You may guesse in what case we are (for all our fair shewes) when neither Lord Maior, Alderman, farmers no nor whole companies, as the East Indian … are able to hold out and pay their debts.
—JOHN CHAMBERLAIN TO SIR DUDLEY CARLETON, NOVEMBER 10, 16211
Very early one morning, in the darkness between one and two, a barge filled with heavy sacks approached a wharf beside the river Thames. The sacks weighed ten tons, and if any had split or burst, they would have spilled a fine white powder onto the mud or the timbers of the jetty. A group of men waited for the barge at a spot on the north bank almost opposite the Globe Theatre. Their leader was Philemon Powell, aged about twenty-five.
There was, it seems, some delay, an altercation by the water’s edge. At last a deal was struck, and Powell and his accomplices loaded the sacks into carts or wheelbarrows. They trundled them along the lane that sloped up and away from the river toward the sheds and houses of Bread Street Ward, where that night they made their delivery.
On the wharf with Powell was Andrew Weston, younger brother of Thomas. Both men were under surveillance. An informer patrolled the wharf, Brook’s Wharf, between Stew Lane and Queenhithe, a few hundred yards upstream from London Bridge. He spotted Powell and the sacks, which contained alum, more scientifically known as aluminum sulfate. It was a chemical essential for the textile trade, because it helped to fix dyes into woolen cloth.
Smuggling alum was a racket, one of many in Jacobean England, a contraband activity that could yield a profit of nine pounds per ton, before paying off those whom you had to pay off. This, it seems, was one of the ways in which Thomas Weston tried to recoup the losses he made from the voyage of the Mayflower. The legal records describing the incident give it no precise date, but others that survive show that Weston was dealing heavily in alum in the spring of 1621. He had every reason to turn to desperate alternatives, because the expedition to New England had been a commercial fiasco.
As the settlers emerged from their first winter, in London their backers soon learned that the venture had fallen at its first hurdle. The Mayflower made a swift return passage, leaving America on April 5 and docking back in England on May 6, but she came back empty, with neither fish nor fur. That was the worst possible outcome for Weston and his associates. One mishap they could cope with, but only one: the error in navigation, which had caused Jones to disembark his passengers a long way from the intended destination by the Hudson.
The investor group quickly dealt with that. They obtained a new patent for the colony from the Council for New England. The council happily granted the permission required for the Pilgrims to occupy a spot north of the fortieth parallel: the document, the so-called Peirce Patent, hangs today in Pilgrim Hall at Plymouth, Massachusetts. This, however, was just a legal matter, necessary but not sufficient. It did not pay their bills, and as the economy shrank, the investors found their resources diminishing too. Instead of writing off the Pilgrims instantly, they began to assemble finance for a second voyage, to reinforce the colony. Even so, it took another two months to prepare the second ship, the Fortune, and she was small.
She had a volume of only fifty-five tons. Although she carried thirty-five new settlers, she was almost entirely devoid of supplies and trading goods. The Fortune did not reach New England until November. When she did so, at first she hovered oddly around Cape Cod, causing alarm: reports from the native people suggested that she was a hostile French vessel. William Bradford armed his men, loaded the cannon on Burial Hill, and prepared to blow the Frenchman out of the water.
At last the Fortune entered Plymouth Bay, and she was passed as friendly. Her passengers swiftly panicked after seeing the conditions at the colony and after listening to the customary words of encouragement from the Fortune’s crew, seamen as jaundiced as those on board the Mayflower. They very nearly reembarked and left, until the Fortune’s master talked them out of it, promising in an emergency to carry them on down the coast to Virginia. Even so, as Bradford recorded, “ther was not so much as Bisket, cake, or any other victials, neither had they any beding, but some sory things … nor over many cloaths.” But at least they added labor. Almost all the passengers were grown men but young, and they had their uses: one of them was Philip De La Noye, the distant ancestor of Franklin Roosevelt.
In London, the depression worsened. Since England had no banks, there were no banks to fail, but there were many loans to foreclose and many speculators on the brink of ruin. Within the Mayflower investor group, the stronger men such as Pocock and Beauchamp clung on, and staked their hopes on the Fortune, but they had built sound businesses with deep roots in provincial supply and demand. Thomas Weston had not. He spiraled down toward insolvency. Worse still, he offended the authorities, by way of “wilful contempt and abuse offered to the State,” as they put it when later they issued a warrant for his arrest.2
Was Thomas Weston a rogue? Perhaps, but if he was, he had good company. That year, many men saw their businesses go under, and it should not be surprising that commercial ethics went the same way as their money. In the same month that the Fortunereached New Plymouth, the Lord Mayor of London fled his creditors, emptying his house and vanishing one dark night. As for the alum scam, it was commonplace: in 1620, the Crown prosecuted more than a hundred merchants, up and down the length of the kingdom, for illegally shipping in four thousand tons of the stuff. The fraud, if that is what it was, arose because of the way in which the Crown had riddled the economy with perverse regulations and monopolies, creating incentives for cheating.3
There were alum mines in Yorkshire, and they were considered to be strategic assets for the kingdom. Sadly, the owners failed to make a profit. So King James took the mines into state control and then farmed them out to a private monopoly, which paid him a rent. To ensure that they could afford to do so, James banned imports of European alum—the Pope, as it happened, owned the best available—and he insisted that English customers pay a fixed price per ton: twenty-six pounds. Meanwhile, the English monopoly exported its alum to continental Europe and dumped it on the market for eleven pounds less.
So, of course, men such as Weston picked it up abroad, mainly in Rouen, and shipped it back. They passed it off as Yorkshire alum bought legally in England, and sold it for twenty-four pounds per ton to customers in the cloth trade. This could easily be done because English alum was white, while the pope’s was red.
Of course a racket as lucrative as this could not be expected to last. Unhappily for Weston, in April 1621 the king gave a new patent to a man called Guest, making him an official searcher for alum. Guest would receive a reward for each ton of contraband he found. A copy of the patent survives, in the immaculate archives of the Lord Treasurer of the time, Lionel Cranfield, along with a set of documents that relate to Weston. The informer at Brook’s Wharf contacted Guest, it appears, and Guest filed a lawsuit against Weston in June in the Court of the Exchequer, the forum that handled matters relating to royal revenues. Guest demanded unpaid customs duties on the smuggled alum, and tried to impound the consignment. Predictably, Weston had bought it on credit: if he lost the case he faced ruin.
For merchants such as he, reliant on IOUs, the only working capital available was reputation. Once that was gone, they were virtually doomed. Of course, the Exchequer jury found against him, and so Thomas Weston’s affairs began to unravel. For one thing, the two men who bought the alum from Powell were throwing all the blame in his direction, insisting that Weston alone was liable for the heavy penalty imposed by the court. It came to no less than £345, a huge multiple of the profit that Weston had hoped to make. The sum was far beyond his reach.
Weston survived for a little while, since he had a few weak cards left to play, and a last flimsy line of credit, but the inevitable could not be delayed for long. As we shall see, Weston reached his lowest ebb in the early months of 1622. At the same time the Plymouth Colony very nearly collapsed, and for reasons that were closely related. In the meantime, before the Fortune arrived, Bradford and his comrades had begun to lay some foundations for the future. Even so, nearly seven years of uncertainty lay ahead, until at last the turning point came in 1628.4
SAMOSET AND TISQUANTUM
When the Pilgrims met Samoset in March 1621, they gained access to the networks of trade between the native people, the French, and the English that circled back and forth along the shores of the Gulf of Maine. This was not a new phenomenon. At least as early as the 1590s, sachems from among the Micmac to the east and north had begun to act as middlemen, translators, and procurers of beaver pelts. However, there was something very unusual about Tisquantum. It swiftly emerged after Samoset introduced him to the Pilgrims on March 22. It transformed a fraught and dangerous situation.
In the six days since he first came striding out of the forest, Samoset had been entirely friendly, but on this part of the coast his value was limited. He was not a local man. With him, on March 18, he had brought five warriors: tall long-haired men like him, but dressed differently, with deerskins wrapped around their shoulders and long leggings that Winslow likened to the trousers worn by the Gaelic Irish. They offered the Pilgrims a few skins, but these exchanges remained hesitant on the English side, with Carver and his men still nervous about the danger of an attack. At one point, two or three warriors appeared a few hundred yards away on the top of Watson’s Hill, making threatening gestures, until Standish took out a patrol and warned them off with his muskets. A better intermediary was needed.
Tisquantum arrived with Samoset, bringing a few skins to trade and some fresh dried red herring—Winslow carefully noted details such as these—and he too spoke English. In his case, however, he had learned it in a remarkable location, while staying at the London home of John Slany, a merchant who ranked far above the likes of Weston in the commercial hierarchy.
Slany lived on Cornhill, at the very center of the City, barely five minutes’ walk from Bread Street. Since 1610, he had been treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, a small colony, even smaller than New Plymouth. It was so small that even in 1617 the annual supply ship from England carried among its stores only twenty-four gallons of beer.
Slany owed his stature not to this disappointing venture but to his position among the Merchant Taylors, the largest of the London livery companies. We do not know the exact dates of Tisquantum’s period in London, but it seems to have been in 1617. In that year Slany, aged about fifty, served as one of the company’s three wardens, while in 1619 the Merchant Taylors chose him as their master, a post carrying so much prestige that the Dutch ambassador attended his election.
A man of substance, John Slany had close ties to the largest clients of Christopher Jones: in 1619, Jones’s associate William Speight joined the ruling committee of the same company, and John Slany’s brother Humphrey imported wine on the Mayflower less than nine months before she sailed to America. The records show that Slany knew John Pocock well, since Pocock was a rising man among the Merchant Taylors. We can also be sure of something else: that if the social life of the City of London bore any resemblance to the same thing today, then Tisquantum would have swiftly become a celebrity, in the street, in taverns, or paraded at formal dinners.5
Was it simply a coincidence that Tisquantum turned up again at New Plymouth in the spring of 1621, just as the Pilgrims emerged from their first winter? Perhaps: but it seems equally likely that ships which arrived off Maine or Virginia in March knew about the Mayflower, that news about her traveled up and down the coast, and that Tisquantum came looking for the Pilgrims when he heard the word “London.” At this point, Jones and his command were still anchored in Plymouth Bay. As soon as Jones and Carver heard the name “Slany” from Tisquantum, they would have known that they had found someone they could trust.
Tisquantum spoke the language of the Wampanoag, the people led by Massasoit. He could describe in detail the city from which Jones had sailed, with its merchants, its ships, its king, its wine, and its weapons of war. He could also explain that while most Englishmen might be vicious hypocrites like Thomas Hunt, an occasional exception could be found. At the Newfoundland Company, Slany gave specific instructions that native people should be treated with respect.
However Tisquantum came to be there at exactly the right moment, he made the essential introduction to Massasoit. That same afternoon of March 22, with sixty of his warriors the sachem himself appeared above the settlement, most likely again on Watson’s Hill. Actors in a pioneering drama, playing parts in a scene to be repeated many times in the ensuing history of the British Empire, from the Ganges and Lucknow to the African veld, the Pilgrims made peace on behalf of the Crown of England.
They had no Maxim guns or Enfield rifles, but they did have Standish, his muskets, and the ordnance unloaded from the Mayflower. They also had a small stock of trading goods, knives, bracelets, a copper chain for Massasoit, and alcohol too: Winslow mentions the brandy they gave the sachem to drink. And, of course, they had Tisquantum as translator.
In the name of King James, Edward Winslow crossed the Town Brook toward Massasoit and then opened the negotiations, offering trade, a peace treaty, and an alliance against his enemies. This Massasoit required, because of the dangers he faced from his enemies to the west, the Narragansett of Rhode Island. Hostages were exchanged as sureties, with Winslow remaining on the perilous side of the water. Then Massasoit forded the stream, under an armed escort led by Standish, and walked up the short but steep slope toward the English houses.
His conference with John Carver took place in a half-finished dwelling in the colony, where the Pilgrims had placed a green rug and some cushions. Again, it was a scene awaiting reenactment many times in a later period. To the beat of a drum, Governor Carver kissed the hand of Massasoit. As the sachem returned the compliment, they sat down on the cushions and the rug, and Massasoit ate and drank the food and liquor he was offered.
According to Mourt’s Relation, the deal they struck contained six heads of agreement: essentially, a pact of nonaggression, and an alliance against enemies who might attack either the Pilgrims or Massasoit and the Wampanoag. We have to say “according to,” because no record exists from the side of Massasoit to show how he understood the terms of the arrangement. As Mourt’s Relation also emphasizes, at this early stage the language barrier remained high. Tisquantum lacked a perfect command of English. Although in London some men had studied the languages of the Algonquians, the vocabulary they knew came from Virginia, where the idioms and diction were entirely different.
For the short term, the agreement reached on March 22 evidently marked a turning point, since the military threat from Massasoit fell away. That is as much as we can honestly say. The peace held: but how and why did it do so? Even Bradford, describing it more than two decades later, offered no explanation. The reality, perhaps, was that the English at New Plymouth had accepted a territorial boundary, whether they understood it or not.
They were about to learn far more about the geography of the land they entered. They would soon see the limits it placed on them, but also the opportunities it offered.
THE MISSION TO MASSASOIT
Even today, in a car or on a bicycle and with a map, you may lose your way very quickly in the labyrinth of bogs, woods, and hillocks that stretch away west and south behind the town of Plymouth. Like the interior of Cape Cod, it was a very un-English landscape, but with an extra difficulty: here the ocean was invisible, and without it the land offered no directions.
Follow the Town Brook on foot, as the Pilgrims would have done, and after a mile and a half you will come to a spot near a grove of majestic pines where suddenly the vegetation thins and a horizon appears. This is the place where the brook flows out of Billington Sea, the wide still pond where John Carver went to hunt.
Then on the far side of the water, the terrain becomes entirely incomprehensible. Today, bulldozers have opened clearings many hundreds of yards wide to make artificial bogs for growing cranberries, separated from the road by the narrow slits of drainage ditches. A skirt of suburban housing encircles the rim of Billington Sea. Even so, it is easy to understand why the Pilgrims did not try to cross this landscape until the midsummer of 1621, and with a native guide.
In hollows in the forest lie pond after pond—Darby Pond, Ricketts Pond, Trockle Pond, and many others with no name on the map—and since one pond, ridge, and thicket looked very much like another, the risk of losing their way again was simply too great. Even the native guides sometimes strayed off course, in the dark or when the weather was poor.
If there was a clue to the topography, perhaps it lay in the fact that a watershed existed on a belt of high ground rising to two hundred feet, about three miles west of Billington Sea. A man could find his way out of the maze simply by following brooks downstream: except that the streams lose themselves in swamps.
If you chose the wrong one, you would end up far off course, in the river valleys leading over into Rhode Island. Nor was the water safe to drink. Winslow noted that the native people took it only from the headwaters near a spring, because the gradients were shallow and animal droppings could easily poison a sluggish stream.
Fifteen miles of country such as this separated the colony from Nemasket, now known as Middleborough, the first stop on the trail that led inland. Winslow called it “a town under Massasaoit,” but the name Nemasket seems in fact to refer to a tract of land, not a settlement. It was defined not by ownership or title but by its physical character and resources. It means a fishing place, and indeed Nemasket was a low-lying spot, surrounded by meadows and swamps, in the basin of the Taunton River, which flows into Narragansett Bay. The Pilgrims first saw it on the afternoon of July 3, on their way to a second meeting with Massasoit, at his summer base forty miles from Plymouth, between the sites of modern Providence and Newport.
By now, Bradford was worried about the corn harvest. So he would have been at Austerfield, since midsummer was the time in England when grain and bread prices peaked, as the last season’s corn was exhausted. Tisquantum had shown the settlers how to plant and fertilize maize the Native American way, in small mounds mingled with nitrogen-fixing beans and squash, manured with fish. However, the harvest was still a month or so away, and Bradford feared that he would be unable to pay debts to the native people who came to trade at New Plymouth. So he decided to send Winslow on a mission to Massasoit to explain the situation politely, and to ask him to limit the number of visitors to those who brought skins. He also wanted help in finding the Cape Cod people from whom the Pilgrims had taken corn in November, so that they could also repay that debt.
The visit was successful, a matter of gift giving, tobacco smoking, singing, games, and a demonstration of skill with firearms by Winslow’s men. Massasoit willingly agreed to do as they asked, and Winslow went home, arriving back at New Plymouth on July 7. The wider significance of the episode lies in the superb description of the country given by Winslow, and published the following year as part of Mourt’s Relation.
In England, narratives of travel had become popular, and Winslow had served his apprenticeship with a printer called John Beale, who specialized in the genre. Beale counted among his authors Thomas Coryate, who walked all the way from Constantinople to the court of the Great Mogul at Agra and then sent his journals home on an East India Company ship. Perhaps Beale’s most prestigious title appeared in 1617, when Winslow was still with him. The work of another travel writer, it was a magnificent edition of the journeys of Fynes Moryson. It was from this book that Winslow learned that the Irish wore trousers.* Moryson served as a soldier in Ireland under Queen Elizabeth, rising to become secretary to the English commanding officer against the Earl of Tyrone. His account of Ireland remains a leading source for Irish history, not least because it describes the Gaelic way of fighting a guerrilla war in bogs and forests.
Hence, when Winslow came to tell his story, he knew the value of precise observation of military affairs, an alien culture, and a foreign landscape. Ireland’s pattern of settlements, its land tenure, its language, and its mobile cattle farming differed radically from England’s. At Nemasket, and then later around the Mystic River north of Boston, Edward Winslow encountered another highly distinctive way of life, as odd to English eyes as that of the Irish. Like Moryson, he took copious notes recording its characteristics.6
Guided by Tisquantum, Winslow reached Nemasket after a six-hour trek. The first thing he noticed was the agriculture. Maize was growing in abundance—from eighty yards, one of his party shot a crow that was damaging the crop—but besides corn bread the native people gave him shad roe and acorns. At sunset he saw men catching bass at a fish weir on the Taunton River. The following day they reached the tideway, and Winslow carefully recorded this too. It was essential to know how easily a ship or a shallop could ascend the river, since French skippers were known to use Narragansett Bay and might either attack Massasoit or compete for his friendship.
Farther downstream, they came upon more food, men and women carrying baskets of crabs and shellfish, and at the next settlement the people gave them oysters. Winslow soon recognized that despite the variety of things to eat, at this season calories and protein were in relatively short supply. At Massasoit’s settlement, some forty people, including the English, had to dine on two large fish caught by the sachem himself.
However, Winslow could see equally well that they could tolerate a period of shortage before the harvest, provided all the resources of the land were mobilized. The men and women whom he met were living active, energetic lives with few signs of hardship. And in due course, when the harvest came, the Pilgrims discovered that the outcome was much better than they could have expected.
They found that an acre of maize produced far more nutrition than an acre of wheat or rye in the environs of a place like Austerfield. In the spring, they planted only twenty acres of maize, and another six of English barley and peas, the latter with seeds imported on the Mayflower. In England, even before allowing for rents and tithes, a plot of land this size sown with wheat would barely feed twenty people, at most, and the farmer required additional meadow and pasture to feed his livestock. In America, using the methods learned from Tisquantum, the Pilgrims achieved maize yields that were high enough to satisfy nearly three times that number of settlers. Tithes, rents, and landlords were blissfully absent.
“Our corn did prove well,” said Winslow, describing their first harvest with British understatement. They had every reason to celebrate in the autumn, with the festivities commemorated by today’s Thanksgiving. Soon the abundance of New England became a common theme in accounts of the new colonies. So much so that thirty years later, in 1651, an English writer called for farmers at home to copy the techniques used across the Atlantic, because of the high yields extracted from “Indian Corne” by using fish fertilizer on spring-sown crops.
He gave a long list of American produce—pumpkins, squashes, watermelons, and whortleberries—that he wanted to see grown in old England.
Cranberries he liked best of all, a fruit “as big and red as a cherry … very good against the scurvy and very pleasant in tarts.” However, all of this had to be learned from experience, and abundance had to be re-created anew each year: the native people they met could only live as they did because of centuries of effort and self-education.7
Even in southern New England the quality of the soil varied immensely from place to place, and some spots were far less fertile than others. The wide belt of land behind Billington Sea was a case in point, a place where the sandy earth drains far too rapidly, creating a thin reddish brown topsoil, far too dry and too acidic for farming. Because of distance and the topography, it was impractical to fetch fish to fertilize the ground, or cartloads of crushed oyster shells to neutralize its chemistry, techniques available on the coastal strip. Inland this could not be done, and so the forest remained wilderness, a wide buffer zone between the Pilgrims and Massasoit.
During the months that followed Winslow’s mission to Massasoit, the Pilgrims began to learn that the land they had entered consisted of a mosaic of environments. They often varied profoundly from each other, but they also differed in their combination of contrasts and similarities with landscapes at home in the old country. At Nemasket and around the Taunton River, they entered a region that would have made a far better place to settle, thanks to its waterways and the diversity of food sources available in the estuaries feeding down into Narragansett Bay. This was country an Englishman could recognize.
It had affinities with the wetlands Bradford knew from eastern England, where in 1620 there still existed a way of life not unlike the customs of Massasoit and his people. Eels, cockles, and Whitstable oysters, as any Londoner could tell you, were for centuries a staple of the eastern English diet as well. All the same, and attractive though it was, the estuarine zone west of New Plymouth was off-limits, the domain of Massasoit. It was also insecure, because of the proximity of the hostile people beyond him.
As they continued to explore, the Pilgrims ventured as far as Nauset, near the elbow of Cape Cod. That too was territory they could not use, but for different reasons. In July, the teenage John Billington, from an English family of fen dwellers, made the mistake of trying to explore alone the enveloping tract south of New Plymouth. The boy wandered off and lost his way. He survived for five days on berries, until he met some native people. They bundled him off to the east, along Cape Cod, and deposited him with Aspinet, the sachem of the country around the modern towns of Orleans and Eastham.8
By way of Massasoit, word reached the Pilgrims of his whereabouts, and so a party set out from New Plymouth by boat to find him. Pausing along the way at Cummaquid, the place now known as Barnstable, they heard more stories of the crimes of Thomas Hunt when they met a weeping old woman whose three sons had been among his captives. It was a time for inadequate apologies from the English—“we gave her some trifles, which somewhat appeased her,” as Mourt’s Relation puts it—and a moment for recognizing that diplomacy had its limits.
When they reached Aspinet, they encountered suspicions that could not be allayed entirely. These were the people from whom they had taken corn the previous November, and with whom they had clashed at Wellfleet. As they beached their boat on the shore, the Pilgrim delegation found themselves surrounded by warriors, including a man who had owned some of the stolen corn. They promised to pay him back after the harvest, but their attempts to trade for fur yielded very little.
As night fell, down to the water came Aspinet, escorting the young John Billington. With him came a band numbering one hundred, half of them armed with bows and arrows and half of them not. The armed men cautiously kept their distance, while the unarmed contingent accompanied Aspinet to the boat, where they handed over the boy, his neck adorned with beads. In return the Pilgrims gave English knives to Aspinet and to one of his people who had looked after the youth. There the matter ended, among promises of peace but little warmth. Off the Pilgrims sailed to Plymouth, stopping again at Cummaquid to refill their water bottles and cement their relations with the local sachem.
The Nauset affair had another implication. Evidently, the Pilgrims could not expect to enjoy here the amicable alliance they had built with Massasoit. Over and above that, Aspinet had also barred them from the excellent habitat that existed beyond the beach. To the east, behind Eastham and Orleans and on the Atlantic side of Cape Cod, lies Nauset Harbor, a place of great natural beauty that the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain had surveyed many years before.
It was a locale so appealing that many years later, in 1644, the Plymouth Colony very nearly decided to move there, deserting entirely the Town Brook and Burial Hill. Defensible and sheltered by a barrier beach, the harbor at Nauset possessed resources like Narragansett Bay, if on a smaller scale: freshwater from ponds and streams inland, bay scallops, plenty of clams and mussels, and soil richer than elsewhere on the Cape. This too, however, lay off-limits to the Pilgrims in 1621, securely held as it was by Aspinet.
At Nauset they also learned that their ally Massasoit had difficulties of his own. Just as in Ireland chieftains like Tyrone were not absolute rulers, but men first among equals, so Massasoit was in reality the leading man among a confederation of sachems. They owed him loyalty but not obedience. He did not rule his territory from a capital. Instead, he and his people moved as and when they needed to, with seasonal settlements made up of houses that could be dismantled and shifted as rapidly as they were built.
From Aspinet, and then at New Plymouth, the Pilgrims heard two extra pieces of news, alarming but informative, adding more detail to the picture they were assembling of the land they had entered. First, they learned that the Narragansett had invaded Massasoit’s territory and toppled him—or so it seemed, since Massasoit had disappeared. Second, they heard that another sachem of the Wampanoag, a man called Corbitant, had staged a coup d’état at Nemasket. He seized Tisquantum and two other men friendly to the Pilgrims, Hobbamock and Tokamahamon, holding a knife to Hobbamock’s chest. Somehow, Hobbamock escaped and fled the fifteen miles to New Plymouth, where he brought word that Tisquantum was most likely dead.
On August 14, amid pouring rain, Standish marched out of the colony with a rescue party of between ten and fourteen armed men. His orders were simple: capture Corbitant, and cut off his head if it turned out that he had killed Tisquantum. About three miles from Nemasket they halted and rested until nightfall, planning to surprise Corbitant by surrounding his house at midnight. Hobbamock was guiding them, but in the dark and in the rain he lost the path. When they picked it up again, they were so tired, wet, and dispirited that Standish fell his men out to eat the thin rations in their packs. Rested and refreshed, they pressed on, reached the house, and encircled it.
Standish forced an entry, only to find the house full of men, women, and frightened children. In the confusion, three of them slipped away and received sword or bullet wounds from the men outside. On the inside, two of the English panicked and let off their firearms, terrifying the occupants, who screamed for mercy while the women among them clung to Hobbamock.
As the smoke cleared, and Standish searched the house, Hobbamock explained that all they wanted was Tisquantum and Tokamahamon. It soon became clear that neither was dead. Corbitant had done no more than threaten them. Hobbamock climbed onto the roof and called out for both men, who soon appeared. Meanwhile, Corbitant’s men had fled, and he was nowhere to be found.
It also emerged that reports of Massasoit’s defeat had been exaggerated. His whereabouts were still unclear, but he was alive and remained the grand sachem of the Wampanoag. Chaotic though the incident was, the affair at Nemasket served its purpose by making it plain that Tisquantum and others under Pilgrim protection were untouchable, by force of English arms. On September 13, Corbitant was one of nine sachems, from as far away as Martha’s Vineyard, who apparently signed a treaty at New Plymouth making peace with the Pilgrims and swearing allegiance to King James. We have to say “apparently” because, again, we cannot know what this treaty signified to men such as Corbitant, or how they would have defined loyalty to a distant English king. Neither Bradford nor Winslow mentions this treaty specifically, and the only record comes from a book published nearly fifty years later, in 1669, by Bradford’s stepson. No text in Corbitant’s language exists.
And yet something important had clearly occurred, the passing of another landmark, whatever it meant to those involved on the native side. Immediately afterward, the Pilgrims felt confident enough to send an expedition northward. They intended to make peace and to trade for beaver fur with the native people of “the place by the great hills,” the meaning of the word “Massachusetts,” the people among the marshes and estuaries surrounding the modern city of Boston, and along the valley of the Mystic River. This was an episode filled with meaning, for what it revealed by way of tragedy and anticipation.
THE GRAVE OF NANEPASHEMET
On October 21, 1862, on a farm in what is now the Boston suburb of West Medford, some workmen were removing topsoil when, less than three feet down, they uncovered human bones. They found the remains of four adults and a child, buried on gently sloping land not far from the body of water now known as Lower Mystic Lake. At that time, the Middlesex Canal ran for twenty miles between the Mystic River and the Merrimack, linking Boston to the mill town of Lowell. The canal passed close to the spot where the graves were found.
One of the skeletons far surpassed the others in the quantity and richness of the goods buried alongside it. The bones were those of a man of about sixty, crouched on his side in the familiar, fetal position, his head facing westward. Among the items beside him were an iron arrowhead, a stone knife, and a soapstone pipe nearly six inches long, with a mouthpiece made of finely rolled and beaten copper. Nearby lay a matted bunch of deer’s hair, all that survived from a tobacco pouch. It contained a substance that still smoked when they applied a lit match.
The farm belonged to a family called Brooks, Massachusetts politicians and heroes of the Revolutionary War. Among them was the Reverend Charles Brooks, a minister and local historian. He swiftly recognized the importance of such a discovery in this spot. Around Medford, farmers often plowed up stone drills and arrowheads, and Brooks knew that just before the arrival of the Pilgrims the valley of the Mystic was densely inhabited by native people. They were the Pawtucket, led by a great sachem called Nanepashemet.
His name meant “Moon Spirit.” At his death in 1619 or thereabouts, Nanepashemet commanded allegiance across a great swath of land that stretched as far west as the Connecticut valley at Deerfield. His influence extended from the Charles River in the south as far as the Piscataqua River and New Hampshire in the north. Before the epidemics, tens of thousands of people had made their home here, owing loyalty to the Moon Sachem.
Brooks sent the skeleton with the pipe to Harvard, where the university had recently set up its Museum of Comparative Zoology. In December 1862, he spoke about the find at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, speculating that the bones from what he called the “Indian Necropolis” belonged to Nanepashemet himself.9 This may have been wishful thinking, but there could be no doubt that the land around the Mystic ponds had once been a Native American stronghold. Twenty years later, workmen digging another hole for the Brooks family at West Medford came upon eighteen more skeletons, with weapons and tobacco pipes, dating, it seems, from the earliest period of contact with Europeans.
Nothing remains, barring a street called Winslow Avenue, to record the first visit made by the English to the tomb of Nanepashemet, on September 21, 1621, but the early settlers understood the importance of the place. Nearly a decade later, when the Massachusetts Bay Company began to allocate slices of land to its investors, they gave the north bank of the Mystic to one of their richest supporters at home, Matthew Cradock. The choice of this spot for Cradock’s plantation showed just how attractive the land was felt to be. Its qualities were equally clear to the Pilgrims from the moment they first saw it. In order to reach it, however, they had to first leave the sphere of influence of Massasoit and enter what might be hostile territory.
Bradford picked ten men, with Tisquantum and two other native people as interpreters, and on September 18 he sent them north by boat to find a woman. They were looking for the widow of Nanepashemet, known to the English as the Squa Sachem. Because she outlived her first husband by more than three decades, she may have been no more than thirty at the time, and like Massasoit she had her enemies.
Her late husband, Nanepashemet, had not died from natural causes. It seems that the Micmac from the east and north had probed this far along the coast and killed him during a raid. Because the Pilgrims left only a brief account of their visit to the Mystic valley—even combined, the two accounts left by Bradford and Winslow run to fewer than thirteen hundred words—it is hard to say how much they knew about this before they set off. But it looks as though they saw an opportunity to replicate the alliance they had made with Massasoit, offering the Squa Sachem a measure of protection, backed by English guns and ammunition.10
On the morning of September 19, the Pilgrim expedition landed somewhere on the shore south of Boston. They aimed to make contact with Obbatinewat, the most northerly of the sachems who looked to Massasoit as leader. This they did only to find that while he was friendly, he too lived in fear of the Micmac, and he had his differences with the widow of Nanepashemet. Nevertheless, he agreed to help, and on the twentieth they crossed the bay between the islands that dotted Boston Harbor. They sent out scouts to reconnoiter the country on the other side. On the twenty-first, they went ashore, on one or the other bank of the Mystic River—it could have been either, because, as its name implies, Medford was a crossing place—and then they marched inland.
Today, thanks to cars and to a dam named after Amelia Earhart, the river valley has been tamed or violated, depending on your point of view. Floods no longer spill over the marshes and meadows as once they did, and the Atlantic tide no longer gives the Mystic Lakes a saline tang, as it would have done in 1621. the water is clear and fresh to the taste. However, enough of the topography remains intact, even beneath the avenues of Medford, to explain the area’s immediate appeal to any Jacobean Englishman with an eye for land.
Edward Winslow mentions two hills. Nanepashemet had lived on one of them, in a house raised on a wooden scaffold built on planks and poles. On the other, where apparently he lost his life, there was another dwelling, abandoned after his death. Nearby the Pilgrims found his tomb. It lay in a glen or a valley, inside a fort protected by a high palisade, by a ditch four feet deep crossed by a single footbridge. Inside was the house where the Moon Sachem lay buried.
It may never be possible to know the locations exactly, since it seems that only rudimentary maps survive from the colonial period. But in 1865 the Pilgrim historian Henry Martyn Dexter identified the site of the first hill as Rock Hill, beside the Mystic. There, ten minutes’ walk east of the commuter rail station at West Medford, it can still be found, and it made an obvious bastion. A steep granite outcrop, softened by lichen and partially obscured by modern houses, birch trees, and Norway maples, Rock Hill climbs in steps and ledges to a height of more than a hundred feet above the flat bottom of the river valley.11
At its base runs the Mystic Valley Parkway, wide and noisy but not quite as poisoned by gasoline as it might seem at first. Undeterred by the automobile, in late October a squawking colony of migrating waterfowl live between the road and the river, Canada geese, feeding in their dozens. A thin covering of grass extends across the valley bottom, but a single scoop of soil shows that the earth is a dark alluvium which made this an ideal place to grow corn. Winslow mentioned the crops of maize, and later English visitors described the splendid fishing hereabouts, and the game that filled the woodlands.
On arrival, the Pilgrim party looked for the Squa Sachem, but instead they met the frightened survivors of the people of Nanepashemet. They were mostly women, with their harvest only just complete, the corn in heaps. The Englishmen did their best to calm them down, and a rapport of some kind was established. According to Winslow’s narrative, the women boiled cod for the colonists, but it took time to persuade them to summon down their menfolk to open a trading relationship. When at last one man came, he too shook and trembled in fear. He was prepared to sell skins, but he would not say where the Squa Sachem had gone.
According to Winslow, Tisquantum suggested stealing the skins, because the man and the women were hostiles. It seems that the Pilgrims did not follow his advice. Even so, the women sold the coats from off their backs, coat beaver perhaps, the best kind of pelt for a hat, and then they covered their nakedness with branches. As Winslow put it, “They are more modest than some of our English women are.” Still the Squa Sachem remained elusive, and that was the end of the expedition. That night, with rations running low, the Pilgrims set sail back to New Plymouth.
Ruefully, they took with them the realization that this, the hinterland of Boston, offered the environment that should have been theirs from the outset, much more suitable for livestock, corn, and hunting than the terrain surrounding the Plymouth Colony. They had also seen the route of what later became the Middlesex Canal: a natural highway along woodland paths toward streams and rivers leading to far better beaver country than the sandy wastes of southern Massachusetts. In the words of William Bradford, “They returned in saftie, and brought home a good quantity of beaver, and made reporte of ye place, wishing they had been ther seated.”12 Nevertheless, they had done the best they could, and they had found the commodity that the investors in England wanted most.
THE FATE OF THE FORTUNE
After the commercial failure of the Mayflower’s voyage, Bradford and the Pilgrims knew that it was imperative to get a cargo of fur and timber back to London as soon as possible. They swiftly turned the Fortune around and sent her home with pelts acquired along the Mystic River and from Massasoit. After giving his sermon, Robert Cushman sailed back with her on December 13, 1621, taking two hogsheads of beaver skins, otter skins, clapboard, and sassafras, worth about four hundred pounds. Then, five weeks later, disaster struck her too, when on January 19 she met a French warship off the coast of the Vendée, to the north of La Rochelle.
Cushman and the Fortune were unlucky, but the circumstances were typical of the period. Navigation remained imperfect, and naval affairs were always liable to disrupt or divert the path of western enterprise. The French skipper caught them not far from the fortified Île d’Yeu, but this lies more than 350 sea miles from Land’s End and the Lizard Peninsula. It seems that the Fortune had made a familiar error. She mistook the long snout of Brittany for the southwestern end of England, and then she strayed off down the French Atlantic coast at the worst possible time.
Under the law of the sea, even though England and France were at peace a French captain could legally seize the Fortune if she was a pirate, or in reprisal for plunder taken by English ships, or if she was aiding France’s enemies. Only two months previously, as part of their defiance of Louis XIII, the Huguenots of La Rochelle had sent out their armée navale to fight the royal fleet, and given it a thrashing. The king’s ships fled back into harbor, while the Huguenots prowled up and down the coast. The fortress on the Île d’Yeu remained in the hands of the Crown, but any English vessel coming close was liable to search and seizure in case she was ferrying supplies to the rebels. The French warship stopped and boarded the Fortune and carried her back to the island.
It soon emerged that she was neither a pirate nor carrying contraband. All the same, the French governor seized her guns, cargo, and rigging. He locked her master in a dungeon and kept Cushman and her crew under guard on board the vessel. He also confiscated the manuscript of Mourt’s Relation. After thirteen days, he let them go, with the book but minus the beaver skins. They made it back into the Thames on February 17, 1622. They found commerce in London paralyzed by the depression and the Mayflower investors in deep trouble, and none more deeply so than Thomas Weston.13
By this time he was already nearly ruined, and the loss of the Fortune’s beaver fur dealt the final blow. When the alum racket blew up in his face the previous summer, Weston wrote one IOU after another as he tried to carry on trading, but he had very nearly reached his limit. For many years, he had expected the Pilgrims’ friend Edward Pickering to guarantee his debts, but by the time the Mayflower reached America, their ties were already weakening. Each man came to distrust the other. In March 1621, Pickering came over to London to try to settle their differences, and an agreement was patched together; but as his problems mounted, Weston continued to issue bills of exchange, which he expected Pickering to honor. By early 1622, the relationship had collapsed entirely, after a heated argument in London. Weston killed it for good by having Pickering arrested for debt, and at about the same time he broke with the rest of the Mayflower investors. He sold his share in the venture for whatever they would give him. By this time, the Shrewsbury draper John Vaughan was chasing Weston for payment for a consignment of Welsh cotton, and he owed still more money to the men who had bought his smuggled alum and to the Crown. The authorities were determined to recover Weston’s unpaid fines and customs duties.
Few men attempted anything as daring or as dangerous as his next maneuver. As the Fortune docked in London, Weston made one bold last gamble. The records of what happened remain in Cranfield’s papers, as crisp and legible now as they were four hundred years ago.
Weston had fitted out another ship, the Charity, to sail from Portsmouth with a cargo of settlers and artillery, accompanied by a smaller fishing vessel called the Swan. Perhaps with his elder brother’s help—Richard Weston was by now a successful London lawyer—he obtained an export license from the Privy Council to send the cannon to New England. Issued on February 17, 1622, the day on which the Fortune reached the Thames, the license covered thirty pieces of ordnance. They included big guns each weighing nearly two tons. Allegedly intended for the use of the Plymouth Colony, the consignment came from the royal arsenal at the Tower of London, but it never reached America. It appears that Thomas Weston planned to run the guns elsewhere and then sell them to the highest bidder. There would be many takers in the North Atlantic, Arab pirates, Huguenots, Dutchmen, or Spaniards, all of them in need of extra armaments.
News of the imminent departure of the Charity came to the attention of the man who ran the alum monopoly. They reminded the Lord Treasurer about Weston’s debts to them and to the king. Weston had vanished from his London home, and from what Mrs. Weston told them on the doorstep, it seemed that he was preparing to flee to New England. Lionel Cranfield swiftly alerted the authorities in Portsmouth, and they found Philemon Powell, posing as the purser of the ship. With him were eighty colonists, bound for New Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay.
Under arrest, Powell refused to talk. Because this was a very serious matter, Cranfield sent an Exchequer judge down to Portsmouth to interrogate the suspect. Unimpressed, Powell kept his mouth shut, claiming that by law no servant could be made to give evidence against his master. On March 21, the exasperated judge reported back to Whitehall. Three days later Lord Cranfield ordered Powell’s detention in the Fleet Prison in London.
Thomas Weston, meanwhile, had managed to evade arrest, hiding behind the silence of his accomplice. He had the gall to petition Lord Cranfield for Powell’s release, arguing that he was losing five pounds for each day that the Charity lingered in Portsmouth Harbor. Then Weston disappeared entirely, only to surface briefly in New Plymouth the following year, after crossing the Atlantic disguised as a blacksmith. Most likely, he traveled on a Devon fishing vessel, and then he quietly slipped off one or another ship at one of the fishing posts along the coast of Maine.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1622, the rest of the Mayflower investor group were wondering what to do next. Some were close friends of Pickering, who wanted to file suit against Weston: that autumn Pickering did so, issuing a futile subpoena. His case had little prospect of success, seeking money that Weston did not have, and tortuous litigation in London could not save New Plymouth. Whatever the long-term outlook, the colony urgently needed supplies that year. The investors did the best they could.
Led by James Sherley and John Pocock, at first they struggled. They could barely assemble enough money to pay for twenty tons of stores and send thirty passengers across the ocean. So in the spring Robert Cushman approached John Peirce, the London merchant who had obtained the new patent of 1621 from the Council for New England. Peirce agreed to help finance another voyage, and somehow he and the Mayflower investors raised four hundred pounds. This was still a modest sum, but at least it was enough to buy thirty tons of supplies and trading goods and a ship called the Paragon.
Even so, she did not leave London until October 1, and the voyage ended almost as soon as it had begun. The ship had barely reached the English Channel when she sprang a leak in a gale. Two weeks later she was back in the Thames. Her second attempt fared little better, and nearly ended in catastrophe. In January 1623, the Paragon set off again, with 109 passengers, many of them women and children. By the middle of February, she was only halfway across the Atlantic when she came close to sinking in another storm. At the storm’s height, to save the ship, the master cut away the mainmast. With three men at the helm, the Paragon struggled back to Portsmouth, but minus her superstructure, shorn away by the sea.14
Hearing of her return, Pocock and Sherley promptly told Peirce to repair the vessel and send her out again within fourteen days. When he did not, they went to court and sued him. Their attempt to rescue the colony ended in yet another exchange of recriminations. Four years later Peirce was still demanding compensation in the courts. An extra reason for the animosity lay in the fact that Peirce had apparently tried to double-cross both his fellow investors and the Pilgrims.
Six months before the Paragon sailed out on her first voyage, Peirce had gone to the Council for New England and asked them to amend the patent in such a way as to make himself and his business partners the landlords of the Plymouth Colony. It seems unlikely that this was outright swindling; probably Peirce simply wanted a sort of insurance policy, an element of collateral for the money he put up to finance the ship and her stores. When the Pilgrims, Sherley, and Pocock complained, the authorities upheld the original patent. Even so, the dispute rumbled on until John Peirce died.15
The Paragon affair had been a shambles, but during the course of 1622 the Pilgrims had achieved something else, less tangible but with far-reaching effects of its own. Quite apart from founding a new colony, they had also helped to invent journalism in its modern form.
TWO GREYHOUNDS AND THE WEEKELY NEWES
When the Fortune reached London stripped of her cargo, she still had on board the manuscript of Mourt’s Relation. It rapidly found a publisher. Fresh, exciting, and narrated in the clearest English, it told with a mass of visual color and the odd joke or two the story of the colony’s first year. The book began in England, on the way out of Plymouth Sound, and it ended in America after the first Thanksgiving and the mission to the Mystic. It went on sale in London, at a shop in Cornhill only yards from the home of John Slany, at the very time when a new vogue for topicality created a ready market for this sort of thing. The city’s bookstores were just beginning to sell periodical news sheets, or corantos, as they were known. The publisher the Pilgrims found was a man schooled in this new segment of the trade.
London had fewer than twenty printers, but the city had ten times as many booksellers. Under King James their business grew almost as fast as sales of wine and silk. In 1620, more than 400 new books hit the streets to satisfy a rapidly expanding reading public. And in their search for new titles, printers like Winslow’s former employer John Beale tried pretty much everything.
Beale published not only travel writers, such as Fynes Moryson, but also self-help books (Directions for a Maide to Choose Her Mate, of 1619), as well as sermons, sheet music, ballads, histories, how-to books on arithmetic and handwriting, and cautionary tales of city life. Another Beale title was something called The Roaring Gallantes, Contayning a Short Narracion of the Lifes and Deaths of William Nicholls and John Welsh, Broker: sadly, no copy seems to survive. However, perhaps the boldest of London’s book entrepreneurs were two men called Bourne and Butter. They became the founders of the English newspaper.16
Edward Winslow certainly knew Nicholas Bourne, because at his bookshop Bourne stocked the titles that Beale had printed. Everyone in the business knew Nathaniel Butter, because he was the most audacious and flamboyant bookseller of his time. Butter began to publish sensational news as far back as 1605, when he issued a gruesome account of a murder in Yorkshire, with a sequel describing the execution of the culprit. In 1608, after publishing the first edition of King Lear, he followed it up with Newes from Lough-Foyle in Ireland. It chronicled the equally bloody career of O’Doherty, the rebel from Donegal.
Books such as these were one-offs, not periodicals, but then in 1618 the first corantos went on sale in Amsterdam to meet the demand for regular news about the war breaking out in Germany. As the Mayflower lay at anchor off Provincetown, the first English translations of these corantos appeared in London. The following autumn, the first true English newspaper was born, when on September 24, 1621, someone called “NB” published the first issue of a weekly. It was called the Corante and subtitled Weekely Newes, but it apparently survived for only seven editions. Most likely, “NB” was either Bourne or Butter, sheltering behind initials in case of official disapproval.
Then, in May 1622, as the Pilgrim manuscript sat in a printing shop awaiting the typesetter, a second wave of periodicals began to appear. Soon afterward, Butter and Bourne joined forces to dominate the new market. On October 15, they began to publish a weekly newspaper called The Relation. It ran without a break until the summer of 1624, when the first editor died during an epidemic. Filled with news of foreign wars, natural disasters, and the doings of kings and queens, it firmly established a taste for topical sensation, available to anyone who could afford twopence to buy a copy. Butter and Bourne had their own connections with the Pilgrims; and in London they did more than anyone else to create the environment in which the Plymouth manuscript found readers.
Of course, the two men lived in close proximity to the Mayflower investors: that came about simply because London was so densely concentrated. Nathaniel Butter lived in Bread Street Ward, where he attended the same church as John Pocock. The newspaper office was Butter’s shop, at the sign of the Pied Bull on Watling Street, a few yards from Pocock’s front door. It was Bourne, however, who supplied a direct link with the Pilgrims, an affiliation they could not do without.
For nine years, Nicholas Bourne had an apprentice called John Bellamy, a young man with radical views. Many years later, when he was Colonel John Bellamy, part of the Puritan leadership in London during the civil war, it was revealed that in his youth Bellamy belonged to the group of semi-Separatists who met across the river in Southwark. These were the very same people who acted on behalf of the Pilgrims in the year of the comet, in their early negotiations with the Virginia Company.
John Bellamy clearly knew Edward Winslow, and like his employer he knew a commercial opportunity when he saw one. Early in 1620, Bellamy finished his time as an apprentice, but he went on working with Bourne until, at some time in 1622, he set up his own shop a few yards away, at the sign of the Two Greyhounds in Cornhill. There he began to publish and sell books. Among the very first was the Pilgrim narrative. Close behind it came Bellamy editions of the works of William Bradford’s beloved author, the Hebrew scholar Henry Ainsworth, volumes bound and printed with such skill that they remain a pleasure to examine today, on paper with barely a mark of age.17
At the end of June, as the second wave of newspapers started to go on sale, John Bellamy obtained his official license to print the story of the Plymouth Colony’s adventures. It bore a title intended to appeal to exactly the same appetite for vivid news of current affairs.
Although historians call it Mourt’s Relation, when it first appeared on bookstalls, it carried a much longer title. Cascading down the page in such a way as to attract even the most jaded browser, it ran for eight paragraphs, filled with the names of Indian chiefs. Of course it began as though it were a coranto: the book, said the title page, was A Relation or Iournall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth. Two years later, they came up with a simpler title for Winslow’s second book of Pilgrim adventures, but it was directed at the same audience. John Bellamy published that book too, and it was called Good Newes from New-England.
For the next twenty-five years, Bellamy went on issuing books relating to North America. He did so far more consistently than any other London publisher and printer. No method exists for quantifying the impact they had, but we can be sure of one thing. Colonies did not survive by themselves. They needed supplies, reinforcements, and new flows of stores and capital, and so they needed publicity too. Without the Pilgrim books published by John Bellamy, this would have been lacking. Since Bellamy learned his trade from Bourne and Butter, we can say with confidence that Puritan America relied on journalism from the very start: almost as much as it depended on the beaver, on Tisquantum, and on Massasoit.
* Describing the native people he met, Winslow says that they wore “long hosen up to their groins, close made … altogether like the Irish trousers.” Moryson wrote this about the Irish: “Among them the Gentlemen or Lords of Countries weare close breeches and stockings … their said breeches are so close, as they expose to full view, not only the noble, but also the shamefull parts.”