The Messenger Runner

The Messenger

The colonists arrived in Plymouth men of letters and the written word as a means of preserving communication, chronicles of their times and documenting their deeds and intentions and most certainly sending messages to one another. The Wampanoag, while sophisticated in the art of their own language, were people with a highly regarded oral tradition of story telling and communicating. Messages sent, received and responded to were not written, but instead committed to memory and carried by runners to distant villages and even neighboring territories often accompanied by symbolic gifts and gestures.

This custom was supported by a network of strong and fit runners, typically men, capable of enduring long journeys with an impeccable capacity for memory. They were also considered among the most loyal and trusted members of the tribe as both a spokesman in an official capacity and a confidant when carrying a most sensitive missive.

Becoming a messenger runner was an aspired status often earned by those who excelled in competitive games including races and a net and ball sport that evolved into lacrosse. The games took place over stretches of beach where goals could be set miles apart and often took days to complete. It was an exhibition of strength and endurance that astonished the colonists.

In his book A Key Into the Language of America published in 1643, Roger Williams wrote of the native runners this way:

"They are generally quick on foot, brought up from the breasts to running: their legs being also from the wombe stretcht and bound up in a strange way on their Cradle backward, as also anointed; yet have they some that excel: so that I have knowne many of them run betweene foure scoure or an hundred miles in a Summers day, and back within two dayes: they doe also practice running of Races; and commonly in the Summer, they delight to goe without shoes,although they have them hanging at their backs: they are so exquisitely skilled in all the body and bowels of the Countrey (by reason of their huntings) that I have often been guided twentie, thirtie, sometimes fortie miles through the woods, a streight course, out of any path."

Some examples of critical messages sent and received as the colonies were being established include the following:

  • On March 16, 1621 Samoset visited the Pilgrims in Plymouth able to communicate in sparse English the greetings of the tribal leader, Massasoit, who was called Oosameequan. Samoset then traveled about 40 miles to the south in Sowams to convey the tidings of the Pilgrims to Oosameequan.  
  • When the Narragansett, a neighboring tribe to the south, learned of the settlement of Plymouth Colony it was not to their liking. A runner was sent to Plymouth carrying a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin. The gesture was a symbolic of a declaration of war. In turn the colonist sent a Wampanoag runner to say the English had done no harm to the Narragansett but if it was war they wanted it would be dealt in their own custom. The runner returned the snakeskin wrapped only this time it held gun powder and shot.
  • Late July of 1621 a young Pilgrim boy, John Billington, wandered off and was lost. After receiving an inquiry from Governor Bradford on behalf of the boy’s desperate family, Oosameequan sent a runner with word of the boy’s whereabouts. A shallop was dispatched to retrieve him from Nauset.
  • In 1622 a messenger is sent from Sowams to Plymouth with news that Oosameequan is gravely ill. Hobbomock guided the English man of medicine, Edward Winslow, to Oosameequan’s bedside where Winslow administered an herbal medicine believed to have saved the Wampanoag leader.

The tradition of Native people running for fitness, sport and as curriers is not exclusive to the northeast. In 1680 Native runners spread word of an eminent invasion of Spaniards throughout the pueblos of the southwest. The runners, some described as so quick as to elude Spaniards on horseback, were essential in coordinating the pueblo revolt against Spaniard rule responsible for the preservation of southwestern tribes in that region today. Commemorating the 300th anniversary of that effort a group of Pueblo men ran 375 miles from Taos, New Mexico to Second Mesa, Arizona in 1980 to honor their ancestors.

Works cited:

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620 – 1647

Peter Nabokov, Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition, 1981

Roger Williams, A Key to the Language of America, 1643

Mort’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622. Dwight B. Heath, ed. (1963).

This article was written by Paula Peters, a former journalist and current writer and independent scholar of Wampanoag history. She is a socially and culturally active member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.


Traditional Wampanoag Territory

The “Our”Story exhibit map represents Wampanoag territory during the pre and postcolonial era of the 17th century.

The boundaries and more than 70 villages were determined through extensive research conducted by Wampanoag linguist jessie litte doe baird to define tribal territories within what is now Southern New England by language distribution. (1)

The method used by Ms. baird included “an examination of the geographic distribution of the language and a comparison of some distinguishing features displayed between the language of the Wampanoag and neighboring languages; first hand accounts by missionaries of the 17th century regarding residency patterns and kinship of Wampanoag people in the region.”

Her work was instrumental not only in establishing tribal territory, but also in the social and political relationships that evolved during the colonial period. It also confirmed that Mashpee, Massachusetts along with portions of surrounding towns, while identified as a praying Indian town or plantation, was essentially this country’s very first Indian reservation. (2)

This territorial evidence proved critical in the confirmation of Mashpee Wampanoag trust lands by the Department of the Interior in September of 2015 establishing the tribe’s contemporary reservations in Mashpee and Taunton, Massachusetts. (3)

Ms. baird’s work is another example of the importance of the inclusion of the indigenous perspective to scholarly research that defines history. Resources and evidence long overlooked, under evaluated, and even misinterpreted by non-Native scholars contain key truths that are exposed when examined with a keen sense of cultural awareness and traditional integrity by Native scholars lending balance to history overall.

Works Cited:

baird, jessie little doe: Linquistic lay of the land, research submitted for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Land in Trust application to the United States Department of Interior.

baird, jessie little doe: Praying Towns and thee Convolution of Traditional Polities, Sept 2015

Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record of Decision, Trust Acquisition and Reservation Proclamation for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe issued September 18, 2015

This article was written by Paula Peters, a former journalist and current writer and independent scholar of Wampanoag history. She is a socially and culturally active member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.