Chapter Sixteen

DIABOLICAL AFFECTION

Three things are the overthrow and bane, as I may term it, of Plantations … 1. The vain expectation of present profit … 2. Ambition in their governors and commanders, seeking only to make themselves great … 3. The carelessness of those that send over supplies of men unto them, not caring how they be qualified: so that ofttimes they are rather the image of men endued with bestial, yea diabolical affections, than the image of God, endued with reason, understanding and holiness.

—EDWARD WINSLOW,16241

The Pilgrim fort on Burial Hill looked east across the sea and west toward the forest. As late as 1830, an official map showed that even then the light and shade of the woodlands behind New Plymouth reached to within a thousand yards of the water’s edge. In the time of William Bradford the cleared margin between the beach and the trees was far narrower still. One August day in 1623, a sentry posted on the parapet of the fort would have seen emerging from among the oaks and pines a procession of men and one woman. All of them were naked from the waist up.

They numbered as many as 120, and they were painted, some black and some yellow, but mostly a purple-red, the color of mulberries. Their dark uncut hair was greased with oil. On their shoulders or behind them they carried or dragged as gifts the carcasses of slain deer and a turkey. At their head, most likely, was Massasoit, with his long knife slung across his muscular chest on a cord. The black skin of a wolf would have encircled his shoulders, while behind his neck there hung a pouch of tobacco.2

As he descended the wooded slope toward the Pilgrim town, and followed a path that led along the north side of Burial Hill, Massasoit would have looked up and seen on a pike above the fort a severed human head, a few months old. In the summer sky close to it a scrap of linen flapped or dangled in place of a flag. The linen too was colored red, but red of a different shade, the dull red of dried blood.

What Massasoit made of the severed head we cannot say, but the intention of the Pilgrims was clear. On August 14, Massasoit, his warriors, his fellow sachems, and one of his five wives joined in celebrating the second wedding of William Bradford. The governor made sure that the head and the blood-soaked rag were starkly visible above the fort, as reminders to Massasoit that the Pilgrims were men of terror as well as men of God. For this period, the most detailed source is Edward Winslow’s Good Newes from New-England, and its opening paragraph praises the work of divine providence for “possessing the hearts of the salvages with astonishment and fear of us.” But anxiety and alarm were not one-sided, and the English felt them too.

Writing for public consumption, Winslow manfully defended the colony’s achievements, and especially those that concerned security. Profits remained elusive, but the Pilgrims were “safely seated, housed and fortified, by which means a great step is made unto gain,” he wrote. As we shall see, much of Good Newes is military history, an account of the exploits of Miles Standish as he quelled an attempted assault on the Pilgrims by the people of the Massachusetts. It was the head of a Massachusetts warrior that Standish and Bradford stuck up on a pole, and his blood that dyed the linen. But interwoven with this chronicle of violence were other themes that preoccupied Winslow and William Bradford alike. In the second period of the colony’s history, the fear of conspiracy or civil strife became for them an overriding concern.

During the first eighteen months in America, the secret of survival was morale. In the next phase, this remained the case, but the relevance of morale expanded to encompass more than physical endurance. It widened to include the need to prevent the colony from falling victim not to external forces, but to its own internal discontents, or worst of all to a combination of the two. This was the motive for the brutal gesture of erecting a decapitated head on a spike. It was something far from customary in the England of the time, where felons were hanged but decapitation was reserved for the most dangerous of offenders, English traitors or Irish rebels. It was a gesture of deterrence, aimed perhaps at some of the colonists as well as at Massasoit.

Two troubled episodes dominated the long second act of the drama at New Plymouth. The first, and most notorious, was the fight at Wessagussett, at the southern end of Boston Harbor, when the failure of a colony founded by Thomas Weston led to bloody conflict with the native people and to the stern reprisals meted out by Captain Standish. The second episode concerned the mutinous activities of two newcomers. These were a settler called John Oldham and a clergyman, John Lyford, sent out to New England by the London investors to minister to the spiritual needs of the colony.

Most accounts of the Pilgrims canter swiftly through the Lyford business. They treat it as a tedious, slightly baffling diversion, scarcely worthy of the space and the intense emotion that William Bradford committed to it. But while later historians have found the Lyford affair unworthy of close attention, for Bradford it represented a spiritual danger more potent than any attack with arrows and spears. For Bradford and Winslow, the common motif linking Lyford and Wessagussett lay in what Winslow called “diabolical affections,” the inner agencies of degradation that threatened to subvert the work of godliness.

In the person of John Lyford, we also encounter another man who, like John Pocock, embodied connections between the Pilgrim narrative and the wider history of Britain at the time. Lyford came to New Plymouth after nearly a decade in Ulster, where he was engaged in a colonial project of another kind. The early years of New England coincided with imperial beginnings elsewhere, in India and Ireland. As we shall see, the links between these three locations were close, direct, and very personal.

DISORDERLY WESSAGUSSETT

Phase two of the Plymouth Colony began in the winter of 1621–22, a few months after the departure of the Fortune, and in ominous fashion. The Narragansett people of Rhode Island made apparent threats of war, sending over a sheaf of arrows wrapped in the skin of a rattlesnake: Bradford sent it straight back, stuffed with bullets. Doubts also arose about Tisquantum when he fabricated a story that Massasoit was planning his own attack, apparently as a means to restore his own status as a necessary mediator. This enraged Massasoit. Under the terms of his pact with the Pilgrims, he had every right to demand that Tisquantum be handed over to him for punishment.

This Bradford refused to do, but the incident served as a reminder of how frail such alliances might be and how insecure the colony remained.

As yet, Bradford had no idea of the fate that had befallen the Fortune, but he knew how little the colony possessed by way of resources. In order to survive, and to live at peace with Massasoit and the other people of the region, the colony needed supplies and trading goods from home and new settlers who were able-bodied and self-sufficient. In fact, during that year and in 1623 the colony suffered a drain on what small reserves it had, and one that very nearly brought it to its knees. For this, they could thank Thomas Weston.

By now Weston was a ruined man and a fugitive. Even so, and with financial help from Beauchamp, he managed to send across the Atlantic another small craft, the Sparrow. She made landfall in Maine, joining the rest of the modest English fishing fleet in those waters. Somehow, too, Weston saved Philemon Powell from prison and secured the release of the Charity from arrest at Portsmouth, along with now only fifty or sixty passengers.

With the Swan, the Charity duly set sail and reached New Plymouth in midsummer, but when she arrived, the thirty guns were missing. Their fate remains a mystery, but Weston’s foes were quick to allege that the worst possible crime had been committed. Weston’s brother Andrew sold the cannon “for extraordynary and excessive gaine to the Turkish pyrates or other enemyes or strangers,” the Pilgrim investor James Sherley claimed in legal papers. The guns were certainly sold to someone, but no proof exists that the buyers were pirates. Gunrunning to corsairs was an offense that would have sent the Weston brothers to the gallows, but no serious attempt was made by the Crown to pursue them. The authorities knew that the cannon had not reached New England; but they cared far more about the money the Westons owed in unpaid fines and taxes.3

Before he went to ground, leaving his wife to cope with years of litigation, Weston wrote a final letter to Bradford, dated April 10, 1622. Carried on the Charity or the Swan, and arriving nearly three months later in New England, it consists of excuses, diatribes against his enemies, and empty pledges of help. Weston also candidly admitted that the latest reinforcements he had sent to America were not England’s finest. “Now I will not deney that ther are many of our men rude fellows, as these people terme them,” he wrote. “Yet I presume they wil be governed, by shuch as is set over them; and I hope not only to be able to reclaime them from yt profanenes that may scandalies the vioage, but by degrees to draw them to god.”

Whether Weston meant this seriously we will never know. Wary as ever, Bradford did not believe it. For him Weston’s letter marked his final loss of confidence in his former backer. When Weston turned up at New Plymouth, in disguise, he cadged some beaver skins and supplies before heading to Virginia. Perhaps Weston had done his best, but he created for the Pilgrims more problems than he solved. On the Charity and the Swan, he sent over raw new settlers with inadequate supplies, and in doing so, he put the colony in grave danger. The native inhabitants of southern New England could not afford to allow into their land parasites who upset the economy they had created.

If the Pilgrims added something to the life of the region, by way of trading goods, or by assisting the native people against enemies inland or up the coast, then they might serve a purpose. If, on the other hand, the English became a leech on the area’s resources, consuming other people’s corn and game and offering little in return, then they had no legitimate reason to be there and should be expelled. This is a truth that Edward Winslow recognized. Perhaps this was because he had read widely in the new travel books, such as Moryson’s, which pointed out that those who went to strange lands must pay their way and learn the customs of the country.

Weston’s new settlers failed this test at a time when the Plymouth Colony could least afford to make mistakes. Within a few months of the arrival of the newcomers, the Pilgrims reaped their second harvest of corn from the little fields laid out around New Plymouth, but it was meager. Crop raising in England and America alike required intense labor, by way of weeding and the application of manure, and in the New World without carts and livestock everything had to be carried and done by hand. But during the growing season of 1622, again the Pilgrims found their attention diverted from cultivation to defense.

An English ship fishing on the coast brought news from the south of a native uprising, which came close to destroying the settlement at Jamestown. Bradford promptly ordered the construction of a blockhouse on the top of Burial Hill, with emplacements for six cannon. The effort required took precious time away from agriculture. Since they were mostly too poorly nourished for manual work, the effect was all the worse, leaving food reserves depleted. Bradford also blames Weston’s new settlers for stealing corncobs as they hung on their stalks in the fields, but the facts of the case are disputed.

There is an alternative version of what took place more sympathetic to Weston’s men, and written by a different type of migrant. The author was an English lawyer and adventurer, Thomas Morton. He arrived in New England at some point in the middle of the 1620s and made himself the leader of a small fur-trading settlement at Mount Wollaston, between New Plymouth and Boston. In due course he quarreled violently with the Pilgrims.

As far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne and beyond, historians have argued about Morton, his reliability, and the true explanation for the mutual hatred between him and William Bradford. Since Morton was a man who enjoyed drink, dancing, and making fun of Puritans, and since he may have been another Roman Catholic, it is hardly surprising that his account of events fails to match the story as told by a Separatist. Nonetheless, Morton must be treated with respect. Published in London in 1637, but apparently written much earlier, his book New English Canaan contains details that can only have been learned by somebody who knew the landscape intimately, and had listened carefully to the native people around the shores of Boston Harbor. He differs fundamentally from Bradford.4

Morton agreed that Weston’s men were wasters—“many of them lazy persons,” he writes—but he accuses the Pilgrims of pushing them out of New Plymouth, because they might topple the Separatists from their position of control. According to Morton, Weston always intended that the beaver fur trade should be the basis of the colony, and the men he sent were entirely suitable for that purpose. The Pilgrims, Morton says, wanted to keep the fur trade for themselves, and they resented the need to share sparse supplies with the newcomers.

Whatever the reason, that autumn the Weston men left and founded a village of their own, at a place called Wessagussett. The name means “at the edge of the rocks,” and so it is: a few hundred yards from the settlement site, close to the shore lie a cluster of rocks exposed at low water.5Today Wessagussett goes by the name of North Weymouth, beside an Atlantic inlet called the Fore River, ten miles south of downtown Boston. Like many another colonial location, the banks of the Fore River have long since become industrial, lined with oil tanks, a power plant, and what was once a naval shipyard. Nonetheless, the geography survives, never entirely subdued, and the seascape retains its beauty, with the familiar New England counterpoint of overcast eggshell skies and speckled sandy woods.

As so often, at first the site seems unremarkable, just a small wooded dell behind some houses. To find Wessagussett, simply head east from the town of Quincy, across the steel girders of the Fore River Bridge. After half a mile, turn left at the next Dunkin’ Donuts. Climb over the crest of a low ridge, which runs from west to east parallel with the shore, about fifty feet above the beach, and look down across the river, toward the ocean. Between the ridge and the high-water mark was a flat strip of land about two hundred yards wide, and on it they established the Weston colony. Today white suburban houses cover the slopes and obscure the view inland, while a low concrete seawall defends the houses from the tide. But the ridge screens out the noise from the highway, and so with the help of old maps and a little imagination it is possible to appreciate the qualities of the place.

It was defensible, because North Weymouth is a peninsula between the curves of the Fore and Back rivers. Marshes and swamps left only a narrow neck of dry land along which it could be approached on foot. Wessagussett had excellent access by sea, because the Fore River made a good natural harbor. Sheltered from storms by islands and by the promontory of Hull to the east, the river has a gray sandy bottom, ideal for anchors. At low tide a wide expanse of mud and sand offered shellfish for the taking, and Wessagussett was renowned for oysters and mussels. The islands were rich with berries, and lobsters filled the bays and coves. Besides the availability of food, the site had a fourth attraction, freshwater. The dried-up bed of a stream can be found straying down through the dell to the sea.

In many ways Wessagussett outshone New Plymouth as a place to live. It was also far closer to the Charles, Mystic, and Merrimack rivers, which led inland toward opportunities for trade. But unlike New Plymouth, Wessagussett was not an empty space. Its qualities rendered it ideal as a village site for the people of the Massachusetts, and some of them already lived nearby. Most visible among them were Wituwamat and Pecksuot: tough and courageous men, determined to protect their domain, but occasionally brutal too. They made short, cruel work of the ship’s company of two French vessels that had ventured into the adjoining waters.

When the first ship ran aground, the warriors made servants of her crew. They forced the Frenchmen to eat food fit only for dogs, until they wept and died. When the second ship arrived, hoping to trade, the warriors pretended to bring a bundle of beaver skins, and then with hidden knives they murdered her crew as well. The master of the ship put up a fight, hiding in the hold, and so they burned him out, butchered him too, and incinerated his vessel.

Settling in this dangerous location, Weston’s men swiftly built houses and a palisade, but they had arrived too late in the year to plant corn. So, that November, the Pilgrims and the new arrivals used the Swan to make a joint expedition in search of corn and beans, paying for them with knives, scissors, and beads. They intended to sail around the elbow of Cape Cod, south through the shoals, and then westward toward Buzzards Bay, but the weather was bad, and the shoals as baffling and treacherous as before.

Then, as they traded near the modern town of Chatham, the Pilgrims lost Tisquantum.

In the words of William Bradford, he “fell sick of an Indyean feaver, bleeding much at ye nose (which ye Indeans take for a simptome of death) and within a few days dyed there.” It has been argued that Tisquantum was poisoned, but this is no more than conjecture. His was only one of many bleak deaths in 1622, in what seems to have been another epidemic. According to another source, the native people suffered another “great plague,” Standish went down with a fever but survived, and Weston’s brother-in-law, one of the new settlers, died suddenly at New Plymouth. Massasoit himself fell gravely ill soon afterward, with a similar nose-bleeding symptom.

Whether or not Tisquantum died of natural causes, his death removed the man who knew the English best, thanks to his period in London, a city where he had probably spent more time than any of the surviving Pilgrims, bar Winslow and Brewster. Indeed, if we wish to speculate, it is not impossible that as a business venture the voyage of the Mayflower was partly Tisquantum’s idea. At the house of John Slany and at Merchant Taylors’ Hall, Tisquantum would have been very conspicuous. It is inconceivable that he would have escaped the attention of the investors who backed the voyage.

It also appears from the Newfoundland Company’s papers that Slany was a sympathetic host who would have listened carefully to what Tisquantum had to say. But this is a guess, and no more. We do know that in losing Tisquantum, the Pilgrims lost their finest translator and their best intermediary. When he passed away, they abandoned the trading expedition to the south.

Instead, less ambitiously, the Swan sailed back to the north, to trade in Boston Harbor, and then along the inside of Cape Cod Bay between the modern towns of Barnstable and Eastham. So they spent the autumn and the winter. Standish and Bradford made more forays in search of corn, by boat or overland, as far west as the northern shore of Buzzards Bay. And as they did so, it became increasingly clear that they and Weston’s men had antagonized the native people of the region. The most alarming incident occurred in March 1623. It involved Miles Standish.

Recovered from his sickness, in a small boat Captain Standish rounded the headland that forms the southern end of Plymouth Bay, on his way to the native settlement of Manomet. His task was to collect corn that Bradford had purchased. Standish found the corn, but not the cordial welcome he expected. He walked up from the beach to the house of the local sachem, taking with him two or three of his men but prudently leaving the rest with his boat. He had been at the house only a little while when in came two warriors from Wessagussett.

One of them was Wituwamat, the killer of Frenchmen. He took the English dagger he carried around his neck, a dagger confiscated from Weston’s men, and he gave it to the sachem. Then he spoke at length, in riddling language that Standish could not comprehend but that the sachem greeted with enthusiasm. As Winslow tells the story, Miles Standish knew that an insult was intended, and most likely something far worse. Among the guests that night was a warrior from the Pamet River, a man who in the past had treated him as a friend. On this occasion, he boasted that he had a great kettle “of some six or seven gallons.” He said that he would happily give it to the Englishman, as though the colonists were poor inferiors.

Refusing their invitation for his men to come up to the house, Standish hurried back to his boat, paying women from the village to carry the corn down to the water. The man from the Pamet insisted on coming with him, to sleep with the English. Fearing an assassin’s knife, Standish remained awake, pacing up and down throughout a freezing night, in the orbit of his campfire. The following morning Standish sailed straight back to New Plymouth with the corn. It seemed that a crisis was approaching. In the eyes of William Bradford, the blame lay fairly and squarely with Weston’s men at Wessagussett.

That winter, they began stealing food from the native people who lived nearby, digging up their storage pits at night. How many thefts there were is a matter for controversy. Bradford and Winslow suggest that there were several. Thomas Morton mentions only one, when a settler found a native barn in the woods and took a capful of corn. But even a single case of theft would be enough to gravely damage the reputation of the Pilgrims. Far from showing them to be rich and powerful, endowed with special skills, it would suggest that the English were small, shabby men, forced to barter or to steal. Worst of all, stealing was the opposite of giving; and for the native people of the coast, the surest sign of honor was generosity.

A decade or so later, somewhere in this region, the English radical Roger Williams witnessed a nickommo, a ritual feast or dance. At its heart lay the making of gifts, and it was the act of giving and not of receiving that brought good fortune. As Williams wrote, the hosts of the nickommo would “give a great quantity of money, and all sorts of their goods, according to and sometimes beyond their estate … and the person that receives this gift, upon the receiving it, goes out, and hollows thrice for the health and prosperity of the party that gave it, the master or mistress of the feast.”6 We can begin to see what the warrior from the Pamet was saying when he boasted about the great kettle that he said he would give to the English soldier. He was taunting Standish about the poverty of the colonists, and about their lack of means to make ritual donations.

He mentioned a kettle because kettles made of brass or pure copper had long been some of the most-sought-after European goods. A document in the British National Archives serves to make the point. The ship’s master who warned the Pilgrims about the native uprising in Virginia was John Huddleston, a man employed in taking emigrants to Jamestown and bringing back tobacco to the Thames. Sailing to America in 1619, he carried a hefty consignment of copper, weighing “four hundredweight and four score pounds,” in the form of bars and “rundletts,” meaning large kettles, mainly used at home for distilling brandy.7

In native America, copper was more than just another mineral, and a kettle was more than a kettle. Some five thousand years ago, native peoples began smelting copper and using it to make knives, fishhooks, and ornaments, in locations close to Lake Superior, where copper ore lay not far beneath the soil. Copper resists corrosion, it can be worked easily, and it shines with a luster that does not fade. Most precious of all was its color, recalling the red of blood, making it a symbol of life, healing, and fertility. Copper kettles were versatile, with many uses, for cooking, as urns for the bones or ashes of the dead, or as a raw material. Melted down or cut into strips, kettles could be refashioned entirely, as they were by the Kennebec, in villages such as Naragooc.8

New England and the St. Lawrence lay far away from the copper of the Great Lakes, and so here copper had an extra scarcity value. Once again, the French were far ahead of the English in recognizing its potential. From the archives of provincial France, the Quebec historian Laurier Turgeon found that as early as the 1580s, French and Basque ships’ masters were bringing across the Atlantic copper kettles in their hundreds. Trading goods needed to be rich and plentiful, and so too did the gifts the Europeans were expected to make. But, as Bradford and Winslow frankly admitted, their stock was scanty, and poor in quality, compared with the ample French supplies of kettles, hatchets, and clothing. As we shall see, it was only when the Atlantic ports of France were closed by war that the English were free to take the lead in North America.

For the time being, in the spring of 1623, the survival of the Plymouth Colony remained anything but guaranteed. The previous autumn, into the bay had come a ship called the Discovery. Her master sold the Pilgrims what stock he had, but many years later Bradford still ruefully recalled the high prices he charged for knives and beads, and the very low price he gave them for beaver pelts. Worse still, Weston’s men at Wessagussett squandered their own supplies. They used them to trade with the native people, paying too much and bidding up the price of corn.

In perhaps his finest piece of narrative, William Bradford remorselessly depicted the squalid failure of their settlement. They sold their clothes for food, they sold their bedding, and at their worst, they abandoned their huts and scattered like nomads among the woods and along the shore, to live on clams and groundnuts. Weakened by hunger, one man was unable to free himself from the mud of the beach where he was foraging for shellfish. He was found dead, from exposure or drowned by the tide. Their leader took native women as concubines, or so it was said. Losing all fear of the English, and all respect, Wituwamat’s people took what little food the colonists had found and stripped them of what blankets they had left.

Bradford wrote in what he calls a “plain style,” but this did not mean that he lacked artistry. A technical, literary term, “plain style” referred to a mode of writing based on Latin models, and especially Seneca, a favorite author in the Plymouth Colony. Developed by authors such as Sir Francis Bacon, the plain style influenced the composition of essays such as those of John Robinson. It was a type of prose intended to convey some moral or religious lesson as forcefully as possible, using the familiar, material language of everyday life. So, in the long passage that describes the collapse of Wessagussett, Bradford writes with unusual power and intensity, filling three manuscript pages with long, loose sentences, the longest stretching to nearly two hundred words.

Written in Jacobean plain style, the sentences tumble and unwind through a maze of semicolons and subordinate clauses, their wandering syntax imitating the dissolution of the company of men at Wessagussett. Bradford gives these straggling paragraphs shape and coherence by framing his account with phrases from Scripture. As always, we have to read him with the Bible at our side. Without it, we risk missing entirely the point Bradford wishes to make.

“It may be thought strange that these people should fall to these extremities,” he writes in his opening sentence, and the word “fall” takes us straight to the book of Genesis. We remain in that territory when Bradford describes with contempt the behavior he found most humiliating: the readiness of Weston’s men to enslave themselves. “Others (so base were they) became servants to ye Indeans, and would cutt them woode, & fetch them water,” he writes, adapting verses from the book of Joshua that describe the bondage of the Canaanites. Nearly one thousand words later, Bradford rounds off the narrative with a proverb, the moral of the story, and one that again uses the same motif: “A man’s way is not in his own power, God can make ye weake to stand; let him that standeth take heed lest he fall.”

These sentences condense two verses from the letters of Saint Paul to the Romans and the Corinthians, while concealed inside them lies another hidden allusion to the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land. Bradford quotes almost verbatim from the tenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, where Paul referred to the sinful Israelites who ignored the law of Moses and turned to idolatry and fornication, suffering death as a result. When Bradford likened the journey of the Pilgrims to the crossing of the Red Sea, his message conveyed praise and celebration, overlaid with awe. The affair at Wessagussett was its wicked opposite.

An unholy, inverted image of the Pilgrim passage to America, the fate of the Weston colony served only to prove that its victims were outcasts, sinners damned to exclusion from the ranks of the elect. Since Bradford was a Calvinist, he believed that their fate was predestined, an episode of retribution that made manifest God’s unswerving justice.

Does all this make William Bradford unreliable as a historian? Not really, since Bradford never pretended to be anything but a follower of Calvin, and we have other accounts of the same events, by Edward Winslow and by one of the Wessagussett men, Phineas Pratt. If anything, these narratives and Morton’s make the Wessagussett story still more distressing. Morton dwelled at length on a notorious incident when Weston’s men hanged one of their own number for stealing corn from the native people, in the hope of placating them. Bradford only mentions this in passing, but this was characteristic. For Morton, and even more so for Winslow, detail mattered for its own sake, or for the sake of the reader: for William Bradford, details took their significance from the spiritual lesson they taught.9

THE HEALING OF MASSASOIT

In the spring and summer of 1623, the Pilgrims drew back from the edge of catastrophe by restoring their prestige in the eyes of the native people. The means they used were a combination of humanity, violence, and faith. While the humanity was Edward Winslow’s, the violence belonged to Miles Standish. The gesture of faith was a gamble, but it succeeded.

While Standish was at Manomet, the Pilgrims heard perhaps the worst news they could imagine. Word arrived that Massasoit was ill and close to death. Winslow recognized this as a moment of definition, when the colonists had to take the initiative, either to help their friend or to salvage something from the disaster that his death would mean. With Hobbamock at his side, he swiftly traveled on foot the forty miles to Massasoit’s village. There he found that sickness had struck not only the sachem, but also his people.

Edward Winslow was not a physician, and this was just as well. An English doctor would have opened Massasoit’s veins and bled him, a painful, upsetting, and useless process that could only have hastened his end. Instead, Winslow tried to feed Massasoit. For two days the sachem had neither eaten nor slept, and he had temporarily lost his sight. A practical man, Winslow happened to have with him what he calls “a confection of many comfortable conserves.” These, one guesses, were pickled fish, pilchards possibly, used by the English as seamen’s rations. With the point of his knife, Edward Winslow pried open the clenched teeth of Massasoit and shoved the pickles into his mouth.

Winslow would have liked to give him liquor too, brandy most likely, the universal remedy of Jacobeans. Sadly, he had dropped the bottle on the way. Instead, he dissolved some pickles in water and gave the sachem that instead. It worked. Within thirty minutes, the stricken sachem revived, and his sight returned. Massasoit gave orders for his men to fetch more supplies, chickens and another liquor bottle from New Plymouth. In the meantime, Winslow improvised again. Massasoit wanted game stew, but Winslow felt that his patient was not yet ready for it.

A man of brilliant intuition, Winslow concocted an odd bouillon of corn flour, strawberry leaves, and sassafras and fed a pint of it to the grateful sachem. Soon Massasoit was happily sitting on his latrine, where he deposited three small turds. Winslow counted them carefully, telling his English readers about them in the book he published the following year. Relieved from his burden, the sachem went to sleep.

The following day, Winslow tended the others in the village who were sick, and then in the evening he shot a duck. He plucked it and sliced off its breast to make a broth to give to Massasoit. Unhappily, the duck in question was fatty, as ducks so often are. Winslow knew that duck fat could be nauseating, but Massasoit ate the broth just the same and threw it back up immediately. Then the sachem had another nosebleed, for four hours. Once again Winslow waited, knowing that the death of Massasoit might mean his end as well. Happily, the bleeding ceased, and the sachem slept again. When he awoke, Winslow washed and bathed him. Soon Massasoit was sitting upright and beginning to regain his strength.

Winslow’s courage was all the more significant because so many people witnessed it. Reports that Massasoit was gravely ill had traveled a hundred miles and brought a host of visitors to watch his last moments. Instead, they saw him recover, and they heard his fulsome thanks. Reaffirming his alliance with New Plymouth, at a critical moment, the incident restored the reputation of the Pilgrims as men with some form of spiritual power, access to resources of some special, valuable kind.

Winslow says that the native people used the word maskiet to refer to the medicine he had given to Massasoit. Besides meaning medicine, the word m’ask-ehtu also meant grass, or a green thing, or something raw or uncooked. It connected the ideas of health, life, youth, and benevolent fertility. Winslow had something finer than a copper kettle: he had the power to channel the forces of nature into healing, and he had done so freely and generously, as one should.*

On his way back to New Plymouth, he paused at the home of the sachem Corbitant, once an enemy of the Pilgrims who now welcomed him warmly. There for the first time Winslow talked about religious belief with the people of the region, a conversation he reported straight back to London. With not a trace of bigotry and no sign of a sneer, Winslow records that he discussed with them the Ten Commandments. They approved of all except the seventh, the prohibition of adultery, which they considered unrealistic. They agreed that the English God was the same as their own supreme power, the benign divinity they called Kiehtan, the Creator God from the warm southwest, bringer of corn, beans, and new life.

And yet the power of the English might have a darker side, and so too might their God. If the English could cure, they could also destroy.

THE KILLING OF WITUWAMAT

Winslow’s mission had been accomplished, but he returned to New Plymouth with another alarming message. Massasoit had revealed the secret of the insults endured by Miles Standish at Manomet. Angered by thefts of corn, and possibly too by the desecration of graves, the people of the coast had decided to push the English back into the sea. The alliance apparently included all the native people who lived along the coastline from Provincetown, around the arc of Cape Cod, and as far as the Mystic River. It seems that Wituwamat and Pecksuot had persuaded their own sachem to give the order for an attack on the colony at Wessagussett. It would be followed immediately afterward by the annihilation of New Plymouth.

Confirmation of the story told by Massasoit soon arrived, carried by Phineas Pratt. As cold, hunger, and sickness began to kill the men at Wessagussett one by one, their quarrels with the native people became ever more bitter. Pigs were killed, knives were drawn, and the native people taunted the English. From the woods, now white with snow, they watched and waited for the right time to strike. Overconfidently, Pecksuot made the error of threatening the English too blatantly, assuming that none of them would have the courage to try to flee to warn the community of Plymouth. On March 23, 1623, Pratt did so, making his escape from Wessagussett, through the swamps between the Fore and the Back rivers, with his pack on his back.

As the crow flies, the distance from here to New Plymouth is about twenty-five miles, through the modern towns of Marshfield and Duxbury, but nobody could hope to cross it on foot in a straight line. The terrain consisted of alternating bands of woodland, relentlessly identical, with few landmarks. With the howling of wolves in his ears, Pratt had no compass, and clouds covered the sun. For navigation he had to rely on a brief sighting of the Great Bear. Cutting through the forest were three rivers. Their waters are shallow and slow moving, but salt marshes make the estuaries formidable obstacles to a man on foot, impassable at high tide. Not until three the following afternoon did Pratt reach his destination.

He arrived to find the Pilgrims already preparing an expedition for the relief of Wessagussett. The day before, as Pratt struggled through the swamps, the colonists at New Plymouth had convened their annual meeting. The leading item on the agenda was the threat of an attack. Should they try to forestall it with a preemptive strike? After long debate, they decided to leave the decision to the three leaders, Bradford, Isaac Allerton, and Standish. They chose to take the offensive. Standish and eight men would sail to Wessagussett to rescue the settlers. They would kill Wituwamat, cut off his head, and bring it back to serve as a warning to any other enemies of the Plymouth Colony. It was a very small force, but Standish planned to use deception. He would pretend that he was on a trading mission.

Standish and his force found Weston’s small ship, the Swan, empty and at anchor in the Fore River. They fired a musket. From the woods and the beach there appeared some of the survivors of the colony, men who had left the palisade and were living in native wigwams. Unarmed and apathetic—“like men senseless of their own misery,” Winslow says—at first they denied that they needed help. Questioning them, Standish found that the best men among them were still at the plantation, and so he went to find them. He gave them rations of corn and offered them sanctuary at New Plymouth, but he also ordered them to remain inside their palisade and say nothing to the native people.

The weather was vile, with rainstorms. In the wet, an attack with muskets could not be made. And as they waited, one of Wituwamat’s men came boldly up to Standish, carrying beaver skins to trade. He could soon tell that Standish had not come to do business, and he reported back as much to his comrades.

Once again, Wituwamat and Pecksuot made threats with their blades, boasting about their murders of Frenchmen and English alike. They came up to the palisade and sharpened their knives in the open. They waved them so close to the faces of Standish and his men that they could see every detail of the weapons. Edward Winslow records that the knife of Pecksuot was ground down at its tip like the point of a needle. That of Wituwamat had on the end of its handle the likeness of a woman’s face. At home he had another, decorated with the visage of a man. With these knives he had killed the master of the French ship that beached near Wessagussett.

The confrontation ended in bloodshed the following day. According to Thomas Morton, Miles Standish persuaded the two warriors to eat, serving them pork. Edward Winslow’s version of events makes no mention of a meal, but somehow Standish managed to entice Wituwamat and Pecksuot into a room in one of the houses built by Weston’s men. There was another warrior with them as well as Wituwamat’s younger brother, aged eighteen. Standish had three of his men with him, and Hobbamock too, and although much smaller than his opponents he also had surprise on his side. No sooner was the door fastened than Miles Standish ripped the stiletto from around Pecksuot’s neck. As Standish grappled with him, finally stabbing him to death, the other three Plymouth colonists fell on Wituwamat and the unnamed warrior. They killed them too, after a wild struggle for possession of the knives. Then the Englishmen took Wituwamat’s brother and strung him up to die by hanging. They found and killed another native, and some of Weston’s men killed two more.

About half a mile east along the shore from Wessagussett, a hill rises between the swamps and the river to a height of about 150 feet. Today it has a long view across the bay toward downtown Boston. There, most likely, they fought the last round of the battle. Seeing a column of warriors advancing to take the hill, Standish and his men raced them to the top. Standish got there first, and the warriors retreated, took cover, and let fly with their bows and arrows. Until this point Hobbamock had taken no part in the fighting. Now, as he came under fire himself, he pulled off his coat and gave chase. Standish and his men squeezed off two musket rounds against a warrior who showed himself from behind a tree, aiming an arrow at the captain. The warrior fled back into the swamp. The fight was over, save for a last exchange of insults.

The battle of Wessagussett, if we can call it that, took the lives of seven men of the Massachusetts people. Two Englishmen fell, not in combat, but because they were Wessagussett men who had been living in a native village. They were killed by their hosts after news arrived of Wituwamat’s death. All that remained was for Miles Standish to sever the warrior’s head from his body and sail back with it to New Plymouth, where they mounted it on its spike. Delighted by the outcome, Bradford took one final step. He sent a blunt warning to Obtakiest, the sachem of the area around Wessagussett, telling him not to damage the houses or the palisade that Weston’s men had erected. Any further plots against the English would be dealt with in the same determined fashion.

THE SECOND THANKSGIVING

Only a few weeks before, with the healing of Massasoit, the Pilgrims had revived their wilting status as men of spiritual power. Now, with their fierce suppression of the conspiracy, they also regained their reputation for strength and bravery. They reminded the people of the coast about stories told by Tisquantum, about the plague and pestilence that the English could summon up at will. In the weeks after the fighting, the terror caused the native people to scatter for safety into swamps and remote wasteland. As they did so, a new epidemic swept across the southeastern corner of New England. The victims included three of the sachems of the region, men who had been linked to the conspiracy. According to Winslow, one of them before he died drew the following conclusion: “the God of the English was offended with them, and would destroy them in his anger.”

Winslow noted the loss of life from sickness and was inclined to agree with the sachem. Nor was this the last of the disasters that befell the region in that year. From time to time, southern New England suffers long droughts, coupled with hot weather. In the summer of 1623 it endured a dry spell of exceptional severity. Not a drop of rain fell on New Plymouth for seven or eight weeks, between the middle of May and the middle of July. For men used to English arable farming, such conditions were unknown, coming as they did from a country where the most common problems are late frosts, a cold spring, and heavy rain before and during the harvest. In Massachusetts the drought was very unusual: even in 1965, the driest year in the twentieth century, nearly three inches of rain fell at New Plymouth during the same summer months.10

With their keen eyes for terrain and vegetation, Winslow and Bradford vividly recorded the effects. “Ye corne bigane to wither away … at length it begane to languish sore, and some of ye drier grounds were partched like withered hay,” Bradford wrote. Winslow remembered how the cornstalks lost their color and how the dry heat stunted the growth of the beans planted in their midst, scorching them like fire. And yet, once again, something close to a catastrophe became an event seen in hindsight as a blessed opportunity. It gave the colonists the chance to demonstrate once again the power of John Calvin’s God. They did so by means of a festival of prayer. It took the same form as the public worship with which, four decades earlier, pious Englishmen and Englishwomen had responded to another natural disaster, the great earthquake during the reign of Elizabeth.

Winslow and Bradford carefully described what happened at New Plymouth. More bad news had just arrived from someone who had spotted the signs of a shipwreck farther up the coast. The Pilgrims feared that this was the supply ship from England, sent by the London investors, the Paragon, which they knew had already failed twice to cross the Atlantic. If the Paragon had foundered, and if the crops failed too, then the colony was doomed. Was this the wrath of God, a deadly rebuke for misdeeds or for disobedience of some unknown kind? In search of an answer, they began with the kind of arduous self-examination that Puritan thinkers recommended, aimed at exposing the marks of sin within each lonely conscience. Then, as a group, they set aside a working day, a Wednesday, for what Bradford calls “a solemne day of Humilliation.”

Humility decreed eight hours of fasting, prayer, and meditation, a procedure referred to by Winslow as an “exercise,” a term dating back to the early years of Puritanism in England to refer to a day of sermons and abstinence. Fasts of this kind were cherished by Puritans, not only for their own sake, but also as a means to bind together the people of a godly republic. At New Plymouth the results were immediate and effective. In the morning, when the exercise began, the sky was cloudless and the heat extreme. By late afternoon, clouds had begun to converge from the sea and from inland. That evening, rain began to fall—“soft, sweet and moderate showers,” says Winslow—and for fourteen days it continued, interspersed with intervals of warm sunshine. The withered crops recovered, and so did the colony’s morale. They reaped an excellent harvest of corn. “Such,” says Winslow, “was the bounty and the goodness of our God.”

Hobbamock saw what happened and spread the word. Coming so soon after the healing of Massasoit, and then the slaughter at Wessagussett, the day of fasting and its fertile outcome completed the restoration of the prestige of the English. Or so it seemed to Bradford and to Winslow, who describes the reaction of Hobbamock and his compatriots: “He and all of them admired the goodness of our God towards us.” Soon afterward, Miles Standish made another voyage up the coast and came back with supplies bought from fishermen. With him he carried the good news that the Paragon had not been lost, but had made it back to England, battered but still afloat. The Pilgrims set aside a second day of solemnity, as a public thanksgiving. By the time they reaped their harvest, still more reinforcements had arrived.

They were welcome, but they still fell far short of adequacy. In late July and in August, two ships reached New Plymouth, the Anne and the Little James, sent over by the investor group, which had found a new leader in Beauchamp’s friend and partner, James Sherley. Between them, they brought another sixty-odd passengers, another mixed band of men, women, and children. Godly and ungodly, weak and strong, again they were under-supplied. Again they arrived too late in the year to go to useful work.

The Anne was a ship of 140 tons, and the Pilgrims sent her straight back across the ocean, laden with timber and with the few beaver skins they had managed to obtain. The Little James remained. She had the task of cruising back and forth along the American coast, fishing and fur trading in the service of the colony. Aboard her was an enthusiastic Englishman from a family of landed gentry with their seat in the county of Essex, to the northeast of London. He was very young. His letters home reveal the disappointments that befell him, and the colony, as another year of misadventure began.

THE WRECK OF THE LITTLE JAMES

A pinnace of forty-four tons, brand-new and fresh from the shipwrights, the Little James carried six small cannon, each with a bore of about two inches, firing a ball a few pounds in weight.11 Her men had six muskets. After a stormy three-month voyage, she moored in the bay just in time for the young man in question to attend the governor’s wedding. A friend of John Pocock’s, his name was Captain Emmanuel Altham. He made an excellent impression on William Bradford, with his good manners and his polite gentility.

The pinnace had another man, a master mariner, to sail the ship, but Altham was keen to learn. On the journey over, he studied a manual of navigation, and he urged his family to send him the very latest English books of discovery. Thanks to the moving and eloquent letters that Altham wrote to a brother, we possess our account of the wedding, the arrival of Massasoit, and the early appearance of New Plymouth.

Fascinated by what he found, and most of all by the native people, by their weapons, by their singing and dancing, and by their nakedness, Emmanuel Altham spoke with admiration of Massasoit. He called the man “a great emperor among his people.” Massasoit was, said Altham, “as proper a man as was ever seen in this country, and very courageous.” They feasted together on fruits and venison, in pies and roasted in steaks. As any English adventurer would, Altham asked the sachem for a boy to send back to England. Wisely, Massasoit said no.

For his relatives in England, Altham carefully described the colony. He saw twenty houses, of which four or five were “very fair and pleasant,” the newly built fort with its six cannon, the palisade built from stakes eight feet long, the foraging hens, swine, goats, cornfields and plentiful timber, and lobsters fished from the bay. He praised William Bradford and what he called “the company of honest men” whom he found gathered around him. He mentions the bloodstained flag and the head of Wituwamat, impaled on its spike, and he included in his first letter a summary account of the killings at Wessagussett. Altham warned too of the fear of native attacks from the sea. He spoke of the illicit trade in firearms along the coast. The Englishmen at Monhegan had sold guns, shot, and powder to the Abenaki or the Micmac, and so too had the French. Altham saw just how dangerous this was, and it seems to have sowed the first doubts in his mind.

He came with high ideals, and religious sentiment fills his letters. “I was called by God to this place,” Emmanuel writes from New England, in May 1624. His values were inscribed within his very name. Two of his brothers had been Cambridge students, at the Puritan bastion of Emmanuel College, and the head of the college was a family friend. From his family, the young man inherited not only exalted notions of virtue but also ambitions for worldly success. The Althams originated as London merchants and lawyers, headed by one James Altham, sheriff of London in 1557. In the early years of the reign of Elizabeth, James Altham bought the ample country estate at Latton in Essex where the family lived for many centuries. By inclination they were moderate Puritans, and by the time Emmanuel left for America they ranked among the county’s ruling elite. His eldest brother, Sir Edward, the man to whom he wrote his letters, sat year after year as a JP. Among their kinfolk by marriage they counted Oliver Cromwell.12

Failure was not an option for young Altham, but the fear of it fills his letters. He made his investment in the Plymouth Colony with the proceeds of his inheritance. Born in 1600, on reaching the age of twenty-one, the young Emmanuel received two bequests from his parents. They amounted to four hundred pounds from his father, and from his mother another one hundred pounds and an assortment of household silver, bed linen, blankets, pillows, two feather beds, and two coverlets, “one of them fitt for to lay on his own bedd.” The failure of the colony to produce a swift return meant that when new capital was needed, Emmanuel Altham had to turn to friends and family retainers for more. He tapped for cash not only the local parish minister, a Puritan, but also the family’s senior tenant farmers. Hence the need for his regular letters. They were intended to be passed on to the men from whom he raised the money.13

Courteous, clever, and endlessly enthusiastic, young Altham wrote home in terms that were gleefully bullish. As well as describing Massasoit, he spoke of the vast shoals of fish, cod, turbot, and sturgeon he had seen offshore. Timber, he thought, could be sent back to England and “raise great profit,” and still more money could be made by setting up a saltworks on the coast and selling the salt to fishermen. Most of all, he hoped to find rich supplies of fur—from beavers, otters, foxes, and raccoons—by trading to the south and west, as far as the Hudson River. Sadly, Emmanuel Altham was prone to exaggerate. His appraisal of the prospects was absurdly optimistic.

He claimed, for instance, that as many as four hundred ships were already fishing each year off the coast of Maine. This is a figure recent historians have repeated, but in fact it was a wild overestimate, by a factor of at least ten. No more than forty English vessels, at the very most, sailed each year to the waters off New England, since Newfoundland remained the chief destination for them and for the French. Nor was there any point in shipping a cheap, low-margin bulk cargo like timber some three thousand miles, unless it consisted of tall trees as masts for ships. A vessel as small as the Little James could not carry those. The economics of the crossing meant that fur, not cod, made the difference between profit and loss. And, as it turned out, her voyages in search of skins were a fiasco.

Emmanuel’s second letter was dated March 1624. During the winter, things had not gone well. The Little James sailed around Cape Cod, as far as modern Rhode Island, but Altham too lacked the kettles, hatchets, and woolens that the native people wanted in exchange for pelts. He could not compete with the Dutch, who could pay them a much better price. He had also begun to detect signs of weakness in the Plymouth Colony. Half its inhabitants were women and children, and many of the men were idle, or so he said. The vast bulk of the work fell on the shoulders of a few led by Bradford. And, thanks to some drunken sailors, they had suffered yet another disaster, and one of a uniquely English kind.

By the early 1620s, the English had already begun to celebrate with bonfires on November 5 the event referred to earlier as the Gunpowder Plot. This was the day in 1605 when the Roman Catholic Guy Fawkes was arrested with explosives in the cellars of Parliament, attempting to blow up England’s elite, including the king. The saving of the monarch swiftly became the pretext for an annual ritual of Protestant fervor, with a few drinks thrown in. It appears that on November 5, 1623, some visiting seamen marked the anniversary with a bonfire party. They were “roystering,” says Bradford. They had chosen to do so in a thatched wooden hut, located next to the colony’s storehouse. He does not say whether or not, as was the custom, they burned stuffed effigies of Guy Fawkes and the Pope. The flames caused a chimney fire, the thatch was set ablaze, and three or four houses were burned to the ground, with everything inside. The storehouse survived, thanks to swift work with wet rags. Even so, New Plymouth lost one-sixth of its housing stock.

Altham himself had a narrow escape, and one that served as an omen of worse still to come. It took place at sea, just outside Plymouth Harbor, thanks to Brown’s Bank, a shifting sandbar where the chart shows a depth of only four feet. In Bradford’s day seamen already knew of its hazards, and they gave it its name, to commemorate some otherwise forgotten Jacobean. Its perils may be seen at their worst during one of those windstorms, the tail of a hurricane, that beat up along the coast from the Caribbean in the autumn. From the top of Burial Hill, in a fifty-knot wind and through the driving rain, the sands of Brown’s Bank show up as two parallel lines of surf, about two miles away, surrounded by water the color of a lead coffin lid.

As the Little James arrived back from Rhode Island, the weather was calm. Her master chose to drop anchor at the entrance to the harbor. Then the wind began to rise and became a gale, and the anchors lost their grip. Driven by the storm toward Brown’s Bank, the Little James seemed lost. Frantically, the hands chopped through the mainmast, at the level of the deck, and cut away the rigging. The pinnace was saved. Stripped of her mast and tackle, she anchored again, and the anchors held until the wind changed and she could enter harbor. There she spent the rest of the winter, in freezing weather. The crew existed on short rations, apart from some roast wildfowl, with no alcohol and only cold water to drink. This, too, was dangerous, in another way. Altham described the grim consequences.

When the crew of the Little James signed up for the voyage, they agreed to a spell of six years with the Plymouth Colony, but as shareholders rather than wage earners. In other words, they expected to make their money by receiving a slice of the vessel’s profits from fishing and trading. In the meantime, the investors paid for their food, drink, and clothing. Because the Little James was armed, the seamen also believed that they had a chance of taking prize ships, French or Spanish, as far south as the West Indies. However, under the law of the sea, this was only permitted with letters of marque issued by the Crown, and the Little James had no warrant of the kind. On the way over, young Altham refused to pillage a French ship sailing home to La Rochelle, and so by the time they reached America, the crew was restless. On board were a gunner named Stephens and a carpenter named Fell, two men who knew that they were indispensable. At New Plymouth, they led the crew out on strike to demand an interim payment of cash. To calm them down, a deal was cut, but only after Bradford promised to pay them himself. During the long, hard winter, discipline collapsed entirely.

In the spring of 1624, Altham took the Little James eastward to Maine, but with a sullen, hungry, and rebellious crew. In the anchorage at Pemaquid, they mutinied, threatening to kill Altham and the master and to blow up the ship.14 They forced Altham to sail back by small boat to New Plymouth to find more supplies. With some bread and peas, Altham and Edward Winslow hurried back to Pemaquid. They were within a day’s sail of the Little James when word reached them that a second storm had struck the vessel, in the harbor at Damariscove, where English seamen ran a small fishing station. On April 10, during another gale, in the dark the Little James had slipped her anchor cables once again. The wind and waves drove her onto the rocks. As she toppled over, the sea smashed two great holes in her timbers. The master and two men were drowned, and Stephens and Fell mutinied again, refusing to help salvage the vessel.

Even now, not all was lost. Ships’ masters who called at Damariscove inspected the Little James and decided that she was fit for salvage. They sent a message to William Bradford, offering to do the job if the Plymouth Colony would meet the bill, in beaver skins. Bradford sent the pelts and work began. All sailing ships carried carpenters and coopers, and they made great barrels, sealing them tightly. At low tide they made the casks fast to the Little James, until the rising waters lifted her off the rocks. All hands set to, and they hauled her off to a sheltered spot where the craftsmen patched her up. Within six weeks of the shipwreck, she was afloat once more, almost as good as new.

This was a minor triumph of enterprise and pluck, but the incident finished off any hope of a happy ending for Captain Altham. In the wreck, the Little James lost her four small boats, vital for doing business on the coast, her salt, her codfish, and all her few supplies and trading goods. Altham lost his precious books and most of his belongings. There was nothing for it but to sell the craft, to one or another of the Englishmen he met on the coast, in return for enough supplies to get them all back across the sea with a small cargo of fish. When they reached London, Fell and Stephens left the vessel “in the river of Thames in very disordered and evil manner.” They promptly sued James Sherley and the Plymouth Colony for forty pounds, by way of the wages Bradford had promised.15

Young Altham lingered on in America for another year, trading in a modest way for skins. With his last letter, he sent home a native tobacco pipe, and he asked his brother to mention his name to a former governor of Virginia, a man with Essex connections who was planning to found a new plantation. Emmanuel thought he might be useful, with his hard-won knowledge of the land and its people. Even so, a sense of melancholy pervades his final paragraphs. Saddest of all was his loss of faith in his fellow man. “It is my resolution to adventure this ways again,” he wrote. “But never to have any other but myself to be the chief manager of it, for a honest man had better deal with savages than seamen, whose god is all manner of wickedness.”

Soon afterward, Emmanuel came home to Latton, after losing his inheritance and the money he raised from the local tenantry. Like a character from a novel by Joseph Conrad, he wandered toward the rising sun. In 1630, he found a place with the East India Company as military commander and agent at a fever-ridden place called Armagon, on the coast of India, at a salary of fifty pounds a year. It was the first piece of land the British acquired in the subcontinent, but again Captain Altham encountered little more than disenchantment and defeat.

When he arrived, he found India in the grip of famine, because the monsoon had failed three times. At Armagon, he was supposed to trade cloves from the east for Indian calico, but disease and hunger had laid the country waste. The local rajas were unsympathetic, and the fortifications and the English settlement amounted to little more than a heap of mud. He rebuilt the defenses, making an eastern replica of New Plymouth, with a round fort armed with twelve cannon pointing out over a lagoon, just like the Pilgrim guns that faced Cape Cod. There by the tropical sea his bones must lie today, in some forgotten graveyard. Emmanuel Altham died at Armagon in January 1636. Four years later the company dismantled his parapet, removed the artillery, and abandoned the post. They moved forty miles south and built a new base at Fort St. George, or Madras, as the British came to know it in later centuries.

Before he set sail for Asia, Captain Altham made a short will—“my returne beinge doubtfull”—taking care to mention a debt of forty shillings, which he owed to a settler in New England. He left everything else to his family. In the autumn of 1637, news reached London of his death, but another two years passed before the East India Company agreed to give the Althams the money due for his pay. It seems that he rebuilt the fort without obtaining permission, and the company objected to the cost.16

EDWARD WINSLOW’S ATLANTIC

The loss of the Little James came as a terrible blow for the Pilgrims. Their harvest prospered, but not the trade on which they relied. Once again, the diabolical emotions of a few, the ship’s company, had fatally impeded the activity of godliness. And yet, looked at from another perspective, the crowded events of the past twelve months had at least served to clarify the colony’s requirements. They now knew what would work and what would not. Between the autumn of 1623 and the wreck of Altham’s ship, Edward Winslow had been back and forth across the ocean. In London he was able to explain, with the help of his writing, the model that the colony needed to follow.

Before he left America, the Pilgrims had already taken steps to inject new energy into their farming methods. In 1623, they abandoned an early, communal system for growing food. Instead they opted for individual enterprise, with each household allocated its own private slot of land. We will need to look at this again later, in a little more detail, because for any English community in the seventeenth century nothing mattered more than the health and prosperity of agriculture, on whichever side of the Atlantic they happened to be. Even religion depended on it, as any bishop or parishioner could tell you. Without tithes and episcopal land the Church could not be financed. And even after the Pilgrims abolished tithes in Leiden and at New Plymouth, they still had to live, pay their bills, and feed and house their pastors.

Winslow conveyed a simple message: from home, they needed cattle, bulls, oxen, and cows to add to the swine and the chickens that Altham saw rooting about beneath Burial Hill. American corn, bass, bluefish, lobsters, and the like could sustain a large settlement, but nutrition was only half the story: morale required a more diverse diet. No sane Englishman would travel three thousand miles to live in a subsistence economy fed with corn and clam chowder. And, if they wished to achieve a further leap forward in their production of food, so as to release a surplus for trading, then they required livestock as beasts of burden and as sources of richer manure.

Besides livestock, they also needed trading goods, in much larger quantities and of a much better quality. Without them, they had little hope of unlocking the country’s resources of beaver skins, and fur was indispensable. It had become ever more clear that beaver pelts were the only currency that could pay for the animals imported from England, and service the Pilgrim debts. By way of the fur trade, Winslow wrote, “I dare presume … that the English, Dutch and French return yearly many thousand pounds profit.”

In fact Winslow was guilty of exaggeration of Altham’s kind. Certainly the French and the Dutch were prospering in the beaver trade, but even now the English had still barely made a start. Because so many of the customs records from these years have vanished, it is impossible to say precisely how many American skins were reaching British ports. The documents that do survive suggest that they were very few. Most arrived on French vessels, while Russia still supplied the bulk of the raw material for English beaver hats.

We find, for example, that between March and September 1622 fewer than ninety beaver skins arrived at old Plymouth, in Devon. These came from Canada on board a French ship, the Magdalene of La Rochelle. In the same period in 1624, only two consignments entered the same port, and the pelts were only about seventy in number. If anyone had been likely to make a go of the fur trade, it would have been Abraham Jennings, the Plymouth man who had bought the post on Monhegan Island. And yet the customs books show not a single beaver pelt coming back from Monhegan in the first three years of the Jennings period on the island. We know from other sources that some beaver skins were brought home to Devon. They must have arrived during periods for which the customs records have vanished. But if the trade had been substantial, it would have left some trace somewhere. None exists in the remaining documents.17

As for the Pilgrims, they had managed to send skins home to England only in small quantities. For this the loss of the Fortune was only partly to blame. During the long months before Wessagussett, the voyages and overland journeys made by Standish and Bradford were wasted time. So was the abortive mission of the Little James. Winslow’s task in London was to put a brave face on all this, and to rally new support, but he did not hide the underlying truth. He made it perfectly clear that only a very determined effort and a much larger commitment of capital could give New Plymouth the impetus it needed.

Winslow’s mission was a step forward in itself, since the thinking that lay behind it gave the colonists at last a clear set of objectives for the future. And yet, as it turned out, another crisis was just about to befall them.

THE LYFORD AFFAIR

In January 1624, as at last the English economy revived, the London investors fitted out the Charity for another voyage. Besides trading goods, ammunition, and brandy, she carried the first of the livestock that the colony needed. Winslow brought back three heifers and a bull: the challenge of conveying a reluctant, rampant animal between the decks across the ocean can scarcely be imagined. Besides the cattle, Winslow ferried back to America a new and troublesome type of human import. Sherley and his colleagues sent over a clergyman in his forties, the Reverend John Lyford, to act as a minister at New Plymouth. With him came his wife, Sarah, and their own litter of young children. Lyford’s arrival soon led to a quarrel of such intensity that it very nearly caused the disintegration of the colony’s group of supporters at home.18

James Sherley tactfully described Lyford as “a preacher … an honest plaine man, though none of ye most eminente.” From the outset his status was doubtful. As Sherley knew well, neither Bradford nor Brewster could possibly accept as a pastor a man who had not been selected by a vote among the Pilgrim congregation. That was a fundamental tenet of Separatist belief. At best, Lyford could function only as a sort of guest preacher by invitation. At worst, an angry feud was likely if he dared to administer the sacraments of baptism or the Eucharist.

According to William Hubbard, writing in the 1680s, Lyford did exactly that, baptizing the infant son of William Hilton, an innkeeper who came over on the Fortune. Though not a Leiden Pilgrim, Hilton was not some ungodly rascal—he praised his fellow settlers for their piety—and in seeking his son’s baptism, he was simply doing what almost all English parents did. They viewed with terror the prospect of a child dying unbaptized and going straight to hell. To an advanced Calvinist, this was foolishness. To them, sacraments had no effect in themselves, but were simply marks or “seals” of God’s covenant with man, and no sprinkling ritual could bind the Lord’s power to save or damn a child as his justice decreed. On his side, William Hilton had centuries of prudent village custom.

For Bradford, in any event, far more was at stake than a difference of opinion about the liturgy. Although he does not mention the Hilton baptism, his account of the Lyford affair runs to eighteen vitriolic pages of his manuscript. This is far more space than he gives either to the voyage of the Mayflower or to the events of the first winter in the New World. Many years later, when he meditated on the episode as he wrote his narrative, Bradford remained a very angry man. The furious language he used against John Oldham and John Lyford far exceeds in severity anything he found to say about Thomas Weston.

They were evil, profane, and perverse, says Bradford, but Lyford was more than merely a hypocrite and traitor: he ranked as something infinitely worse, a human manifestation of the Antichrist himself. William Bradford rarely uses the word “malign,” but he employs it twice to condemn the behavior of John Lyford and his accomplice. Protestant writers made the word a term of condemnation reserved for the Roman Catholic Church—“the Church Malignant”—by which they meant a perverse and willful sect in rebellion against God.19

Whatever else John Lyford may have been, he was definitely not a Roman Catholic. That will become very clear, but for the moment we have to start with William Bradford’s account of events. According to him, trouble began almost the moment the man stepped off the boat, in the spring of 1624. Bradford shows Lyford hawking his humility from one end of New Plymouth to the other, begging to be allowed to join the Pilgrim church, greasing his path with a long confession of his sinful past. According to Bradford, he admitted that he had been “intangled with many corruptions … and blessed God for this opportunitie, of freedom and libertie, to enjoy ye ordinances of God in puritie among his people.” From the first, Bradford had misgivings—false confessions of faith were not unknown among Separatists and Puritans—and soon his doubts were vindicated.

Bradford noticed that Lyford was often in the company of Oldham, an independent settler who had shipped himself over in 1623. Oldham had already angered the Pilgrims by sending back to England letters filled with allegations about the failings of the colony, religious and otherwise. Indeed, Oldham may have been responsible for Lyford’s arrival: certainly someone had complained that the sacraments were absent at New Plymouth. Then, when the Charity was about to set sail for home, Lyford was spotted scribbling letters to be sent back to London.

Fearing the worst, William Bradford set a trap and allowed Lyford’s letters to sail with the ship. The Charity’s master was an ally. A few miles offshore he paused while Bradford followed in a small boat, boarded the vessel, and opened Lyford’s mail. “Full of slanders, and false accusations,” the letters showed that in league with a faction among the investors at home Lyford and Oldham planned to launch what amounted to a coup d’état, religious and political. Lyford intended to destroy the colony’s religious independence and bring it back within the hated authority of Anglican bishops and the official Church of England. His suspicions confirmed, Bradford returned to the shore.

He bided his time until Lyford and Oldham overplayed their hand. First there was a brief fracas, when Oldham refused guard duty and pulled a knife on the governor. He was clapped in the colony’s jail, but released. Inevitably, perhaps, the climax came on a Sabbath day, when John Lyford and his co-conspirators refused to join the Pilgrim congregation. Instead, they set up their own church, with Lyford as the minister.

This was another familiar situation, which the Separatists had encountered many times in England and the Netherlands. But here in America it was much more dangerous, because the foundations of New Plymouth were still so flimsy, and internal strife might invite attack. Lyford left Bradford with no choice. In June or July, Bradford convened the colony and put Oldham and Lyford on trial, with Lyford’s letters as the evidence. In those letters, Lyford threatened to reopen an old deep wound of division by alleging that Bradford and the Leiden men were militant Brownists, unable to live patiently with those not of their persuasion. Bradford and his friends were sectarian schismatics, or so Lyford claimed, narrow-minded men who kept the colony’s provisions to themselves and refused to allow any form of worship but their own.

The trial could have only one outcome. Oldham and Lyford were condemned to expulsion: immediately in the case of Oldham, and with a six months’ postponement for Lyford, for his wife and children’s sake. Lyford staged a second repentance, and then with equal predictability he began to stir up trouble again, writing another agitating letter to London. Finally, in 1625, the Plymouth Colony banished him. The Lyfords briefly made their home in the north, with a new band of colonists at Naumkeag, later known as Salem. From there they moved to Virginia, where Lyford died in about 1628.

Every detail of the narrative given in the last six paragraphs comes from Bradford, but Thomas Morton tells a different story. He says that Lyford was a moderate Puritan himself, a diligent preacher, and a hardworking man, “honest and laudable.” Morton of course had his own ax to grind, but other evidence suggests that although Lyford was flawed, he was not the simple villain depicted by Bradford. His condemnation by the colony led to a turbulent series of meetings among the investors in London. Lines were drawn in the sand, with John Lyford finding powerful supporters.

Read carefully, Bradford’s narrative makes it plain that the majority backed Lyford, who had as his advocate a well-known lawyer, John White. White was a man of substance, a staunch Puritan and also a politician. Elected to Parliament in 1640, for the radical London seat of Southwark, White made his name as an outspoken foe of the bishops and the king. Of course, lawyers will represent even those with whom they disagree, but if White defended Lyford, then it seems all the less likely that Lyford was what Bradford made him out to be, the tool of authority at home. In reality, John Lyford was a Puritan himself. He came to America from the north of Ireland, where he took part in a colonial adventure to which Puritans gave their full support.

Ten years before the voyage of the Mayflower, the Crown launched the plantation of Ulster on land taken from the Catholic Irish, led by the O’Neills of Tyrone. Beginning in 1610, nearly four million acres of land were divided up and allocated anew. Some of it went to the native Gaels, but much larger quantities were awarded to English and Scottish settlers and to old soldiers who had taken part in the long wars under Elizabeth. John Lyford served in Ulster as minister of a parish made up of fertile land in the county of Armagh, territory confiscated by the Crown. Known as Loughgall, the parish acquired a savage history of its own, and one that continued far into the twentieth century.

NEW ENGLAND, NEW IRELAND

Early one evening in the spring of 1987, at the very top of the long, sloping main street of Loughgall, a mechanical digger rammed a bundle of high explosive through the steel fence of a police station. The blast destroyed the compound, but it was followed by a long volley of automatic fire from assault rifles. When it came to an end, British soldiers had inflicted on their enemy the largest single defeat sustained by the Irish Republican Army during the recent Troubles. They shot dead eight men: seven members of the IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade, and one bystander.

Not so long ago, in bars in Irish districts of north London, you might have heard a nationalist ballad that commemorated the Loughgall Ambush, as the incident came to be known. It occurred close to the end of a long chain of bloodshed and reprisal, which began with the wars and confiscations of Elizabeth and King James.

In 1795, Loughgall became the birthplace of the Orange Order, following the so-called Battle of the Diamond, a series of clashes between Catholics and Presbyterians. Much earlier still, in 1641, Catholic rebels committed their own atrocities against the occupying power in the same village. These conflicts had their origin during the era when Lyford served as rector of Loughgall. At that time, County Armagh became a contested space, as a result of the forced entry of new settlers divided from the native people by language and by religion.

These are sensitive matters. It is best to tread carefully among them. A likeness seems to exist between the Gaelic Irish and the native inhabitants of America. Both peoples suffered dispossession at arrogant British hands. About that, no room for doubt exists; but when we move from generalization to detail, the picture swiftly acquires far more by way of light and shade. No wise writer ventures into Irish history with simple interpretations. The same is true of America’s dealings with its native inhabitants.

For many years, historians on both sides of the Atlantic have drawn parallels and made comparisons between these new English colonies in Ireland and the foundation of Virginia at the same time. It has been argued, convincingly, that the new Irish plantations served as a template for the development first of Jamestown and then of the colonies in Massachusetts.

Some of the same men were involved as backers of both projects, and many affiliations existed. John Winthrop, the founder of Boston, had an uncle, another John Winthrop, who settled on the Munster Plantation in the far south of Ireland in 1595. Some evidence also survives to suggest that Edward Winslow’s father was an early citizen of Londonderry. More relevant still is the case of John Slany, the merchant who lodged Tisquantum. In 1613, Slany served on the ruling executive of the Merchant Taylors’ Company when they agreed to invest one thousand pounds in the same Ulster plantation. The following year he belonged to the “Committee for the Irishe Business,” overseeing the company’s lands at Coleraine.20

It might be tempting, therefore, to combine the course of colonial history in Ireland and in America, and to make them a single narrative of imperialism. It would also be rash, since many of the episodes in question remain subjects for dispute, with the bare facts still open to controversy and disagreement. And, whatever occurred in Ulster in 1610, or in America in 1620 or 1630, an immense and crowded space of history intervened between those events and the modern era. There were many forces at work of a kind undreamed of by King James, and many causes of later conflict in Ireland that have nothing to do with Puritans and Jacobeans.

Nevertheless, in the case of John Lyford we uncover a forgotten or unknown connection. By doing so, we add an essential extra dimension to the Pilgrim narrative. In selecting John Lyford to go to New Plymouth, the investors in London deliberately chose a clergyman directly involved at the very sharpest end of the annexation of Ulster, after the flight of the Irish earls to Rome.

Once again it seems to have been John Pocock who recruited Lyford, just as it was Pocock who probably hired Miles Standish. Bradford gives no clue to Lyford’s ancestry, but the name is uncommon. This narrows down the field. A large family of Lyfords lived as landowners in the county of Berkshire, a few miles from the Pococks at Chieveley. When John Pocock’s father died, a man called Arthur Lyford was among those who signed off the document listing his real estate, and the Berkshire Lyfords were also Merchant Taylors in London, before buying their rural property.

Three other Lyfords from the same family became Jacobean clergy, and the villages where they lived are less than thirty miles from Oxford. There at the university a John Lyford graduated with two degrees in 1597 and 1602, from Magdalen College. Although Cambridge was the more Puritan of the two places, Oxford had many Puritans too, and Magdalen was their stronghold. The Lyford who studied at Magdalen was almost certainly the same man who sailed to America.21

We do not know what he did straight after Oxford, but in 1613 John Lyford went to Ulster to become a minister in the Church of Ireland. The church in question was Protestant, and of course administered by bishops. Governed by King James, it commanded the respect of only a tiny minority, since very few of the Irish had any intention of joining it. Even so, the Crown believed that a Protestant reformation might be achieved in Ireland too. For this reason, the king allowed the Church of Ireland to become a haven for Puritans, men whose zeal might prove useful in converting the reluctant natives.

So, if a clergyman felt uneasy wearing a white surplice or making the sign of the cross, then off to Ireland he would go. For Puritans, the greatest attraction lay in a loophole in ecclesiastical law. Protestant clergymen in Ireland did not have to sign on the dotted line and pledge their support to the Book of Common Prayer, or to the articles of faith of the Church of England. And, in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century, close ties existed between the Puritan preachers of London and their comrades in northern Ireland. Many letters passed back and forth between them. We can be sure that John Lyford was a Puritan, and not some kind of Episcopalian enforcer.

He found his niche in Ulster thanks to a new archbishop of Armagh. The new man, Christopher Hampton, came to Ireland with a brief to hasten the work of reform. His task was to appoint new preachers, and to give the Protestant settlers the parish clergy they needed. As archbishop, he took possession of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, founded in Armagh by Ireland’s saint many centuries before, on the rock above the city. Hampton revived the ancient title of prebendary, a rank he gave to three men, among them John Lyford. Each prebendary had a special chair, with his title inscribed above it, in the choir of the cathedral. Although it has often been rebuilt—the Irish set fire to the cathedral more than once—their prebendal seats remain in the edifice today.22

Each man received an income from an Irish parish. John Lyford became prebendary of Loughgall, a post with some prestige. It entitled him to take the income from the tithes and clerical land in the village, seven miles from Armagh, and he had the title of rector. This was an excellent living, worth as much as sixty pounds a year. Lyford owned what the Ulster archives call a “sufficient parsonage house,” with attached to it an apple orchard.23

Apples grow in their millions in this part of Ulster, and Loughgall became one of the most-sought-after tracts of country in the new plantation. Even in the twenty-first century, the stone walls of the planter estates still neatly divide the farmland roundabout. This remains perhaps the best surviving example, on either side of the Atlantic, of a colonial landscape as it was three hundred years ago. Loughgall remains a charming place, often voted Northern Ireland’s best-kept village, with Georgian houses and a little Victorian school built by its principal landowning family, the Copes. They too were Puritans, and famous for it. Sir Anthony Cope, the man who bought Loughgall, became an outspoken Puritan member of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth. She sent him to the Tower of London in 1587 after he introduced a bill calling for a Presbyterian reformation.

His family made their home in Ireland on stolen property, because Loughgall lay within a tract of country known as the barony of Oneilland. As its name suggests, it belonged to the Tyrone O’Neills, as it had for many centuries. After the flight of the Earl of Tyrone from Lough Swilly, King James seized Oneilland, and it fell within the new Ulster Plantation. The Copes took the largest slice. For the next three centuries they remained at Loughgall, as local stalwarts of the Protestant ascendancy. Such beginnings are hardly likely to give rise to a peaceful history.

Opposite the gates of the Cope estate, the tall west gable end of Lyford’s church still stands, overlooking a muddy green valley. Few visitors from outside Ulster find their way to Loughgall, but those who do will see that the ruined church was intended to withstand attack. Supported by massive buttresses, even now it bears the marks of combat. During the rising in 1641, the Catholic Irish burned it to the ground. They took Loughgall and led the Copes away to confinement. They killed one of Lyford’s successors as prebendary, stripping him naked and hurling him into the river Bann at Portadown. A few years later, an army of Scottish Calvinists recaptured Loughgall, and this time they burned the whole village.24

Loughgall existed on a frontier, next to the most defiant region of Gaelic Ireland. Two or three times larger than those of an English parish, the official limits of Loughgall sprawled as far as the Blackwater River, a natural line of defense. Within Lyford’s clerical jurisdiction lay the royal fortress of Charlemont, an outpost not unlike the Plymouth Colony. Commenced in 1602 to control the river crossing, its earthworks still overlook the Blackwater today, while near Loughgall the Copes left the limestone ruins of a bawn, or fortified house. From the brow of a hill, it commanded a windswept view as far as the Mourne Mountains.

We can start to see why John Pocock and his associates selected Lyford as the first pastor of New Plymouth. He was used to operating in hostile territory. With his background in Ulster as a chaplain and a missionary, he came with the right experience and with Puritan credentials. But this simply made his dereliction all the worse. During the angry meetings in London, it emerged that John Lyford had misbehaved at Loughgall. A young woman came to him for advice about choosing a husband. As scandalous clergymen so often do, the minister invited her for private counseling. According to William Bradford, Lyford “satisfied his lust” on the young woman, and what was worse, he did so in an unnatural way: according to Bradford, Lyford “endeavoured to hinder conception.”

Soon more evidence came to light. Mrs. Lyford revealed that when they married, her husband already had an illegitimate child. He made their marriage a misery by interfering with one maidservant after another. Sordid too, in Bradford’s eyes, was the manner in which Lyford masqueraded as a Puritan. In Ulster, he says, Lyford “wound himself into the esteem of sundry godly, and zealous professors … who having been burdened with the ceremonies in England, found there some more liberty to their consciences.” When they discovered his guilty secret, they ostracized Lyford, and he was forced to leave Ireland. That was how he became available to go to New Plymouth.

How reliable is Bradford’s story? If this had occurred on the English mainland, public records might have preserved some independent evidence. In Ireland, the vast bulk of them were lost in the civil war in 1922, during the siege of the Four Courts in Dublin. Only fragmentary papers remain, revealing that the Copes at Loughgall underwent colonial misadventures of their own, running up huge debts in their first two decades. They confirm that a new parish minister replaced Lyford at Loughgall in about 1621. They also contain a small but telling detail which suggests that Bradford was entirely correct about his character.

In 1639, a decade after the death of John Lyford, his son remained under the care of guardians. On the boy’s behalf they gave a power of attorney to a pair of leading citizens of Dublin. It fell to them to claim rents due to the family from real estate in the north. Oddly enough, the property included land at Levalleglish, a subdivision of Loughgall, in the valley below the ruined church and the police post.

Later records show Levalleglish as land owned by the Church of Ireland for the support of each parish minister during his period of service. When Lyford died, the land should have been given back to the authorities, but there were ways and means for clergymen to enrich their families at the expense of the Church. It seems that Lyford adopted the corrupt practice of granting ecclesiastical land to his children at a low rent and on a long lease that stretched far beyond his own lifetime. This was commonplace in Ireland—Archbishop Hampton did it at Armagh, to benefit his brothers—but it was very damaging. It siphoned off income intended to support a dynamic Protestant ministry. By 1623 the abuse was causing so much trouble that the Crown wrote to Hampton banning it. The letter still survives in the library of his cathedral.25

With this the story becomes complete. If Lyford embezzled from the Church, he committed the sin for which God struck dead the guilty in the Acts of the Apostles. A squalid lecher and a charlatan, he threatened to infect the Plymouth Colony with the evils that Bradford and Brewster had seen at home, in the neighborhood of Scrooby. Like a bacillus, John Lyford carried with him the degraded English ways that they had tried to leave behind. Like Weston’s men at Wessagussett, he might cause the colony to revert to iniquity—or so Bradford must have believed. That was what he meant by malignancy, and that was why his anger rose to such a pitch.

Although Bradford was victorious, the Lyford affair took its toll on the Pilgrims. Because of the rift it caused with Pocock and his group, the episode deferred once again the point at which the colony reached maturity, with happy, cooperative investors at home. Miles Standish made an abortive trip to London in 1625 in an attempt to raise new capital, but he found a city stricken by plague and money hard to find: he was obliged to borrow at an interest rate of 50 percent. As controversy about Lyford dragged on, the Plymouth Colony still seemed no closer to making a profit or to paying down its borrowings in London.

To rid themselves of their debts, which had reached as much as thirteen hundred pounds, they would need to ship home three thousand beaver skins. This was a vast amount, apparently far beyond their reach. During the trading season in 1625, the investors sent over the Little James and another ship to fish for cod. The Little James carried home about five hundred beaver pelts, but the cargo never reached its destination. In the English Channel, almost within sight of Plymouth, she was captured by pirates, and the skins were sold for four pence each in the bazaars of Algiers or Tunis: another disaster, in a year that also brought from Leiden the news of the death of John Robinson.

Five years on from Plymouth Rock, the colony could feed itself, and life was tolerably quiet and orderly, but its future remained far from certain. Depending on England for stores and supplies, the settlers could not survive indefinitely on borrowed money. True, they had acquired a high reputation among powerful men at home. In 1623, the colony received another visitor, a man called John Pory. A pioneering journalist who worked as a civil servant in Virginia, he earned extra money by circulating private newsletters to members of the aristocracy. Pory told them about the Mayflower Pilgrims, giving enthusiastic accounts of their achievements, with a special emphasis on their piety and hard work. Twenty years later, when he came to write his history, William Bradford remembered him with deep gratitude. Pory, he said, “did this poore plantation much credite, amongst those of no mean ranck.”26

This sort of praise was valuable. It was also justified, but more was required than reputation. By the end of 1625, the Pilgrims needed a turn in their luck. This was about to occur. That same year, Edward Winslow led a first Pilgrim trading mission into the Kennebec River, selling surplus corn grown around Burial Hill. He returned from Maine with beaver fur weighing seven hundred pounds, equivalent to the pelts of about four hundred animals. By opening this new avenue of trade, Winslow assured the future of the colony, but for reasons that, as yet, nobody in New England could possibly foresee. They arose from events three thousand miles away, in Paris, in London, and along the coast of France.

* For the definition of m’ask-ehtu and other native words, the principal source is an unsung American classic, J. Hammond Trumbull’s Natick Dictionary, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1903.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!