Epanow’s Escape

1614: The Return of Epanow

The exact timing is not known but it is assumed the ship carrying Epanow home arrived off the coast of Nope’ nearly simultaneously to Capt. Thomas Hunt sailing off with 27 Wampanoag men captured from the mainland. Despite being heavily guarded language again worked in Epanow’s favor when his fellow tribesmen met the ship just off the shore of Nope’. The Native language cryptic to the ship’s captain and crew enabled Epanow and his cousins to conspire openly and devise a plot for his escape.Taken in 1611 by Capt. Edward Harlow, Epanow is best remembered as the kidnapped Wampanoag who gained his freedom by outwitting his captor. Having learned enough of the English language and culture to know what was of value Epanow persuaded Sir Ferdinando Gorges he could lead him to a gold mine in his island home of Nope’ known today as Martha’s Vineyard. Fueled by greed Gorges financed a 1614 expedition employing Epanow as a guide and translator.

The following day Wampanoag warriors attacked the ship. Both sides endured casualties but Epanow was able to jump from the deck and swim home where he became a sachem and a legendary Wampanoag hero.

But Epanow was hardly a hero to the duped and disappointed Gorges who fully expected the imprisoned Wampanog to keep his word. Gorges reacted with surprise that Epanow “...privately, as it appeared, had contracted with his friends how he might make his escape without performing what he had undertaken, . . .”

During his three years as a captive Epanow earned a measure of celebrity in England. Gorges, an early financer of colonization who never himself crossed the Atlantic, was intrigued by the novelty of Epanow and acquired him from Harlow to engage the Native as a public spectacle for profit. Epanow and another Native man were kept in a residence in Plymouth and introduced about the countryside as a curiosity. Despite Gorges admission that Epanow could, at least initially, only utter rudimentary words of welcome, he emerged as a popular attraction.

His unusual and immense physical grandeur and innate dignity and intellect were not lost on John Smith who remarked that Epanow was  “...of no lesse courage and authoritie, than of wit, strength, and proportion, . . .”

So notorious was his stature Epanow is believed to be the inspiration for the “strange Indian” who fascinated the ladies in William Shakespear’s Henry VIII.


Works cited:

John Smith, The General History of New England, (1624)

Thomas Prince. A Chronological History of New England (1736)

Alden T. Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain 1500 – 1776. (2006)

New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 12. New England Genealogical Society, 1858


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.