The New England Colonies and the Native Americans

The New England Colonies and the Native Americans

While Native Americans and English settlers in the New England territories first attempted a mutual relationship based on trade and a shared dedication to spirituality, soon disease and other conflicts led to a deteriorated relationship and, eventually, the First Indian War.


3 - 12


Social Studies, U.S. History


Hudson Trading with Native Americans

Native American locals and English colonists had a complicated history in America that involved conflict as well as trade. They traded goods and ideas. Here, English explorer Henry Hudson and his crew trade with Indians on the shore.

Engraving from the United States Library of Congress
Native American locals and English colonists had a complicated history in America that involved conflict as well as trade. They traded goods and ideas. Here, English explorer Henry Hudson and his crew trade with Indians on the shore.
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Complex History

The story of Thanksgiving is a long-lasting American legend. In 1621, pilgrims sat down with the local Wampanoag Indians. Together, they celebrated the first successful harvest. It sounds like a great story. Two cultures came together and shared the bounty of the land. However, the history between colonists and the local Native Americans is not so simple. There was trade and cooperation, but also bloody conflict.

Finding Common Ground

The first English settlers arrived in New England in the 1600s. About 60,000 Native Americans were already living there. At first, the two sides fought over territory. Still, colonists were able to build thriving colonies with the help of the Native Americans.

Trade was one of the first bridges between the colonists and local Native Americans. The colonists needed their help in order to survive and prosper in the New World. For their part, the Native Americans were interested in building alliances. Because of this economy based on trade, Plymouth Colony was able to support itself within five years.

Both sides benefited from trade and bartering. The Native Americans provided skins, hides, food, knowledge, and other crucial materials and supplies. The settlers traded beads and other goods.

Ideas were traded alongside physical goods. Wampum was a type of currency used like money. However, it sometimes carried religious meaning as well. The first Bible (the Christian holy book) printed in the New World was actually in the Native American language of Algonquin. The communication between the colonists and Native Americans was not just political or practical. It was spiritual as well.

Puritan Christianity was the main religion of the New England colonies. Over time, some colonists began to move away from Puritanism. Their ideas about Native Americans also changed. A famous example of this is Roger Williams. He rebelled against Puritanism and began the colony of Rhode Island. Williams believed that colonists should buy the land from the Native Americans. The colonists had no right to take it for free.

Over time, however, relations between the colonies and the local Native Americans began to break apart. The colonists carried diseases, like smallpox, from England. The Native Americans had no natural defenses against the illnesses and many of them were wiped out.

Some colonial leaders believed the disease outbreaks were an act of God. They said God supported their right to the land. They used this to convert the Native Americans to Christianity and move them to "praying towns."

The First Indian War

Colonist-Native American relations worsened over the course of the 17th century. It led to the First Indian War, or King Philip's War. The war began in 1675. The government of the Plymouth Colony killed three members of the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag leader, Philip, also known as Metacom, retaliated. He led an army made up of Wampanoags and other Native American peoples to attack the settlements. Some Native American peoples, including the Mohegans and Mohawks, fought on the side of the English colonists.

The war lasted 14 months, ending in late 1676.

Both sides suffered many deaths and injuries. Historians consider it one of the deadliest conflicts in American history. Thousands of Native Americans died in war or from illness. Others were taken as slaves or they fled to other regions. More than 600 colonists died, and dozens of settlements destroyed.

The history of the New England colonies reflects the history of America. It is a two-sided tale. Native and immigrant cultures came together to create the modern United States. But the two sides also clashed and many suffered.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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