History lessons

Native American guide equalizes the participants in the settler story

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / October 31, 2010

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Tim Turner greets tourists from a bench in downtown Plymouth next to Plymouth Rock and beneath the watchful gaze of Massasoit’s statue on Cole’s Hill. With his New England Patriots backpack and his hair cascading down his back in traditional Eastern Woodlands style, he is ready to tell the tale of this storied New England settlement from the Native perspective.

A member of the Cherokee Nation, Turner, 37, grew up in the Plymouth area and works at Plimoth Plantation. The Pilgrim point of view is already the stuff of history and myth. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, it’s a good season to get both sides of the story.

“To the Wampanoag, this area was called Pawtuxet, which meant place of little waterfalls,’’ says Turner, who started Native Plymouth Tours in April with his twin brother, Tom. It was one of 69 Wampanoag villages, many of which were decimated in the coastal New England epidemic of 1616-19. “About 2,000 Pawtuxet Wampanoag were wiped out. It made it easy for the Pilgrims to settle here.’’

Turner is willing to accept the historically dubious idea that the Pilgrims first came ashore by stepping on Plymouth Rock. After all, the boulder is more important as a symbol than as an artifact. He begins our tour by recounting the odd history of the rock — its admirers moved it around, cut it up, and rejoined some of the pieces to place them beneath the ceremonial pavilion. Native peoples, he observes, have ceded the rock the same symbolic value, but with very different treatments. Plymouth Rock was twice buried in sand by Native protesters — first in 1970 at the first National Day of Mourning, then in 1995 on the 25th anniversary.

“Both times it was hosed off by the Plymouth Fire Department,’’ he says. “No harm, no foul.’’

Plymouth Rock is not the waterfront’s only symbol. Turner leads us up the hill to the statue of Massasoit, who is identified by his title meaning “great leader.’’ The Wampanoag sachem in question called himself Ousamequin, and was only one of several Wampanoag chiefs at the time. “He gets all the hype,’’ Turner says, “because he was the first to sign a treaty with the Pilgrims. He wanted English guns to threaten his enemies, the Narragansetts.’’

The Cyrus Dallin statue of Massasoit is nearly 10 feet tall, dwarfing Dallin’s William Bradford statue at the waterfront, which is less than life size. “It perpetuates the myth that the Wampanoag were really tall and the English really short,’’ says Turner. “Actually, they were about the same height.’’

Per Plymouth tradition, the nearby sarcophagus holds the bones of Mayflower Pilgrims who perished during the winter of 1620-21. But Turner points out that the bones were excavated and mingled many years after they were buried, “and this was a Native burial ground before the Pilgrims came. It’s likely that both Pilgrim and Native bones are mixed up in there.’’

National Day of Mourning services are held on Cole’s Hill on the fourth Thursday of November. “To Native people Thanksgiving is a day of mourning,’’ Turner tells his all-Caucasian audience. “If we gather, it is to remember our ancestors.’’

As he leads us from Cole’s Hill toward Brewster Gardens, Turner waxes poetic about the harvest season, and describes how the Pawtuxet villagers lived by growing and harvesting vegetables, collecting shellfish, and hunting waterfowl. “They had one to three acres for a family, where they grew corn, beans, squash, melons, gourds, and tobacco,’’ he says. “Their diet was about 70 percent vegetarian.’’

Brewster Gardens is one of his favorite spots in Plymouth. In 1620, the trickling Town Brook that runs through the park was actually a navigable stream, and the Pilgrims record rowing up it to look for a spot to build their settlement. As Turner leads us upstream, he points out native plants that have made a comeback. Pausing at a clump of jewelweed, he explains that the Wampanoag used its juices to alleviate the skin irritation of poison ivy and stinging nettle. “I whirl it up in my food processor and freeze the juice in ice cube trays,’’ he says.

Turner also pauses at one of the natural springs that feed the brook. He points out the red ocher mud that the Wampanoag mixed with animal fat as a body paint and with hide glue to dye clothing. “There’s also a yellow ocher,’’ he says. “They got black from charcoal, white from birds’ bones, and blue from robins’ eggs.’’ The springs, he says, convinced the Pilgrims to settle Plymouth. They were also the reason the Wampanoag founded Pawtuxet. “Fertile land and water,’’ Turner says, “was what everybody wanted in the 17th century.’’

Darkness is falling as we pass the Jenney Grist Mill and arrive at a parking lot at the edge of town. “This is the hidden gem of the tour. It’s not on any map, but in the 17th century, this would have been Hobbamock’s homesite,’’ he says, referring to Massasoit’s emissary to the Pilgrims. “This was like an embassy. Anybody who wanted to trade with the Pilgrims came here first.’’

The hillside site had a clear view of the Pilgrim settlement. “My speculation,’’ says Turner, “is that he was also a spy.’’ According to Turner, “Hobbamock had several wives, which was not uncommon for men of status. Massasoit had five wives. The family of about a dozen members lived here until Hobbamock’s death in 1641.’’

Just beyond the homesite we come to a trail through the woods marked with a plastic sign as “Pilgrim Trail.’’ But Turner identifies it as the Nemasket Trail that used to connect Plymouth to the Wampanoag village of Nemasket, now Middleborough. “At least three times Massasoit and 60 to 90 warriors walked this path — in the spring of 1621 to sign the treaty, in the fall of 1621 for what is now called Thanksgiving, and in 1623 for Governor Bradford’s wedding,’’ he says. “Massasoit and his entourage walking down the path must have made quite a scene.’’

In fact, Turner suggests they probably came running rather than walking in the fall of 1621. “Imagine the time,’’ he says. “The Pilgrim leaders had decided to have a feast so they sent their men out hunting. Massasoit’s spies probably reported back to him about the gunfire at Plymouth. Under the terms of their treaty, Massasoit and Bradford had agreed to defend each other from attack.

“When all those warriors showed up,’’ he suggests, “they were coming to fight. If they were coming for dinner, they would have brought food.’’

Logic and maybe even history are on Turner’s side. The Thanksgiving myth looks a lot different through Native eyes.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

Native Plymouth Tours
Daily at 5:30 p.m. through November, leaving from Plymouth Rock. Adults $15, seniors $12, ages 5-18 $10.