Sunday, November 1, 2015

The first “Indian” treaty

White Europeans signed the first peace treaty with Native Americans more than 394 years ago, less than six months after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth harbor.

It was honored for more than 50 years.

The rest, sadly, is American history.

The good ship Mayflower arrived in Cape Cod Bay in November 1620, carrying 101 English settlers. Most of them were Puritan Separatists who had left the Church of England behind when they embarked for North America. (They intended to land at the mouth of the Hudson River in what is now New York, but ocean storms blew them off course).

A few months later Captain Myles Standish and his men made first contact with some of the estimated 5,000 Wampanoag people who inhabited the region. A short time later, their leader, Massasoit, visited the English settlement.

On April 1, 1621, the Pilgrims made a defensive alliance with Massasoit, signing an agreement that neither group would “doe hurt” to the other. This first treaty had a remarkable enforcement provision: if a Wampanoag violated its terms, he would be sent to Plymouth for judgment and punishment by the colonists; if a European broke the law, his case would be handled by the Wampanoags.

I couldn’t readily find any details on any breaches of the treaty and how enforcement was handled in fact.

We can take note that such even-handed, cross-cultural enforcement of treaty provisions was not the norm, and, in fact, our colonial history is filled with examples of treaties that were honored in the breach but not otherwise.

Massasoit and his sachems didn’t know what they were getting into.

Less than 60 years later, disease and warfare had killed most of the Wampanoags.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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