Artwork of Awashonks. Image Credit: Hannah Friederichs

By Holly Marsden

Awashonks was a sachem, or chief, of the Sakonnet people in present-day Rhode Island, North America. She was not born into this royal role but had proved herself as a powerful leader. The settlers of Plymouth Colony had invaded the area in the middle of the 17th century.

Awashonks was known for her diplomatic skills and allied herself to the English in 1671 to increase her power. Her signing of the Articles of Agreement meant her tribe received amnesty from the settlers. Though it also meant all weapons had to be sacrificed to the colonisers.

In 1675, tensions in colonised New England reached a head. Metacomet, leader of the Wampanoag people, tried to create a military coalition against the colonisers. Despite Metacoment threatening Awashonks into joining him, she took advice from English colonist Benjamin Church.

Her and three hundred warriors joined the English, aiding them to defeat Metacomet. This conflict was named King Philip’s War, after Metacomet’s alternative name King Philip. Awashonks’ support of the colonists meant her people were not deported and enslaved in the Caribbean.

The sachem had two husbands, Wawayeenit and Tatoson. She had three children with each husband, and many grandchildren. However, her relationships with some of her children were difficult. Her son Mammanuah had taken his mother to court in 1674, accusing her of assault.

She also attended court with her daughter Betty in 1683, the last time she appeared in colonial records. They were accused of killing Betty’s baby but were acquitted by proving the child was stillborn. Though, Awashonks was censured for allegedly covering up the pregnancy.

Despite frequenting the Plymouth Colony’s courts, Awashonks was known for her diplomatic negotiation skills and careful leadership. She liked to take a neutral stance when conflicts broke out but, like in King Phillip’s War, English aggression often forced her to take action.

Recommended Reading

Heidi Hutner, Colonial Women: Race and Culture in Stuart Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Jane Donahue Eberwein, “”Harvardine quil”: Benjamin Tompson’s Poems on King Philip’s War,” Early American Literature 28.1 (1993): 1-20

Linford D. Fisher, ““Why Shall Wee Have Peace to Bee Made Slaves”: Indian Surrenderers During and After King Philip’s War,” Ethnohistory 64.1 (2017): 91–114

Mary Jo Tippeconnic Fox, Eileen M. Luna-Firebaugh, and Caroline Williams, “American Indian Female Leadership,” Wicazo Sa Review 30.1 (2015): 82-99.

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