Wamsutta (ca. 1634–1662), also known as Alexander Pokanoket, as he was called by New England colonists, was the eldest son of Massasoit (meaning Great Leader) Ousa Mequin of the Pokanoket Tribe and Wampanoag nation. His sale of Wampanoag lands to colonists other than those of the Plymouth Colony brought the Wampanoag considerable power, but aroused the suspicions of the Plymouth colonists. He was imprisoned for three days at Plymouth; he died shortly after release, causing tribal suspicion of the colonists. His death possibly contributed to King Philip's War of 1675. Wamsutta's name is memorialized in and around New Bedford, Massachusetts in various ways. He was honored in the naming of a United States Navy steamer in commission during the American Civil War between 1863 and 1865.
Wamsutta was born of royal blood in circa 1634 as the eldest son of Massasoit Ousa Mequin, leader of the Wampanoag. Wamsutta married Weetamoo. After their father, Massasoit, died in 1661, the two sons commemorated the life-changing event by officially changing their names. Ousa Mequin requested English names for his sons to be known by. Wamsutta took the name of "Alexander" and Metacomet took the name of "Philip".
Immediately following Ousa Mequin’s death, his oldest son, Wamsutta, inherited the Pokanoket Wampanoag sachemship and became the Massasoit, as was Pokanoket custom. Wamsutta, whom the English named Alexander, agreed to adhere to the peace established by his father. But rumors soon began to circulate that he was conspiring with the Narragansetts to attack the English. In 1662 the English accused Wamsutta of independently negotiating land sales. They marched him to Plymouth at gunpoint. He died of a "sudden illness" before returning home, leading the Pokanoket and many other natives to believe he had been poisoned by the English. At Wamsutta’s death, the Pokanoket sachemship and title of Massasoit passed to Ousa Mequin’s second son, Metacom.
Metacom, known as King Philip to the colonists and officials at Plymouth, signed an agreement with the English in 1662. Like Wamsutta and his father before him, Philip vowed not to needlessly or unjustly provoke or raise war with any other natives. In return, the colonists agreed to advise and aid Philip. However, it was an uneasy alliance. Hostilities between natives and colonists continued to grow.
It must be emphasized—the Royal House of Pokanoket was a hereditary kingship.
- Their government was purely monarchical and as for such whose dominions extended further than would well admit the Princes personal guidance it was committed into the hands of Lieutenants, who governed with no less absoluteness, than the Princes himself: notwithstanding in matters of difficulty, the Prince consulted with his nobles, and such as whome he esteemed for wisdom; nobles were either such who descended from the Blood Royal, or such on whom the Prince bestowed part of his dominions with the Royalties, or such whose descent was from Ancestors, who had time out of mind been esteemed such.
“Princes,” “Nobles,” “Blood Royal,” and “Royalties” all were terms quite familiar to seventeenth century Europeans, who portrayed the governing system of the Pokanoket as similar to that of hereditary monarchies in their own countries.
- The colonists recognized the position and power of the Pokanoket leader Ousa Mequin. Contemporaries such as William Bradford and Edward Winslow called the Massasoit the greatest king amongst them, observing that;
- Their sachems cannot all be called kings, but only some few of them, to whom the rest resort for protection and pay homage unto them; neither may they war without their knowledge and approbation; yet to be commanded by the greater, as occasion serveth. Of this sort is Massassowatt, our friend, and Conanacus, of Nanohiggansett, our supposed enemy.”
After Massasoit's death, Wamsutta assumed leadership of the Wampanoag, becoming leader of all the Native American tribes between the Charles River in Massachusetts and Narraganset Bay in Rhode Island, including the tribes in eastern Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts. As a result of a collapse of the fur trade, he substantially increased the power of the Wampanoag by selling land to colonists. In 1662 he was summoned to and seized by the Plymouth Court. After being questioned, Wamsutta became ill and soon died.
The cause of death was disputed, and Wamsutta's brother Metacomet (who succeeded Wamsutta in leadership of the Wampanoag) suspected that he had been poisoned. Wamsutta's death was one of the factors that would eventually lead to the 1675 King Philip's War, also known as Metacom's Rebellion.
Some historians believe Wamsutta was poisoned or tortured by Governor Josiah Winslow, who saw him as a threat. But considering Winslow's father, Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford (both of whom had died before this), and their previous peaceful relations with Wamsutta's father, Massasoit, such speculation is open to question. Still, given the distrust expressed and the lack of control over Wamsutta, it does lead one to feel there was more to his death than we are aware of.
Wamsutta has been the namesake of businesses and places:
- In 1846, the Wamsutta Company's textile mill opened in New Bedford.
- In 1861, 20-year-old Henry H. Rogers and his partner Charles Ellis of Massachusetts named their tiny venture near Oil City, Pennsylvania the Wamsutta Oil Refinery. Rogers later became a principal in John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil empire.
- USS Wamsutta was the name of a United States Navy steamer in commission from 1863 to 1865.
- In 1866, the Wamsutta Club was founded in New Bedford. It was a club for the affluent residents, who had generally made their money from the flagging whaling industry, as well as the up-and-coming textiles, for which the club was named.
- In 1997, the Wamsutta Middle School was built in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
- In modern times, Wamsutta is a brand name of textile products marketed by Springs Industries, Inc.
- This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here. (See ship namesake section)
Heath, Dwight B. “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth: Mourt’s Relation”, A relation or journal of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England, by certain English adventurers both merchants and others. Edited from the original printing of 1622. p. 7.