Did the Indians Gatecrash Thanksgiving?

"Massasoit saw an opportunity to form an alliance that would protect his depleted tribe," said Conforti. "This simply wasn't a conquering band of Pilgrims — the Indians had their own agenda."

Why Don’t These Short People Shave?

Other than their potential political use, the Wampanoag probably weren't very impressed by the English settlers. In fact, said Conforti, they appear to have been a bit disgusted.

"Native Americans didn't find the Pilgrims particularly attractive physically," he said. "What the Indians seem to be particularly repulsed by was the body hair, the facial hair, the beards."

The newcomers were hairy, wore funny clothes, and they seemed short. "There is some evidence that Native Americans may have been, on average, taller than Europeans," said Conforti. "Native Americans had a relatively healthy diet."

In fact, one Indian looked down from his lofty height and made fun of the diminutive Capt. Myles Standish, the Pilgrims' military leader.

Standish didn't take kindly to teasing. "That Indian didn't last very long," said Conforti. "He was ultimately killed by Standish."

A Bicultural Society — Briefly

Despite the squabbling, the native people and the English settlers did manage to get along for a little while.

In the early days of Plymouth Colony, Indians rescued a youth named John Billington who had become lost in the woods, said Lodge. And Tisquantum — or Squanto, as he's more commonly known — is credited with preventing the Pilgrims from starving by teaching them to cultivate local crops and introducing them to local seafood.

Squanto was also invaluable to the Pilgrims as an interpreter. He knew English, because he had been kidnapped by some early European merchant-explorers and spent several years as a captive before he was able to return to his homeland.

As the Pilgrims settled in and were joined by other English settlers, they lived in close proximity to the natives and probably dealt with them on a daily basis. In fact, for a while, southern New England seems to have been a "bicultural society," said Conforti.

"Particularly in the coastal areas, there was tremendous interaction between Native Americans and English settlers," he said.

There was no intermarriage between the two groups, but there was extensive trade and some exchange of ideas. The natives taught the English settlers about cultivating local crops; the English brought farm animals to the Indians, who up until that time had only one domesticated animal, the dog.

More Settlers Want More Land

The English also tried to convert the natives, which didn't always go over well.

"In converting people, what you're saying is, 'The way you do it is all wrong,'" said Combs.

Beginning in about the 1650s, English settlers began setting up "praying towns" to try to bring the Indians into the fold. "These were missionary efforts in New England … towns where Indians were relocated, semi-coerced, semi-enticed, to learn English culture and particularly to be converted," said Conforti.

Although Conforti said cultural ties between the settlers and the natives were "mostly a one-way exchange," some English colonists did try to learn more about the first Americans and their way of life. Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after being kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans, made friends among the Narragansett and wrote a dictionary of their language.

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