fertilize corn in the sandy soil and how to catch eel for food. Squanto was living with the Pokanoket tribe since his Patuxet tribe was wiped out by smallpox. He helped establish a friendship between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims that would have lasting effects.

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