Most Native American peoples shared information solely through the spoken word. These oral cultures present unique challenges to historians, and force us to look beyond traditional written sources. Folk tales offer a valuable window into the ways that Native Americans understood themselves and the wider world. The Wampanoag legend of Moshup describes an ancient giant who lived on Martha’s Vineyard Island and offered stories about the history of the region.
Once upon a time, in the month of bleak winds, a Pawkunnawkut Indian named Tackanash, who lived upon the main land, near the brook which was ploughed out by the great trout, was caught with his dog upon one of the pieces of floating ice, and carried in spite of his endeavours to Martha’s Vinyard Island….
When Tackanash and his dog arrived at the island, he found the man whose existence had been doubted by many of the Indians, and believed to have been only seen by deceived eyes, heard by foolish ears, and talked of by lying tongues, living in a deep cave near the end of the island, nearest the setting sun. And this was the account which Tackanash on his return gave the chiefs of the strange creature. He was taller than the tallest tree upon Nope, and as large around him as the spread of the tops of a vigorous pine, that has seen the years of a full grown warrior. His skin was very black; but his beard, which he had never plucked nor clipped, and the hair of his head, which had never been shaved, were of the color of the feathers of the grey gull. His eyes were very white, and his teeth, which were only two in number, were green as the ooze raked up by the winds from the bottom of the sea. He was always good-natured and cheerful, save when he could not get plenty of meat, or when he missed his usual supply of the Indian weed, and the strong drink which made him see whales chasing deer in the woods, and frogs digging quawhogs. His principal food was the meat of whales, which he caught by wading after them into the great sea, and tossing them out, as the Indian boys do black bugs from a puddle. He would, however, eat porpoises, when no larger fish were to be had, and even tortoises, and deer, and rabbits, rather than be hungry. The bones of the whales, and the coals of the fire in which he roasted them, are to be seen now at the place where he lived. I have not yet told my brothers the name of this big man of Nope—it was Moshup.
I hear the stranger ask, “Who was he?” I hear my brothers ask, “Was he a spirit from the shades of departed men, or did he come from the hills of the thunder? I answer, he was a Spirit, but whence he came, when first he landed in our Indian country, I know not. It was a long time ago, and the Island was then very young, being just placed on the back of the Great Tortoise which now supports it. As it was very heavy the tortoise tried to roll it off, but the Great Spirit would not let him, and whipped him till he lay still.
Moshup told the Pawkunnawkut that he once lived upon the main land. He said that much people grew up around him, men who lived by hunting and fishing, while their women planted the corn, and beans, and pumpkins. They had powwows, he said, who dressed themselves in a strange dress, muttered diabolical words, and frightened the Indians till they gave them half their wampum. Our fathers knew by this, that they were their ancestors, who were always led by the priests—the more fools they! Once upon a time, Moshup said, a great bird whose wings were the flight of an arrow wide, whose body was the length of ten Indian strides, and whose head when he stretched up his neck peered over the tall oak-woods, came to Moshup’s neighbourhood. At first, he only carried away deer and mooses; at last, many children were missing. This continued for many moons. Nobody could catch him, nobody could kill him. The Indians feared him, and dared not go near him; he in his turn feared Moshup, and would seek the region of the clouds the moment he saw him coming. When he caught children, he would immediately fly to the island which lay towards the hot winds. Moshup, angry that he could not catch him, and fearing that, if the creature hatched others of equal appetite and ferocity, the race of Indians would become extinct, one day waded into the water after him, and continued in pursuit till he had crossed to the island which sent the hot winds, and which is now called Nope. There, under a great tree, he found the bones of all the children which the great bird had carried away. A little further he found its nest, with seven hatched birds in it, which, together with the mother, he succeeded after a hard battle in killing. Extremely fatigued, he lay down to sleep, and dreamed that he must not quit the island again. When he waked, he wished much to smoke, but, on searching the island for tobacco, and finding none, he filled his pipe with poke, which our people sometimes use in the place of tobacco. Seated upon the high hills of Wabsquoy, he puffed the smoke from his pipe over the surface of the Great Lake, which soon grew dim and misty. This was the beginning of fog, which since, for the long space between the Frog-month and the Hunting-month, has at times obscured Nope and all the shores of the Indian people. This was the story which Moshup told Tackanash and his dog. If it is not true, I am not the liar…”
James Athearn Jones, Traditions of the North American Indians, Vol. 2 (Project Gutenberg EBook: 2007).