The Heart of Winter

THE. MAYFLOWERLAFT Provincetown Harbor on Friday, December 15. Headwinds from the northwest prevented the ship from entering Plymouth Harbor until the following day. Both Plymouth Harbor and Duxbury Bay to the north are contained within two interlocking sickles of sand: the Gurnet, an extension of Duxbury Beach, to the north and Long Beach to the south. The Mayflower anchored just within Goose Point at the end of Long Beach, a mile and a half from Plymouth Rock.

Not until Wednesday, December 20, after three more days of exploration, did they decide where to begin building a permanent settlement. Some voted for Clark’s Island, their refuge during the shallop’s first night in the harbor, as the safest spot in case of Indian attack. Others thought a river almost directly across from the island was more suitable. Unfortunately Jones River, which they named for the Mayflower ’s master, was not deep enough to handle a vessel of more than 30 tons (the Mayflower was 180 tons), and the settlement site (the current location of Kingston) would have been difficult to defend against the Indians. That left the area near the Rock.

The future site of Plymouth Plantation had much to recommend it. Rising up from shore was a 165-foot hill that provided a spectacular view of the surrounding coastline. On a clear day, it was even possible to see the tip of Cape Cod, almost thirty miles away. A stout, cannon-equipped fort on this hill would provide all the security they could ever hope for.

The presence of the Rock as a landing place was yet another plus. Even more important was the “very sweet brook” that flowed beside it, carving out a channel that allowed small vessels to sail not only to the Rock but up what they called Town Brook. Just inside the brook’s entrance was a wide salt marsh where, Bradford wrote, “we may harbor our shallops and boats exceedingly well.” There were also several freshwater springs along the high banks of the brook that bubbled with “as good water as can be drunk”—an increasingly important consideration now that they were forced to ration what remained of the beer.

The biggest advantage of the area was that it had already been cleared by the Indians. And yet nowhere could they find evidence of any recent Native settlements. The Pilgrims saw the eerie vacancy of this place as a miraculous gift from God. But if a miracle had indeed occurred at Plymouth, it had taken the form of a holocaust almost beyond human imagining.

Just three years before, even as the Pilgrims had begun preparations to settle in America, there had been between one thousand and two thousand people living along these shores. As a map drawn by Samuel Champlain in 1605 shows, the banks of the harbor had been dotted with wigwams, each with a curling plume of wood smoke rising from the hole in its roof and with fields of corn, beans, and squash growing nearby. Dugout canoes made from hollowed-out pine trees plied the waters, which in summer were choked with bluefish and striped bass. The lobsters were so numerous that the Indians plucked them from the shallows of the harbor. The mudflats were so thick with buried clams that it was impossible to walk across the shore without being drenched by squirting bivalves.

Then, from 1616 to 1619, disease brought this centuries-old community to an end. No witnesses recorded what happened along the shores of Plymouth, but in the following decade the epidemics returned, and Roger Williams told how entire villages became emptied of people. “I have seen a poor house left alone in the wild woods,” Williams wrote, “all being fled, the living not able to bury the dead. So terrible is the apprehension of an infectious disease, that not only persons, but the houses and the whole town, take flight.”

No Native dwellings remained in Plymouth in the winter of 1620, but gruesome evidence of the epidemic was scattered all around the area. “[T]heir skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground…,” Bradford wrote, “a very sad spectacle to behold.” It was here, on the bone-whitened hills of Plymouth, that the Pilgrims hoped to begin a new life.


Samuel de Champlain’s map of Plymouth Harbor

They decided to build their houses on what is called today Cole’s Hill overlooking the salt marsh. Situated between the shore and the much higher hill, soon to be known as Fort Hill, Cole’s Hill was flat enough to accommodate a small settlement and was easily accessible from the brook. That night twenty people remained on shore. They planned to begin building houses the next morning.

But Thursday, December 21, proved so stormy that the Mayflower was forced to set an additional anchor. The people on shore were without food, so despite the gale-force winds, the shallop set out from the Mayflower “with much ado with provisions.” The terrible weather persisted throughout the following day, making it impossible to begin work on the houses. In the meantime, the wind-lashed Mayflower had become a grim hospital ship. In addition to colds, coughs, and fevers, scurvy tormented the passengers. James Chilton had died even before the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor. That Thursday, Richard Britteridge passed away, followed two days later by Christopher Martin’s stepson Solomon Prower. On Friday morning Mary Allerton gave birth to a stillborn son.

Not until Saturday, December 23, were they able to transport a work party from the Mayflower to shore. With their axes and saws they felled trees and carried the timber to the building site. The fact that Monday, December 25, was Christmas Day meant little to the Pilgrims, who believed that religious celebrations of this sort were a profanation of the true word of Christ. Of more importance to them, December 25 was the day they erected the frame of their first house. “[N]o man rested that day,” Bradford wrote. But toward sunset, the familiar cries of Indians erupted in the surrounding forest. The Pilgrims took up their muskets and stared tensely into the deepening darkness as the cries echoed briefly and died away.

Ahead of them was an unknown wilderness that they could not help but inhabit with all their fears. Behind them was the harbor and the distant Mayflower, lights beginning to twinkle through her cabin windows, a smudge of smoke rising up from the galley stove in the forecastle. What would have astounded a modern sensibility transported back to that Christmas Day in 1620 was the absolute quiet of the scene. Save for the gurgling of Town Brook, the lap of waves against the shore, and the wind in the bare winter branches, everything was silent as they listened and waited.

The Pilgrims’ intensely felt spiritual lives did not prevent them from believing in witches and warlocks and living with the constant fear that Satan and his minions were out there, conspiring against them. It was a fear that must have been difficult to contain as they stared into the deepening gloom of the American night.

After waiting a few more tense minutes, they decided to send the shallop back to the Mayflower, leaving the usual number of twenty ashore. That night they were drenched by yet another rainstorm.


It took them two more weeks to complete the first building, a twenty-foot-square “common house.” It didn’t have a proper foundation—there just wasn’t the manpower or the time for such a luxury. Known as an earthfast house, the Pilgrims’ first structure probably possessed walls of hewn tree trunks interwoven with branches and twigs that were cemented together with clay. This wattle-and-daub construction was typical of farmers’ cottages in rural England, as was the building’s thatched roof, which was made of cattails and reeds from the nearby marsh. The house’s tiny, barely translucent windows were made of linseed-coated parchment. The chimney—if, in fact, the house did have a chimney instead of a simple hole in the roof—was a primitive ductwork made of four soot-blackened boards that funneled the smoke from an open fire on the dirt floor. It was a most dark and smoky space, but for the first time, the Pilgrims had a real roof over their heads.


A steeple-crowned beaver hat attributed to Constance Hopkins


A cooking pot that may have come to America with Miles and Rose Standish


The wicker cradle reputed to have been brought to America by William and Susanna White


William Bradford’s silver drinking cup, made in England in 1634


A writing cabinet said to have been brought on the Mayflower by the White family in 1620


A chest reputed to have been brought aboard the Mayflower by William Brewster

On the morning of Thursday, December 28, they turned their attention to the high hill, where they began to construct a wooden platform on which to mount the various cannons they had brought with them aboard the Mayflower. This was also the day they started to plan the organization of the settlement. But first they needed to decide how many houses to build. It was determined that “all single men that had no wives to join them” should find a family to live with, which brought the total number of houses down to nineteen. From the beginning, it was decided that “every man should build his own house, thinking by that course, men would make more haste than working in common.”

Miles Standish appears to have had a hand in determining the layout of the town. At lectures on military engineering at the University of Leiden, soldiers could learn from the Dutch army’s chief engineer that the most easily defended settlement pattern consisted of a street with parallel alleys and a cross street. The Pilgrims created a similar design that included two rows of houses “for safety.” For the present, Plymouth was without a church and town green, the features that came to typify a New England town.

In the weeks ahead, the death toll required them to revise radically their initial plans. Instead of nineteen, only seven houses were built the first year, plus another four buildings for common use, including a small fortlike structure called a rendezvous. The houses were built along a street that ran from Fort Hill down to the sea. Known today as Leyden Street, it was crossed by a “highway” running from north to south down to Town Brook. Around this intersection, the town of Plymouth slowly came into being, even as death reduced the newcomers to half their original number.

Thursday, January 11, was “a fair day.” Given the uncertainty of the weather, they knew they must make as much progress as possible on the houses—especially since, it was still assumed, the Mayflower would soon be returning to England.

The frantic pace of the last two months was beginning to tell on William Bradford. He had suffered through a month of exposure to the freezing cold on the exploratory missions, and the stiffness in his ankles made it difficult to walk. But there was more troubling him than physical discomfort. Dorothy’s passing had opened the floodgates: death was everywhere. It pursued them in the form of illness, and it had been waiting for them here on the blighted shores of Plymouth. Now, in the midst of winter, he could only wonder if he would ever see his son again.

That day, as Bradford worked beside the others, he was “vehemently taken with a grief and pain” that pierced him to his hipbone. He collapsed and was carried to the common house. At first it was feared Bradford might not last the night. But “in time through God’s mercy,” he began to improve, even as illness continued to spread among them. The common house soon became as “full of beds as they could lie one by another.” Like the Native Americans before them, they must struggle to survive on a hillside where death had become a way of life.

In the days ahead, so many fell ill that there were barely half a dozen left to tend the sick. Progress on the houses fell to a standstill as the healthy ones became full-time nurses—preparing meals, tending fires, washing the “loathsome clothes,” and emptying chamber pots. Bradford later singled out William Brewster and Miles Standish as sources of indomitable strength:

And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness. And what I have said of these I may say of many others who died in this general visitation, and others yet living; that whilst they had health, yea or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not that their recompense is with the Lord.

At one point, Bradford requested a small container of beer from the stores of the Mayflower, hoping that it might help in his recovery. With little left for the return voyage to England, the sailors responded that if Bradford “were their own father he should have none.” Soon after, disease began to ravage the crew of the Mayflower, including many of their officers and “lustiest men.” Unlike the Pilgrims, the sailors showed little interest in tending the sick. Early on, the boatswain, “a proud young man,” according to Bradford, who would often “curse and scoff at the passengers,” grew ill. Despite his treatment of them, several of the passengers attended to the young officer in his final hours. Bradford claimed the boatswain experienced a kind of deathbed conversion, crying out, “Oh, you, I now see, show your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another die like dogs.” Master Jones also appears to have undergone a change of heart. Soon after his own men began to fall ill, he let it be known that beer was now available to the Pilgrims, “though he drunk water homeward bound.”

On Friday, January 12, John Goodman and Peter Brown were cutting thatch about a mile and a half from the settlement. They had with them the two dogs, a small spaniel and a huge mastiff bitch. English mastiffs were frequently used in bearbaitings—a savage spectator sport popular in London in which the two creatures fought each other to the death. Mastiffs were also favored by English noblemen, who used them to subdue poachers. The Pilgrims’ mastiff appears to have been more of a guard dog brought to protect them against wild beasts and Indians.

That afternoon, Goodman and Brown paused from their labors for a midday snack, then took the two dogs for a short ramble in the woods. Near the banks of a pond they saw a large deer, and the dogs, no doubt led by the mastiff, took off in pursuit. By the time Goodman and Brown had caught up with the dogs, they were all thoroughly lost.

It began to rain, and by nightfall it was snowing. They had hoped to find an Indian wigwam for shelter but were forced, in Bradford’s words, “to make the earth their bed, and the element their covering.” Then they heard what they took to be “two lions roaring exceedingly for a long time together.” These may have been eastern cougars, also known as mountain lions, a species that once ranged throughout most of North and South America. The cry of a cougar has been compared to the scream of a woman being murdered, and Goodman and Brown were now thoroughly terrified. They decided that if a lion should come after them, they would scramble into the limbs of a tree and leave the mastiff to do her best to defend them.

All that night they paced back and forth at the foot of a tree, trying to keep warm in the freezing darkness. They still had the sickles they had used to cut thatch, and with each wail of the cougars, they gripped their sickles a little tighter. The mastiff wanted desperately to chase whatever was out there in the woods, so they took turns restraining the huge dog by her collar. At daybreak, they once again set out in search of the settlement.

The terrain surrounding Plymouth was no primeval forest. For centuries, the Indians had been burning the landscape on a seasonal basis, a form of land management that created surprisingly open forests, where a person might easily walk or even ride a horse amid the trees. The constant burning created stands of huge white pine trees that commonly grew to over 100 feet tall, with some trees reaching 250 feet in height and as many as 5 feet in diameter. Black and red oaks were also common, as well as chestnuts, hickories, birches, and hemlocks. In swampy areas, where standing water protected the trees from fire, grew white oaks, alders, willows, and red maples. But there were also large portions of southern New England that were completely devoid of trees. After passing several streams and ponds, Goodman and Brown came upon a huge swath of open land that had recently been burned by the Indians. Come summer, this five-mile-wide section of blackened ground would resemble, to a remarkable degree, the wide and rolling fields of their native England.

Not until the afternoon did Goodman and Brown find a hill that gave them a view of the harbor. Now that they were able to orient themselves, they were soon on their way back home. When they arrived that night, they were, according to Bradford, “ready to faint with travail and want of victuals, and almost famished with cold.” Goodman’s frostbitten feet were so swollen that they had to cut away his shoes.

The final weeks of January were spent transporting goods from the Mayflower to shore. On Sunday, February 4, yet another storm lashed Plymouth Harbor. The rain was so fierce that it washed the clay daubing from the sides of the houses, while the Mayflower,which was riding much higher than usual after the removal of so much freight, wobbled precariously in the gusts.

On Friday, February 16, one of the Pilgrims was hidden in the reeds of a salt creek about a mile and a half from the plantation, hunting ducks. Throughout the last few weeks, there had been a growing concern about Indians. A few days earlier, Master Jones had reported seeing two of them watching the ship from Clark’s Island. That afternoon, the duck hunter found himself closer to an Indian than any of them had so far come.

He was lying amid the cattails when a group of twelve Indians marched past him on the way to the settlement. In the woods behind him, he heard “the noise of many more.” Once the Indians had safely passed, he sprang to his feet and ran for the plantation and sounded the alarm. Miles Standish and Francis Cook were working in the woods when they heard the signal. They dropped their tools, ran down the hill, and armed themselves, but once again, the Indians never came. Later that day, when Standish and Cook returned to retrieve their tools, they discovered that they’d disappeared. That night, they saw “a great fire” near where the duck hunter had first seen the Indians.

The next day, a meeting was called “for the establishing of military orders amongst ourselves.” Not surprisingly, Miles Standish was officially designated their captain. A small man with a broad, powerful physique and reddish hair, Standish also had something of a chip on his shoulder. He seems to have been born on the Isle of Man off the west coast of England, and even though he was descended from “the house of Standish of Standish,” his rightful claim to ancestral lands had been, according to his own account, “surreptitiously detained from me,” forcing him to seek his fortune as a mercenary in Holland. Well educated and well read (he owned a copy of Homer’s The Iliad and Caesar’s Commentaries ), he appears to have conducted himself with a haughty impulsiveness that did not endear him to some of the settlers, one of whom later claimed that the Plymouth captain “looks like a silly boy, and is in utter contempt.” That first winter, John Billington took umbrage at Standish’s attempts to whip the men of the settlement into a fighting force and responded to his orders “with opprobrious speeches.”

Governor Carver’s response was swift. Billington was sentenced to have his hands and feet tied together in a public display of humiliation. But Carver, whose dignified and normally gentle manner appears to have deeply influenced William Bradford, came to think better of the sentence. After listening to impassioned pleas from Billington’s family, he granted him a reprieve, “it being his first offense.”

But tensions among the Pilgrims remained high. With two, sometimes three people dying a day throughout the months of February and March, there might not be a plantation left to defend by the arrival of spring. Almost everyone had lost a loved one. Christopher Martin, the Mayflower ’s governor, had died in early January, soon to be followed by his wife, Mary. Three other families—the Rigsdales, Tinkers, and Turners—were entirely wiped out, with more to follow. Thirteen-yearold Mary Chilton, whose father had died back in Provincetown Harbor, became an orphan when her mother passed away that winter. Other orphans included seventeen-year-old Joseph Rogers, twelve-yearold Samuel Fuller, eighteen-year-old John Crackston, seventeen-year-old Priscilla Mullins, and thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Tilley, who also lost her aunt and uncle, Edward and Ann. By the middle of March, there were four widowers: Bradford, Standish, Francis Eaton, and Isaac Allerton, who was left with three surviving children between the ages of four and eight. With the death of her husband, William, Susanna White, mother to the newborn Peregrine and five-year-old Resolved, became the plantation’s only surviving widow. By the spring, 52 of the 102 who had originally arrived at Provincetown were dead.

And yet, amid all this tragedy, there were miraculous exceptions. The families of William Brewster, Francis Cook, Stephen Hopkins, and John Billington were left completely untouched by disease. It is tempting to speculate that John Billington’s outburst against Standish may have been partly inspired by the fact that he and his fellow non-Leidener Stephen Hopkins had a total of six living children among them, accounting for more than a fifth of the young people in the entire plantation. The future of Plymouth was beginning to look less and less like a Separatist community of saints.

Even more pressing than the emotional and physical strain of all this death was the mounting fear of Indian attack. They knew that the Native inhabitants were watching them, but so far the Indians had refused to come forward. It was quite possible that they were simply waiting the Pilgrims out until there were not enough left to put up an effective resistance. It became imperative, therefore, to make the best possible show of strength.

Whenever the alarm was sounded, the sick were pulled from their beds and propped up against trees with muskets in their hands. They would do little good in case of an actual attack, but at least they were out there to be counted. The Pilgrims also tried to conceal the fact that so many of them had died. They did such a diligent job of hiding their loved ones’ remains that it was not until more than a hundred years later, when the runoff from a violent rainstorm unearthed some human bones, that the location of these ancient, hastily dug graves was finally revealed.

On Saturday, February 17, in the midst of the Pilgrims’ first official meeting about military matters, someone realized that two Indians were standing on the top of what became known as Watson’s Hill on the other side of Town Brook, about a quarter mile to the south. The meeting was immediately adjourned, and the men hurried to get their muskets. When the Pilgrims reassembled under the direction of their newly designated captain, Miles Standish, the Indians were still standing on the hill.

The two groups stared at each other across the valley of Town Brook. The Indians gestured for them to approach. The Pilgrims, however, made it clear that they wanted the Indians to come to them. Finally, Standish and Stephen Hopkins, with only one musket between them, began to make their way across the brook. Before they started up the hill, they laid the musket down on the ground “in sign of peace.” But “the savages,” Bradford wrote, “would not tarry their coming.” They ran off to the shouts of “a great many more” concealed on the other side of the hill. The Pilgrims feared an assault might be in the offing, “but no more came in fight.” It was time, they decided, to mount “our great ordnances” on the hill.

On Wednesday of the following week, Christopher Jones supervised the transportation of the “great guns”—close to half a dozen iron cannons that ranged between four and eight feet in length and weighed as much as half a ton. With the installation of this firepower, capable of hurling iron balls as big as three and a half inches in diameter as far as 1,700 yards, what was once a ramshackle collection of highly combustible houses was on its way to becoming a well-defended fortress.

Jones had brought a freshly killed goose, crane, and mallard with him, and once the day’s work was completed, they all sat down to an impromptu feast and were, in Bradford’s words, “kindly and friendly together.” Jones had originally intended to return to England as soon as the Pilgrims found a settlement site. But once disease began to ravage his crew, he realized that he must remain in Plymouth Harbor “till he saw his men begin to recover.”

In early March, there were several days of unseasonably warm weather, and “birds sang in the woods most pleasantly.” At precisely one o’clock on March 3, they heard their first rumble of American thunder. “It was strong and great claps,” they wrote, “but short.” They later realized that even though temperatures had been bitterly cold during their explorations along the Cape, the winter had been, for the most part, unusually mild—a respite that undoubtedly prevented even more of them from dying.

On Friday, March 16, they had yet another meeting about military matters. And as had happened the last time they had gathered for such a purpose, they were interrupted by the Indians. But this time there was only one of them atop Watson’s Hill, and unlike the previous two Indians, this man appeared to be without hesitation or fear, especially when he began to walk toward them “very boldly.” The alarm was sounded, and still the Indian continued striding purposefully down Watson’s Hill and across the brook. Once he’d climbed the path to Cole’s Hill, he walked past the row of houses toward the rendezvous, where the women and children had been assembled in case of attack. It was clear that if no one restrained him, the Indian was going to walk right into the entrance of the rendezvous. Finally, some of the men stepped into the Indian’s path and indicated that he was not to go in. Apparently enjoying the fuss he had created, the Indian “saluted” them and with great enthusiasm spoke the now famous words, “Welcome, Englishmen!”

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