New Research

Massasoit in American Memory

By Dr. Lisa Blee and Dr. Jean M. O’Brien

Among the remarkable events in direct response to the murder of George Floyd is a resurgent activism in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement around monuments to slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism. In Albuquerque, protestors took on the statue of Juan de Oñate, the despotic colonial governor who brutalized Pueblo peoples. Protestors threw a statue of Christopher Columbus in a lake in Richmond and beheaded another in Boston. These and countless other anti-racism protests over monuments announce a dramatic resurgence of struggle over memorialization to white supremacy that spiked in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, just as we were finishing our book, Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit.


Monumental Mobility takes as a case study the statue Massasoit, by sculptor Cyrus Dallin. Installed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1921 to commemorate the Tercentenary of the Pilgrims’ landing, Dallin’s statue was intended to memorialize the Pokanoket Massasoit as a welcoming diplomat who negotiated the first treaty with the English. Massasoit is simply the Wampanoag word for leader: his actual name was 8sâmeeqan, meaning ‘Yellow Feather.’ The Massasoit was also a participant in the mythical first Thanksgiving that stands at the center of American national origin stories. The statue was commissioned by the Improved Order of Red Men, an all-white fraternal order hoping to demonstrate their patriotism through a bronze monument to Indians’ purportedly peaceful embrace of the Pilgrims. But Massasoit did not remain only in Plymouth. In our book we track the physical and narrative mobility of the Massasoit story through its inception and its movement to numerous locations in the US to illuminate the extent to which the statue’s attachment to national origins moved with the installations.


Our book examines this monument’s mobility from multiple angles: the original inspiration for the monument, its design, installation and dedication ceremonies in various locations, how to understand its reception by audiences (including Indigenous ones) over time, how it has and does figure in tourism, and importantly, how Indigenous public intellectuals have intervened in historical narratives around settler colonialism read through the Massasoit statue.  Our book asks: What is the “place” of the Massasoit–in time, in space, and in narratives of the nation? What meaning do people make of the history in those locations where casts of Massasoit came to be mounted? To what extent do observers hold on to the historical distancing implicit in the narrative of the Massasoit that so profoundly elides the violence of settler-colonialism? What we found illustrates how multivalent historical meaning-making can be in divergent places.


We found that the force behind its changing meanings are two-fold: through the work of Indigenous intellectuals and the ways in which public history can reconfigure our relationship to the present through engagement with the past. In the New England context, Indigenous interventions in public history have made steady inroads since the historic Day of Mourning protest in 1970 that became an annual event (held every Thanksgiving at the Massasoit statue). We turn to the living history venue Plimoth Plantation and other New England public history sites to take up the work of these intellectuals, including their connection to the 2004 PBS historical reality television series, Colonial House. These very different and yet intertwined instances of public history, in addition to the memorial landscape in Wampanoag homelands, are all a form of “time freezing” where guests (and cast members and viewers of Colonial House) are prompted to strive to embody the past, a particular approach to closing historical distance and making visceral connections to the past.  These sites also became places where Indigenous public intellectuals contested historical memory and forced direct engagement with the violence of settler-colonialism in ongoing and dynamically reimagined ways.


Indigenous public intellectuals take up the work of overturning mythological ideas about history in the town of Plymouth on a daily basis. The memorial landscape in Plymouth, including the Massasoit statue, helps those who traverse it to make meaning of New England’s (and the nation’s) history. The town of Plymouth was built directly atop the thousand-year-old village of Patuxet. Villagers were in occasional contact with Europeans set on trading, slaving, or plundering along the coast, but starting in 1616, Patuxet was hit hard by waves of epidemics. When the Mayflower dropped anchor in the bay in 1620, the English colonists would have seen a village only recently evacuated. English colonists erected shelters amidst the existing houses and gravesites. Nearly half of the Mayflower passengers died that first winter. They were buried in a mass grave near the waterfront, now called Cole’s Hill, upon which a commemorative statue of the Wampanoag leader was erected 300 years later.  Yet the Massasoit statue and the Thanksgiving myth that later attached to this place cast a positive glow: this is a place composed of welcoming Indians and well-meaning Pilgrims, making Plymouth into the birthplace of the nation. It is the story of peaceful colonization that the Improved Order of Red Men hoped to celebrate and cast in bronze.


A tourist to Plymouth today can easily access this Pilgrim-centered story as we did on our research trips: by gazing upon a diminutive rock we are instructed to venerate, taking a tour with a Pilgrim-clad guide who insists the Patuxets gave away their land because they no longer wanted it (not true), by listening to a visitor’s center volunteer explain that all of the Native residents had died off (we actually heard them say that), and by perusing the town’s gift shops stuffed with depictions of happy Pilgrims and Indians sharing a feast. The memorial landscape and dominant narratives of its history insist on maintaining a cognitive distance from the past that insulates visitors from uncomfortable truths, even as they purport to bring viewers closer to history by connecting them to hallowed ground.


Yet, as we arrive at the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival at Patuxet this year, Indigenous public intellectuals have brought new energy to their engagement with this landscape to craft a more complicated and coherent depiction of New England’s past. Tourists can now join Tim Turner on his Native Plymouth Tours, where Patuxet becomes visible and the memorial landscape on the waterfront can be reevaluated from an Indigenous perspective. They can also visit museums, libraries, and Plimoth Plantation programs that offer guidance and instruction in Wampanoag experiences, in the 17th century and today. As part of this effort, Mashpee Wampanoag Paula Peters has led a Wampanoag team of designers, researchers, and interpreters in the creation of a traveling exhibit, titled “Our” Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History, aimed at non-Indian audiences. Peters and her team produced exhibit panels starting in 2014, adding panels every year up to 2020. The first, titled “Captured! 1614,” presents the Wampanoag perspective on the slaving expedition of Englishman Thomas Hunt, who seized 27 men and boys from Patuxet and Nauset. Peters explained in a press release, “This is a critical piece of the history of Plymouth that can’t be told accurately without a Wampanoag voice.” Indeed, how else to explain initial distrust of the Mayflower passengers and how Tisquantum (AKA Squanto), one of the men abducted in 1614 and returned home five years later, had learned enough English to greet the colonists? Another panel, “The Great Dying,” takes up the epidemic that wreaked such destruction starting in 1616.


These difficult histories, as presented in this and other “Our” Story panels, are impactful for a number of reasons. First, the deeply-researched exhibit engages viewers with themes of trauma and colonial violence in a deliberately non-confrontational manner. Second, the panels provide important context for understanding the place that the Mayflower passengers encountered in 1620, and the upheavals and crises that explain 8sâmeeqan’s decision to forge an alliance with the colonists. The feel-good story of Indigenous acquiescence no longer makes sense when the story starts in 1614 and includes their perspectives. This is an ingenious way to contribute to the Plymouth 400-year-anniversary programming while also destabilizing its implied chronology and subverting its inherent narrative. The exhibit both enlarges the historical consciousness of America’s shared past and disrupts the assumption that history begins when the colonists set foot on the shore.


The historical memory surrounding Massasoit suggests the rich potential of Indigenous public historians to intervene in sanitized national narratives of origins. We see Massasoit as an important touchstone that sets up a complex push-and-pull dynamic around the problem of historical memory: the Improved Order of Red Men erected it as manifestation of their own historical distancing from the violence of the colonial encounter. And yet as with all monuments, meaning comes from engagement with the statue and the story it is intended to fix in bronze. Can the statue prompt viewers to reckon with the structural violence of settler colonialism in commemorative landscapes, or does it further entrench celebratory narratives of national origins? Our book is connected to that volatile debate, suggesting that monuments to settler-colonialism ought to be part of the conversation about the place and meaning of historical monuments.


Lisa Blee is an Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest University. She teaches courses in the American West, Native American history, environmental thought, memory, and public history, and is the coordinator for the Cultural Heritage & Preservation Studies Minor. Her research interests include American Indian and settler politics, historical narratives, and commemorations in the U.S. West. She is the author of Framing Chief Leschi: Narratives and the Politics of Historical Justice (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Jean M. O’Brien is a Professor of history at the University of Minnesota, where she is also affiliated with American Indian studies and American studies. She is the author of Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790 (Cambridge University Press, 1997), Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), and Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).