When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they did not arrive into an empty wilderness. Thousands of Native Americans from many different tribes were living in the area at that time. Three of the main groups were the Wampanoag, the Mohegan and the Mohican. These larger groups included other smaller tribes. For example, there were 69 smaller tribes in the Wampanoag Nation.
The Wampanoag Tribe
The Wampanoag tribe, which was a nation of many smaller tribes, included the Massachusetts, Nauset, Nantucket, Pennacook, Pocanoket and Pocasset tribes. They spoke an Algonkian language and inhabited the easternmost section of what is now Massachusetts. By 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived, a significant portion of the Wampanoag Nation had already died from diseases brought to America by the Europeans in the early 1600's. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researcher John Marr indicates that yellow fever, smallpox, plague and possibly leptospirosis were the most likely to have caused the deaths. Those that remained were cautious about interacting with the new arrivals and waited several months before making contact. Although they entered into mutual defense agreements for protection against other Native American tribes, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims each had their own agenda.
The Mohegan Tribe
The Mohegan tribe included the Nipmuc and the Pequot Indians. Eventually, all three merged into one group under the leadership of a Mohegan chief. They lived along the Connecticut border and in what is now central Massachusetts. The Mohegan fought alongside the English, during King Philip's War from 1675 to 1678 and became the primary Native American group that remained, after all those who opposed the English were vanquished. The Mohegan tribe is often confused with the Mohican and Mohawk tribes because of discrepancies in spelling and pronunciation, but they are three completely different tribal groups.
The Mohican Tribe
The Mohican tribe originated in the area of New York state, but because of European pressure, a portion of the tribe migrated to Massachusetts, where they became known as the Stockbridge Indians. The Stockbridge tribe included the Wappinger group, but all members of this tribe eventually died out. Their culture and language was similar to the Lenni Lenape or the Delaware. The Mohican tribe, which lived in western Massachusetts, had fewer dealings with the Pilgrims. Instead, the Mohican tribe as active in the fur trade with the Dutch and French.
What Happened to Them?
Many Wampanoag died from European-borne diseases before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. More were lost during King Philip's War. Only a few hundred remained. The Mohegan allied themselves with the English during the war, and more survived, but the tribe continued to dwindle, because of interactions with their white neighbors. The Mohegan sold much of their Massachusetts land to white settlers and moved to a Connecticut reservation, according to Frederick Webb Hodge, compiler of "The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico; Bureau of American Ethnology," as reprinted in “Access Genealogy; Mohegan Tribe.” The Mohicans also suffered from the effects of disease and war. In the 1830’s, under pressure from Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, most remaining Mohican moved westward, eventually settling in Wisconsin.
- Native Languages of the Americas: Native American Tribes of Massachusetts
- Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe: Timeline
- Access Geneaolgy: Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico-Mohegan; Frederick Webb Hodge
- Native Languages of the Americas: Mohican
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England 1616-1619; John S. Marr
- Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Differing Views of Pilgrims and Native Americans in Seventeenth-Century New England
- Susan Peterson/iStock/Getty Images