Native Americans in Plymouth

The Box

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Plymouth is often seen as a place of departure, yet it’s also a port of arrival. Native Americans have been coming to the city for over four hundred years. Some have arrived through captivity, others by choice, several to work and a few to stay. Theirs is a hidden history. 

Thanks to a partnership with ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ at the Universities of Kent and East Anglia, The Box has been able to research the presence of Native Americans in Plymouth. The stories reveal diplomats, politicians, princesses, wrestlers and entertainers. All are individuals with personal histories and motivations. They have come from several tribal nations, over many centuries. Their arrivals highlight a challenging and changing relationship with Plymouth though time.

The Elizabethan fort probably held three, possibly five, Abenaki men in the early 1600s. They had been captured by the Torquay seafarer George Weymouth. His voyage of 1605 had been supported by the fort’s first governor, Ferdinando Gorges, who became increasingly influential in England’s attempts to create colonies in Native America.

1595 letter about the fort (1-359-25)
Elizabeth I’s reign brought Native Americans from Roanoke to England 
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Crispijn van Queborn after Isaac Oliver, engraving, around 1625, Cottonian Collection, COP34.13

The Jamestown colony brought Pocahontas to Plymouth on 12 June 1616. She is a woman of many names and many stories. She arrived here – with her English husband and their son – and perhaps as many as 12 Powhatan relatives and associates. Their trip was intended to raise money and profile for the English colonial endeavour in Virginia. While it succeeded in both, it would cost Pocahontas her life. She died in England in 1617.

The Abenaki men and Pocahontas were in Plymouth during James I’s reign.
Portrait of King James I by Willem de Passe, engraving, around 1630, Cottonian Collection, COP34.4 

In the intervening years, Cherokee, Sioux and Comanche people have come to Plymouth. Their presence has been recorded by local newspapers, always reporting their appearance and activities, but rarely their names or words. This new research is beginning to record more of those Native Americans who crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Plymouth. 

HMS Epreuve brought a diplomatic delegation of Cherokee to the city in 1762. Atawayi (‘Wood Pigeon’), Kunagadoga (‘Standing Turkey’) and Utsidhi (‘Man Killer’) were described by their official guide –

‘They are well-made Men, near six feet high, dressed in their own Country Fashion, with only a shirt, trousers, and mantle around them; their faces are painted of a Copper Colour, and their heads adorned with Shells, Feathers, Earrings and other trifling Ornaments.’  

The diplomats became celebrities. Utsidhi, or Ostenaco, was painted by the Plymouth artist of the age, Joshua Reynolds. 

By the 20th century, English perspectives of Native Americans were becoming shaped by stories of the Wild West and the landscape separating white settlers from indigenous peoples. Buffalo Bill brought his theatrical recreations of life and death on the American Plains to Plymouth. His shows played in Central Park in 1903 and 1904. They featured large numbers of Lakota people, but their names do not appear in the publicity for the show here. But in 1910, Little Ribs, who was passing through Plymouth as part of a Sioux group of its way to the Brussels Exposition, explained –

What those Belgians want are real Indians – those right off the short grass, with white scalps dangling at their belts. We have to give them something of this kind, though we don’t like it. 100 years ago, this kind of an Indian roamed the prairies, but now he exists only in stories and in the play. We are in the play.’ 
Little Ribs, as reported in the Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 2 April 1910

In 1970, when Plymouth marked the 350th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, another group of Native Americans, many Comanche, were welcomed to the city. Like their predecessors, they were cultural ambassadors and entertainers. Their signatures are recorded in a visitors’ book and include three generations of the same family. Academics at ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ have helped add biographies to many of their names.

1970 Mayflower brochure cover (AR.2009.354)

2020 and the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s departure has changed the city’s relationship with Native Americans. It will see meaningful partnerships co-creating projects that will leave a legacy here. Settlement and This Land will bring indigenous people from across America to Plymouth. Ramona Peters’ ceramic pot commission at The Box will enable us to acknowledge our continuing connection to the Wampanoag Nation. Sarah Sense’s commission for the National Marine Aquarium will use Chitimacha and Choctaw artistic practice to record the names of those Native Americans who came before.

For too long, this has been hidden history. Now it can, and will, be revealed.       

This information will soon be part of a digital trail co-developed with ‘Beyond The Spectacle’ and hosted by PocketSights.com. It will also be the subject of guided tours by The Box as soon as programming can be resumed.       

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