New England (in the northeast of what is now the United States) was inhabited long before the first Europeans arrived and named the area after their homeland. Experts estimate there were between 70,000 and 100,000 Native Americans living in New England at the beginning of the 17th century. The peoples of New England were part of the Algonquian (al-GON-kiun) people and shared a similar language and culture, but there were several different groups. Among them were the Abenaki (a-be-NAWK-e), Micmac (MIK-mak), Pennacook (PEN-uh-cook), Pequot (PEE-kot), Mohegan (mo-HEE-gun), Nauset (NAW-set), Narragansett (nair-uh-GAN-set), Nipmuc (NIP-muk), Woronoco (wor-oh-NOH-koh), and Wampanoag (wahm-puh-NOH-uhg).

The groups in southern New England generally lived in small villages where women tended fields of corn, beans, and squash. Men supplemented this diet by fishing and hunting. Women and children also gathered nuts and berries from the plentiful forests of New England. In northern New England, where the climate was not conducive to farming, Native Americans depended on fishing, hunting, and gathering, as well as trade. Beginning in the 1600s, the Native Americans also began to trade with European merchants, exchanging beaver pelts for metals and textiles. Besides goods, Europeans also brought deadly diseases. Because the native peoples had no resistance to these diseases, illness sometimes had catastrophic effects. A 1616 epidemic killed an estimated 75 percent of the Native Americans on the Atlantic Coast of New England.

Most of the villages of the New England tribes were semipermanent; when the agricultural land was depleted of nutrients, groups would move to settle nearby areas. As a result, they had a fundamentally different idea about the owernship of land and owernship than the Europeans who began to encroach on Native American lands in the 17th century. The first Europeans to settle in New England were the Pilgrims, who came from England to settle in Plymouth (Massachusetts) in the winter of 1620. Historians believe the clearing where the Pilgrims settled was the site of a Pawtuxet village that had been wiped out by disease.

One Pawtuxet, Squanto, had been kidnapped by a European captain and taken to England. But he had freed himself and made his way home a few years later. Coming upon Squanto was fortunate for the Pilgrims. Squanto taught them how to plant corn and showed them where to fish and hunt. He also helped translate between English and Native American languages, and to negotiate peace with local Native American chiefs.

Peace was tenuous as best. Over the next several decades, conflicts between the English and Native Americans erupted often, particularly as more waves of settlers came to claim land where the Native Americans lived, hunted, and fished. Competition over trade further destabilized the region. In the Pequot War, which lasted 11 months between 1636 and 1637, thousands of Pequot were killed and their villages were destroyed. In 1675, several Native American groups led by the Pokunoket Chief Metacom (called King Philip by the English) tried desperately to defend their territory and honor, but they were outnumbered and overpowered by the European settlers. This conflict, which became known as King Philip’s War, marked the last major effort of Native Americans to drive English settlers out of New England.

New England Native American Groups

This woodcutting appears to show a Native American man greeting Pilgrims as they come to New England on the Mayflower. It suggests a positive relationship between the two groups. That idea, however, is largely false. 

catastrophic
Adjective

very bad.

Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

encroach
Verb

to trespass or enter upon the property or rights of another.

Noun

outbreak of an infectious disease able to spread rapidly.

New England
Noun

area in the United States comprising the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

pelt
Noun

animal skin or fur.

Pilgrim
Noun

early settler of Plimouth Colony, Massachusetts.

resistance
Noun

the act of opposing something.

settler
Noun

person who migrates and establishes a residence in a largely unpopulated area.

Noun

land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

textile
Noun

cloth or other woven fabric.