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 in the new Plymouth Colony to celebrate the first successful harvest. It makes for a great story—cultures coming together and sharing the bounty of the land that would eventually become America. However, the history of the colonists and the local Native American peoples is far more complex. It is an interwoven narrative of trade, cooperation, and intense conflict.

Finding Common Ground

When the first English settlers began to arrive in what would become New England in the 1600s, there were already about 60,000 Native Americans living there. At first, the two sides had conflicts over territory. Still, colonists were able to build thriving colonies with their help.

Trade was one of the first bridges between New England colonists and local Native American populations. The colonists needed to build infrastructure and relationships in order to thrive in the New World. The Native Americans were interested in building alliances. After only five years, Plymouth Colony was no longer financially dependent on England due to the economy it had built alongside the native Massachusetts peoples.

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 in exchange.

Ideas were traded alongside physical goods. Wampum, a type of currency sometimes carried religious significance as well. The first Bible printed in the New World was actually in the language of the Algonquin people. 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 of the colonists began to move away from Puritanism. Their attitudes about the Native Americans also evolved. A famous example of this is Roger Williams, who rebelled against Puritanism and founded the colony of Rhode Island. Williams held the unorthodox view that colonists had no right to occupy land without purchasing it from Native Americans.

Over time, however, relations between the colonies and the local peoples deteriorated. Some of the problems were unintentionally caused by the colonists, like smallpox and other diseases they brought over from England. The local Native American populations had no immunity, and epidemics killed many.

Some colonial leaders believed that the destruction of the tribes showed God's favor toward the colonists. It was seen as an act of God supporting the colonists' right to the land. They used it as a way to convert the natives to Christianity, making them into "praying Indians" and moving them to "praying towns," or reservations.

The First Indian War

Colonist-Native American relations worsened over the course of the 17th century, resulting in a bloody conflict known as the First Indian War, or King Philip's War. In 1675, the government of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts executed three members of the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag leader, Philip, also known as Metacom, retaliated by attacking the settlements with a fighting force made up of Wampanoags and other Native American peoples. 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; a treaty was signed in April 1678.

With such heavy casualties on both sides, this war is considered one of the deadliest conflicts in American history. The Native American population lost thousands of people to war, illness and slavery, and many fled the area. More than 600 colonists died, and dozens of settlements were destroyed.

The history of the New England colonies reflects the two-sided history of America as a whole. Native and immigrant cultures came together to create the modern United States, but also clashed in devastating conflict.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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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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