On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now Southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who has taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of southeastern Massachussetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massassoit had reluctantly brought along as an interpreter.
Massassoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faces would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated–indeed, the foreigners ahead now occupied one of the empty sites. It was all he could do to hold together the remnants of his people. Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag’s longtime enemies, the Narragansett alliance to the west. Soon, Massassoit feared they would take advantage of the Wampanoag’s weakness and overrun them.
–by Charles C. Mann