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

One of America's earliest and most enduring legends is the story of Thanksgiving. In 1621, pilgrims sat down with the local Wampanoag Indians to celebrate their first successful harvest. It makes for a great story. Two cultures came together and shared the bounty of the land that eventually became America. However, the history of the colonists and the local Native Americans is far more complex. It is a story of trade, cooperation, and intense conflict.

Finding Common Ground

The first English settlers began to arrive in what would become New England in the 1600s. They found about 60,000 Native Americans already living there. At first, the two sides had conflicts over territory, but the colonists eventually built thriving colonies with the help of the Native Americans.

Trade was one of the first bridges between the colonists and Native Americans. The colonists needed to build infrastructure and relationships in order to thrive in the New World. For their part, the Native Americans were interested in building alliances. Because of the economy they built with the help of the tribes, the colony became financially independent of England 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 types of currency.

Ideas were traded alongside physical goods. Wampum, a type of currency, sometimes carried religious meaning, as well. The first Bible 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, but also spiritual.

Puritan Christianity was the main religion of the New England colonies. As the colonies grew and changed, some colonists began to move away from Puritanism. Their attitudes about Native Americans also evolved. A famous example of this is Roger Williams, who rebelled against Puritanism and began the colony of Rhode Island. Williams believed that colonists had no right to occupy land without first purchasing it from Native Americans.

Over time, however, relations between the colonies and the local tribes deteriorated. One of the reasons was disease, like smallpox, that the colonists had unwittingly brought over from England. The local Native American populations had no immunity to these ilnesses, and many died of them.

Some Colonial leaders believed that this was an act of God, which supported the colonists' right to the land. The colonists used it to convert the natives to Christianity and move them to reservations called "praying towns."

The First Indian War

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

The war lasted 14 months, ending in late 1676. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and 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 fled to other regions. More than 600 colonists died, and dozens of settlements were destroyed.

The history of the New England colonies mirrors the two-sided history of the country. Native and immigrant cultures came together to create the modern United States. Yet, the two sides also clashed in conflict that claimed many lives.

Media Credits

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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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