PLYMOUTH BY THE WINTER OF 1623 was a place of exceptional discipline, a community where shared religious beliefs and family ties had united the Leideners from the start and where two years of strong leadership on the part of William Bradford had convinced even the Strangers that it was in their best interests to work together. Some twenty miles to the north, at Wessagussett, an entirely different community had come into being.
Wessagussett was more like early Jamestown—a group of unattached men with relatively little in common. In the beginning, their energies were directed toward building a fort. But once that was completed, they were unprepared to face the rigors of a hard New England winter. As in Jamestown, a state of almost unaccountable languor quickly descended on the inhabitants. Suffering from a deadly combination of malnutrition and despair, the colonists appeared powerless to adapt to the demands of the New World.
It was quite possible, the Pilgrims insisted, for Weston’s men to survive. Even without corn and migratory birds, there were still shellfish (including oysters, which were not available at Plymouth) along the water’s edge at Wessagussett. There were also groundnuts, fleshy potatolike tubers that grew in clusters beneath the ground. Rather than give up, they must strive to feed themselves.
But to seek food required them to leave the safety of their fortress, and unlike Plymouth, where the closest Indian village was fifteen miles away, Wessagussett was set right beside a Massachusett settlement. Not only was the threat of attack greater, but there was also an even more powerful form of temptation. The Indians possessed stores of corn that they were saving for the spring. Why spend the day rooting for clams in the cold mud when there was so much corn for the taking?
In February, John Sanders, the settlement’s leader, wrote to Governor Bradford, asking if it was right to steal a few hogsheads of corn, especially if they promised to reimburse the Indians once they’d grown their own corn in the summer. This was, of course, almost exactly what the Pilgrims had done two years before, but Bradford urged them to leave the corn alone, “for it might so exasperate the Indians…[that] all of us might smart for it.”
In desperation, Sanders sailed to the east in hopes of securing some provisions from a fishing outpost on the island of Monhegan. He left his plantation in a state of misery and disorder. One morning they found a man dead in the tidal flats, waist deep in muck and apparently too feeble to extract himself. As the sufferings of Weston’s men increased, the Indians, who were already resentful of the English interlopers, began to harass them unmercifully. They scoffed at their weakness and even snatched from their hands what few clams and groundnuts they had been able to gather. Some of the English resorted to trading their clothes for food until they were reduced to naked, trembling skeletons of wretchedness; others contracted themselves out as servants to the Indians; one man, according to Winslow, willingly became an Indian.
About this time, Miles Standish traveled to Manomet, just fifteen miles to the south of Plymouth, to pick up some of the corn Bradford had secured during his trading voyage with Squanto. Standish was being entertained by sachem Canacum when two Massachusett Indians arrived with word from sachem Obtakiest at Wessagussett.
One of the Indians was a warrior of immense pride named Wituwamat, who bragged of having once killed several French sailors. Wituwamat possessed an ornately carved knife that he had taken from one of his victims. Soon after his arrival, he presented the knife to Canacum and began “a long speech in an audacious manner.” Without the assistance of an interpreter, Standish was not sure what Wituwamat was saying, but he did know that once the Indian had completed his speech, he—not Standish—became Canacum’s favored guest and Wituwamat’s “entertainment much exceeded the captain’s.”
Standish was not the sort to overlook a social slight. Where Bradford was willing to give even a potential traitor the benefit of the doubt, Standish was quick to take offense. He objected vehemently to his treatment by Canacum and chastised the two Massachusett Indians for their refusal to pay him the proper respect.
In an attempt to pacify the captain, Canacum insisted that Standish invite his three English compatriots, who were then loading the shallop with corn, to join them beside the fire. But Standish would have none of it. He stormed out of the wigwam and resolved to spend the night with his men at the temporary rendezvous they had built beside the shallop.
Standish’s indignant furor appears to have blinded him to the fact that something of far more consequence than a social rebuff had occurred at Manomet. Only in hindsight did Standish see the interchange between Wituwamat and Canacum as the first indication that the Indians in the region were conspiring against them. For, as it turned out, he and Wituwamat were destined to meet again.
While Standish was at Manomet, word reached Plymouth that Massasoit was gravely ill. Bradford decided he must send an emissary—not only to attend to Massasoit, but to make contact with the crew of a Dutch vessel that had reportedly been driven ashore, almost to the door of the sachem’s wigwam. Since Winslow had already visited Massasoit and could speak Dutch, he was chosen for the expedition to Pokanoket.
Winslow was accompanied by Hobbamock and John Hamden, a gentleman from London who was wintering with the Pilgrims, and about midway in their forty-mile journey, they received word from some Indians that Massasoit was dead. “This news struck us blank,” Winslow wrote. The Indians also said that the Dutch had succeeded in refloating their vessel and had already left Pokanoket.
Hobbamock was the most profoundly affected by the unsubstantiated news of the sachem’s passing, and he insisted that they return immediately to Plymouth. But Winslow was not so sure. If Massasoit was dead, then Corbitant, who lived just to the east of Pokanoket, would in all likelihood succeed him. Even though he was, in Winslow’s words, “a most hollowhearted friend toward us,” it might be in their best interests to stop at Corbitant’s village and pay their respects. Given that less than a year ago both Winslow and Hobbamock had been part of an expedition sent to kill Corbitant (who had reportedly murdered Squanto), it was an extremely hazardous proposition. But after some reflection, all of them thought it worth the risk.
As they made their way to Corbitant’s village, Hobbamock could not contain his sorrow over the loss of Massasoit. “My loving sachem, my loving sachem!” he cried. “Many have I known, but never any like thee.” He said that with Massasoit’s death he feared Plymouth “had not a faithful friend left among the Indians.” He then proceeded to deliver a eulogy that still stands as a remarkably timeless description of an ideal leader:
[H]e was no liar, he was not bloody and cruel… in anger and passion he was soon reclaimed; easy to be reconciled towards such as had offended him; [he] ruled by reason in such measure as he would not scorn the advice of mean men; and…he governed his men better with few strokes, than others did with many; truly loving where he loved.
Corbitant, they soon discovered, was not at home. He was still at Pokanoket, his wife said; she wasn’t sure whether or not Massasoit was still alive. Winslow hired a runner to go to Pokanoket to get the latest news. Just a half hour before sunset, the messenger returned with word that the sachem “was not yet dead, though there was no hope we should find him living.” Winslow resolved to set out immediately for Pokanoket.
It was still dark when they arrived at Massasoit’s village. His wigwam was so jammed with people that they had difficulty making their way to the sachem’s side. Several powwows hovered over him, “making such a hellish noise, as it distempered us that were well,” Winslow wrote. Massasoit’s arms, legs, and thighs were being worked over by half a dozen women, who chafed his skin “to keep heat in him.” During a lull, Winslow requested that Massasoit be informed that “his friends, the English, were come to see him.”
The sachem was unable to see, but he could still hear. He weakly asked which one of the English was present. The Indians said Winslow’s name as “Winsnow,” and Massasoit responded, “Keen Winsnow?” or “Are you Winslow?” The Pilgrim answered, “Ahhee,” or yes. Massasoit’s response: “Matta neen wonckanet namen, Winsnow!” or “O Winslow, I shall never see thee again.”
Winslow explained that Governor Bradford had wished he could be there but pressing business had required him to remain at Plymouth. In his stead, he had come with some medicines and foods “most likely to do [the sachem] good in this his extremity.” Massasoit had eaten nothing in a very long time, and Winslow attempted to feed him some fruit preserves, administered on the tip of a knife. Once the sweetened fruit had dissolved in Massasoit’s mouth, he swallowed—for the first time in two days.
Winslow began to examine the interior of the sachem’s mouth. It was “exceedingly furred,” and his tongue was so swollen that it was little wonder he had been unable to eat anything. After scraping the “corruption” from his mouth and tongue, Winslow fed him more of the preserves.
Massasoit may have been suffering from typhus, probably brought to the village by the recently departed Dutch traders. Spread by infected lice, typhus was known as “pestilential fever” in the seventeenth century and was most common in winter and spring. Typhus thrived in the crowded, unsanitary conditions typical of an Indian or, for that matter, English village of the time, and there were also several other Pokanokets suffering from the disease. According to a modern description of typhus, symptoms include “fever and chills, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, muscle ache and delirium or stupor. The tongue is first coated with a white fur, which then turns brown. The body develops small red eruptions which may bleed.” In severe cases, the mortality rate can reach 70 percent.
Within a half hour of receiving his first taste of Winslow’s fruit preserves, Massasoit had improved to the extent that his sight had begun to return. Winslow had brought several bottles of medicines, but they had broken along the way. He asked Massasoit if he could send a messenger to get some more from the surgeon back in Plymouth, as well as a couple of chickens, so that he might cook up a broth. This was readily agreed to, and by 2 A.M. a runner was on his way with a letter from Winslow.
The next day, Massasoit was well enough to ask Winslow to shoot a duck and make an English pottage similar to what he had sampled at Plymouth. Fearing that his stomach was not yet ready for meat, Winslow insisted that he first try a more easily digested pottage of greens and herbs. Neither Winslow nor John Hamden had any experience in making such a concoction, however, and after much hunting about they were able to find only a few strawberry leaves and a sassafras root. They boiled the two together, and after straining the results through Winslow’s handkerchief and combining it with some roasted corn, they fed the mixture to Massasoit. He drank at least a pint of the broth and soon had his first bowel movement in five days.
Before fading off to sleep, the sachem asked Winslow to wash out the mouths of all the others who were sick in the village, “saying they were good folk.” Reluctantly the Pilgrim envoy went about the work of scraping the mouths of all who desired it, a duty he admitted to finding “much offensive to me, not being accustomed with such poisonous savors.” This was a form of diplomacy that went far beyond the usual exchange of pleasantries and gifts.
That afternoon Winslow shot a duck and prepared to feed Massasoit the promised pottage. By this time, the sachem had improved remarkably. “Never did I see a man so low…recover in that measure in so short a time,” Winslow wrote. The duck’s meat was quite fatty, and Winslow said it was important to skim the grease from the top of the broth, but Massasoit was now ravenous and insisted on making “a gross meal of it”—gobbling down the duck, fat and all. An hour later, he was vomiting so violently that he began to bleed from the nose.
For the next four hours the blood poured from his nose, and Winslow began to fear that this might be the end. But eventually the bleeding stopped, and the sachem slept for close to eight hours. When he awoke, he was feeling so much better that he asked that the two chickens, which had just arrived from Plymouth, be kept as breeding stock rather than cooked for his benefit.
All the while, Indians from as many as a hundred miles away continued to arrive at Pokanoket. Before Winslow’s appearance, many of those in attendance had commented on the absence of the English and suggested that they cared little about Massasoit’s welfare. With this remarkable recovery, everything had changed. “Now I see the English are my friends and love me,” Massasoit announced to the assembled multitude; “and whilst I live, I will never forget this kindness they have showed me.”
Before their departure, Massasoit took Hobbamock aside and had some words with the trusted pniese. Not until the following day, after they had spent the night with Corbitant, who now declared himself to be one of the Pilgrims’ staunchest allies, did Hobbamock reveal the subject of his conversation with Massasoit.
Plymouth, the sachem claimed, was in great danger. Pushed to the limit of their endurance by Weston’s men at Wessagussett, the Massachusetts had decided they must wipe out the settlement. But to attack Wessagussett would surely incite the wrath of the Pilgrims, who would feel compelled to revenge the deaths of their countrymen. The only solution, the Massachusetts had determined, was to launch raids on both English settlements. But the Massachusetts had just forty warriors; if they were to attack Wessagussett and Plymouth simultaneously, they needed help. Massasoit claimed that they had succeeded in gaining the support of half a dozen villages on Cape Cod as well as the Indians at Manomet and Martha’s Vineyard. An assault was imminent, Massasoit insisted, and the only option the Pilgrims had was “to kill the men of Massachusetts, who were the authors of this intended mischief.” If the Pilgrims waited until after the Indians had attacked Wessagussett, it would be too late. By then the regionwide Native force would have been assembled, and the “multitude of adversaries” would overwhelm them. They must act “without delay to take away the principals, and then the plot would cease.”
It was terrifying to learn that they were, in Winslow’s words, “at the pit’s brim, and yet feared nor knew not that we were in danger.” They must return to Plymouth as soon as possible and inform Governor Bradford. After more than two years of threatened violence, it now appeared that the Pilgrims might have no choice but to go to war.
As Winslow, Hobbamock, and John Hamden were hurrying back to Plymouth, Phineas Pratt, a thirty-year-old joiner who had become, by default, one of the leaders of the sorry settlement of Wessagussett, was beginning to think it was time to escape this hellhole and find his way to Plymouth.
Their sufferings had become unendurable. They had nothing to eat, and the Indians were becoming increasingly belligerent. The warriors, led by a pniese named Pecksuot, gathered outside the wall of the Wessagussett fort. “Machit pesconk!” they shouted, which Pratt translated as “Naughty guns.” An attack seemed at hand, so the English increased the number of men on watch. But without food, the guards began to die at their posts. One bitterly cold night, Pratt reported for guard duty. “I [saw] one man dead before me,” he remembered, “and another [man dead] at my right hand and another at my left for want of food.”
Word reached the settlement from an Englishman living with the Indians that the Massachusetts planned to attack both Wessagussett and Plymouth. Sachem Obtakiest was waiting for the snow to melt so that his warriors’ footprints could not be tracked when they left for the other settlement. “[T]heir plot was to kill all the English people in one day,” Pratt wrote. He decided he must leave as soon as possible for Plymouth. “[I]f [the] Plymouth men know not of this treacherous plot,” he told his compatriots, “they and we are all dead men.”
With a small pack draped across his back, he walked out of the settlement as casually as he could manage with a hoe in his hand. He began to dig at the edge of a large swamp, pretending to search for groundnuts. He looked to his right and to his left and, seeing no Indians, disappeared into the swamp.
He ran till about three o’clock in the afternoon. There were patches of snow everywhere, and he feared the Indians had followed his footprints and would soon be upon him. Clouds moved in, making it difficult to determine the position of the sun and the direction in which he was traveling. “I wandered,” he wrote, “not knowing my way.” But at sunset, the western sky became tinged with red, providing him with the orientation he needed.
As darkness overtook him, he heard “a great howling of wolves.” He came to a river and, skittering over the rocks, drenched himself in the chilly water. He was tired, hungry, and cold, but he feared to light a fire, since it might be seen by the Indians. He came to a deep gorge into which several trees had fallen. “Then I said in my thoughts,” he wrote, “this is God’s providence that here I may make a fire.” As he attempted to warm himself beside the feeble blaze, the sky above miraculously cleared, and he stared up at the stars. Recognizing Ursa Major, he was able to determine the direction he should go the next morning.
By three in the afternoon he had reached the site of what would become the village of Duxbury, just to the north of Plymouth. As he ran across the shallows of the Jones River, haunted by the fear that the Indians were about to catch up to him, he said to himself, “[N]ow am I a deer chased [by] wolves.” He found a well-worn path. He was bounding down a hill when up ahead he saw an Englishman walking toward him. It was John Hamden, the gentleman from London who had recently returned from Pokanoket with Edward Winslow. Suddenly overcome by exhaustion, Pratt collapsed onto the trunk of a fallen tree. “Mr. Hamden,” he called out, “I am glad to see you alive.”
Hamden explained that Massasoit had told them of the plot against Plymouth and Wessagussett and that Governor Bradford had recently convened a public meeting to discuss how the plantation should proceed.
It was irritating in the extreme to know that they had been put into this mess not by anything they had done but by the irresponsible actions of Weston’s men. The one encouraging bit of news was that thanks to Winslow’s efforts at Pokanoket, Massasoit was once again on their side. There was little doubt what the sachem expected of them: they were to launch a preemptive strike against the Massachusetts and snuff out the conspiracy at its source.
The fact remained, however, that thus far no Indians had even threatened them. If they were to initiate an attack, it would be based on hearsay—and they all knew from experience how misleading and convoluted the rumors could be. Then again, with a sachem as trustworthy and powerful as Massasoit telling them to act, what more justification did they need? Yes, they decided, their future safety depended on a swift and daring assault.
Edward Winslow later claimed that “it much grieved us to shed the blood of those whose good we ever intended.” In truth, however, there were some Pilgrims who felt no such misgivings. Miles Standish had been itching to settle a score with Wituwamat ever since the Massachusett warrior had snubbed him at Manomet. For the captain, the matter was personal rather than diplomatic, and he was going to make the most of it. Bradford, normally careful to restrain his combative military officer, appears to have given Standish free rein. It was agreed that the captain should make an example of “that bloody and bold villain” and bring back Wituwamat’s head to Plymouth, “that he might be a warning and terror to all of that disposition.”
Standish put together a force that included Hobbamock and seven Englishmen; any more and the Massachusetts might suspect what the English were about. They would sail for Wessagussett pretending to be on a trading mission. Instead of launching a full-scale attack, they would, after secretly warning Weston’s men, “take [the Indians] in such traps as they lay for others.”
They were scheduled to leave the same day Pratt staggered out of the forest. Standish postponed their departure so that he could extract as much information as possible from the young man. The Pilgrims found Pratt’s story “good encouragement to proceed in our intendments,” and with the help of a fair wind, Standish and his men left the next day for Wessagussett.
Before landing, they stopped at the Swan, anchored just offshore. The little vessel was deserted, but after Standish’s men fired off a musket, the ship’s master and several other men from Wessagussett walked down to the water’s edge. They had been gathering groundnuts and seemed distressingly nonchalant given what the Pilgrims had been led to believe. Standish asked why they had left the ship without anyone on guard. “[L]ike men senseless of their own misery,” they replied that they had no fear of the Indians. In fact, many of them were living with the Massachusetts in their wigwams. If this was indeed the case, then why was Standish about to launch an attack? Had Pratt simply told the Pilgrims what they wanted to hear?
Standish was not about to allow anything—not even evidence that all was peace at Wessagussett—dissuade him from his plan. He marched to the fort and demanded to speak to whoever was in charge. Once he’d done his best to quell the Indians’ suspicions, he explained, he was going to kill as many of them as he could. With the completion of the mission, the settlers could either return with him to Plymouth or take the Swan up to Maine. Standish had even brought along some corn to sustain them during their voyage east.
It was their hunger, not their fear of the Indians, that was the chief concern of Weston’s men. It was not surprising, then, that they quickly embraced Standish’s plan, since it meant they would soon have something to eat. Swearing all to secrecy, the captain instructed them to tell those who were living outside the settlement to return as soon as possible to the safety of the fort. Unfortunately, the weather had deteriorated, and the rain and wind prompted several of the English to remain in the warmth of the Indians’ wigwams.
In the meantime, a warrior approached the fort under the pretense of trading furs with Standish. The fiery military officer tried to appear welcoming and calm, but it was clear to the Indian that Standish was up to no good. Once back among his friends, he reported that “he saw by his eyes that [the captain] was angry in his heart.”
This prompted the Massachusett pniese Pecksuot to approach Hobbamock. He told the Pokanoket warrior that he knew exactly what Standish was up to and that he and Wituwamat were unafraid of him. “[L]et him begin when he dare,” he told Hobbamock; “he shall not take us unawares.”
Later that day, both Pecksuot and Wituwamat brashly walked up to Standish. Pecksuot was a tall man, and he made a point of looking disdainfully down on the Pilgrim military officer. “You are a great captain,” he said, “yet you are but a little man. Though I be no sachem, yet I am of great strength and courage.”
For his part, Wituwamat continued to whet and sharpen the same knife he had so ostentatiously flourished in Standish’s presence several weeks before at Manomet. On the knife’s handle was the carved outline of a woman’s face. “I have another at home,” he told Standish, “wherewith I have killed both French and English, and that has a man’s face on it; by and by these two must marry.”
“These things the captain observed,” Winslow wrote, “yet bore with patience for the present.”
The next day, Standish lured both Wituwamat and Pecksuot into one of the settlement’s houses for a meal. In addition to corn, he had brought along some pork. The two Massachusett pnieses were wary of the Plymouth captain, but they were also very hungry, and, as Standish had anticipated, pork was a delicacy that the Indians found almost impossible to resist. Wituwamat and Pecksuot were accompanied by Wituwamat’s brother and a friend, along with several women. Besides Standish, there were three other Pilgrims and Hobbamock in the room.
Once they had all sat down and begun to eat, the captain signaled for the door to be shut. He turned to Pecksuot and grabbed the knife from the string around the pniese’s neck. Before the Indian had a chance to respond, Standish had begun stabbing him with his own weapon. The point was needle sharp, and Pecksuot’s chest was soon riddled with blood-spurting wounds. As Standish and Pecksuot struggled, the other Pilgrims assaulted Wituwamat and his companion. “[I]t is incredible,” Winslow wrote, “how many wounds these two pnieses received before they died, not making any fearful noise, but catching at their weapons and striving to the last.”
All the while, Hobbamock stood by and watched. Soon the three Indians were dead, and Wituwamat’s teenage brother had been taken captive. A smile broke out across Hobbamock’s face, and he said, “Yesterday, Pecksuot, bragging of his own strength and stature, said though you were a great captain, yet you were but a little man. Today I see you are big enough to lay him on the ground.”
But the killing had just begun. Wituwamat’s brother was quickly hanged. There was another company of Pilgrims elsewhere in the settlement, and Standish sent word to them to kill any Indians who happened to be with them. As a result, two more were put to death. In the meantime, Standish and his cohorts found another Indian and killed him.
With Hobbamock and some of Weston’s men in tow, Standish headed out in search of more Indians. They soon came across sachem Obtakiest and a group of Massachusett warriors. Situated between the English and the Indians was a rise of land that would afford a strategic advantage, and both groups began to run for it. Standish reached it first, and the Indians quickly scattered along the edge of the nearby forest, each man hiding behind a tree. Arrows were soon whizzing through the brisk afternoon air, most of them aimed at Standish and Hobbamock. Being a pniese, and therefore supposedly invulnerable, Hobbamock looked scornfully at the Indians behind the trees. Throwing off his coat, he began to chase after them, and most of them fled so quickly that none of the English could keep up with them.
There was a powwow who stood his ground and aimed an arrow at Standish. They later learned that he had been one of the original instigators of the plot against them. The captain and another Englishman fired simultaneously at the powwow, and the bullets broke his arm. With that, the remaining Indians, which included sachem Obtakiest, ran for the shelter of a nearby swamp, where they paused to hurl taunts and expletives at the Plymouth captain. Standish challenged the sachem to fight him man-to-man, but after a final exchange of insults, Obtakiest and the others disappeared into the swamp.
Several women had been captured during the scuffle with Pecksuot and Wituwamat. Now that the killing spree had finally come to an end, Standish decided to release the women, even though he knew there were at least three of Weston’s men still living with the Indians. If he had kept these women as hostages, Standish could easily have bargained for the Englishmen’s lives. But killing Indians, not saving lives, appears to have been the captain’s chief priority at Wessagussett, and all three Englishmen were later executed.
Now that Standish’s terrifying whirlwind of violence had come to an apparent end, the vast majority of the Wessagussett survivors decided to sail for Monhegan. The Pilgrims waited until the Swan had cleared Massachusetts-Bay, then turned their shallop south for Plymouth, with the head of Wituwamat wrapped in a piece of white linen.
Standish arrived at Plymouth to a hero’s welcome. After being “received with joy,” the captain and his men marched up to the newly completed fort, where Wituwamat’s head was planted on a pole on the fort’s roof. As it turned out, the fort contained its first prisoner: an Indian who had been sent in pursuit of Phineas Pratt. Unable to find Pratt, who had saved his own life by becoming so hopelessly lost, the Indian had continued past Plymouth to Manomet, then backtracked to the English settlement in hopes of obtaining some information about the Pilgrims. By this time, Standish had already departed for Wessagussett, and suspicious of the Indian’s motives, Bradford had thrown him in irons until the captain’s return.
The Indian was released from his shackles and brought out for examination. After looking “piteously on the head” of Wituwamat, the captive confessed everything. The plot had not originally been sachem Obtakiest’s idea. There were five—Wituwamat, Peksuot, and three powwows, including the one Standish had injured at Wessagussett—who had convinced their sachem to launch an attack against the Pilgrims. Bradford released the prisoner on the condition that he carry a message to Obtakiest: If the sachem dared to continue in “the like courses,” Bradford vowed, “he would never suffer him or his to rest in peace, till he had utterly consumed them.”
It took many days for the Pilgrims to receive an answer. Finally a Massachusett woman appeared at Plymouth with Obtakiest’s response. She explained that her sachem was eager to make peace with the Pilgrims, but none of his men were willing to approach the settlement. Ever since the massacre at Wessagussett, Obtakiest had kept on the move, fearful that Standish might return and “take further vengeance on him.”
The Massachusetts were not the only Indians in the region to have taken flight into the wilderness. All throughout Cape Cod—from Manomet to Nauset to Pamet—the Native inhabitants had fled in panic, convinced that Standish and his thugs were about to descend on their villages and kill every Indian in sight. “[T]his sudden and unexpected execution…,” Edward Winslow wrote, “hath so terrified and amazed them, as in like manner they forsook their houses, running to and fro like men distracted, living in swamps and other desert places, and so brought manifold diseases amongst themselves, whereof very many are dead.”
Huddled in swamps and on remote islands, fearful that to venture back to their villages meant certain death, Indians throughout the region were unable to plant the crops on which their lives depended. By summer, they had begun to die at a startling rate. “[C]ertainly it is strange to hear how many of late have, and still daily die amongst them,” Winslow wrote. Just about every notable sachem on the Cape died in the months ahead, including Canacum at Manomet, Aspinet at Nauset, and the “personable, courteous, and fair conditioned” Iyanough at Cummaquid. Word reached Plymouth that before he died, the handsome young sachem had “in the midst of these distractions, said the God of the English was offended with them, and would destroy them in his anger.” One village decided to send some gifts to the Pilgrims in hopes of establishing peace, but the Indians’ canoe capsized almost within sight of the plantation, and three of them drowned. Since that incident, not a single Indian from Cape Cod had dared to approach the settlement. Among the Massachusetts, the Pilgrims had earned a new name: wotawquenange—cutthroats.
Standish’s raid had irreparably damaged the human ecology of the region. Not only had the Pilgrims proved unexpectedly violent and vindictive, but Massasoit had betrayed his former confederates. By siding with the Pilgrims against the Indians of Massachusetts and Cape Cod, the Pokanoket sachem had initiated a new and terrifying era in New England. It was no longer a question of Indian versus English; it was now possible for alliances and feuds to reach across racial lines in a confusing amalgam of cultures.
It took some time before a new equilibrium came to the region. In the immediate aftermath of the Wessagussett raid, the Pilgrims were astonished to discover that they had, at least temporarily, ruined their ability to trade with the Indians. “[W]e have been much damaged in our trade,” Bradford wrote to the Merchant Adventurers, “for there where we had [the] most skins the Indians are run away from their habitations, and set no corn, so as we can by no means as yet come to speak with them.” Without furs as a potential source of income, the Pilgrims looked to codfishing—with the usual disastrous results.
The people who had been helped by the attack were the Pokanokets. With the death of the most influential sachems on Cape Cod, a huge power vacuum had been created in the region. Prior to Wessagussett, Aspinet, sachem of the Nausets, had commanded more warriors than Massasoit. But now Aspinet was dead, and his people had fled in panic. Over the next few years, Massasoit established the Indian nation we now refer to as the Wampanoag—an entity that may not even have existed before this crucial watershed.
It was exactly the scenario Squanto had envisioned for himself the year before. But it had been Massasoit who had pulled it off. Just a few words, delivered from what had almost been his deathbed, had unleashed a chain of events that had completely reinvented the region in his own image. The English had served him well.
The Pilgrims knew that there were those back in England who would criticize them for launching what was, in essence, an unprovoked attack on sachem Obtakiest and the Massachusetts. In the months ahead, Edward Winslow wrote Good Newes from New England. As the title suggests, Winslow’s account puts the Wessagussett raid in the best possible light. The Pilgrims, Winslow points out, had been operating in a climate of intense fear since learning about the massacres in Virginia the previous spring. Given the dramatic and apparently irrefutable nature of Massasoit’s disclosure of the plot against them, there was little else they could have been expected to do.
There was one man, however, who refused to forgive the Pilgrims for “the killing of those poor Indians.” When he heard about the incident back in Leiden, Pastor John Robinson sent Governor Bradford a letter. “Oh, how happy a thing had it been,” he wrote, “if you had converted some before you had killed any! Besides, where blood is once begun to be shed, it is seldom staunched of a long time after. You say they deserved it. I grant it; but upon what provocations and invitements by those heathenish Christians [at Wessagussett]?”
The real problem, as far as Robinson saw it, was Bradford’s willingness to trust Standish, a man the minister had come to know when he was in Leiden. The captain lacked “that tenderness of the life of man (made after God’s image) which is meet,” Robinson wrote, and the orgiastic violence of the assault was contrary to “the approved rule, The punishment to a few, and the fear to many.”
Robinson concluded his letter to Bradford with words that proved ominously prophetic given the ultimate course of New England’s history: “It is…a thing more glorious, in men’s eyes, than pleasing in God’s or convenient for Christians, to be a terror to poor barbarous people. And indeed I am afraid lest, by these occasions, others should be drawn to affect a kind of ruffling course in the world.”
That summer the supply ship Anne arrived with sixty passengers, including the widow Alice Southworth. The Southworths and Bradfords had known each other in Leiden, and just a few weeks after the Anne ’s arrival, William and Alice were married on August 14, 1623.
The festivities that followed were much more than the celebration of a marriage. A new order had come to New England, and there to commemorate the governor’s nuptials was Massasoit, with a black wolf skin draped over his shoulder and, for propriety’s sake, with just one of his five wives by his side. Also attending were about 120 of his warriors (about twice as many men as he had been able to muster a little more than a year ago), who danced “with such a noise,” one witness reported, “that you would wonder.”
As Indians on Cape Cod to the east and in Massachusetts to the north continued to be gripped by fear and confusion, a supreme confidence had come to the Pokanokets. Massasoit was now firmly in control, and it had been Standish’s assault at Wessagussett that had made it possible. Serving as a grim reminder of the fearful power of the Pokanoket-Pilgrim alliance was the flesh-blackened skull of Wituwamat, still planted on a pole above the fort roof.
It was only appropriate that a new flag be raised for Massasoit’s benefit. Instead of the standard of England and its red St. George’s cross, the Pilgrims unfurled a blood-soaked piece of linen. It was the same cloth that had once swaddled Wituwamat’s head, and it now flew bravely above the fort: a reddish brown smear against the blue summer sky.