The story behind Plymouth’s sculpture of the “Great Sachem.”By John Galluzzo
Plymouth’s tercentenary celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims and the subsequent growth of the colony lasted almost nine months and included a series of memorial dedications, speeches and pageantry the likes of which the South Shore has not seen since. At the end of the celebration, on Labor Day, 1921, the Improved Order of Red Men (IORM), a fraternal and patriotic organization dedicated to “Perpetuating the beautiful legends and traditions of a once-vanishing race and the keeping alive some of the traditional customs, ceremonies and philosophies,” unveiled their contribution to the Plymouth landscape—a bronze statue of Massasoit, the “Great Sachem” of the Wampanoag people.
Massasoit played the role of peacemaker in the early settlement of the South Shore. Forging an alliance with the early settlers, he kept the Wampanoag clear of the Pequot War and other potential conflicts and generally maintained strong relations with the men and women of Plymouth until his death. His sagacious rule marked about a half century of peace, which was broken by his son Metacom’s (King Philip) war in the 1660s, which fought against the further expansion of European settlement. Massasoit’s legacy was peace, yet it was seemingly forgotten, at least visibly, by 1910.
“Since the building of the Faith monument, celebrating the struggles of the Pilgrims in obtaining their religious freedom,” wrote an anonymous contributor to Worcester Magazine in 1921,” it has become more and more notable that not even a slab has been raised or one word carved to recall or mark, for posterity, the transcendent deeds of that noble chief, who by his friendly disposition made life possible for the early settlers.”
That sentiment was echoed by Arthur Lord, president of the Pilgrim Society of America, in a communication to the IORM. “It is the next thing to be done at Plymouth and I heartily commend the memorial to Massasoit, contemplated by your order, as a worthy and magnanimous undertaking.” Such encouragement steeled the resolve of the members of the IORM, who commissioned the drafting of a full proposal to that effect.
Alvin G. Weeks of Fall River took on the task of writing a proposal for the funding of such a statue. Although eloquent, council rejected the proposition because it “entailed a tax which, at once, made it obnoxious,” stated Worcester Magazine.
At this point, others took up the charge. Beginning in 1913, Dr. Frederick Bryant of Worcester took to the lecture circuit around the state. Frank Daniels of Plymouth proposed a plan: a five-person committee to have the memorial funded, prepared and put in place by 1920. He also announced that the Pilgrim Society had reserved a piece of land on Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for the memorial.
Fleshing out the story of Massasoit proved to be much easier than obtaining a physical description of the man himself. Alvin Weeks wrote a biographical sketch of nearly 300 pages, Massasoit of the Wampanoags, which the Massasoit Memorial Association gave to individuals who made monetary contributions to the memorial fund. Luckily, Pilgrim Edward Winslow had written a full physical description of Massasoit upon meeting him. The description helped inspire sculptor Cyrus Dallin.
Dallin’s work already appeared locally. He was known for his representations of Native Americans, such as his Appeal to the Great Spirit outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The talented sculptor also created the equestrian statue of Paul Revere in the North End and the Anne Hutchinson statue at the State House. In connection to the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth, he would later present the William Bradford statue just steps away from Massasoit, the bas relief of the signing of the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown and the design of the Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar. With depictions of the artist’s Massasoit statuette in hand, the IORM raised the funds needed for the project.
On September 5, 1921, members of the IORM gathered from all corners of the United States and marched through the streets of Plymouth. The honor of unveiling Dallin’s work went to Miss Charlotte L. Mitchell, also known as Princess Wootonekanuske, believed to be the last lineal descendant of Massasoit. Minnie E. Burke, a local librarian, responded to an erroneous report of the event in the December 1921 edition of Popular Mechanics, setting straight one important fact about the day. “The statue is a memorial to Massasoit himself, in recognition of his kindness to the Pilgrims,” she wrote, “and not a commemoration of the first settlement.” The final day of the tercentenary celebration marked not the arrival of the Pilgrims, but the beneficence of the Great Sachem, symbolically represented on the memorial by the peace pipe resting in his left hand.