In a Dark and Dismal Swamp

THEY COULD NOT HELP but stare in fascination. He was so different from themselves. For one thing, he towered over them. He stood before them “a tall straight man,” having not labored at a loom or a cobbler’s bench for much of his life. His hair was black, short in front and long in back, and his face was hairless. Interestingly, the Pilgrims made no mention of his skin color.

What impressed them the most was that he was “stark naked,” with just a fringed strap of leather around his waist. When a cold gust of wind kicked up, one of the Pilgrims was moved to throw his coat over the Indian’s bare shoulders.

He was armed with a bow and just two arrows, “the one headed, the other unheaded.” The Pilgrims do not seem to have attached any special significance to them, but the arrows may have represented the alternatives of war and peace. In any event, they soon began to warm to their impetuous guest and offered him something to eat. He immediately requested beer.

With their supplies running short, they offered him some “strong water”—perhaps the aqua vitae they’d drunk during their first days on Cape Cod—as well as some biscuit, butter, cheese, pudding, and a slice of roasted duck, “all of which he liked well.”

He introduced himself as Samoset—at least that was how the Pilgrims heard it—but he may actually have been telling them his English name, Somerset. He was not, he explained in broken English, from this part of New England. He was a sachem from Pemaquid Point in Maine, near Monhegan Island, a region frequented by English fishermen. It was from these fishermen, many of whom he named, that he’d learned to speak English. Despite occasional trouble understanding him, the Pilgrims hung on Samoset’s every word as he told them about their new home.

He explained that the harbor’s name was Patuxet, and that just about every person who had once lived there had “died of an extraordinary plague.” The supreme leader of the region was named Massasoit, who lived in a place called Pokanoket about forty miles to the southwest at the head of Narragansett Bay. Samoset said that the Nausets controlled the part of Cape Cod where the Pilgrims had stolen the corn. The Nausets were “ill affected toward the English” after Hunt had abducted twenty or so of their men back in 1614. He also said that there was another Indian back in Pokanoket named Squanto, who spoke even better English than he did.

With darkness approaching, the Pilgrims were ready to see their voluble guest on his way. As a practical matter, they had nowhere for him to sleep; in addition, they were not yet sure whether they could trust him. But Samoset made it clear he wanted to spend the night. Perhaps because they assumed he’d fear abduction and quickly leave, they offered to take him out to the Mayflower. Samoset cheerfully called their bluff and climbed into the shallop. Claiming that high winds and low tides prevented them from leaving shore, the Pilgrims finally allowed him to spend the night with Stephen Hopkins and his family. Samoset left the next morning, promising to return in a few days with some of Massasoit’s men.

All that winter, Massasoit had watched and waited. From the Nausets he had learned of the Pilgrims’ journey along the bay side of Cape Cod and their eventual arrival at Patuxet. His own warriors had kept him updated as to the progress of their various building projects, and despite their secret burials, he undoubtedly knew that many of the English had died over the winter.

For as long as anyone could remember, European fishermen and explorers had been visiting New England, but these people were different. First of all, there were women and children—probably the first European women and children the Indians had ever seen. They were also behaving unusually. Instead of attempting to trade with the Indians, they kept to themselves and seemed much more interested in building a settlement. These English people were here to stay.

Massasoit was unsure of what to do next. A little over a year before, the sailors aboard an English vessel had killed a large number of his people without provocation. As a consequence, Massasoit had felt compelled to attack the explorer Thomas Dermer when he arrived the following summer with Squanto at his side, and most of Dermer’s men had been killed in skirmishes on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. Squanto had been taken prisoner on the Vineyard, but now he was with Massasoit in Pokanoket. The former Patuxet resident had told him of his years in Europe, and once the Mayflower appeared at Provincetown Harbor and made its way to Plymouth, he had offered his services as an interpreter. But Massasoit was not yet sure whose side Squanto was on.

Over the winter, as the Pilgrims continued to bury their dead surreptitiously, Massasoit gathered together the region’s powwows, or shamans, for a three-day meeting “in a dark and dismal swamp.” Swamps were where the Indians went in time of war: they provided a natural shelter for the sick and old; they were also a highly spiritual landscape, where the unseen currents of the spirits intermingled with the hoots of owls.

Massasoit’s first impulse was not to embrace the English but to curse them. Bradford later learned that the powwows had attempted to “execrate them with their conjurations.” Powwows communed with the spirit world in an extremely physical manner, through what the English described as “horrible outcries, hollow bleatings, painful wrestlings, and smiting their own bodies.” Massasoit’s powwows were probably not the first and certainly not the last Native Americans to turn their magic on the English. To the north, at the mouth of the Merrimack River, lived Passaconaway, a sachem who was also a powwow—an unusual combination that endowed him with extraordinary powers. It was said he could “make the water burn, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphise himself into a flaming man.” But not even Passaconaway was able to injure the English. In 1660, he admitted to his people, “I was as much an enemy to the English at their first coming into these parts, as anyone whatsoever, and did try all ways and means possible to have destroyed them, at least to have prevented them sitting down here, but I could in no way effect it;…therefore I advise you never to contend with the English, nor make war with them.” At some point, Massasoit’s powwows appear to have made a similar recommendation.

The powwows were not the only ones who weighed in on the issue of what to do with the Pilgrims. There was also Squanto. Ever since the appearance of the Mayflower, the former captive had begun to work his own kind of magic on Massasoit, insisting that the worst thing he could do was to attack the Pilgrims. Not only did they have muskets and cannons; they possessed the seventeenth-century equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction: the plague. At some point, Squanto began to insist that the Pilgrims had the ability to unleash disease on their enemies. If Massasoit became an ally to the Pilgrims, he would suddenly be in a position to break the Narragansetts’ stranglehold on the Pokanokets. “[E]nemies that were [now] too strong for him,” Squanto promised, “would be constrained to bow to him.”

It was a suggestion that played on Massasoit’s worst fears. The last three years had been a nightmare of pain and loss; to revisit that experience was inconceivable. Reluctantly, Massasoit determined that he must “make friendship” with the English. To do so, he must have an interpreter, and Squanto—the only one fluent in both English and Massachusett, the language of the Pokanoket—assumed that he was the man for the job. Though he’d been swayed by Squanto’s advice, Massasoit was loath to place his faith in the former captive, whom he regarded as a conniving cultural mongrel with dubious motives. So he first sent Samoset, a visiting sachem with only a rudimentary command of English, to the Pilgrim settlement.

But now it was time for Massasoit to visit the English himself. He must turn to Squanto.

On March 22, five days after his initial visit, Samoset returned to Plymouth with four other Indians, Squanto among them. The Patuxet Native spoke with an easy familiarity about places that now seemed a distant dream to the Pilgrims—besides spending time in Spain and Newfoundland, Squanto had lived in the Corn Hill section of London. The Indians had brought a few furs to trade, along with some fresh herring. But the real purpose of their visit was to inform the Pilgrims that Massasoit and his brother Quadequina were nearby. About an hour later, the sachem appeared on Watson’s Hill with a large entourage of warriors.

The Pilgrims described him as “a very lusty [or strong] man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.” Massasoit stood on the hill, his face painted dark red, his entire head glistening with bear grease. Draped around his neck was a wide necklace made of white shell beads and a long knife suspended from a string. His men’s faces were also painted, “some black, some red, some yellow, and some white, some with crosses, and other antic works.” Some of them had furs draped over their shoulders; others were naked. But every one of them possessed a stout bow and a quiver of arrows. These were unmistakably warriors: “all strong, tall, all men in appearance.” Moreover, there were sixty of them.

For the Pilgrims, who could not have mustered more than twenty adult males and whose own military leader was not even five and a half feet tall, it must have been a most intimidating display of physical strength and power. Squanto ventured over to Watson’s Hill and returned with the message that the Pilgrims should send someone to speak to Massasoit. Edward Winslow’s wife, Elizabeth, was so sick that she would be dead in just two days, but he agreed to act as Governor Carver’s messenger. Clad in armor and with a sword at his side, he went with Squanto to greet the sachem.

First he presented Massasoit and his brother with a pair of knives, some copper chains, some alcohol, and a few biscuits, “which were all willingly accepted.” Then he delivered a brief speech. King James of England saluted the sachem “with words of love and peace,” Winslow proclaimed, and looked to him as a friend and ally. He also said that Governor Carver wished to speak and trade with him and hoped to establish a formal peace. Winslow was under the impression that Squanto “did not well express it,” but enough of his meaning was apparently communicated to please Massasoit. The sachem ate the biscuits and drank the liquor, then asked if Winslow was willing to sell his sword and armor. The Pilgrim messenger politely declined. It was decided that Winslow would remain with Quadequina as a hostage while Massasoit went with twenty of his men, minus their bows, to meet the governor.

The Pilgrims were men of God, but they also knew their diplomatic protocol. Undoubtedly drawing on his experiences as an assistant to the English secretary of state, William Brewster appears to have orchestrated a surprisingly formal and impressive reception of the dignitary they called the “Indian King.” A Pilgrim delegation including Standish and half a dozen men armed with muskets greeted Massasoit at the brook. They exchanged salutations, and after seven of the warriors were designated hostages, Standish accompanied Massasoit to a house, still under construction, where a green rug and several cushions had been spread out on the dirt floor. On cue, a drummer and trumpeter began to play as Governor Carver and a small procession of musketeers made their way to the house.

Upon his arrival, Carver kissed Massasoit’s hand; the sachem did the same to Carver’s, and the two leaders sat down on the green rug. It was now time for Massasoit to share in yet another ceremonial drink of liquor. Carver took a swig of aqua vitae and passed the cup to Massasoit, who took a large gulp and broke into a sweat. The Pilgrims assumed the aqua vitae was what made him perspire, but anxiety may also have been a factor. As the proceedings continued, during which the two groups worked out a six-point agreement, Massasoit was observed to tremble “for fear.”

Instead of Carver and the Pilgrims, it may have been Massasoit’s interpreter who caused the sachem to shake with trepidation. Squanto later claimed that the English kept the plague in barrels buried beneath their storehouse. The barrels actually contained gunpowder, but the Pilgrims undoubtedly guarded the storehouse with a diligence that lent credence to Squanto’s claims. If the interpreter chose to inform Massasoit of the deadly contents of the buried stores during the negotiations on March 22 (and what better way to ensure that the sachem came to a swift and satisfactory agreement with the English?), it is little wonder Massasoit was seen to tremble.

Bradford and Winslow recorded the agreement with the Pokanoket sachem as follows:

1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.

2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.

3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people were at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to him.

4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.

5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.

6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.

Once the agreement had been completed, Massasoit was escorted from the settlement, and his brother was given a similar reception. Quadequina quickly noticed a disparity that his higher-ranking brother had not chosen to comment on. Even though the Indians had been required to lay down their bows, the Pilgrims continued to carry their muskets—a clear violation of the treaty they had just signed with Massasoit. Quadequina “made signs of dislike, that [the guns] should be carried away.” The English could not help but admit that the young Indian had a point, and the muskets were put aside.

Squanto and Samoset spent the night with the Pilgrims while Massasoit and his men, who had brought along their wives and children, slept in the woods, just a half mile away. Massasoit promised to return in a little more than a week to plant corn on the southern side of Town Brook. Squanto, it was agreed, would remain with the English. As a final gesture of friendship, the Pilgrims sent the sachem and his people a large kettle of English peas, “which pleased them well, and so they went their way.”

After almost five months of uncertainty and fear, the Pilgrims had finally established diplomatic relations with the Native leader who, as far as they could tell, ruled this portion of New England. But as they were soon to find out, Massasoit’s power was not as pervasive as they would have liked. The Pokanokets had decided to align themselves with the English, but many of Massasoit’s allies had yet to be convinced that the Pilgrims were good for New England.

The next day, Squanto, who after a six-year hiatus was back to living on his native shore, left to fish for eels. At that time of year, the eels lay dormant in the mud, and after wading out into the cold water of a nearby tidal creek, he used his feet to “trod them out.” That evening he returned with so many eels that he could barely lift them all with one hand.

Squanto had named himself for the Indian spirit of darkness, who often assumed the form of snakes and eels. It was no accident that he used eels to cement his bond with the Pilgrims. That night they ate them with relish, praising the eels as “fat and sweet,” and Squanto was on his way to becoming the one person in New England they could not do without.

Two weeks later, on April 5, the Mayflower, her empty hold ballasted with stones from the Plymouth Harbor shore, set sail for England. Like the Pilgrims, the sailors had been decimated by disease. Jones had lost his boatswain, his gunner, three quartermasters, the cook, and more than a dozen sailors. He had also lost a cooper, but not to illness. John Alden had decided to stay in Plymouth.

The Mayflower made excellent time on her voyage back across the Atlantic. The same westerlies that had battered her the previous fall now pushed her along, and she arrived at her home port of Rotherhithe, just down the Thames from London, on May 6, 1621—less than half the time it had taken her to sail to America. Jones learned that his wife, Josian, had given birth to a son named John. Soon Jones and the Mayflower were on their way to France for a cargo of salt.

The voyage to America was to claim yet another life. Perhaps still suffering the effects of that desperate winter in Plymouth, Jones died after his return from France on March 5, 1622. For the next two years the Mayflower lay idle, not far from her captain’s grave on the banks of the Thames. By 1624, just four years after her historic voyage to America, the ship had become a rotting hulk. Her owners, including Jones’s widow Josian, ordered an appraisal. She was found to be worth just £128, less than a sixth her value back in 1609. Her subsequent fate is unknown, but she was probably broken up for scrap, the final casualty of a voyage that had cost her master everything he could give.

Soon after the Mayflower departed for England, the shallow waters of Town Brook became alive with fish. Two species of herring—alewives and bluebacks—returned to the fresh waters where they had been born, creating a roiling, silver-backed blanket of fish that occasionally burst through the river’s surface as the herring worked their way up the brook to spawn.

Squanto explained that these fish were essential to planting a successful corn crop. The land surrounding Plymouth was so poor that it was necessary to fertilize the soil with dead herring. Although women were the ones who did the farming (with the sole exception of planting tobacco, which was considered men’s work), Squanto knew enough of their techniques to give the Pilgrims a crash course in Indian agriculture.

The seed the Pilgrims had stolen on the Cape is known today as northern flint corn—eight-rowed with kernels of several colors—and was called weachimineash by the Indians. Using mattocks—hoes with stone heads and wooden handles—the Indians gathered mounds of earth about a yard wide, where several fish were included with the seeds of corn. Once the corn had sprouted, beans and squash were added to the mounds. The creepers from the beans and squash attached to the growing cornstalks, creating a blanket of shade that protected the plants’ roots against the searing summer sun while also discouraging weeds. Thanks to Squanto, the Pilgrims’ stolen corn thrived while their own barley and peas suffered in the alien soils of the New World.

In April, while laboring in the fields on an unusually hot day, Governor Carver began to complain about a pain in his head. He returned to his house to lie down and quickly lapsed into a coma. A few days later, he was dead.

After a winter of so many secret burials, they laid their governor to rest with as much pomp and circumstance as they could muster—“with some volleys of shot by all that bore arms.” Carver’s brokenhearted wife followed her husband to the grave five weeks later. Carver’s one surviving male servant, John Howland, was left without a master; in addition to becoming a free man, Howland may have inherited at least a portion of Carver’s estate. The humble servant who had been pulled from the watery abyss a few short months ago was on his way to becoming one of Plymouth’s foremost citizens.


A chair once owned by William Bradford

Carver’s passing could not have come at a worse time. Just as the settlement was emerging from the horrors of the first winter, it had lost the man on whose judgment and counsel it had come to depend. The Pilgrims had hoped to load the Mayflower with goods, but that had been impossible given their sufferings that winter. With half the settlers dead and only a pile of ballast stones and a few Native artifacts to show for an outlay of thousands of pounds, the Merchant Adventurers might begin to doubt the profitability of the settlement and withdraw further financial support.

The new treaty with Massasoit had greatly reduced the threat of Indian attack, but there was still dissent inside the settlement. Billington had recently railed against Standish; there had been angry words from others throughout that terrible winter. In June, Stephen Hopkins’s servants Edward Doty and Edward Leister injured each other in a duel and were sentenced to have their heads and feet tied together. There was a desperate and immediate need for strong and steady leadership.

Bradford was the natural choice, but he was still laid low by illness. With Isaac Allerton, a thirty-six-year-old widower and former Leidener, serving as his assistant, he agreed to take on the greatest challenge of his life. In addition to Allerton, he had William Brewster, Edward Winslow, and Miles Standish to look to for advice. But as governor, he inevitably came to know the loneliness of being Plymouth’s ultimate decision maker. More than ever before, Bradford, who had left his son in Holland and lost his wife in Provincetown Harbor, was alone.

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