Massasoit: A Story of the Indians of New England - Alma H. Burton

The Medicine Men

In 1622 two ships sailed into Plymouth harbor with about sixty men from London, who had come to America to engage in the fur trade.

They had little food of their own, and stayed at Plymouth for the most of the summer, enjoying the hospitality of the Pilgrims; but they were not welcome guests, for they were lawless men, and thought that money-making was the chief aim of life. Late in the autumn, they chose Weymouth, near the mouth of a small stream emptying into Boston Bay, as a fishing station. They were ungrateful for the favors they had received, and made much sport of the Pilgrims. They said these pious Plymouth saints spent too much time on their knees, and declared that the fish trade was the foundation of wealth. But, as we shall see, they soon found that fish alone made a very slippery foundation for them to build upon. In the spring of 1623, news came to Plymouth that Massasoit was ill, and Edward Winslow and an interpreter were sent with medicines to visit him.

On the way they heard that the great chief was dead, whereupon the interpreter broke out with loud lamentations. "Neen womasu sagamus! Neen womasu sagamus!"  he wailed, "Many have I known, but none like thee! He was not a liar; he was not bloody and cruel like other Indians. He was a wise sachem, but never ashamed to ask advice. He was easy to be reconciled toward such as had offended him. He governed his men better with few strokes than others did with many. Neen womasu sagamus!"

Thus the old man mourned, and the rude March winds kept time with his cries. But farther on, they met some Indians, who said that the powwows were working great charms over Massasoit, and that he was still alive.

As they hurried on through the leafless forests, Winslow asked his guide who the powwows were.

"They are great medicine men," answered the guide. "They are wise men who know how to outwit the evil spirit who sends disease. When they are called in to see a sick man, they first place him in a room built of stones, and heated by fires lighted around the outside of it. Then they put red-hot stones in the room and sprinkle water over them with cedar branches until a vapor rises. When the patient is in a sweat, they carry him out to a running stream, and plunge him into the cold water.

"Now, if this fails to restore the sick man," continued the guide, "there are other remedies which these medicine men use. There are the juices of berries and leaves, the bark and roots of trees, the skins of snakes and the warts of frogs, dried and pounded into powder, and there are various other cures, which the common people know nothing about.

"Sometimes the powwow seeks out a Manitou in the woods, and when he returns he says there must be a great feast before the sick man can get well; and so game is brought by all the friends, and there is feasting and dancing and shouting until devoted relatives become so wild with excitement, that they often spring, naked, into snowdrifts, and dance about for hours in the coldest weather, without the least injury to themselves. All this generally makes the patient well.

"Then, too, after many prayers, the powwow sometimes announces that gifts from friends will cure the sick man; and so all his friends, from far and near, bring presents of skins and wampums, fish-hooks, moccasins, pouches, and everything they think he would like if he were well again, and he often gets well after that."

"I should really think," said Winslow, laughing, "that it would be a great temptation to get sick for the sake of such treatment as that!"

"Ah," said the guide, "you think someone might just pretend to be sick. That would not be possible, for the powwow would see through his deception."

"Doesn't the powwow receive some of the presents?"

"Oh, yes; he is given half when the sick are restored to health."

"Do you not think a wicked powwow might persuade some man to become suddenly sick in order to share the profits of the gift cure?" asked Winslow.

"Ah, no!" said the guide, "he would then lose his power over the evil spirit, and could never work cures again."

"If one medicine man fails to restore health, do the friends change to another doctor?"

"Ah, no, they never do that. If a man dies, the powwow is held in still greater esteem than if he had recovered, for he must have been very brave to attack an evil spirit that was so powerful as to kill the sick, in spite of everything that had been done to prevent it."

They had now reached the wigwam of Massasoit, and as they entered, they found the room packed close with mourning friends, many of whom were already painted black, as a sign that death was near. Tears ran like rain down their cheeks, and, mingling with the soot, made them look the picture of woe.

Several powwows were yelling their incantations, rattling tortoise-shells in his ears to drive away the evil spirit, and crowding about him so closely that he must soon have died in sheer self-defense. There he lay, cold, wasted and speechless, on his couch of skins.

When Winslow took his hand and spoke, he opened his eyes feebly, and whispered through shrunken lips, "Oh, Winslow, I shall never see you again."

Winslow gave him some simple remedies, made broth to give him strength, and in a few days restored him to health.

Massasoit was so pleased with the tender care of his white friends that he revealed a deep-laid plot among the Massachusetts Indians to destroy first the little settlement at Weymouth, and then fall upon Plymouth.

He said the tribes feared the little man Standish more than all the others put together, and once, while he was out hunting, had planned to kill him.

So an Indian slept on the ground near Standish, intending to strike him dead as soon as he slept; but the night happened to be very cold, the little captain could not sleep, and kept turning before the fire so that there had been no chance to take him unawares. All the Indians were afraid of a hand-to-hand fight with him, for they thought he was in league with the evil spirit.

Massasoit said that he himself had been asked to join in the league for the destruction of the white men; but he had refused to do so, and was now glad, for he knew that the white men had save his life.

When Winslow heard that the attack on Weymouth was to be very soon, he hastened with all speed to Plymouth, to spread the alarm.