Wampanoag Indians inhabited the coastal region between the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island to the western end of Cape Cod and the coastal islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In the early 1600s, the Wampanoag Indians were a population of approximately 12,000 divided between the main lands and the coastal islands. During the years between 1612 and 1620 epidemics devastated the Wampanoag Indian population and many villages had been abandoned. By the time the Pilgrims landed the population had been cut by at least half.
The Wampanoag Indians can be credited with the creation of the American traditional holiday of Thanksgiving. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the native Wampanoag Indians showed the settlers how to farm the land, hunt and fish and basically adapt to life in the western world. In 1621, when the first crop was harvested in Plymouth, the Wampanoag Indians brought food dishes to celebrate the harvest with the Pilgrims. During this celebration thanks was given to the Pilgrim’s Christian God and the Wampanoag Indians thanked the Great Spirit. This celebration became the American tradition of Thanksgiving.
Seasonally migrating, the Wampanoag Indians lived inland during the winter and moved closer to the shore in the spring after planting their crops. They would spend the summer fishing in the ocean for herring, clams, and lobster. They would return to their winter homes just before harvest time and spend the remainder of the winter there until the following spring. Leadership, though without much privilege, was hereditary passed on from father to son. In the absence of a suitable heir, it was not unheard of for a woman to become the sachem.
Today there are five organized bands of Wampanoag Indians. Though all five have petitioned for federal and state recognition, only the Gay Head band has been successful. They have approximately 600 members but live without a reservation. The Mashpee though much larger in members, was denied recognition by federal courts in 1978.