Saturday, January 5, 2008

Historical Trivia That May Interest Only Me

If you've ever been to Bed Bath & Beyond or a department store looking for sheets, you're probably familiar with Wamsutta. Now a brand owned by textile conglomerate Springs Global, the Wamsutta Company began textile production in 1848 in a mill in New Bedford, Massachusetts. You may not know that Wamsutta was an actual person.

When the Pilgrims founded Plymouth in 1620, they were surrounded by many hostile Indians belonging to various tribes. In 1621, they allied themselves to Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanokets, who lived in what is now southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. By 1621, Massasoit was in a bad way. The plague of 1618-1619 had wiped out a huge proportion of his tribesmen, and this had completely upset the balance of power of the New England Indian tribes. Where he had previously been a very important player in Indian politics, he was now almost completely at the mercy of tribes that had suffered relatively less at the hands of the plague, like the Narragansetts. Allying his tribe with the Pilgrims, he thought, was essential for the survival and prosperity of his tribe. It may or may not have been so, but it did allow the Pokanokets to become the most powerful tribe in New England and for Massasoit to become wealthy, largely through the sale of lands the Pokanokets claimed to the settlers.

Massasoit's oldest son is mostly known to history as Alexander of Pokanoket because he petitioned the Plymouth Court to allow him to change his name to that in 1660. Before that time, however, he was known as Wamsutta. He took over the sachem-ship of the Pokanokets in 1657 when his father retired, and he quickly made the Plymouth government very nervous about his fidelity to the Pokanoket-Plymouth alliance. He died while being summoned to appear before the Plymouth Court in 1662, and his death (suspected by some Pokanokets to be the result of poison) was one of the grievances of his younger brother, the new sachem, named Philip. As in King Philip, who initiated King Philip's war in 1675.

How the Wamsutta Company came to name itself after a 17th Century sachem of the Pokanokets, I don't know; but there it is. The preceding account is largely taken from Nathaniel Philbrick's book Mayflower about the settlement of Plymouth and King Philip's War.

No comments: