America Moves to Bite the Hand That Fed It. The Mashpee Wampanoag Sole Surviving Signatory Tribe to America’s First Indian Titled Land

jessie little doe baird | September 2018

We know that we, the Mashpee Wampanoag, have occupied the same region for over 12,000 years. But what many do not know today is that we are in a struggle to maintain homelands that were placed in trust by the United States of America Department of the Interior in 2015- some 400 years after sustained European contact and settlement and the same number of years of struggle to maintain our homelands. Also lost on most is the level of irony in this situation- that while the Tribe struggles to ensure that these lands are not taken out of trust -we, along with 8 other sister tribes, paved the way for the formation of these United States via treaties and Indian Land Title granted to the Pilgrims on lands within the very same territory that is now being stripped away. The lands of the Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation today represent less than one half of one percent of our original territory- a mere scrap of our original territory- and this reservation is vital to the future sustainability of our tribal nation; a nation central to the history of the United States.

The first treaty signed in the new world assured the pilgrims from Scrooby, England a safe place in which they could live and was granted by the Wampanoag[1] in 1620 and again in 1621 and later in 1629. This grant of land use, later sales, and the first treaty of mutual protection between the two governments paved the way for what would eventually become the Federal Government on land that would eventually become the United States of America.

The Wampanoag Nation originally comprised 69 separate tribes. The nation was a democracy which had a muhsasôyut a.k.a. massasoit (great/high sachem or chief) and each local community had a sôtyum (sachem (male leader)) or sôkushq ((sonkshqâ)female leader). These leaders represented their respective local tribes to foreign governments and other indigenous nations and facilitated carrying out the wishes of their citizens. Some of the local tribes were also considered primary tribes whose leaders also had responsibilities to represent smaller tribes within the territory.

The traditional lands of the Wampanoag Nation are displayed below in the shaded area.

Wampanoag Nation Tribal and Linguistic Territory About 1630


The Tribes that signed the treaty were those that controlled land within the proposed colony of New Plymouth. While the Muhsasôyut 8sâmeeqan (oo-suh-mee-kwan) was the ‘Great Sachem’ of the Wampanoag Nation, he needed the acquiescence and support of the primary chiefs within the region to approve the treaty. The Mashpee Wampanoag (also called Saukatucketts by the English of the day) were one of nine original signatories to this first treaty as seen below.

“Philip, or Metacom, was the last chief of the Wampanoags, and grand sachem of the Pokonokets. He succeeded his brother Alexander, or Wamsitta, and had his residence at Mount Hope.

The smaller tribes were,-:

  • The Pocasset, located in the territory of what is now Fall River and Tiverton. Their sachem was Corbitant, who was succeeded by Waetamoro, a female, the wife successively of Alexander and Petanuet. From the former she derived her distinction as head of the tribe.

  • The Seconnet. Their seat was at Seconnet, now Little Compton, and they were ruled by Awashunks, a female, who was married to Waweyet.

  • The Namasket tribe were near Middleborongh, the Assawampsit of that period. Their sachem was Tispaquin, alias Tisquantum.

  • The Nausetts occupied what is now Eastham. Their sachem was Aspinett.

  • TheMattachees were on the present territory of Barnstable, and had, for sachem, Iyanongh.

  • The Monamoits inhabited the territory comprising the present town of Chatham. Their sachem was Cocenaucum.

  • The Saukatucketts were around Marshpee.

  • The Nobsquassetts had their residence still lower on the Cape, and not far from the present town of Yarmouth. The sachems of the two last-named tribes are not known.[2] These nine tribes are understood to be all who claimed any right to the soil in the territory east of the Narragansett, and within the New Plymouth patent.[3]

The English signatories to the New Plymouth Treaty were 40 individuals that also comprised the Corporation established in 1620 by King James I. This instrument was The Great Charter of Plymouth.

This Charter was granted while the Pilgrims were at sea traveling from England to the homeland of the Wampanoag.

The Charter states that the land was granted ‘in free and common soccage and not in capite nor by knight-service, and upon a condition that the same were not actually possessed or inhabited by any other Christian prince or state, nor within the bounds of the southern colony heretofore granted.’It goes on further to, ‘all questions and doubts that might arise upon any difficulty of construction or interpretation of any thing contained therein, the same should be taken and interpreted, in the most ample and beneficial manner, for the said council and their successors, and every member thereof.’[4]

On the 9th of November, the ship Mayflower landed on current day Cape Cod and formed their compact for self-governance on the 10th.[5] Contained within the Charter are the powers of making treaties with Indians on behalf of the King.[6]

However, it was not until January 13, 1629 that the settlers had any land beyond permission of occupancy that had been granted by the Wampanoag Muhsasôyut (Massasoit) who, at the time, was 8sameeqan (Yellow Feather).

The Council of Plymouth, in the county of Devon, England surrendered its grant of New England Patent to the Crown in 1635[7] While the 1629 Charter contained the Indian titled grants of land from the Wampanoag to the Council of Plymouth Colony, these land transactions remained unaffected by the surrender of the Charter. And it is these same land transfers made by Wampanoag Tribes including the Mashpee Wampanoag that would be Acts of the Crown adopted by Massachusetts to form the State of Massachusetts. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is the last surviving signor to the grant of Indian Title to establish Plymouth Colony.

[1] It must be noted here that there has long been confusion between the terms Wampanoag and Pokanocket and even today, a new group of people have called themselves, ‘the Pockanocket’. The proper term is in fact Wampanoag as there never was a single tribe known as the ‘Pokanocket’. This is apparent in a number of ways and very clearly stated in the Report of General Court findings in a case between the State of Massachusetts and the State of Rhode Island concerning boundaries at pg. 22 of the Recommendation of Commissioners of the Court June 30, 1741 General Court of the Province of Massachusetts. Here the report states that there never was a particular tribe called ‘Pokanocket’. This confusion arose for three reasons. The first being that, as the report discusses, the English called the citizens of the Wampanoag Nation, ‘Pokanockets’ due to the then Muhsasôyut’s primary residence being at that time in the region often called Pokanocket, a term that literally means, ‘Place of Cleared Land’ and the fact that these Indians were citizens of his nation; Pockanoket was a region encompassing several tribal villages in the Mount Hope area. The report goes on to explain too that the term, Pokanocket, referred to the confederacy formed among the nine signatory tribes of the Wampanoag Nation to the original treaty with New Plymouth. The third reason for confusion is the simple fact that the English did not speak the language and would therefore not understand that the term, ‘Pokanocket’, is descriptive of a land feature-Place of Cleared Land-as opposed to a group of people. The term ‘Wampanoag’, ideally spelled, Wôpanâak, means ‘Original People’ or ‘Eastern People’ and often called People of the First Light, making reference to East.

[2] The sachem signing for Mashpee was Sachem Qutyutasut. He, along with Sachem Wutumahkun, assured deeds to lands were recorded for a large portion of Mashpee territory as well as land transfers to the settlers. See Massachusetts State Archives 32:278; 1861 Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, in New England: Deeds &c.,1620-1651 BOOK OF INDIAN RECORDS FOR THEIR LANDS.

[3]April 1848 Senate – No. 128. Report to Massachusetts General Court

[4] November 3, 1620 Plymouth Colony Laws -1.

[5] November 10, 1620 Plymouth Colony Laws-19.

[6] Baylies History of Plymouth Colony pg. 154

[7] Plymouth Colony Laws 209