Though this had been a day & night of much trouble and danger unto them; yet God gave them a morninge of comfort & refreshing (as usually he doth to his children) … on munday they sounded the harbor, and founde it fit for shipping; and marched into the land.
—WILLIAM BRADFORD, DESCRIBING THE FIRST ARRIVAL AT NEW PLYMOUTH1
Almost the first thing they saw was a school of whales. Every day they played around the Mayflower as she lay at anchor at Provincetown, like the little fleets of dolphins she must have passed ten weeks before along the coast of Devon. There were so many that Jones compared Cape Cod Bay to the whaling grounds of the Arctic. “If we had instruments and means to take them, we might have made a very rich return,” the Pilgrims later wrote, but for the time being, the whales were spared. Harpoons and nets were among the items they had failed to bring. When they tried to shoot one of the creatures from the deck, the gun exploded into pieces in its owner’s hand.
A century later, in the 1740s, a local shipowner, Benjamin Bangs, kept a remarkable journal of his own, an account of the bay as the Pilgrims would have known it. Bangs described the great schools of blackfish, the Cape Cod name for pilot whales. At the time of year when the Mayflower arrived, Bangs often saw them fill the waters between Provincetown and the shore five miles away at Truro, each one as much as twenty feet long. When the wind changed to come from the northwest, it left them stranded in immense numbers along the beach. On a single day in late October 1747, the people of Truro killed six hundred of the creatures. As far south as Wellfleet, incidents of slaughter on an even vaster scale continued until as late as 1912, when in the age of petroleum the pilot whale at last began to lose its value as a source of oil for lighting or for lubrication.2
The blackfish might stand as a symbol of the strange new world that the Pilgrims entered. It was an altered and vastly magnified version of what they knew in the old. Pilot whales belong to the same marine family as the dolphins of the English Channel, but here in America these creatures existed in numbers unimagined, just as the falls and the sweep of the Kennebec River in Maine far surpass the valley of the Trent. Reading the works of Captain John Smith had prepared the Pilgrims up to a point, but previous English seafarers like Smith had mostly come to this part of the Atlantic coast much earlier in the year. They had never described the blackfish, and never traveled far inland.
In the pilot whales, the Pilgrims saw what Smith told them they would find: an abundant store of value in nature, holding out the promise or the temptation of riches. For the first time, they also realized how unprepared they were, how few tools they had, and how long it would be before anything better than survival could be achieved. A long process of education lay in wait. It was going to be a matter of trial and error, mistakes and successes, improvising and adapting. They took old skills and English models and either made them fit the New World or discarded them if they did not.
Captain Smith made one dangerous omission. He had neither endured nor put into words a northeastern American winter, and while the Pilgrims must have known something about the climate, they had little with which to compare it. Although the Thames sometimes froze, it was a rare event, like the great frost at Christmas in 1607, chronicled in detail precisely because it was unusual. It was not a customary feature, like the ice that blocks rivers in New England between January and March. Cold of a very un-English severity was the second thing the Pilgrims noticed on Cape Cod, straight after the whales.
It began when they had to wade ashore at Provincetown—the earliest detailed chart shows that water deep enough to float a ship began only half a mile from the beach, and even a small boat had to stop a long way out—and then it became steadily more acute. By the first week of December, more than six inches of snow covered the land. In a small boat men found that damp clothing froze on their backs like iron, and coughs and catarrh evolved into fatal illness.
In his account of their first winter in America, Bradford only mentions scurvy by name as a cause of death among the colonists. However, he also refers to the filthy condition of the sick. At sea, for whatever reason, they had escaped the mariner’s scourge of amoebic dysentery, but Bradford’s comments suggest that the disease struck them with its full force after their arrival in New England. If scurvy was the principal agent of mortality, then the dreadful fact is that it could have been avoided. By 1620, ships’ surgeons in the East India service were already well aware that lemon or lime juice prevented the disease, although it took another century or more before the Royal Navy began to carry fruit rations on every long voyage. Dysentery was quite another matter: apart from trying to keep themselves clean, and drinking water to ease the dehydration caused by diarrhea, the Pilgrims could do nothing about it.
By the time the spring returned, forty-four of the passengers had died, and nearly half the crew. The first four to succumb, including Dorothy Bradford, William’s wife, had died before the Pilgrims first saw New Plymouth. The fate of Dorothy Bradford—she fell into the sea and drowned—remains mysterious, but the other three were those we might expect to perish soonest. They were either old or very young. The first was Edward Thomson, a servant, probably in his teens, who died on December 4, but the next was seven-year-old Jasper More, and then James Chilton, on December 8. in his mid-sixties, Chilton was perhaps the oldest man on the Mayflower.3
And yet, as disease began to take its toll, the Pilgrims also made their journeys of discovery. The fourth expedition finally took them to Plymouth Bay, on December 10, and led to their choice of a place to settle. There are two ways to tell the story of what occurred. We can simply follow the familiar sequence of episodes, narrated many times by many writers, as they explored the Cape on foot, and then with the shallop, and fought their first fight against the native people at First Encounter Beach near Wellfleet. Or, alternatively, the opening weeks can be seen as a series of meetings with objects or creatures like the blackfish, phenomena that, like the number of pilot whales, defied an English imagination.
RANGING AND SEARCHING
First, the outline of events. To sustain a colony, the Pilgrims needed timber, game, fresh running water, a flat expanse of earth for corn, shoals of fish, and a harbor—and, if they could find them, a wide river leading inland, and native people willing to sell skins. Some of these elements existed on the Cape, but the full combination most certainly did not. South along the shore, the mouth of the Pamet River was visible from Provincetown, but after a few miles it led to a dead end. It was tidal and salty, and around it the ground was dry. That was the damning flaw of the place: rain simply vanishes into the sandy soil. Provincetown has little water of its own, and although Truro has aquifers, they lie deep beneath the surface.
Added to that, the terrain was exhausting. An outwash of gravel and sand from melting glaciers created the Outer Cape, and to the south it formed a wide, dense belt of low hills in their dozens with no obvious route through them. It was unattractive as a place to settle. Even in 1790, Provincetown had fewer than five hundred inhabitants. The entirety of Cape Cod all the way to Sandwich had little more than seventeen thousand, so that much of the land lay empty.4
The first expedition was simply a landing, fifteen or sixteen armed men going ashore on November 11 to reconnoiter the hook, where they found the black earth that so impressed them. The second was more ambitious, and began on November 15. Again it involved only sixteen men, but over three days they saw their first native people in the distance, found signs of graves and cultivation, and reached the Pamet. Most famously, they discovered a buried cache of corn and a ship’s copper kettle. They filled the kettle with corn and carried it back to the Mayflower slung on a pole between two men to serve as seed the following season. They intended to pay for it, and indeed they did so eventually, but not before the incident caused their clash with the natives.
The shallop remained unfit for use until November 27, but then a third expedition was possible, more than thirty strong. The boat followed the men as they marched along the shore. Again they found corn, and more graves, but also their first native encampment, two houses made from bent saplings covered with mats. They were uninhabited, but filled with bowls, trays, dishes, pots, and an English basket. When they returned to the ship on November 30, they began to debate what they had seen: the time for urgent discussion had arrived, because as the weather grew worse, further missions by sea would become impossible. Supplies were running low, disease began to appear, and the Mayflower could not be relied on to linger on the coast. If they were to leave Provincetown and find a new place to settle, they would have to do so very swiftly.
They decided to make a last journey of discovery, by sea around the inside of the Cape. Most of all, they wanted to reach an estuary, which the second mate of the Mayflower believed he had seen on an earlier voyage. Led by Standish and Carver, but also including Bradford, Howland, and Winslow, the party set out on December 6. They did not find the estuary—none of any size existed nearby—and they lost their mast and were nearly wrecked in a gale at the entrance to Plymouth Bay. But they did find the site of New Plymouth, where at last they landed on December 11. The Mayflower followed on December 16, the Pilgrims began to come ashore, on or near Plymouth Rock, and so the colony began.
New Plymouth did not have an estuary, but it was the best place they could find. Dense woodland lay behind it, and the site had flowing water—as always, Bradford singles out for comment “the runing brooks”—and it had an adequate harbor, ringed by sandbanks but accessible with practice. Inland they found cornfields left by the native people, most of whom had died in the epidemics. It was also defensible, thanks to Burial Hill.
Several hundred yards inland, the hill rose above the cornfields and might serve as a redoubt. This must have seemed all the more necessary, because during this last expedition the Pilgrims had come under attack, at First Encounter Beach. As they broke camp at dawn on the sands, a party of thirty or forty native people attacked them with a hail of arrows. Led by Standish, the party had to fight them off with their muskets.
Such was the bare schedule of the journeys that the Pilgrims made, but their engagement with the Cape took another form as well. There was a narrative, a plot that unfolded as the Pilgrims looked for a suitable site to settle, but they also encountered a succession of new and bewildering images and objects. Of these, by far the most disturbing was a Native American grave that they found on November 30 somewhere in the flat-land along the Pamet valley. Winslow, assuming he was the author of this section of Mourt’s Relation, described it with a precision highly unusual at the time. This was a sign of how odd he felt it to be.
Seeing traces of a recent burial, they began to dig. They found first a mat, then a bow, and then another mat. Beneath it was a board more than two feet long, painted and carved, with incisions or slots at one end that made it resemble a crown. Between the mat they found layers of household goods: bowls, dishes, and trays. Underneath them was another mat, which covered two bundles. The larger one contained a sheet of canvas, a cassock of a kind worn by sailors, and a pair of breeches. Inside them were the skull and almost entirely decomposed body of a man.
To their astonishment, the skull had strands of yellow hair. Around the body there were European goods: a knife, a pack needle for securing baggage, and pieces of iron. Dark red powder, with a strong smell, covered the remains. They found the same powder in the second, smaller bundle, encasing the bones and the head of a small child. Strings and bracelets of white beads enveloped its limbs, and beside the remains was another small bow. The Pilgrims took some of the finest articles and filled in the grave.
Archaeology did not yet exist in England, even in rudimentary form. Nearly forty years passed before a doctor from Norwich, Sir Thomas Browne, published in 1658 the first account of prehistoric and Roman remains plowed up by English farmers. Not until the 1680s did a museum curator in Oxford begin to write reports about stone tools found in the earth. And yet Winslow took notes of painstaking accuracy, giving details that can be exactly verified from later excavations. The twin burial at Pamet closely resembles a similar interment found at Marblehead, near Salem, in 1874. The excavators discovered the same powder and beads, a similar mixture of native and European goods, and the same manner of placing a child beside an adult.5
Perhaps the dead at Marblehead and at Pamet were victims of the epidemics that had swept the coast: the Pilgrims saw many graves, suggesting that some appalling catastrophe had befallen the inhabitants. And yet Winslow displays not so much horror as fascination, as well he might. No contrast could have been greater with the burial practices of his homeland.
By 1620, the churchyard of an English parish remained the resting place of the vast majority—the wealthy had taken over the chancel, inside the church and at the front—but it had become an unholy space, used for keeping geese or pigs or grazing cows. At Sturton in Nottinghamshire, women beat their laundry on a slab in the churchyard, beside a well. Few grave markers of any kind existed: only very rarely does one find a gravestone set up before 1660. If the churchyard dated back to the time of the Norman Conquest, by now it might contain thousands of skeletons, with no record of their resting place. Every plot had many occupants.
After the English Civil War, attitudes began to change, but in the grave digger’s scene in Hamlet, Shakespeare portrayed Jacobean cemeteries as they were, muddy and unkempt, with their scattered bones and skulls and shallow, reused graves. Inside the church, another regime existed for the wealthy, and in the four decades before the Mayflower there was a rush to build carved monuments, with the painted effigies that still survive on so many tombs. Even so, it was the effigy that mattered, and the inscription. The physical remains of the deceased were an irrelevance.6
For Calvinists, this was entirely logical. For them, death was final and absolute, an instantaneous divide, the point at which the soul passed entirely beyond the reach of human beings, either to damnation or to eternal life. It might make sense to erect a carved monument as a commemoration of rank, or to flatter the living members of the family, but caring for the corpse served no purpose. In the graves he found on Cape Cod, Edward Winslow encountered people for whom exactly the opposite was true, for whom the dead might be ever present. For them the ornamentation of the cadaver was a duty. They left precious trading goods with the remains as a mark of respect for the departed.
Within the next three years, Winslow’s readiness to pay close attention to the customs and the language of the native people whom he met came to be an essential asset of the Plymouth Colony. It was critical for their survival. Equally fundamental was another early event: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, that document sometimes exalted as the origin of American democracy, and more often these days dismissed as an irrelevance.
THE MAYFLOWER COMPACT
If the first creatures they saw were the pilot whales, the first thing they did was to sign the compact, before the first men landed, before the women went ashore to wash clothes, and before the carpenter began to reassemble the shallop. Like the blackfish, the compact was a mingling of the familiar and the very new. The Pilgrims took English models, and then radically transformed them to fit new conditions.
Forty-one adult males put their names to it, because Carver and his colleagues wished to put a stop to argument and grumbling in the ranks, dissent that might give rise to mutiny. The problem arose because the Mayflower had strayed north beyond the domain of the Virginia Company, entering territory where the patent for the colony had no legal force. Because of this, says Bradford, some of the “strangers” on the ship—meaning men who had not come from Leiden, but joined the party in England—pointed out that they could not be compelled to obey orders.
So, to maintain unity and discipline, they drafted and signed the compact. When Mourt’s Relation appeared in London, it included the text, but the authors added a preamble that puts the situation very clearly: “it was thought good there should be an association and agreement, that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose.”7 As we shall see in a moment, the words the writers chose were loaded with significance.
The compact was what an English lawyer would call an enabling document. It was not a constitution as such. They drew up a combination or a covenant, creating “a civill bodie politick,” and they gave it the powers to make “just & equall lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions & offices” for the general good of the colony. But they did not say exactly what those rules would be. For this reason, and because it was clearly improvised, it has become commonplace for historians to play down the importance of the document, as though it did not have a fundamental role to play.
It is also fashionable to claim that writers and politicians in the north invented a Pilgrim myth in the nineteenth century. It is said that this Yankee myth gave the Mayflower and New Plymouth far more significance than they deserved, compared with Jamestown, or with the Great Migration of the 1630s. Some argue that the Mayflower Compact was no more than a short-term, temporary measure, drawn up in a hurry, containing nothing new and nothing original. That being so, the argument runs, it could not possibly be the foundation stone of American democracy, but was simply one source among many.
We can debate the legacy of the compact as it was seen by later generations, or we can ask how a Jacobean Englishman or Englishwoman might have regarded it. Did they think it was merely a temporary fix? Or was it much more? Would the Mayflower Compact have struck them as something new and different? If it did, and if it contained some radical elements, going beyond the usual English way of running a town or village, then the case for the compact is proven. If it was new, it was new. If it possessed originality, then it deserves to be given back its status as the earliest manifesto for a distinctive, American form of democratic government.
What did the document mean to William Bradford? It was certainly improvised, but in his eyes there was nothing mythical or temporary about it. For him, the compact always remained fundamental, a permanent, necessary source of authority as long as the colony lasted. If it had simply been a short-term fix, the compact would have ceased to matter in 1630, when the Plymouth Colony obtained a definitive new patent from the Earl of Warwick, as president of the Council for New England. Instead, Bradford and Winslow made it plain that the compact remained very much alive.
In 1636, they codified the rules of the Plymouth Colony in a new Book of Laws. On page one, they called the Mayflower Compact “a solemne & binding combinacon,” and they treated the compact and the Warwick Patent as the double-barreled source of the colony’s right to exist and to run its own affairs. If one or the other could claim seniority, then it was the compact, not the patent. This was because the compact depended on the vote of the governed, while Warwick issued his patent under authority delegated from King Charles.
In the same Book of Laws, they added an extra paragraph that explains how they interpreted the documents. They say that they came to America as “freeborne subjects of the state of England.” Helpfully they explained the meaning of the words. Freedom meant that nobody could force on the colony any “imposicon law or ordnance”—and, incidentally, an imposition meant a tax—except “by consent according to the free liberties of the state & Kingdome of Engl. & no otherwise.” In other words, obedience to the law required freely given consent, just as it did in the paper they signed at Provincetown.
In a crisis, if the Pilgrims could not agree to a law passed in England, and if they had to choose between obedience and liberty, then the king would have to yield. In the Book of Laws, they wrote out the form of words used when every new freeman of the colony swore allegiance to it. All the men pledged “to advance the growth & good of the severall plantations,” but they also swore to be “truly loyall to our Sovereign Lord King Charles.” Some time later, doubtless during the English Civil War, they neatly crossed out the mention of the king. Although the Mayflower Compact began with a promise of loyalty to the monarch, in extremity he could be deleted from the constitution, while the consent of the governed could not. The people outranked the Crown.
All of this happened a very long time after the landing at Cape Cod. It might be thought that the question of resistance to the Crown never arose at the moment when the compact was signed. Actually, it did arise, or almost certainly so, in the mind of William Brewster. Because of his education and his career, Brewster stands out as the man most likely to have drafted the document. He owned works by an author notorious for justifying rebellion in circumstances where the sovereign failed to honor his side of his bargain with his subjects.
In 1622, the archbishop of Canterbury ordered the public burning of books written by a German Calvinist called David Pareus, professor of theology at Heidelberg. They were, said the archbishop, “seditious, scandalous and contrary to the scriptures,” but four volumes by Pareus sat on Brewster’s library shelves at New Plymouth.8 Among them was the most seditious of them all, the professor’s commentary on Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. No book within the Bible carried more weight with the Pilgrims than this one, and David Pareus gave it a startling new interpretation.
In a famous passage, Saint Paul told Christians to obey their rulers, the powers that be, because they were divinely ordained. Boldly, Pareus reread this to mean that the same Christians had a duty to overthrow a tyrant, and especially an irreligious one, because such a man was clearly an enemy of God. “Obedience hath certaine limits,” Pareus wrote. “When tyrants go about to force their subjects to manifest idolatry, or to some wickednesse, against the expresse word of God; in this case the scripture commands us, that in no wayes we obey such tyrannical Edicts, but that every man, according to the condition of his calling, make resistance.”9 Of course, Brewster did not insert anything of such an outspoken kind in the Mayflower Compact. All the same, if this was the world of ideas within which he lived, then we would expect to find them leaving radical traces within the words he did employ. And so we do, though mingled and blended with other language that was more common.
At Provincetown, they had to find a substitute for the patent granted by the Virginia Company. So whoever drafted the compact modeled it partly on the words these patents usually contained. Examples survive, from 1619 and 1622, when the company gave planters the power “to frame and make orders ordinances and constitucions.” Although the original patent granted to the Pilgrims has been lost, it would have included a similar clause. Whoever drafted the compact simply carried over the same language. This was because the need for it arose only from an accident of seafaring, and not from defects in the original document.10
Any educated Jacobean would have noticed something else as well. When the Pilgrims used the term “a civill bodie politick,” and awarded themselves the power to make laws and ordinances, they used phrases from the royal charters that gave English boroughs their rights and powers. Early in the reign of King James, many towns renewed their charters, tightening up the wording to prevent legal challenge by people who, for example, disliked paying local tolls or taxes. They included towns that Brewster and Christopher Jones knew intimately: Doncaster, Harwich, and Retford. All three obtained new charters between 1604 and 1607. If New Plymouth was a sort of colonial borough packaged up and shipped across the Atlantic, then again it made sense to use the same sort of language.
So was the compact trite and commonplace, a ready-made replica of the arrangements by which any town in England already ran its affairs? No, most definitely not. A mass of legalese, designed to thwart any hostile litigation, an English borough charter often ran to four thousand words, twenty times longer than the compact. It was intended to be exclusive. Most of the new charters placed the right to rule in the hands of a few citizens, like the oligarchy to which Jones belonged at Harwich. That was not the case at Provincetown. Brief, clear, more a statement of principles than a charter, the compact carried the signatures of the vast majority of the men on board, and it treated them all equally. Menservants did not sign, and because dates of birth are missing for many passengers, we cannot be certain exactly how many adult males made the crossing. But at the very least the forty-one signatures accounted for 90 percent of the men on the Mayflower.
During the reign of Elizabeth, experiments in democracy took place in small English towns and villages, but in this respect, the number of those who signed, the Mayflower Compact went far beyond them. A case in point was Blyth in Nottinghamshire, three miles from Scrooby. Like the Plymouth Colony, Blyth had a common house, a common store of arms, and an annual election. Every April the townspeople gathered to choose a mayor, and they recorded the outcome in a town book that still survives. In 1587, the lord of the manor of Blyth died without an adult male heir, and the people of Blyth seized their chance to assert themselves.
They rewrote the language used for an election to make it clear that the townspeople could freely elect whomsoever they wished, without following a recommendation from the local landowner. Again, the words they used closely resembled those of the compact. At Blyth, the citizens decided that in future the mayor would be “chossen by the consent of all the inhabitants … he will endeavoure himself to doe the best that he cane for the common wealthe of the towne.” They widened the franchise, from eleven voters in the 1570s to as many as ninety-two in the 1590s. Even so, the electorate represented less than one-third of the adult males at Blyth, so that “all the inhabitants” meant something far less than it did at New Plymouth.11
Although it drew on experiments like the one at Blyth, the compact went much further, simply by allowing every freeman full participation. As for its guiding principles, they flowed from another, deeper source in the political ideas that Brewster came cross either at Cambridge or during his time with William Davison. Brewster, as we saw, owned a copy of the manual of government written by Sir Thomas Smith. In the 1560s and 1570s writers such as Smith and Sir Philip Sidney began to speak of England as though the realm were really a republic, like the ancient city of Rome. Of course they had a queen, but she ruled by way of consent, expressed through Parliament and the Privy Council—or so they suggested. According to Smith, in a sentence evoked at Provincetown in the language of the compact: “A common wealth is called a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenauntes among themselves, for the conservation of themselves aswell in peace as in warre.”12
When the Pilgrims picked the term “association” to describe the document they signed, again they chose a word with a loaded meaning embedded in the politics of the Elizabethans. Only in the 1580s did people start to use the word in this sense, to mean a paper signed by a number of people with a common purpose. This usage of the word became current in the name of the so-called Bond of Association drawn up by the Privy Council in 1584. Drafted by Burghley and Walsingham, it circulated up and down the country, attracting the signatures of thousands of local dignitaries and members of the gentry. They swore to resist by force of arms anybody who made an attempt on the life of Queen Elizabeth, or tried to claim the throne.
Two decades ago, the British historian Patrick Collinson showed that the Bond of Association was itself a republican document. It was drawn up in such a way that, if worse came to worst, and Elizabeth died without an heir, the signatories of the bond would elect a new Protestant sovereign. Brewster entered public service, working for one of Walsingham’s closest aides, during the period when the bond was very much a talking point.
Were all these echoes of earlier documents merely unconscious or coincidental? Perhaps they were: but given what we know about Brewster, it seems unlikely. Assuming that he drafted it, he assembled the Mayflower Compact from a mosaic of the best precedents he could find. He made it simple and clear, but he also filled it with resonance. He did not insist on a religious creed, or require sectarian faith from those who signed it. In 1620, a Roman Catholic could have put his name to it without offending the pope, since all the compact demanded was a brief, ecumenical nod in the direction of King James. It contained not a single phrase with a specifically Puritan meaning or source.*
The Pilgrims drew up the agreement in a new location, at the moment of creation of a new colony. They did so in terms that, two decades later, could be used as a rationale for outright resistance to the Crown. This, the right of disobedience, existed within the language of the Mayflower Compact from the very start. Most radically of all, they produced a document that nearly every man signed, including those who in England were only laborers. This was all very new indeed, as new and different as a school of pilot whales.
THE MEETING WITH SAMOSET
As the winter went on, hardship and deaths continued. After the Mayflower arrived at New Plymouth, five weeks passed before the first Sunday when the Separatists could gather for a Sabbath assembly on land. Until that point, the colonists remained mainly on the ship, where so many of them had died, six in December and another eight in January. In the meantime, they had laid out a settlement with two streets and plots of land around them. On Christmas Day, they began to build a common house to hold stores and provide temporary shelter. They also started to make an emplacement for cannon on the hill.
Thanks to atrocious weather and the toll taken by sickness, each of these tasks took far longer than it should: the common house remained unfinished until January 20. At times as few as six or seven men and women remained on their feet. As the number of deaths neared its peak, they began to see signs of more activity among the native people of the interior. Up to that point, they had caught glimpses of fires in the distance, but now, on February 16, a man out shooting wildfowl saw a band of twelve warriors. He took cover, then hurried back to the colony to sound the alarm. In the next few days the Pilgrims made ready to receive an attack. It was at this point that Jones and his seamen unloaded four pieces of artillery from the ship and dragged them up Burial Hill.
The onslaught never came, but death from disease continued. They were still dying in March, thirteen that month, even as the weather began to brighten. Edward Winslow’s wife, Elizabeth, died on March 24, the last day of the old year 1620, as the English reckoned their calendar at the time. On March 3 they heard birdsong, and on March 7 they planted their first vegetables. On the same day Governor Carver led their first fishing and hunting expedition to Billington Sea and the other ponds close by. Within weeks he too would be dead, apparently from a heart attack while working in the fields in April. Less than two months later, his widow, Katherine Carver, of Sturton, died too.
Bradford never said much about John Carver. Only one seventeenth-century historian gives us even the briefest character sketch, and that was William Hubbard, author of an official history of New England, begun in 1682. However, Hubbard clearly had sources that have since been lost, and so his comments about Carver carry weight. Hubbard writes about his piety, his humility, and his public spirit, but also he refers to the man’s “public purse.” Carver, he wrote, “disbursed the greatest part of that considerable estate God had given him for the carrying on of the interest of the company.”13 Carver also lived long enough to accomplish the principal duty of any colonial governor: diplomatic affairs, the making of pacts and treaties. Shortly before he died, he reached an accord with Massasoit, the foremost sachem of the native people of southeastern New England. It came about by way of the intervention of two intermediaries.
On Friday, March 16, “a fair warm day,” as they completed their fortifications, at last the settlers saw a man break cover close to their huts. He was tall, with long black hair swept back from a shaved forehead, beardless, and almost naked, except for a leather loincloth. He carried a bow and two arrows, one tipped with a warhead and the other not: that was symbolism. This was a man the English mariners on the coast of Maine called “Somerset.” It was no doubt a garbled, joking sailor’s version of whatever his name was in his own language.
Three years later, far away near Boothbay Harbor in Maine, an English naval officer met Somerset, or Samoset, as Winslow knew him. The officer, Captain Christopher Levett, remembered Samoset as a sachem himself. He was a leader among his people, eager to talk and trade beaver pelts, and to make an alliance with Levett against their enemies, the raiding Micmac from farther up the coast. Captain Levett recommended him as a man “very faithfull to the English.” Samoset, Levett said, had “saved the lives of many of our Nation, some from starving, others from killing.”
Samoset also spoke English, learned from the seamen at Monhegan. Already, English and French were becoming the trading dialects of the coast, as the economies of western Europe began to annex the region. Algonquian is a family of different languages, and as Levett pointed out, two native people from settlements separated by as little as seventy miles could understand each other no better than the English could the Welsh. Today, the Native American linguists who keep alive the ancient tongues of Rhode Island or Massachusetts do not claim to know the languages of Maine or Quebec. As Levett remarked, “They were glad to use broken English to expresse their mind each to other.”14
So it was with Samoset. He strode up to the Plymouth colonists, and he began to pour out a description of the coast, its people, its chiefs, and their military resources. By now, he clearly knew that these details fascinated the English, just as they enthralled Ferdinando Gorges at old Plymouth fifteen years before. Samoset asked for beer, and so the Pilgrims gave him brandy: doubtless they and the sailors had long since finished off the Mayflower’s ale. That afternoon Samoset began to explain the politics of the hinterland, and the reasons why the native people had seemed so likely to attack.
He told the Pilgrims that bitter recollections remained, arising from the activities of Thomas Hunt, an earlier visitor. Hunt was a ship’s master who came with Captain John Smith on his voyage to New England in 1614. By the time the Pilgrims came ashore, Hunt himself was dead. He was lost at sea or succumbed to disease in 1619, after a trading voyage or two to Russia: his will survives, and so does a record of the bullion Hunt carried to Archangel. In his lifetime he almost destroyed New England before it began.
Thomas Hunt was a religious man who made bequests to pay for Good Friday sermons by “a godlie preacher” in his hometown.* However, in Cape Cod Bay, at the site of New Plymouth and farther east and around toward Hyannis, under cover of commerce in 1614 Thomas Hunt tricked onto his ship some twenty-seven people. Twenty came from Patuxet, the native name for Plymouth, and seven from among the Nauset, who lived along the Cape. Hunt took them captive and carried them back across the Atlantic, to be sold as slaves in Málaga: as Captain John Smith put it, Hunt “sold those silly Salvages for Rials of Eight.”
Stories of the incident spread around the region, and worse was to follow. Another English skipper massacred a trading party of native people with a barrage of shot from his “murderers,” small shipboard guns carried for use at point-blank range. Because of episodes such as this, in 1620 another ship’s captain sent out by Gorges, Thomas Dermer, very nearly met his end at the hands of the inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard. Not long before the arrival of the Mayflower, he lost all his crew and had to flee south to Jamestown.
It was not surprising, then, that the Plymouth colonists encountered hatred and distrust. However, among the captives taken by Hunt was another native, a man about to join Samoset in helping them bargain with Massasoit. This was Tisquantum, the Native American who became famous as Squanto, the friend of the Pilgrims.15 At Málaga, Spanish monks saved him and his fellow prisoners from slavery, and Tisquantum found his way to London. There he learned English, and met a different kind of merchant, before he shipped back to America with Dermer. Thanks to what he saw by the Thames, he stood ready to mediate between the Pilgrims and the native people inland.
In the meantime, in the same city of London, Thomas Weston faced a gathering crisis of a different kind. As the depression deepened, men like him found their affairs disintegrating. They turned to dangerous expedients, including some that took them outside the law.
* The Mayflower Compact uses the word “covenant” to refer to the agreement between the colonists. Although the word could have religious connotations, equally often it simply meant a legally binding contract.
* Aldeburgh, in Suffolk.