THE. MAYFLOWERHAD ARRIVED at Provincetown Harbor on Saturday, November 11. Since the next day was a Sunday, the Pilgrims remained aboard ship, worshipping God under the direction of Elder Brewster. As Puritans, they believed that the entire Sabbath must be devoted to worship—both a morning and an afternoon meeting along with personal and family prayers throughout the day. Work and especially play on a Sunday were forbidden.
On Monday, the four battered pieces of the shallop were taken ashore, where the carpenter and his assistants began to put the vessel back together. As the workers hammered and sawed, the passengers enjoyed their first day ashore. After more than two months at sea, there was what they termed a “great need” for washing, and the women found a small freshwater pond near the present site of Provincetown. For generations to come, Monday would be wash day in New England, a tradition that began with the women of the Mayflower.
At low tide, amid the barnacles and seaweed, they found abundant supplies of blue mussels—bivalves that grow up to four inches in length and attach themselves in clumps to shoreside rocks. Passengers and sailors alike enjoyed the first fresh food any of them had tasted in a very long time, only to fall victim to the vomiting and diarrhea associated with shellfish poisoning.
But there was other evidence of nature’s bounty. The harbor contained untold numbers of ducks and geese—“the greatest store of fowl that ever we saw.” But it was the whales that astounded them. “[E]very day we saw whales playing hard by us,” they wrote. These were Atlantic right whales, huge, docile creatures that feed on plankton and other sea organisms by straining seawater between the large plates of baleen in their mouths. Jones and one of his mates, who had experience hunting whales in Greenland, claimed that if only they’d had some harpoons and lances they might have taken between three thousand and four thousand pounds’ worth of whale oil and baleen.
For the Pilgrims, who were expected to provide the Merchant Adventurers with a regular supply of salable goods, it was frustrating in the extreme to be surrounded by all this potential wealth and yet have no way of capturing any of it. One day a whale, apparently enjoying the afternoon sun on her dark blubbery back, lay on the water’s surface within only a few yards of the Mayflower, “as if she had been dead.” It was just too much of a temptation. As a small crowd looked on, two muskets were loaded, but when the first was fired, the barrel burst into fragments. Amazingly, no one was injured, and the whale, after issuing “a snuff,” swam leisurely away.
The shallop was proving to be a problem. Instead of days, it was going to be weeks before the boat was completed. Some of the passengers began to insist that they should launch an overland expedition. When the Mayflower first sailed into the harbor, the mouth of a river had been sighted several miles to the southeast. Some of them, probably headed by Captain Miles Standish, advocated that a small party be rowed to shore so that they could investigate this potential settlement site.
The risks of such a venture were considerable. So far they had seen no local inhabitants, but for all they knew, huge numbers of hostile Natives might be waiting just a few miles down the Cape. “The willingness of the persons was liked,” Bradford wrote, “but the thing itself, in regard of the danger, was rather permitted than approved.” Perhaps with an eye to reining in some of his military officer’s obvious impatience for action, Carver provided Standish with “cautions, directions, and instructions.” Standish’s party comprised sixteen men, including Bradford, Stephen Hopkins (whose experience in Virginia might help them if they should encounter any Indians), and Edward Tilley. Each of them was equipped with a musket, sword, and corselet, a light form of body armor that included a metal breastplate.
On Wednesday, November 15, they were rowed ashore. Provincetown Harbor, as well as much of the bay side of the lower Cape, is characterized by wide tidal flats. Even a small boat runs aground many yards out, requiring the passengers to wade through the shallows to shore. In November, with the temperature on the verge of freezing, it was a long, cold slog to the beach, especially weighted down with armor and weapons.
John Smith’s map of New England
Standish soon had them marching single file along the shore. He was not a tall man—in the years ahead he won the sobriquet “Captain Shrimp”—but his courage and resolve were never questioned. Before leaving for America, the Pilgrims had contacted another potential candidate for the position of military leader: the redoubtable Captain John Smith. No one in England knew more about America than Smith. He had been at the founding of Jamestown in 1607; in 1614 he had led a voyage of exploration to what he named New England, creating the most detailed map of the region to date. (It had been Smith’s associate on that voyage, Thomas Hunt, who had abducted Squanto.) When the Pilgrims approached him in London, Smith wanted desperately to return to America, particularly to “the country of the Massachusetts,” which he described as “the paradise of those parts.” But the Pilgrims decided that they wanted no part of him. Smith bitterly related how they had insisted that his “books and maps were better cheap to teach them than myself.”
Smith’s fatal flaw, as far as the Pilgrims were concerned, was that he knew too much. In the beginning of the settlement, they would have had no choice but to do as he said, and this could be dangerous. Smith possessed a strong personality, and a man of his worldly nature might come to dominate what they intended to be an inherently religious enclave. “[T]hey would not…have any knowledge by any but themselves,” Smith wrote, “pretending only religion their governor and frugality their counsel, when indeed it was…because…they would have no superiors.”
If the Pilgrims perceived Standish as a cheaper and more tractable alternative to Smith, they were now paying the price for their misjudgment. Standish was full of martial pugnacity, but he had no idea where he was leading them. If the Pilgrims did possess Smith’s map of New England, they failed to make good use of it. Rivers were considered essential to a settlement site, and Smith’s map clearly indicated that the nearest available navigable waterway was the Charles River, less than a day’s sail to the northwest at present-day Boston. The Pilgrims, however, insisted on exploring the entire bay side of Cape Cod, even though there was no evidence on Smith’s map of a river of any significance along this more than fifty-mile stretch of coastline.
As Smith later wrote, much of the suffering that lay ahead for the Pilgrims could easily have been avoided if they had seen fit to pay for his services or, at the very least, consult his map. “[S]uch humorists [i.e., fanatics] will never believe…,” he wrote, “till they be beaten with their own rod.”
They had marched just a mile or so down the beach when up ahead they saw half a dozen people and a dog walking toward them. They initially assumed it was Master Jones and some of the sailors, who they knew were already ashore with the Mayflower ’s spaniel. But when the people started to run inland for the woods, they realized that these weren’t sailors; they were the first Native people they had seen. One of the Indians paused to whistle for the dog, and the group disappeared into the trees.
They followed at a trot, hoping to make contact. But as soon as the Indians saw that they were being pursued, they made a run for it—setting out “with might and main” along the shore to the south. Standish and his party did their best to chase them, but it was slow going in the ankle-deep sand, and after several months aboard ship, they were in no shape for a long sprint across a beach. Even though they were quickly left behind, they followed the Indians’ footprints in the sand. From the tracks they could tell that the Indians would bound up each hill and then pause to look back to see whether they were still being pursued. After what the Pilgrims judged to be ten miles of marching (but which was probably closer to seven), they stopped for the night. With three sentinels on guard at a time, they gathered around a large fire and tried to get some sleep.
The next morning Standish and his men once again set off in pursuit of the Indians. They followed the tracks past the head of a long tidal creek into a heavily wooded area, “which tore our armor in pieces.” Finally, around ten in the morning, they emerged into a deep grassy valley, where they saw their first American deer. But it was water they truly needed. The only liquid they had brought with them was a bottle of aqua vitae (a strong liquor), and they were now suffering from violent thirst. They were also hungry, with just a ship’s biscuit and some cheese to share among sixteen men. At last, at the foot of a small rise of land they found an upwelling of freshwater—called today Pilgrim Spring. They claimed to have “drunk our first New England water with as much delight as ever we drunk drink in all our lives.” From a group of lifelong beer and wine drinkers, this was high praise indeed.
Once they’d refreshed themselves, they marched to the shoreline, where they could see the Mayflower just four miles to the northwest across the arc of the bay. They made camp, and that night they built a large fire as part of a prearranged signal to let their friends and loved ones know that all was well.
The next morning, they found their first evidence of Native agriculture: stubbled fields that had been planted with corn in the last few years. Soon after, they found a small path that led to what appeared to be a grave site: mounds of sand covered with decayed reed mats. In one of the mounds they found a bow along with several badly rotted arrows. They were tempted to dig further, but deciding that “it would be odious unto [the Indians] to ransack their sepulchers,” they returned the bow and arrows and covered them back up.
As they continued south, they came across evidence that they were not the first Europeans to have visited this place. First they found some sawed planks and an old iron ship’s kettle—perhaps from the French shipwreck of 1615. Then, near the river mouth that they’d seen from the Mayflower, which was actually more of a two-pronged saltwater creek and known today as the Pamet River in Truro, they discovered the remnants of what must have been Martin Pring’s seventeen-year-old fort. But it was evidence of a decidedly Native sort that soon commanded their attention.
On a high shoreside hill, they found an area where the sand had recently been patted smooth. This was clearly different from the grave site they had encountered earlier. As three of them dug, the others gathered around in a defensive ring with their muskets ready. Not far down they found a basket made of woven reeds filled with approximately four bushels of dried Indian corn—so much corn, in fact, that two men could barely lift it. Nearby they found a basket containing corn that was still on the cob, “some yellow and some red, and others mixed with blue.” One of the more remarkable characteristics of Indian corn or maize is that, if kept dry, the kernels can be stored indefinitely. In Mexico, storage pits containing perfectly preserved corn have been unearthed that were at least a thousand years old.
The Pilgrims paused to discuss what they should do next. They had brought wheat, barley, and peas with them aboard the Mayflower for planting in the spring. Many, if not most, European settlers in a similar situation would have had enough faith in their own, supposedly superior, technology that they would have had no use for a buried bag of Native seed. But the Pilgrims were not usual European immigrants. For one thing, they were desperate. Due to the woeful state of their provisions, as well as the lateness of the season, they knew they were in a survival situation from the start. Without a plan—and the inevitable swagger a plan engenders—they were willing to try just about anything if it meant they might survive their first year. As a result, the Pilgrims proved to be more receptive to the new ways of the New World than nearly any English settlers before or since.
They were also experienced exiles. Their twelve years in Holland had given them a head start in the difficult process of acculturation. Going native—at least to a certain degree—was a necessary, if problematic, part of adapting to life in a strange and foreign land. If their European grains refused to grow in this new environment, their very survival might depend on having planted a significant amount of American corn. They decided they had no choice but to take the corn. The place where they found the buried seed is still called Corn Hill.
The decision to steal the corn was not without considerable risks. They were, after all, taking something of obvious value from a people who had done their best, so far, to avoid them. The Pilgrims might have opted to wait until they had the chance to speak with the Indians before they took the corn, but the last thing they possessed was time. They assured themselves that they would compensate the corn’s owners as soon as they had the opportunity.
They poured as much corn as would fit into a kettle, which they suspended from a staff, and with two men shouldering the burden, they started back to the Mayflower. They planned to retrieve the rest of the corn once the shallop had been completed. They also hoped to explore the upper reaches of the two creeks. If some earlier European visitors had thought the location suitable for an outpost of some sort, perhaps it might serve their own needs.
By dusk it was raining. After a long wet night spent within a hastily constructed barricade of tree trunks and branches, they continued on to the north, only to become lost, once again, in the woods. Deep within a grove of trees, they came across a young sapling that had been bent down to the ground, where a Native-made rope encircled some acorns. Stephen Hopkins explained that this was an Indian deer trap similar to the ones he’d seen in Virginia. As they stood examining the ingenious device, William Bradford, who was taking up the rear, stumbled upon the trap. The sapling jerked up, and Bradford was snagged by the leg. Instead of being annoyed, Bradford could only marvel at this “very pretty device, made with a rope of their own making, and having a noose as artificially made as any roper in England can make.” Adding the noose to what soon became a collection of specimens and artifacts, they continued on to the harbor, where they found a welcoming party on shore headed by Master Jones and Governor Carver. “And thus,” Bradford wrote, “we came both weary and welcome home.”
It took another few days for the carpenter to finish the shallop, and when it was done on Monday, November 27, yet another exploring expedition was launched, this time under the direction of Christopher Jones. As the master of the Mayflower, Jones was not required to assist the Pilgrims in their attempts to find a settlement site, but he obviously thought it in his best interests to see them on their way.
There were thirty-four of them, twenty-four passengers and ten sailors, aboard the open shallop, The wind was out of the northeast, and the shallop had a difficult time weathering the point within which the Mayflower was anchored. After being blown to the opposite side of the harbor, they spent the night tucked into an inlet that is now part of Pilgrim Lake. The tidal flats along the shore were becoming more than just a nuisance; as the temperatures dipped to well below freezing, their wet shoes and stockings began to freeze. “[S]ome of our people that are dead,” Bradford wrote, “took the original of their death here.”
Cape Cod is well to the south of England (indeed, the Cape is about the same latitude as Madrid, Spain), but so far they had experienced temperatures that were much colder than back home. As they soon discovered, New England has a very different climate from England. Weather along the eastern seaboard of North America usually comes from the continent to the west, while in England it comes from the Atlantic Ocean. Since land absorbs and releases heat much more quickly than water, New England tends to be colder in the winter and hotter in the summer than England.
Adding to the disparity between American and English winters is the Gulf Stream, which continually warms the British Isles. But in 1620 there was yet another factor at work. North America was in the midst of what climatologists have called the “little ice age”—a period of exceptional cold that persisted well into the eighteenth century. As a result, the Pilgrims were experiencing temperatures that were cold even by modern standards in New England, and they were more than a month away from finding a place to live.
By morning, there were six inches of snow on the ground. By the time they’d sailed south back to Pamet Harbor in modern Truro, they were so frostbitten and numb that they had no choice but to name the inlet Cold Harbor. Jones decided to explore the northern and largest of the two creeks by land. But after several hours of “marching up and down the steep hills, and deep valleys, which lay half a foot thick with snow,” the master of the Mayflower had had enough. At fifty years old, he was most certainly the eldest of the group. Some of the Pilgrims—perhaps led by the recently demoted Standish—wanted to continue, but Jones insisted it was time to make camp under several large pine trees. That night they feasted on six ducks and three geese “with soldiers’ stomachs for we had eaten little all that day.”
Cold Harbor, it was decided, was too shallow to support a permanent settlement. Giving up on any further exploration of the two creeks, they went looking for Corn Hill the next morning. The snow made it difficult to find the stores of buried corn, but after brushing aside the drifts and hacking at the frozen topsoil with their cutlasses, they located not only the original bag of seed but an additional cache of ten bushels. For Master Jones, this was just the excuse he needed to return to the warmth of the Mayflower ’s cabin. He must get the corn, along with several men who were too sick to continue on, back to the ship. Once the corn and the invalids had been loaded aboard the shallop, he set sail for Provincetown Harbor. The boat would return the next day for the rest of them.
Standish was once again in charge. The next morning, he led the eighteen remaining men on a search for Indians. But after several hours of tramping through the woods and snow, they had found nothing. The Native Americans’ seasonal settlement pattern—inland in the winter, near the water in the summer—meant that the Pilgrims, who were staying, for the most part, near the shore, were unlikely to encounter many Indians during their explorations of Cape Cod.
On their way back to the harbor, not far from where they had come across some burial sites the week before, Standish and his men found “a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any we had yet seen.” Only the week before they’d decided it was wrong to violate the Indians’ graves; this time they could not help themselves. There were boards positioned over the grave, suggesting that someone of importance had been buried here. They “resolved to dig it up.”
They found several additional boards and a mat made of woven grass. One of the boards was “finely carved and painted, with three tines…on the top, like a crown.” This may have been a carving of Poseidon’s trident, suggesting that the board originally came from a ship—most probably the French ship that had wrecked on this coast in 1615. Farther down, they found a new mat wrapped around two bundles, one large and one small.
They opened the larger bundle first. The contents were covered with a fine, sweet-smelling reddish powder: red ocher used by the Indians as both a pigment and an embalmment. Along with some bones, they found the skull of a man with “fine yellow hair still on it, and some of the flesh unconsumed.” With the skull was a sailor’s canvas bag containing a knife and sewing needle. Then they turned to the smaller bundle. Inside were the skull and bones of a small child, along with a tiny wooden bow “and some other odd knacks.”
Was this a castaway from the French ship and his Indian son? Had this particular sailor been embraced by the local Indians and died among them as a person “of some special note” ? Or had the Indians killed and buried the sailor “in triumph over him” ?
They had left Holland so that they could reclaim their English ancestry. But here was troubling evidence that America was no blank slate. There were others here who must be taken into account. Otherwise, they might share the fate of this yellow-haired sailor, whose bones and possessions had been left to molder in the sand.
Later that day, just a short distance from Cold Harbor, Standish and his men found some Indian houses whose occupants had clearly left in a great hurry. The description of what they found, recorded in a brief book about their first year in America cowritten by Bradford and Edward Winslow, is so detailed that it remains one of the best first-person accounts of an Indian wigwam, or wetu, that we have. Indeed, a modern anthropologist transported back to November 1620 would have a difficult time outdoing the report left by two cold, sick, and exhausted English émigrés who were far more familiar with the urban centers of Europe than the wilds of America.
The houses were made with long young sapling trees, bended and both ends stuck into the ground; they were made round, like unto an arbor, and covered down to the ground with thick and well wrought mats, and the door was not over a yard high, made of a mat to open; the chimney was a wide open hole in the top, for which they had a mat to cover it close when they pleased; one might stand and go upright in them, in the midst of them were four little trunches [i.e., y-shaped stakes] knocked into the ground and small sticks laid over, on which they hung their pots… round about the fire they lay on mats, which are their beds. The houses were double matted, for as they were matted without, so were they within, with newer & fairer mats.
Among the Indians’ clay pots, wooden bowls, and reed baskets was an iron bucket from Europe that was missing a handle. There were several deer heads, one of which was still quite fresh, as well as a piece of broiled herring. As they had done with the graves of the blond-haired sailor and Indian child, the Pilgrims decided to take “some of the best things” with them.
Looting houses, graves, and storage pits was hardly the way to win the trust of the local inhabitants. To help offset the damage they’d already done, they resolved to leave behind some beads and other tokens for the Indians “in sign of peace.” But it was getting dark. The shallop had returned, and they planned to spend the night back aboard the Mayflower. They must be going. In their haste to depart, they neglected to leave the beads and other trade goods. It would have been a meager gesture to be sure, but it would have marked their only unmistakable act of friendship since their arrival in the New World.
The explorers learned of some good tidings once back aboard the Mayflower. A son, named Peregrine, had been born to Susanna and William White. But a death was soon to follow the baby’s birth. Edward Thompson, the Whites’ servant, died on Monday, December 4.
Since Truro’s Pamet Harbor was not going to serve their needs, they must find another settlement site. The pilot Robert Coppin had a rather hazy memory of a “good harbor” with a “great navigable river” about twenty-five miles across Cape Cod Bay. The reference to a large river suggests that Coppin was thinking of the future site of Boston. There was also talk of a place called Agawam, even farther to the north, known today as Ipswich.
After much discussion, it was decided to pick up where they had left off and follow the shoreline of the Cape west and eventually north. Under no circumstances were they to venture beyond the harbor described by Coppin, which he called Thievish Harbor, since an Indian had stolen one of his company’s harpoons when he was there several years earlier. For the Pilgrims, who had so far stolen a good deal of corn and Native artifacts, Thievish Harbor might be just the place.
The shallop set out on Wednesday, December 6. The Mayflower ’s two pilots, Robert Coppin and John Clark, had replaced Master Jones and were accompanied by the master gunner and three sailors. The Pilgrims were represented by Bradford, Carver, Standish, Winslow, John Tilley and his brother Edward, John Howland, Richard Warren, Stephen Hopkins, and Hopkins’s servant, Edward Doty—less than half the number of the previous expedition. Illness and freezing temperatures—it was now in the low twenties, if not colder—had already taken a considerable toll.
Almost as soon as they set sail, the salt spray froze on their coats— “as if they had been glazed,” Bradford wrote. They sailed south into Wellfleet Bay, about fifteen miles beyond Truro. On the shore they saw a dozen or so Indians working around a large dark object that they later discovered was a pilot whale, a small, bulbous-headed black whale around twenty feet long. Also known as blackfish, pilot whales often become stranded on the tidal flats of the Cape. The Indians were cutting the whale’s blubber into long strips when they saw the shallop approaching and fled, “running to and fro, as if they had been carrying something.”
Once ashore, the Pilgrims built themselves a barricade and a large fire, and as night descended they noticed the smoke from another fire about four miles away. The next day was spent looking for a possible settlement site, with some of them taking to the shallop while others remained on land. Once again, they found plenty of graves and abandoned wigwams, but no people and no suitable anchorages. They determined to sail for Thievish Harbor the following day. Toward nightfall, the shore party rendezvoused with those in the shallop at a tidal creek known today as Herring River. As they had done the previous night, they built themselves a circular barricade of tree trunks and branches, with a small opening on the leeward side, where they stationed several sentinels.
Around midnight, the silence was broken by “a great hideous cry.” The sentinels shouted out, “Arm! Arm!” Several muskets were fired, and all was silent once again. One of the sailors said he’d heard wolves make a similar noise in Newfoundland. This seemed to comfort them, and they went back to sleep.
About 5 A.M. they began to rouse themselves. Most of them were armed with matchlocks—muskets equipped with long burning wicks that were used to ignite the gun’s priming powder. They were not the most reliable of weapons, particularly in the wet and cold, since it was difficult to keep the powder dry. Several men decided to fire off their guns, just to make sure they were still in operating order.
After prayer, they began to prepare themselves for breakfast and the long journey ahead. In the predawn twilight, some of the men carried their weapons and armor down to the shallop. Laying them beside the boat, they returned to the camp for breakfast. It was then they heard another “great and strange cry.”
One of the men burst out of the trees and came running for the barricade, screaming, “They are men—Indians, Indians!” Suddenly the air was filled with arrows. Every man reached for his gun. Instead of a matchlock, Miles Standish possessed a snaplock, a predecessor to the flintlock, and immediately fired off a round. The others dipped their matches into the embers of the fire, and with their matches lit, began to blast away. Standish ordered them “not to shoot, till we could take aim.” He didn’t know how many Indians were out there in the woods, and they might need every shot.
In the meantime, those who had left their muskets beside the shallop sprinted back to retrieve them. The Indians soon had them trapped behind the boat. Standish and those guarding the entrance to the barricade called out to make sure they were unhurt. “Well, well, everyone,” they shouted. “Be of good courage!” Three of them at the boat fired their muskets, but the others were without a way to light their matches and cried out for a firebrand. One of the men in the barricade picked up a burning log from the fire and ran with it to the shallop, an act of bravery that, according to Bradford, “did not a little discourage our enemies.” For their part, the Indians’ war cries were a particularly potent psychological weapon that the Pilgrims would never forget, later transcribing them as “Woath! Woach! Ha! Ha! Hach! Woach!”
They estimated that there were at least thirty Indians, “although some thought that they were many more yet in the dark of the morning.” Backlit by the fire, the Pilgrims standing at the entrance of the barricade were easy targets, and the arrows came thick and fast. As the French explorer Samuel Champlain had discovered fourteen years earlier on the south coast of Cape Cod, the Indians’ bows and arrows were fearsome weapons. Made from a five-and-a-half-foot piece of solid hickory, maple, ash, or witch hazel and strung with a three-stranded length of sinew, a Native bow was so powerful that one of Champlain’s men was skewered by an arrow that had already passed through his dog—making, in effect, a gruesome shish kebab of the French sailor and his pet. The feathered arrows were over a yard long, and each warrior kept as many as fifty of them in a quiver made from dried rushes. With his quiver slung over his left shoulder and with the hair on the right side of his head cut short so as not to interfere with the bowstring, a Native warrior was capable of firing arrows much faster than a musket-equipped Englishman could fire bullets. Indeed, it was possible for a skilled bowman to have as many as five arrows in the air at once, and the Pilgrims were forced to take shelter as best they could.
There was one Indian in particular, “a lusty man and no whit less valiant, who was thought to be their captain.” He stood behind a tree within “half a musket shot” of the barricade, peppering them with arrows as the Pilgrims did their best to blast him to bits. The Native leader dodged three different gunshots but, seeing one of the Englishman taking “full aim at him,” wisely decided to retreat. As fragments of bark and wood flew around him, he let out “an extraordinary shriek” and disappeared with his men into the woods.
Some of the Pilgrims, led no doubt by Standish, followed for about a quarter of a mile, then stopped to shoot off their muskets. “This we did,” Bradford wrote, “that they might see we were not afraid of them nor discouraged.” The clothes they had left hanging on the barricade were riddled with arrows, but none of the men had suffered even a scratch. Before they departed in the shallop, they collected a total of eighteen arrows, “some…headed with brass, others with harts’ horn, and others with eagles’ claws,” for eventual shipment back to England. “Thus it pleased God,” Bradford wrote, “to vanquish our enemies and give us deliverance.”
The approximate site of this exchange is still known as First Encounter Beach in Eastham. It could hardly be considered a victory. The Pilgrims knew they could not blast, fight, and kill their way to a permanent settlement in New England. But after the First Encounter, it was clear that goodwill was going to be difficult to find here on Cape Cod.
It was on to Thievish Harbor.
With the wind out of the southeast, they sailed along the southern edge of Cape Cod Bay. Then the weather began to deteriorate. The wind picked up, and with the temperature hovering around freezing, horizontal sleet combined with the salt spray to drench them to the bone. The rough seas made it difficult to steer this wide and heavy boat, and even though the carpenter had labored mightily in preparing the shallop, her rudder did not prove equal to the strain. They were somewhere off the whitish rise of Manomet Bluff when a wave wrenched the rudder off the transom, and the boat rounded up into the wind in a fury of luffing sails and blowing spray. It took two men standing in the stern, each clutching a long oak oar, to bring the shallop back around and start sailing, once again, along the coast.
The wind continued to build, and as night came on the boat became unmanageable in the waves. All seemed lost, when the pilot Robert Coppin cried out, “Be of good cheer, I see the harbor!” By now it was blowing a gale, and in the freezing rain, the visibility was terrible. But Coppin saw something—perhaps an inviting darkness between two wave-whitened shoals—that convinced him they were about to enter Thievish Harbor.
They were running before the wind, with their full mainsail set, bashing through the building seas, when their mast splintered into three pieces. Once they’d gathered up the broken mast and sodden sail and stowed them away, they took up the oars and started to row. The tide, at least, was with them.
But it quickly became evident that what they had taken to be their salvation was about to be their ruin. Instead of the entrance to a harbor, they were steering for a wave-pummeled beach. Coppin cried out, “Lord be merciful unto us, for my eyes never saw this place before!”
Just when all seemed lost, the sailor at the steering oar exhorted them to use their oars to round the boat up to windward, and with the waves bursting against the shallop’s side, they attempted to row their way out of danger. “So he bid them be of good cheer,” Bradford wrote, “and row lustily, for there was a fair sound before them, and he doubted not but they should find one place or other where they might ride in safety.”
The shallop had nearly run into a shallow cove at the end of a thin, sandy peninsula called the Gurnet. The Gurnet terminates with a jog to the southwest known as Saquish Head. It was the beach between the Gurnet and Saquish Head that had almost claimed the Pilgrims. Once they rowed the shallop around the tip of Saquish, they found themselves in the lee of what they later discovered was an island.
In the deepening darkness of the windy night, they discussed what they should do next. Some insisted that they remain aboard the shallop in case of Indian attack. But most of them were more fearful of freezing to death, so they went ashore and built a large fire. When at midnight the wind shifted to the northwest and the temperature dropped till “it froze hard,” all were glad that they had decided to come ashore.
The next day, a Saturday, proved to be “a fair, sunshining day.” They now realized that they were on a heavily wooded island and, for the time being, safe from Indian attack. John Clark, one of the Mayflower ’s pilots, had been the first to set foot on the island, and from that day forward it was known as Clark’s Island.
They were on the western edge of a large, wonderfully sheltered bay that might prove to be exactly the anchorage they needed. Even though they had “so many motives for haste,” they decided to spend the day on the island, “where they might dry their stuff, fix their pieces, and rest themselves.” The shallop needed a mast, and they undoubtedly cut down as straight and sturdy a tree as they could find and fashioned it into a new spar. The following day was a Sunday, and as Bradford recorded, “on the Sabbath day we rested.”
They spent Monday exploring what was to become their new home. They sounded the harbor and found it suitable for ships the size of the Mayflower. They ventured on land, but nowhere in either Of Plymouth Plantation or Mourt’s Relation, the book Bradford and Winslow wrote after their first year in America, is there any mention of a Pilgrim stepping on a rock. Like Cape Cod to the southeast, the shore of Plymouth Bay is nondescript and sandy. But at the foot of a high hill, just to the north of a brook, was a rock that must have been impossible to miss. More than twice as big as the mangled chunk of stone that is revered today as Plymouth Rock, this two-hundred-ton granite boulder loomed above the low shoreline like a recumbent elephant. But did the Pilgrims use it as a landing place?
At half tide and above, a small boat could have sailed right up alongside the rock. For these explorers, who were suffering from chills and coughs after several weeks of wading up and down the frigid flats of Cape Cod, the ease of access offered by the rock must have been difficult to resist. But if they did use it as their first stepping-stone onto the banks of Plymouth Harbor, Bradford never made note of the historic event. That would be left to subsequent generations of mythmakers.
They marched across the shores of Plymouth “and found divers cornfields and little running brooks, a place (as they supposed) fit for situation.” Best of all, despite the signs of cultivation, they found no evidence of any recent Indian settlements. The next day they boarded the shallop and sailed for the Mayflower with the good news.
It had been a long month of exploration. Later, when looking back on their trek across the wastes of Cape Cod, Bradford could not help but see their wintry walkabout in biblical terms. New World Israelites, they had, with God’s help, finally found their Canaan. But back then, in the late afternoon of Tuesday, December 12, as the shallop approached the Mayflower, Bradford and his compatriots had little reason to believe they had found the Promised Land.
Plymouth Harbor was commodious, but much of it was so shallow that a ship the size of the Mayflower, which drew twelve feet, must anchor more than a mile from shore. The harbor was also without a navigable river to provide access to the country’s interior. It was true that there were no Native settlements nearby, but that didn’t mean they would be immune to attack. The Indians in the region had already surprised them once; it would probably happen again. Worst of all, they were approaching what Bradford called “the heart of winter,” and many of them were sick; indeed, some were on the verge of death.
And then that evening, Bradford received what would have been, for many men, the final blow. He learned that five days before, Dorothy May Bradford, his wife of seven years and the mother of his three-year-old son, John, had slipped over the side of the Mayflower and drowned.
Bradford never wrote about the circumstances of his wife’s death. Much later in the century, the Puritan historian Cotton Mather recorded that Dorothy Bradford had accidentally fallen overboard and “was drowned in the harbor.” That she fell from a moored ship has caused some to wonder whether she committed suicide.
Dorothy certainly had ample reason to despair: She had not seen her son in more than four months; her husband had left the day before on his third dangerous trip away from her in as many weeks. On the same day the shallop had departed, seven-year-old Jasper More, one of the four children placed on the Mayflower by their cuckolded father, died in the care of the Brewster family. Two other More children would die in the months ahead. For Dorothy, whose own young son was on the other side of the Atlantic, the plight of these and the other children may have been especially difficult to witness.
We think of the Pilgrims as resilient adventurers upheld by unwavering religious faith, but they were also human beings in the midst of what was, and continues to be, one of the most difficult emotional challenges a person can face: immigration and exile. Less than a year later, another group of English settlers arrived at Provincetown Harbor and were so overwhelmed by this “naked and barren place” that they convinced themselves that the Pilgrims must all be dead. In fear of being forsaken by the ship’s captain, the panicked settlers began to strip the sails from the yards “lest the ship should get away and leave them.” If Dorothy experienced just a portion of the terror and sense of abandonment that gripped these settlers, she may have felt that suicide was her only choice.
Even if his wife’s death had been unintentional, Bradford believed that God controlled what happened on earth. As a consequence, every occurrence meant something. John Howland had been rescued in the midst of a gale at sea, but Dorothy, his “dearest consort,” had drowned in the placid waters of Provincetown Harbor.
The only clue Bradford left us about his own feelings is in a poem he wrote toward the end of his life.
Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust,
Fear not the things thou suffer must;
For, whom he loves he doth chastise,
And then all tears wipes from their eyes.