Life Story: Weetamoo (ca. 1635-1676)
Fighting for Survival in New England
This is the story of a Native American warrior and her attempts to keep her people alive.
Weetamoo was born between 1635 and 1640 on the shores of what is today known as Cape Cod. Her father, Corbitant, was the sachem, or leader, of the Pocasset people, one of the tribes of the Wampanoag Confederacy that lived throughout the territory we today call New England. Weetamoo had one younger sister, but no brothers, so she knew from an early age that she would become the sachem of the Poccasset people. In addition to the traditional women’s work of agriculture, preparing hides, and cooking, Weetamoo was trained to hunt, fish, and fight, and learned diplomacy and leadership by observing her father. Weetamoo grew up in a world that was changing fast. Just before she was born, European diseases brought by the first traders had killed 90 percent of the Wampanoag population. Rival tribes had started to try to take over Wampanoag land. At the same time, the Puritan English settlers were spreading out from their first settlement at Plymouth. When she became sachem, Weetamoo had to figure out how to protect her people from all of these threats.
One of her strategies was to marry men who would make her position stronger. Her first marriage was to the sachem of the Saugus, another tribe of the Wampanoag Confederacy. When he died shortly after their wedding, she married Wamsutta, the son of the Massasoit, the great sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy. Her sister married Wamsutta’s younger brother Metacom. These marriages brought the Pocasset people close to the center of Wampanoag power. At the time of her marriage, the Wampanoag Confederacy was following a policy of peaceful negotiation with the English, and used their English allies to keep aggressive neighboring tribes away.
Wamsutta became the great sachem when Massasoit died in 1661. As the sachem of the Pocasset, and the wife of the great sachem of the Wampanaog, Weetamo’s stature in the community grew. But trouble was brewing. The English colonists of Plymouth kept demanding more and more land from the Wampanoag, and the English government started to view the Wampanoag as enemies rather than allies. In 1662, Wamsutta was brought at gunpoint to Plymouth to answer for the crime of selling land to people other than the Plymouth government. While he was there, he became suddenly ill and died. Weetamoo and Metacom both believed he was poisoned, and they lost faith in the English as allies from that point forward. Metacom became the great sachem of the Wampanoag, and tensions with the English continued to rise.
Weetamoo dissolved her marriage, and committed her warriors to Metacom’s cause.
Metacom started attacking English settlements in 1675. He was trying to stop the further spread of English people into Wampanoag lands. This was the start of Metacom’s War. The English call the conflict King Philip’s War (the English called Metacom “Philip” in their official documents after his father petitioned them for an English name for his sons). At this critical moment, Weetamoo had to make a choice: continue trying to negotiate with the English, or fight for the rights of her people. Her fourth husband decided to side with the English. But Metacom was her brother-in-law twice over, the great sachem of her people, and he was fighting to try to protect all of the Wampanoag from English aggression. Weetamoo dissolved her marriage, and committed her warriors to Metacom’s cause. In the early days of the war, she further committed to Metacom by marrying his ally, the Narragansett sachem Quinnapin.
By the summer of 1675, Weetamoo’s marital and family connections meant that she commanded the allegiance of every major tribe in Metacom’s alliance. She was a powerful sachem, and a feared enemy of the English people. When writing about the war, a Puritan leader described her as second only to Metacom in terms of “the mischief that has been done, and the blood that has been shed in this War.”
Metacom, Weetamoo, and Quinnapin led raids against English settlements in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island in 1675 and 1676. Outnumbered and outgunned, the allies had to stay one step ahead of the English while they tried to do enough damage to drive the English out of their lands. During this time Weetamoo gave birth to a baby, who died shortly after it was born. This personal tragedy does not seem to have slowed her down, which shows her mental strength and determination.
King Philip’s War proved disastrous for Weetamoo and her people. After a strong start, vicious English counterattacks wore away at the tribal alliance. Wampanoag society was destroyed. At least 750 Wampanoag were killed during the war, and all the Wampanoag who were captured were sold into slavery. Weetamoo drowned while crossing a river on her way to battle. Her body was found by English soldiers on August 3, 1676. She was so feared that the soldiers mounted her head on a pole outside an English settlement as proof that she had been defeated. The sight of her head sent captive Native warriors into a frenzy of grief, proof of the love she inspired in her people. Her endeavors may have failed, but her life story stands as a testament to the ways women in Native communities fought back against the aggression of European settlers.
- Cape Cod: A peninsula in Massachusetts Bay.
- diplomacy: The skill of managing political relationships.
- Great Sachem: The leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy.
- hides: Animal skins.
- Narragansett: A Native American tribe that has lived in present-day Rhode Island since pre-European contact.
- Pocasset: One of the original tribes of the Wampanoag Confederacy.
- Puritans: A group of English Protestants who left England for the New World to start their own settlements where religion would govern daily life.
- sachem: Name for a clan or tribe leader in Native communities in the Northeastern United States.
- Saugus: One of the original tribes of the Wampanoag Confederacy.
- Wampanoag Confederacy: A group of Native tribes that cooperated for mutual security and support in southeastern Massachusetts.
- Weetamoo: Wee-TAH-moo
- Pocasset: Paw-KASS-it
- Wampanoag: Wamp-uh-NO-ag
- Wamsutta: Wahm-SOO-tuh
- Massasoit: Mah-suh-SO-uht
- Metacom: META-calm
- Narragansett: Narra-GAN-sit
- Quinnapin: KWE-nuh-pin
- Connect this life story to the larger history of resistance to colonialism around the globe.
- There is no portrait of Weetamoo that was drawn during her lifetime. Ask students to create a portrait of Weetamoo based on this life story and their own research into Wampanoag life ways.
- Most of what we know of Weetamoo comes from sources written by English colonists. Invite students to read descriptions of her from Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative and Increase Mathers’s narrative of King Philip’s War, and then consider the problems inherent in studying the history of Native people from these kinds of sources.
- Compare and contrast the inheritance practices of the English and their Wampanoag neighbors by coupling this document with the will of Joseph Grover.
- Native people across North and South America had a variety of responses to the arrival of European colonizers. Combine Weetamoo’s life story with any of the resources below, and ask the students to write about the differences in each woman’s engagement with European colonizers and the outcomes they achieved: Life Story: Malitzen (La Malinche), Life Story: The Gateras of Quito, Life Story: Kateri Tekakwitha, Revolution in Art, and Life Story: Quashawam.
- Weetamoo’s power came from her intimate network of family and friends. These kinds of unacknowledged power networks allowed women in many different colonial societies to exert influence far beyond what was traditionally available to them. Use any of the resources below to explore this idea of intimate power networks further with your students: Translating for the Dutch and Lenni Lenape, Life Story: Johanna de Laet, Life Story: Charlotte-Françoise Juchereau de Saint-Denis, and Negotiating the Surrender of New Netherland.
- Weetamoo made marriages that boosted her social and political standing. For other examples of women who used marriage as a way to improve their life circumstances use any of the following resources: Life Story: Malitzen (La Malinche), Life Story: Johanna de Laet, Life Story: Charlotte-Françoise Juchereau de Saint-Denis, and Marrying into the New World.
INDIGENOUS EXPERIENCES, NATIVE AMERICAN EXPERIENCES, WAR, EUROPEAN CONQUEST OF THE AMERICAS, POLITICS & GOVERNMENT
New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections
- For more resources relating to Native responses to European colonization, see New World—New Netherland—New York.