The Ancient Mother

BY THE EARLY 1640S,, the Great Migration had come to an end as England was torn apart by civil war. Many settlers returned to England to join in Parliament’s efforts to overthrow King Charles’s repressive regime. With the king’s execution in 1649, England became a Puritan state—unimaginable just a decade before. Bradford felt compelled to turn to an early page in his history of Plymouth and write, “Full little did I think, that the downfall of the bishops, with their courts, canons, and ceremonies, etc. had been so near, when I first began these scribbled writings…or that I should have lived to have seen, or hear of the same; but it is the Lord’s doing, and ought to be marvelous in our eyes!”

Until this spectacular turn of events, it had been possible for a Puritan to believe that America was where God planned the apocalyptic series of events that would anticipate the millennium. Now it seemed that England was the true center stage, and those who had ventured to the New World were in danger of being left out of the most critical events of their time. In addition to putting Puritan New England’s raison d’être into question, the civil war endangered the region’s economy. Pilgrims who had watched the prices of their cattle and crops skyrocket over the last decade were suddenly left with a surplus that was worth barely a quarter of what it had commanded in the 1630s. More than a few New Englanders decided that it was time to return to the mother country, and one of those was Edward Winslow.

From the very beginning Winslow had shown a talent for getting what he wanted, whether it was the hand of the widow Susanna White just a few weeks after the death of his own wife or winning back the loyalty of Massasoit. For two and a half decades, he had conducted a kind of shuttle diplomacy between America and England as he spear-headed negotiations with merchants and government officials in London. He was also valued by Massachusetts-Bay for his diplomatic savvy, even if some found the peripatetic Pilgrim a little too glib for his own good. Samuel Maverick was an Anglican who had once lived on an island in Boston Harbor, and he later remembered the Pilgrim diplomat as “a smooth tongued cunning fellow.”

In 1646, Winslow sailed for England on yet another diplomatic mission. His talents came to the notice of the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell, and as happened to Benjamin Franklin in the following century, the Pilgrim diplomat kept postponing his return to America as he became caught up in the historical destiny of his country. To Bradford’s bitter regret, Winslow never returned to Plymouth. In 1654, he was named commissioner of a British naval effort against the Spanish in the West Indies; a year later, he succumbed to yellow fever off the island of Jamaica and was buried at sea with full honors. Winslow undoubtedly looked to his final decade in England as his shining hour as a diplomat, but his most significant contribution to British and American history had actually occurred more than thirty years earlier when he became the Englishman Massasoit trusted above all others.

By the time Bradford received word of Winslow’s passing, Elder William Brewster had been dead for more than a decade. A year later, in 1656, Miles Standish died in his home in Duxbury.

In 1656, Bradford was sixty-eight years old. According to the patent issued by the Council for New England, he might have become the sole proprietor of the colony back in 1630. Instead, he had shared his rights with those who had come to America during the first years of the colony. Ten years later, in 1640, Bradford and the other “Old Comers” turned the patent over to the colony’s freemen.

He had come to America not to establish a great and powerful colony, but to create a tightly knit and godly community. For that to happen, everyone must live together and worship in the same church. But by the early 1630s it had become apparent that the soil around the original settlement was not the best; many inhabitants, moreover, claimed they needed more land to accommodate the growing herds of cattle. To the governor’s dismay, many of his closest associates, including Brewster, Winslow, Standish, and John Alden, left Plymouth to found communities to the north in Duxbury and Marshfield. Thomas Prence, one of the colony’s rising stars and who first served as governor in 1634, also moved to Duxbury, then helped found the town of Eastham on Cape Cod. Although he didn’t arrive in New England until the 1630s, John Brown was one of the colony’s wealthier inhabitants. He would probably have joined the Puritans in Massachusetts-Bay had not a meeting with John Robinson in Leiden in the 1620s caused him to choose Plymouth instead. In 1640, Brown helped found the town of Taunton; by 1645 he had moved to Wannamoisett (in the vicinity of modern Barrington, Rhode Island), which became a part of Swansea in 1667. By that time Brown had long since been joined by his son James and his son-in-law Thomas Willett, who established a prosperous trade with the Dutch in Manhattan.

At the root of this trend toward town building was, Governor Bradford insisted, a growing hunger for land. For Bradford, land had been a way to create a community of Saints. For an increasing number of Pilgrims and especially for their children, land was a way to get rich. Bradford claimed that the formation of new towns was “not for want or necessity,” but “for the enriching of themselves,” and he predicted it would be “the ruin of New England.” Even Roger Williams, whose vision of an ideal community was very different from Bradford’s, shared his concern about land. Williams railed against the rise of “God Land” in New England and feared that it would become “as great with us English as God Gold was with the Spaniards.”

It was difficult for Bradford not to take the exodus of Winslow, Brewster, and the others as a personal affront. For as the new towns prospered and grew, Plymouth, the village with which it had all begun, fell on hard times. “And thus was this poor church left,” Bradford wrote, “like an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children…. Thus, she that had made many rich became herself poor.”

Despite Bradford’s lament, his vision of a compact, self-contained community of fellow worshippers remained the organizing principle behind each of the colony’s new towns. In 1652, Plymouth magistrates admonished one Joseph Ramsden for locating his house “remotely in the woods from his neighbors” and ordered him “to bring his wife and family with all convenient speed, near unto some neighborhood.”

A settler in a typical town in Plymouth Colony in the 1650s received a house lot that ranged from just a single acre to as much as twenty, depending on his social standing. Instead of the tiny wattle-and-daub cottages constructed by the original Pilgrims, the subsequent generation built post-and-beam structures covered with clapboards and shingles and anchored by mammoth brick chimneys.

It took a tremendous amount of lumber to build one of these houses—even a modest house required at least twelve tons of wood. Just as daunting were the heating requirements of the home’s open hearth. It’s been estimated that the average seventeenth-century New England house consumed fifteen cords, or 1,920 cubic feet, of wood per year, meaning that a town of two hundred homes depended on the deforestation of as many as seventy-five acres per year.

As the number of towns grew, the character of the colony inevitably began to change, and from Governor Bradford’s perspective, it was not for the good. The influx of newcomers made it increasingly difficult to ensure the colony’s moral purity. Even worse than the cases of premarital sex and adultery were, according to Bradford, those of “sodomy and buggery.” In 1642, seventeen-year-old Thomas Granger, a servant to “an honest man of Duxbury,” was convicted of having sexual relations with “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” Taking their lead from Leviticus, Bradford and his fellow magistrates executed Granger on September 8, 1642, but not until the boy had witnessed the killing of his animal paramours, which were all buried in a pit. Bradford speculated that “Satan hath more power in these heathen lands,” but he also feared that a pernicious complacency had infected the colony.

In 1655, Governor Bradford delivered an ultimatum. If his subordinates did not do something to improve the spiritual state of the colony, he must resign his office. Promises were made, and Bradford continued on as governor, but that did not prevent a profound despair from overtaking him in his final years. Late in life Bradford looked back on the manuscript pages of his history of the colony. Beside a copy of a letter written by Pastor Robinson and Elder Brewster back in 1617, in which they referred to their congregation’s “most strict and sacred bond,” Bradford wrote, “I have been happy in my first times, to see, and with much comfort to enjoy, the blessed fruits of this sweet communion, but it is now a part of my misery in old age, to find and feel the decay, and…with grief and sorrow of heart to lament and bewail the same.”

There may have been another dimension to Bradford’s sadness—a sadness that reached back to his decision in 1620 to leave his son John in Holland. After his second marriage in 1623, Bradford and his wife Alice had been blessed with three children: William junior, born in 1624; Mercy in 1627; and Joseph in 1630. Bradford adopted Alice’s two sons, Constant and Thomas Southworth, as well as eighteen-year-old Thomas Cushman when his father, Robert, died at about the same time as Robinson’s death in 1625. Other members of Bradford’s extended family included the boys Nathaniel Morton, Joseph Rogers, and William Latham. But as late as 1627 there was one missing member. John, Bradford’s son from his first marriage with Dorothy, was still in Europe. By the time he finally did join his father, John was eleven years old; he had been just three when he had last seen his parents, and he must have had little memory of his father.

Bradford’s stepson Nathaniel Morton was almost precisely John’s age. But while Morton became the governor’s right-hand man in the years ahead, John, his firstborn, drifted, eventually moving to Norwich, Connecticut—about as far away from the home of his famous father as it was possible for a New Englander to get.

No one knew what the future held, but Bradford had his suspicions. If New England continued its “degenerate” ways, God would surely wreak his vengeance. In Bradford’s view, the seeds for this terrible apocalypse had been sown more than thirty years before, when Thomas Morton of Merrymount had begun selling guns to the Indians. Almost immediately, the Natives had become more effective huntsmen than the English “by reason of their swiftness of foot and nimbleness of body, being also quick-sighted and by continual exercise well knowing the haunts of all sorts of game.” They were also quick to master the mechanical aspects of operating a musket and were soon able to perform their own repairs and manufacture their own lead bullets.

The conservatism of the English made it difficult for them to abandon their old and cumbersome matchlock muskets for the newer flintlocks. The Indians, on the other hand, knew from the start that they wanted only flintlocks. “[T]hey became mad (as it were) after them,” Bradford wrote, “and would not stick to give any price they could attain to for them; accounting their bows and arrows but baubles in comparison of them.” Suddenly the English were no longer the technological superiors of the Native Americans, and when they happened on “the Indians in the woods armed with guns in this sort, it was a terror unto them.”

Over time, however, the English became accustomed to the sight of an Indian with a gun. Indians armed with flintlocks brought in more game and furs to English trading posts. And besides, if the Indians did not get their weapons from the English, they could easily buy them from the French and the Dutch. Selling guns and ammunition was a highly profitable business, and Plymouth magistrates eventually came to sanction the exchange.

From Governor Bradford’s perspective, the arming of the Indians was just another symptom of the alarming complacency that had gripped his colony. New England was headed for a fall. And it was the gun-toting Indians who would be “the rod” with which the Lord punished his people:

For these fierce natives, they are now so fill’d

With guns and muskets, and in them so skill’d

As that they may keep the English in awe,

And when they please, give unto them the law.

The last days of Bradford’s life were spent in what might seem a strange pursuit for the governor of a New England colony: studying Hebrew. He yearned to have as direct a connection as possible with the word of God, and to do that, he must learn the language in which the Bible was originally written. The initial pages of his Plymouth history are filled with a doodlelike scrawl of Hebrew words and phrases. “Though I am grown aged,” he wrote, “yet I have had a longing desire to see with my own eyes, something of that most ancient language and holy tongue, in which the law and oracles of God were written…. And though I cannot attain tomuch herein, yet I am refreshed, to have seen some glimpse hereof; (as Moses saw the Land of Canaan afar off).” The community of Saints he had hoped to create in New England had never come to be, but Bradford had earned at least a glimpse of another kind of Promised Land.

In the winter of 1657, Bradford began to feel unwell. His health continued to decline until early May, when a sudden and marvelous change came upon him. All God-fearing Puritans were in search of evidence that they were among the elect. On the morning of May 8, Bradford’s doubts and worries were answered with a startling certitude: “[T]he God of heaven so filled his mind with ineffable consolations,” Cotton Mather wrote, “that he seemed little short of Paul, rapt up unto the unutterable entertainments of Paradise.” Here at long last was proof that his journey through life was to be crowned by redemption. That morning he told those gathered around his sickbed that “the good spirit of God had given him a pledge of happiness in another world, and the first-fruits of his eternal glory.” He died the next day, “lamented by all the colonies of New England, as a common blessing and father to them all.”

In 1913, a gravel-mining operation in Warren, Rhode Island, uncovered an Indian burial ground. Known as Burr’s Hill, the site was in the vicinity of the Pokanokets’ ancestral village at Sowams and contained forty-two graves, many of which dated back to the middle of the seventeenth century. The artifacts collected from the graves provide fascinating evidence of the degree to which Western goods had become a part of the Indians’ lives. Accompanying the dead, who were buried on their sides with their heads pointed to the southwest, was a stunning array of objects: in addition to traditional Native artifacts such as arrowheads, amulets, and steatite pipes were wine bottles, muskets, spoons, iron axes, kettles, bells, wool blankets, combs, scissors, hammers, horseshoes, locks, keys, hinges, knives, pewter bowls, swords, leather shoes, and a Jew’s harp.

One of the graves at Burr’s Hill contained a noticeably richer assortment of objects than the others. Included among the grave goods was a necklace made of copper. In the summer of 1621, Edward Winslow had traveled to Sowams and presented Massasoit with a “copper chain.” Although no one will ever know who was actually buried in the grave, archaeologists have speculated that this might be the Pilgrim necklace.

When the Indians had first come in contact with the English, they had been, by all accounts, awed and amazed by the things the Europeans had brought with them. “They do much extol and wonder at the English for their strange inventions,” William Wood wrote. Whether it was an iron plow, a musket, or a windmill, the Indians ascribed to these “strange inventions” a spiritual power known as manit. “[T]here is a general custom amongst them,” Roger Williams wrote, “at the apprehension of any excellency in men, women, birds, fish, etc., to cry out manitoo, that is, ‘It is a God.’…[W]hen they talk amongst themselves of the English ships, and great buildings, of the plowing of their fields, and especially of books and letters, they will end thus: Mannitowock: ‘They are Gods.’”

Massasoit had come to know the English too well to regard them as anything but men and women, but as the objects collected at Burr’s Hill attest, the sachem and his people continued to value the remarkable wealth of material goods the English had brought to America. In the forty years since the voyage of the Mayflower, the Native Americans had experienced wrenching change, but they had also managed to create a new, richly adaptive culture that continued to draw strength from traditional ways. The Pokanokets still hunted much as their fathers had done, but instead of bows and arrows they now used the latest flintlock muskets; inside their wigwams made of reed mats and tree bark were English-manufactured chests in which they kept bracelets, signet rings, and strings of wampum beads. Attached to their buckskin breeches were brass bells that tinkled as they walked; and when they died, their loved ones made sure that the mysterious power of these objects went with them to the afterlife.

Given the spirituality of the Native Americans, it was perhaps inevitable that many of them also showed an interest in the Englishmen’s religion. The Pilgrims had done little to convert the Indians to Christianity, but for the Puritans of Massachusetts it was, or so they told themselves, a priority from the start. The colony’s seal, created even before their arrival in the New World, depicted a Native American saying, “Come over and help us.” The Puritans believed a Christian must be able to read God’s word in the Bible, and early on, efforts were made to teach the Indians how to read and write. A handful of Native Americans even attended the newly founded Harvard College. In the 1650s, the missionary John Eliot undertook the momentous task of translating the entire Old and New Testaments into a phonetic version of the Massachusetts language, titled Mamusse Wanneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God.

Eliot created a series of self-contained Native communities known as Praying Towns. In addition to indoctrinating the Indians in Christianity, Eliot hoped to wean them from their traditional ways. But as was true with their use of Western farm utensils and jewelry, the Indians never wholly abandoned their former identities. Instead, they did as all spiritual people do—they created their own personal relationship with God.

For years to come, Praying Indians on Nantucket Island concluded each Sunday’s meeting with a ritual that dated back to long before the Mayflower: “And when the meeting was done, they would take their tinder-box and strike fire and light their pipes, and, may be, would draw three or four whiffs and swallow the smoke, and then blow it out of their noses, and so hand their pipes to their next neighbor…. Andthey would say ‘tawpoot,’ which is, ‘I thank ye.’ It seemed to be done in a way of kindness to each other.” Instead of replacing the old ways, Christianity became, for many Indians, the means by which traditional Native culture found a way to endure.

For a sachem in the seventeenth century, however, Christianity was a tremendously destabilizing influence that threatened the very underpinnings of his tribe’s traditions and his own power and prosperity. As increasing numbers of Indians turned to God, there were fewer left to supply the sachem with the steady stream of tribute on which he had come to depend. At one point, Massasoit ventured out to Martha’s Vineyard and spoke with some of the new converts. According to John Eliot, “he inquired what earthly good things came along with [their conversion], and…one of them replied, ‘We serve not God for clothing, nor for any outward thing.’”

It probably came as no surprise to Massasoit that the Indians on Cape Cod and the islands proved particularly receptive to Christianity. Back in 1623, he had implicated them in the plot against the Pilgrims, and in the traumatic aftermath of the raid on Wessagussett just about every sachem on the Cape had died. By declaring their allegiance to the English god, the Indians from this region succeeded in distancing themselves from the supreme sachem who had once betrayed them.

Massasoit’s distrust of Christianity was so great that he attempted to attach a stipulation to one of his final land sales: that the missionaries stop converting his people. Not surprisingly, the English refused to agree to his terms, and in the end, the aged sachem decided not to “further urge it.”

When it came to borrowing from the English, the Indians had demonstrated tremendous creativity and enthusiasm. The English, on the other hand, were much more reluctant to borrow from the Indians. The American wilderness, they thought, was inimical to the godly virtues of order and control.

Yet despite their best efforts to keep the Indians and their culture at arm’s length, the English inevitably began to adopt Native ways, particularly when it came to food. Ever since the Pilgrims stumbled across a cache of seed on Cape Cod, maize had become an essential part of every New Englander’s diet. It has been estimated that the Indians consumed between 280 and 340 pounds of corn per person per year, and the English were not far behind. Hominy and johnnycakes were adaptations of Native recipes. Over the years, the English pottage that Massasoit had craved on his sickbed had become more like the Indians’ own succotash: a soupy mishmash of corn, beans, and whatever fish and meat were available. When it came to harvesting corn, the English adopted the Native husking bee, a communal tradition in which a young man who came across a red ear of corn was allowed to demand a kiss from the girl of his choosing.

Following the lead of the Dutch in New Netherland, the English used the Indians’ finely crafted shell beads as a form of currency. Wampum consisted of strings of cylindrical beads made either from white periwinkle shells or the blue portion of quahog shells, with the purple beads being worth approximately twice as much as the white beads. To be accepted in trade, wampum had to meet scrupulous specifications, and both the Indians and the English became expert in identifying whether or not the beads had been properly cut, shaped, polished, drilled, and strung. A fathom of wampum contained about three hundred beads, which were joined to other strands to create belts that varied between one and five inches in width. When credit became difficult to obtain from England during the depression of the 1640s, the colonies eased the financial burden in New England by using wampum as legal tender. In this instance, the Indians had provided the English with a uniquely American way to do business.

When the Pilgrims had first settled at Plymouth, there had been forty miles between them and Massasoit’s village at Sowams. By 1655, there were just a few miles between the Pokanokets’ headquarters and the closest English homes clustered at Wannamoisett. There was no “frontier,” no clear-cut division between civilization and wilderness. Instead, the boundaries were convoluted and blurred—particularly in Plymouth, the smallest of the Puritan colonies, where the towns tended to be more “straggling” than in Massachusetts-Bay and Connecticut and where there was a higher concentration of Native Americans. An intimacy existed between the English and Indians that would have been almost unimaginable to subsequent generations of Americans. The English hired their Indian neighbors as farm hands; they traded with them for fish and game. Inevitably, a pidgin of English-Indian languages developed, and it became second nature for an Englishman to greet a Native acquaintance as “netop” or friend.

But Plymouth Colony was, by no means, a utopia of cross-cultural exchange and cooperation. Intermarriage between the two races was virtually nonexistent, and without children to provide them with a genetic and cultural common ground, the Indians and English would always have difficulty understanding each other’s point of view. In the end, the two peoples remained enigmas to one another.

In 1638, Arthur Peach, a veteran of the Pequot War, and three indentured servants attacked and robbed an Indian returning from a trading expedition to Boston. Peach stabbed the Indian with his rapier, and after taking his wampum and cloth, he and his friends left their victim for dead. The Indian lived on for a few days, however, and identified his attackers, who were brought to Plymouth for trial.

According to Roger Williams, the murder put the region in a “great hubbub.” Many of the Narragansetts feared that the attack heralded the beginning “of a general slaughter of the natives,” and one sachem warned “the English [should] be careful on the highway.” The Pokanokets, on the other hand, had a different perspective on the murder. Massasoit pointed out that Peach had once worked for his friend Edward Winslow. Even though Massasoit felt that Peach was guilty, he told Roger Williams that the murderer should be reprieved, “for he was Mr. Winslow’s man.” Massasoit also claimed that since the victim had been a Nipmuck Indian from the interior portion of New England and was therefore less “worthy,” it was wrong that “another man should die for him.”

When the case came to trial on September 4, 1638, Massasoit and several Narragansett sachems, as well as the Indian friends of the murdered man, were in attendance. Bradford reported that some of the English, who were of “the rude and ignorant sort,” grumbled that it was wrong for a white man to die for killing an Indian. But the jury saw otherwise, and Peach and his cohorts were found guilty and hanged, “which gave [the Indians] and all the country good satisfaction,” Bradford reported.

The Indians and English might be strangers to one another, but at the midpoint of the seventeenth century they did the best they could to settle their differences. As they all understood, it was the only way to avoid a war.

In the fall of 1657, a few months after the death of William Bradford, Massasoit, now approaching eighty years of age, signed his last Plymouth land deed. At the bottom of the parchment he sketched an intricate pictogram. What looks to be the upper portion of a man floats above what could be his legs with only a wavy line connecting the two. Whatever it actually portrays, the pictogram conveys a sense of distance and removal. With this deed, Massasoit disappears from the records of Plymouth Colony, only to reappear in the records of Massachusetts-Bay as leader of the Quabaugs, a subgroup of the Nipmucks based in modern Brookfield, Massachusetts, more than fifty-five miles northwest of Pokanoket.


Massasoit’s pictogram from a 1657 land deed

For years, the Pokanokets had maintained a close relationship with the Quabaugs, who lived with other subgroups of the Nipmucks amid the rivers and lakes between the Connecticut River to the west and the English settlements outside Boston to the east. As early as 1637, Massasoit came before officials in Boston as leader of the Quabaugs, and some historians have speculated that twenty years later, in 1657, he took up permanent residence among them. The move not only distanced the old sachem from the unrelenting pressures of Plymouth, it gave his eldest son, Wamsutta, who was approaching forty years of age, a chance to establish himself as the Pokanokets’ new leader.

Wamsutta had already begun to show signs of independence. In 1654, he sold Hog Island in Narragansett Bay to the Rhode Islander Richard Smith without the written approval of either his father or the Plymouth magistrates. Three years later, Smith appeared in Plymouth court claiming that “he knew not any ban…prohibiting him purchasing of the lands of the Natives till of late.” Begrudgingly, the court allowed Smith to keep his island as long he agreed to “stand bound unto the government and court of New-Plymouth.” Massasoit’s belated endorsement of the sale, signed on September 21, 1657, seems to have signaled the old sachem’s departure from the colony.

Just a few months later, his son refused to part with a portion of the land his father had agreed to sell to the town of Taunton. Displaying a contentiousness that came to define his all-too-brief relationship with the Plymouth authorities, Wamsutta proclaimed that he was unwilling to surrender lands that the proprietors “say is granted by the court of Plymouth.” Named as a witness to the document is John Sassamon—an Indian who represented everything Massasoit had come to fear and distrust.

John Sassamon had been one of the missionary John Eliot’s star pupils. He had learned to read and write English, and in 1653 he attended Harvard College. For years, he had worked in Eliot’s mission, and now he was Wamsutta’s interpreter and scribe. In the spring of 1660, perhaps at Sassamon’s urging, Wamsutta appeared before the Plymouth court—not to ratify a sale of land but to change his name. The record reads:

At the earnest request of Wamsutta, desiring that in regard his father is lately deceased, and he being desirous, according to the custom of the natives, to change his name, that the Court would confer an English name upon him, which accordingly they did, and therefore ordered, that for the future he shall be called by the name of Alexander of Pokanoket; and desiring the same in the behalf of his brother, they have named him Philip.

From that day forward, Massasoit’s sons were known, at their own request, by Christian names. It was a new era.

Except for his son’s mention of his death in the Plymouth records, we know nothing about the circumstances of Massasoit’s passing. It is difficult to believe that he could be buried anywhere but Pokanoket. One thing we do know is that late in life he began to share Governor Bradford’s concerns about the future. At some point before his death, he took his two sons, still known by their Native names of Wamsutta and Metacom, to the home of John Brown in nearby Wannamoisett. There, in the presence of Brown and his family, Massasoit stated his hope “that there might be love and amity after his death, between his sons and them, as there had been betwixt himself and them in former times.”

It was somewhat unusual that Massasoit had chosen to make this pronouncement not in the presence of Bradford’s successor as governor, Thomas Prence, but in the home of an English neighbor. But as the sachem undoubtedly realized, if conflicts should one day arise between his people and the English, it was here, in the borderlands between Plymouth and Pokanoket, where the trouble would begin.

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