Native people tribe
In 1600 the Wampanoag probably were
as many as 12,000 with 40 villages divided roughly between 8,000 on the
mainland and another 4,000 on the off-shore islands of Martha's Vineyard
and Nantucket. The three epidemics which swept across New England and
the Canadian Maritimes between 1614 and 1620 were especially devastating
to the Wampanoag and neighboring Massachuset with mortality in many mainland
villages (i.e. Patuxet) reaching 100%. When the Pilgrims landed in 1620,
fewer than 2,000 mainland Wampanoag had survived. The island Wampanoag
were protected somewhat by their relative isolation and still had 3,000.
At least 10 mainland villages had been abandoned after the epidemics,
because there was no one left. After English settlement of Massachusetts,
epidemics continued to reduce the mainland Wampanoag until there were
only 1,000 by 1675. Only 400 survived King Philip's War.
Still concentrated in Barnstable, Plymouth, and Bristol counties of southeastern Massachusetts, the Wampanoag have endured and grown slowly to their current membership of 3,000. The island communities of Wampanoag on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket maintained a population near 700 until a fever in 1763 killed two-thirds of the Nantucket. It never recovered, and the last Nantucket died in 1855. The community Martha's Vineyard has sustained itself by adding native peoples from the mainland and intermarriage, but by 1807 only 40 were full-bloods. Massachusetts divided the tribal lands in 1842 and ended tribal status in 1870, but the Wampanoag reorganized as the Wampanoag Nation in 1928. There are currently five organized bands: Assonet, Gay Head, Herring Pond, Mashpee, and Namasket. All have petitioned for federal and state recognition, but only Gay Head (600 members but without a reservation) has been successful (1987). The Mashpee (2,200 members) were turned down by the federal courts in 1978.
Like other Algonquin in southern New England, the Wampanoag were a horticultural people who supplemented their agriculture with hunting and fishing. Villages were concentrated near the coast during the summer to take advantage of the fishing and seafood, but after the harvest, the Wampanoag moved inland and separated into winter hunting camps of extended families. Since New England was heavily populated before 1600, these hunting territories were usually defined to avoid conflict. Ownership passed from father to son, but it was fairly easy to obtain permission to hunt in someone else's lands. The Wampanoag were organized as a confederacy with lesser sachems and sagamores under the authority of a Grand Sachem. Although the English often referred to Wampanoag sachems as "kings," there was nothing royal about the position beyond respect and a very limited authority. Rank had few privileges, and Wampanoag sachems worked for a living like everyone else. It should also be noted that, in the absence of a suitable male heir, it was not uncommon among the Wampanoag for a woman to become the sachem (queen or squaw-sachem).