Awashonks -- Chief Leader of Sakonnet Tribe


It is hard to believe that March is almost over so today will be our last edition of our Women's History Month series for this year. Today I am going to feature a Native American leader that goes back to colonial time. Her name is Awashonks. This was her name when she became leader, but we do not know what her name was before that. Awashonks means "she who is queen." We do not know much about her life prior to 1671. It is estimated that she was born in 1640 and other records say she was born in 1620 after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. She was the daughter of Corbitant, the sachem in 1620. Her name however appears in the records more than any other indigenous female. 

Awashonks was the female chief of the Sakonnet tribe in what is now Little Compton, Rhode Island. The Sakonnet are Wampanoag. She was the wife of sachem Tolony or Tosoneyin. They had two sons and a daughter together. Awashonks became sachem after her husband died in 1660. She became sachem not by inheritance as much as her willingness to do the job and her wisdom, strength and power. She would meet with other sachems and try to find solutions to problems that arouse. She also peacefully greeted the first white settler, Benjamin Church, in her territory.  Awashonks participated in the signing of the peace treaty with other tribes and Plymouth Colony. 

Her tribe lived in the farthest southwest corner of the Plymouth Colony. They however traveled throughout the colony for gatherings, ceremonies and more. It is believed that Awashonks spent summers in the Falmouth, Massachusetts area and visited friends in Gays Head (Martha's Vineyard).  They also traded with the colonists. 

In July of 1671, Awashonks was forced to travel to Plymouth (Patuxet). There was a threat of war with the English over her land. Apparently, the fathers of Josiah Winslow, John Freman, Matthew Fuller, and Constant Southworth had granted each of them land in Sakonnet territory. The land grants would be meaningless without Awashonks approval, so they were threatening an attack. She traveled to Plymouth to keep the peace. She signed articles of agreement that included full submission of her land to the government. It also required her and her men to give up their weapons and to help the English if any of the Wampanoags chose to fight them on Sakonnet land. In August 1671, there was correspondence between Awashonks and Governor Thomas Pence. Both sides seemed to see the agreement in different lights and true understanding of the agreement.

Governor Pence died in 1673. He was succeeded by Josiah Winslow. The English were still struggling with getting control of the Sakonnet land. William Bradford recorded a deed where a large portion of the land was given control the English by Awashonks and her son Peter. Her other son, Mammanuah, claimed control over the land (and the proper sachem as a male), and also made an agreement with the English. He was a strong ally to the English. In 1674, when Mammanuah tried to claim the land, Awashonks responded with force. The court decided with Mammanuah and cited the 1671 agreement. The court also ruled that Mammanuah had the right to sachemship. 

In 1675 when Metacom (King Phillip) took up war with the English, Awashonks played a role. Awashonks only thought of protecting her tribe and her lands. She tried to ally with the side that would do that. There was an agreement with the English brokered by Benjamin Church, but when Church did not return, she got nervous and joined Metacom. She fought on the side of Metacom (her cousin).

When Church came back to see her, she switched sides again and fought against the other Wampanoag. By the end of the war, she had made many peace treaties.  It is guessed that she made the agreement with the English only if her people would not be enslaved or sent to other lands, which was common practice at the time. After the war much of their land was taken and many were enslaved. 

In 1683, Awashonks appears for the final time in the court records. She was accused of helping to kill her daughter's infant. She and Betty, her daughter, were able to convince the court that the baby was born dead. However, Betty was accused of fornication and Awashonks was reprimanded for having a woman who announced Betty's pregnancy whipped. This is the last record of Awashonks that we have. Since what we know about this amazing woman is from the white court records we do not know all that much. She had two things against her in the white court--she was not white, and she was a female. She led her people with strength, wisdom and dignity. She tried to reign peacefully. She made treaties with the English to protect her people, but this really hurt her both in the eyes of the English and the Sakonnet. 

Now books featuring Awashonks were a bit hard to find. These are the only books I could get my hands on. The older book is harder to read with some Old English in it as well.

Other Sources:

Brooks, Lisa. Our Beloved Kin. "Another Queen's Right: Awashonks." (3 Jun 2019)

Leary, Marjorie. Little Compton Historical Society. "Awashonks." (Apr 2020)

Lighting the Way. "Awashonks."