Differing Views of Pilgrims and American Indians in Seventeenth-Century New England



Much of what is known about early Wampanoag history comes from archaeological evidence, the Wampanoag oral tradition (much of which has been lost), and documents created by seventeenth-century English colonists.

The Wampanoag people have lived in southeastern New England for thousands of years. In 1600 there were as many as 12,000 Wampanoag who lived in forty villages. Both oral tradition and archaeological evidence suggest that Indigenous peoples lived in the area for 10,000 years. Wampanoag means “People of the Dawn” in the Algonquian language. There were sixty-seven tribes and bands of the Wampanoag Nation. Three epidemics swept across New England between 1614 and 1620, killing many Indigenous peoples. Some villages were entirely wiped out (such as Patuxet). When the colonists we now call Pilgrims arrived in 1620, there were fewer than 2,000 Wampanoag. After English colonists settled in Massachusetts, epidemics continued to reduce the Wampanoag to 1,000 by 1675. Only 400 survived King Philip’s War. Today there are 3,000 Wampanoag who are organized in five groups: Assonet, Gay Head, Herring Pond, Mashpee, and Namasket.

European Colonists

In 1620, a group of Europeans, today called Pilgrims, landed and settled around Cape Cod.

One band of Wampanoag, led by Sachem (or leader) Massasoit, made an alliance with these colonists. The Wampanoag population had been greatly reduced by epidemics. The Wampanoag believed that the colonists, with their powerful weapons, could be an ally in the case of a Narragansett attack. The colonists also could benefit from the alliance. The Wampanoag, Samoset, and Tisquantum all helped these Europeans learn how to adapt to the land in this “New World.” The two groups cooperated for some time. The colonists actively worked to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity. Those who did convert were called “praying Indians.” There were many differences between the groups, which eventually led to conflicts. For example, colonists let their livestock run loose and destroy Wampanoag crops. Still, the treaty was honored until 1662, when Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, became the tribe’s leader, and relations between the Wampanoag and colonists became very tense. In 1675, hostilities broke out in the town of Swansea. The conflict, known as King Philip’s War, soon spread to the New Hampshire and Connecticut colonies. King Philip’s War was one of the bloodiest and costliest wars in American history.

Essential Question

How did the colonists and Wampanoags view land, nature, and life differently, and how could these differences lead to misunderstandings and conflict?


This lesson may be conducted with students from 1st through 5th grades, using various levels of support, text lengths, and groupings and will build students’ skills in reading, analyzing, and interpreting primary and secondary source documents.

A primary source is a document or other source of information that was created at or near the time being studied and was written by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described. Often, primary sources are inaccurate, incomplete, lost, or written decades after an event. They can be filled with bias. For example, a journal entry reflects only the writer’s understanding of the events. Participants in an event may misunderstand the event or misrepresent it. Some cultures did not have written records. Therefore, analyzing sources often raises more questions than answers!

A secondary source is written by someone who has carefully studied a topic, usually using primary sources. In studying history, we use all possible resources available, including both primary and secondary sources, to try to understand the past.

As students look at primary sources, there are three types of questions to ask. When students are just beginning to analyze and interpret sources, questions 2 and 3 are often combined.

  1. Observe: What do you notice?
  2. Contextual: What do you already know? What do these “new” details mean / suggest?
  3. Interpret: What does this source suggest about our topic?

As students complete this lesson, they will be able to note the facts included in primary source documents, contextualize the documents’ place in history, and interpret the significance of these documents.

  1. Students will analyze primary and secondary sources, in an effort to identify views of early European colonists and Indigenous peoples concerning land, nature, and way of life.
  2. Students will create a T-chart to organize the differing understandings / viewpoints.
  3. Students will discuss the differing views of the colonists and the Wampanoag and how these views led to conflict.


Compare and contrast T- chart (PDF)

Wampanoag Sources

  • Sewall, Marcia. People of the Breaking Day
    This children’s book describes Wampanoag life before Europeans came to the area. This book has been used with 1st–6th grades.
  • Sewall, Marcia. Thunder from the Clear Sky
  • Levy, Janey. The Wampanoag of Massachusetts and Rhode Island
  • Riehecky, Janet. The Wampanoag: The People of the First Light
  • Walters, Kate. Tapenum’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Wampanoag Indian Boy

Colonist Sources

  • Mourt’s Relation was originally printed in London in 1622. A “relation” is a story or an account. This document was written to try to entice others to come to Plymouth. It tells the story of the colonists’ first months at Plymouth Plantation. The signer of the preface, G. Mourt, has been identified as George Morton, who settled in Plymouth in 1623. Most historians have taken William Bradford and Edward Winslow as the chief authors of the book. The original version uses varied spellings and seventeenth-century English.
  • Brown, Margaret Wise, ed. Homes in the Wilderness: A Pilgrim’s Journal of Plymouth Plantation in 1620 by William Bradford & Others of the Mayflower Company. 1932. (Reprint) Amden, CT: Linnet Press, 1988. This version of Mourt’s Relation has been retold for young readers. It retains the flavor of the seventeenth-century original version. Illustrations contain minor anachronisms (for example, buckles on hats).
  • Heath, Dwight B., ed. Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Cambridge: Boston Apple Wood Book, 1986. This is a modern reprint of the account that was written in 1622 of the emigration of the colonists to Cape Cod and their first year in Plymouth Colony.
  • Roop, Connie and Peter, eds. Pilgrim Voices: Our First Year in the New World. New York: Walker and Company, 1995. Written in diary format, this book follows colonists as they leave on the voyage and through the first year. It is based on the primary documents Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. It includes a glossary of unfamiliar words.


This inquiry has been conducted with students from 1st through 5th grades, using various levels of support and groupings. The time needed will vary, depending on the age of students and their reading abilities (time needed could vary from one to three weeks).

Make observations from the text. What do you notice?

1st–3rd grades: Portions of texts can be read to the class or in small groups, with the teacher or students using sticky notes to mark evidence of views of land, nature, etc. Sticky notes can simply mark the place or contain a few words to mark the tracks of evidence. Daily, the reading work should end with a discussion. The teacher can then record evidence found by students on a large T-chart (see materials list).

4th–6th grades: Students can be divided into two or more heterogeneous groups, with each group focusing on the view of colonists or Wampanoag beliefs. Each group can use sticky notes and a large graphic organizer to record evidence and their thinking. Sticky notes may include the phrase denoting the evidence and page number. Each day, evidence can be put on a large chart, with sticky notes attached to the appropriate box on a class chart. Alternatively, students can record information found on their sticky notes on individual charts.

Graphic Organizer (Use the sources to compare what you notice about the two cultures):

With younger students, information found should be added daily to the chart as the class examines both the Wampanoag secondary source and the colonist primary document. When both portions have been completed, the class can read through the entire chart. As a class, students fill out a large T-chart.

Older students can add to their individual charts as they work or at the end of the session. Students can then transfer the group’s observations onto a class T-chart.

Discussion (discuss the context and interpret); record discussion points on chart paper:

  1. What do you notice about how the two groups viewed land? Wilderness? Woodlands? Animals? Religion? Ways of life?
  2. As you read, did you find any hints about how the colonists viewed the Wampanoags? How the Wampanoags viewed the colonists?
  3. How could the two groups’ differing views of land, etc., cause problems? How do these differing views help us to better understand the conflicts that did develop?

Lesson Extension

Copy and enlarge one or two pages of the actual seventeenth-century reproductions, so that students can examine the language, spelling, handwriting, and punctuation.