Weetamoo was an amazing woman, warrior and chief of a native American tribe who lived in a time of cultural change. She was an influential leader, but because she was a native American and not English – and a woman – her story has been mostly ignored. I had to do some digging so I could tell you a more complete story about her.
The time was the 1670s, in New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island) a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence. The Salem witchcraft trials were about 20 years in the future (1692-93). Colonists from England had been living in the area for about 50 years and interacting with the native tribes.
Weetamoo was a sachem (actually a sunksqua) – a head chief of the Wampanoag, a group of native Americans. The term “squaw” comes from the word “sunk-squa;” it was a derogatory term used by the English colonists for women native Americans.
We know nothing about Weetamoo’s childhood, but it’s believed she was born about 1635, in what is now Rhode Island, as a member of the Wampanoag tribe. She comes into the records after she became sunksqua, on the death of her father.
Weetamoo as Chief
The conflicts between the native tribes in New England and the English settlers began almost immediately after the English arrived. As more and more settlers came and needed land, they found new ways to take land away from the native tribes. For example, the settlers brought pigs and cattle with them. Of course, these animals would roam widely, onto Indian fields, eating their crops and stomping on the tender plants.
Sometimes the colonists would trick the native tribal leaders into signing away their lands. The Indians thought they were just signing treaties of friendship, only to find that the colonists were claiming ownership of the lands. Then the colonial authorities jailed or fined the tribal leaders and took their land in payment for their “debts.”
The sachems in 17th-century tribes were not just leaders. They were diplomats and negotiators, trying to keep the peace while protecting the rights of the tribe. As chief, Weetamoo often went to the colonial court to argue against the confiscation and theft of Indian lands. She is said to have been a skilled negotiator, but it was difficult to fight the English. They believed God had given them this land and they weren’t about to let pagans keep it.
Weetamoo in King Philip’s War
King Philip’s War is a little-known conflict between the native tribes and the English settlers in New England (1675-76).
One native tribal chief was Massasoit; you may have heard of him in stories about the Mayflower settlers. (Actually, his name was Ousamequin; Massasoit means “chief.”) At the beginning of settlement by the Pilgrims, he had good relationships with them.
He had two sons – Wamsutta and Metacomet, also known as Philip because he was also friendly with the colonists. Wamsutta was the second husband of Weetamoo. (She had several husbands, as was the custom among the tribal women in this area.)
Wamsutta (whom the English called Alexander) died in mysterious circumstances on his way home from a meeting with the English (1662). There is some concern that he might have been poisoned, but there’s no way to know. His death is one of the events leading up to King Philip’s War.
As I said above, tensions had been growing, and a couple of incidents set off the sparks that led to the conflict that began in 1675. Weetamoo led a band of Wampanoag fighters in several battles. The most famous was the Great Swamp Fight.
She was responsible for the safety of the elders, women, and children of the tribe, and she led the English troops on a frustrating march through the swamps until she and her people finally escaped. Weetamoo and her second husband Quinnapin led the tribal group north to Narragansett territory, away from the fighting.
While the English troops focused on Metacomet, they also targeted Weetamoo, knowing that she was a leader and that killing her would cause the fight to go out of the tribe.
Weetamoo and Mary Rowlandson: A Clash of Cultures
In February 1676, Weetamoo and Qunnapin attacked a colonial settlement and captured several inhabitants, including Mary Rowlandson. Mary later wrote an account of her capture, and she described Weetamoo:
A severe and proud dame she was, bestowing every day in dressing herself neat as much time as any of the gentry of the land: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going with necklaces, with jewels in her ears, and bracelets upon her hands. When she had dressed herself, her work was to make girdles of wampum and beads.*
Mary despised Weetamoo. They were very different, in great part because they were women in different cultures. Mary didn’t understand that Weetamoo was a leader. Mary thought that making wampum was “women’s work,” but it was actually the work of chiefs; wampum was used as money and only the chiefs could make it.
Notice how Mary focuses on Weetamoo’s appearance. She seems to be saying that Weetamoo was trying to make herself into “gentry” (a high social position just below nobility). To Mary, a mere “squaw” couldn’t possibly be of high status.
Women in native American tribes were considered equal to men. They worked alongside them, trained as warriors, became chiefs, and led their people. They could marry and divorce as they pleased and they could hold property in their own right, all rights not allowed to women in colonial New England. Mary had a difficult time figuring out Weetamoo.
The two women had several memorable clashes, described in Mary’s narrative. Mary was supposed to work, but she sometimes rebelled. When she refused to work one day, Weetamoo picked up a stick and beat her. I’m sure Mary was surprised and angry.
Another time, Mary was reading her bible on the Sabbath when Weetamoo grabbed it from her, tore it up, and threw it away. The Puritans in New England at this time were actively trying to convert the native tribes to Christianity. Weetamoo was reacting against these attempts, as did many other native Americans of the time.
Weetamoo’s baby died on this trek, but Mary refused to mourn him. She said she was happy that now there was more room for her. It’s sad that these two strong women couldn’t connect with each other, but the cultural divide was too big to cross.
What Happened to Weetamoo
After almost a year of fighting and running, everyone was tired. The colonial leaders promised to let the tribes return to their lands and the native American agreed not to destroy colonial towns. Weetamoo and Quinnapin negotiated for their reward for the release of Mary Rowlandson and they headed home.
Of course, the English lied. Using some feeble excuses and the help of natives who allied with the colonists, they began attacking the native tribes. This time the tribes were not able to get to the swamps. One by one, the tribal leaders were captured and killed. In early August, Weetamoo’s sister and her son were captured. Quinnapin was captured in mid-August and Philip was pursued, cornered and killed.
Weetamoo and her family were relentlessly pursued. Someone betrayed them, and they were attacked. Everyone was taken prisoner except Weetamoo, who managed to escape. But not for long. There is no clear information about how she died. She may have drowned trying to escape and was found “newly dead.” Her head was cut off and set on a pole in Taunton. When the captives say her they “made a most horrid and diabolical lamentation.”
While the settlers would have liked to think the war was over, it wasn’t. In Our Beloved Kin, Lisa Brooks says:
The conflict that began in Metacom’s homeland continued long beyond his death, perhaps for another hundred years.”
When two cultures collide, sparks fly. In this case, differences in beliefs about land led to armed conflict The colonists claimed victory, but at a high cost.
King Philip’s War is considered by many historians to be the deadliest war in American history in terms of losses. More than half of the colonial villages were destroyed or damaged by the native Americans, and both the tribes and the colonists lost many people. The tribal tradition at the time was for warriors to take their families with them, so when a tribe was attacked, a whole tribe could be wiped out.
Weetamoo was involved in this conflict and also a more personal conflict in her interactions with Mary Rowlandson. I doubt if the views of either of these women were changed by their clash, but we can see how it happened. And we can grieve for both of them. Both were proud and brave women.
Note: About 3000 Wampanoag still live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, on a reservation.
Our Beloved Kin, by Lisa Brooks, is a more scholarly discussion of King Philip’s War and Weetamoo’s place in that war. Much of the detail about Weetamoo, including her interactions with Mary Rowlandson, are from this source.
Weetamoo: The Heart of the Pocassets by Patricia Clark Smith. Pictured above, this is a fiction work for ages 7-10, part Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series.
*”A Severe and Proud Dame She Was”: Mary Rowlandson Lives Among the Indians, 1675, in http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5793
**The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Puritans attacking King Philip’s fort” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1865. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f403-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
#The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Death of the Indian Chief Alexander” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1885-11. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-cd27-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99