Pokanoket Tribal History

In the 17th century, the Pauquunaukit (anglicized as Pokanoket, literally, “land at the clearing” in Natick) were the leadership of the tribal groups that now make up the modern-day Wampanoag Nation. However, ethnically Pokanoket groups and their neighbors did not begin to refer to themselves as Wampanoag until after King Philip’s War, when Pokanoket identity was criminalized in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Thus, while all Pokanoket are Wampanoag (being one tribe among several), not all Wampanoag are ethnically Pokanoket. The Pokanoket are the indigenous group in the first Thanksgiving story, although it is speculated that no meal was actually shared between the Pokanoket and English settlers, and the former did not necessarily welcome colonization.

Ousa Mequin or Yellow Feather, the Massasoit of the Pokanoket Tribe, is welcomed by John Winthrop in Plymouth on March 22, 1621. Shortly thereafter, they crafted the Wampanoag Treaty that remained in effect for the next fifty years.

 

Giovanni de Verrazano (pictured left) sailed into Narragansett Bay in 1524, and people appeared on the shores, most likely Pokanokets. The navigator’s recorded latitude of 41°40′ north corresponds to Mount Hope Bay, where the seat of the Pokanoket is located. Verrazano wrote of these Rhode Island natives whom he encountered: “These people are the most beautiful and have the most civil customs we have found on this voyage.”[from Wikipedia[3][4]

“All evidence point to Pokanoket, not Wampanoag, being the name that Massasoit’s people called themselves. According to Kathleen Bragdon in Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650, ‘Wampanoag, was an ethnonym, now used to designate the modern descendants of the Pokanokets, was probably derived from the name Wapanoos, first applied by Dutch explorers and map-makers to those Natives near Narragansett Bay . . .  The term means ‘easterner’ in Delaware, and was probably not an original self-designation.’ p. 23″. [Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, 2006, p. 373]

 

   

Prior to colonization, the political seat of the many tribes that are collectively known as the Wampanoag Nation was located in the realm of Pokanoket, where one of the most significant historic sites is found on Mount Hope (Potumtuk, the lookout of Pokanoket, photo above, in present-day Bristol, Rhode Island). The above map is a reconstruction of Pokanoket ancestral boundaries based on a political and topographical map from 1895, which itself drew on 17th-century topographical descriptions of political borders. (Click on map for larger version).

   

Sowams, the area in East Bay Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts [click on maps to enlarge], was the main settlement of the Pokanoket when the Pilgrims arrived. Bradford had been told that the land of the Pokanoket had “the richest soil, and much open ground fit for English grain, etc.”, giving hint of the conflicts over land that would soon develop. [Wikipedia]  Pokanoket believe that their territory is an element of the American Aborigine heritage that is their birthright, and that they are the stewards even of land which they do not legally own.

   

Modern day Pokanoket tribal members gather for a pow wow at the Roger Williams Memorial in Providence, and current Sagamore Bill Guy, the tenth generation descendant of Massasoit, speaks at the King Philip Seat in Bristol.

Click here for a two-minute video of Sagamore Bill Guy explaining the use of the term Wampanoag as it pertains to members of the Pokanoket Tribe.

Click here for an Eco RI web page about the Pokanoket Tribe today.