“Great Chief,” also known as Ousamequin, from Algonquian Wusámequin, “Yellow Feather,” was a staunch friend of the Plymouth Colony. Born around 1580, he became chief in 1607 largely due to his prowess as a warrior. His tribal territory included much of eastern Massachusetts including Cape Cod, and Rhode Island. Shortly before the Pilgrims landed, the Wampanoag were ravaged by a plague in 1617 (perhaps yellow fever) brought by early explorers. Reduced in number from 18,000 to about 7,000, the tribe was threatened by its powerful neighbors the Narragansett, who had not been touched by the disease. Massasoit saw the superior arms of the English settlers as a good defense and was quick to befriend them. He gave them a large tract of land, and on March 22, 1621, entered into a treaty of friendship which included a mutual protection clause. As a further gesture of alliance, he and his people helped the colonists by introducing them to new foods and planting methods. His influence was important in the area, and during his lifetime, relatively peaceful relations existed between Indian and White.
In 1623 Massasoit fell seriously ill, and Governor Bradford sent a party to attend him. At his bedside were Indians from as far away as 100 miles who came to pay their last respects. However, the Pilgrims administered their own medicine, and he recovered, now even friendlier than before. He warned them of an Indian plot against the Weymouth Colony in time for them to take defensive action; Miles Standish trapped the leaders of the plot and killed them. This strengthened Massasoit’s position among those tribes who wished to live peaceably with the colonists, but alienated him from those Indians who considered him a traitor and who subsequently allied themselves with the Narragansett. In 1632, Massasoit was forced to flee to Plymouth to escape capture by the Narragansett. Peace was restored three years later through the efforts of Standish and especially of Roger Williams.
Massasoit died in Rhode Island in 1662, survived by two daughters and three sons. The two oldest boys were sent to Plymouth Court for education; in the custom of the day, they were given “English” names: Wamsutta, who died shortly after his father’s death, was renamed Alexander, and Metacom (or Pometacomet) was known as Philip. He later became chief and led the confederation which sought to oust the Whites during King Philip’s War. The youngest boy, Sunsonewhew, or Suconewhew, briefly attended Harvard College.
Source: Great North American Indians by Frederick J. Duckstander