AFEW WEEKS AFTER Bradford’s election to governor, Edward Winslow and Susanna White showed the rest of the settlement that it was indeed possible to start anew. Susanna had lost her husband, William, on February 21; Edward had lost his wife, Elizabeth, on March 24. Just a month and a half later, on May 12, Edward and Susanna became the first couple in Plymouth to marry. Six weeks may seem too short a time to grieve, but in the seventeenth century, it was quite normal for a widow or widower to remarry within three months of his or her spouse’s death. Children needed to be cared for; households needed to be maintained. And besides, these were exceptional times. If all the deaths had failed to inure them to grief, it had certainly alerted them to the wondrous necessity of life.
In accordance with “the laudable custom of the Low Countries,” Edward and Susanna were married in a civil ceremony. Bradford, who presided over the union, explained that “nowhere…in the Gospel” did it say a minister should be involved in a wedding. In the decades to come, marriages in Plymouth continued to be secular affairs, one of the few vestiges of their time in Holland to persist in New England.
By the beginning of July, Bradford determined that they should send a delegation to visit “their new friend Massasoit.” They had not, as of yet, had an opportunity to explore the interior of the surrounding countryside, and it was time they made their presence known beyond Plymouth and Cape Cod. They also needed to address an unexpected problem. Ever since establishing diplomatic relations with Massasoit in March, the Pilgrims had been beset by a continual stream of Indian visitors, particularly from the village of Nemasket just fifteen miles to the west in modern Middleborough. If they continued to entertain and feed all these guests, they would not have enough food to survive the next winter. They proposed an ingenious solution: They would present Massasoit with a copper chain; if the sachem had a messenger or friend he wanted the Pilgrims to entertain, he would give the person the chain, and the Pilgrims would happily provide him with food and fellowship. All others, however, would be denied.
On July 2, Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins left the settlement at around 9 A.M., with Squanto as their guide. Besides some gifts for Massasoit (the copper chain and a red cotton horseman’s coat), they carried their muskets and a cooked partridge for sustenance. They might have a horseman’s coat, but they did not, as of yet, have any horses. Like the Indians, they must walk the forty or so miles to Pokanoket.
They soon came upon a dozen men, women, and children, who were returning to Nemasket after gathering lobsters in Plymouth Harbor—one of countless seasonal rituals that kept the Indians constantly on the move. As they conversed with their new companions, the Englishmen learned that to walk across the land in southern New England was to travel in time. All along this narrow, hard-packed trail were circular foot-deep holes in the ground that had been dug where “any remarkable act” had occurred. It was each person’s responsibility to maintain the holes and to inform fellow travelers of what had once happened at that particular place so that “many things of great antiquity are fresh in memory.” Winslow and Hopkins began to see that they were traversing a mythic land, where a sense of community extended far into the distant past. “So that as a man travelleth…,” Winslow wrote, “his journey will be the less tedious, by reason of the many historical discourses [that] will be related unto him.”
They also began to appreciate why these memory holes were more important than ever before to the Native inhabitants of the region. Everywhere they went, they were stunned by the emptiness and desolation of the place. “Thousands of men have lived there,” Winslow wrote, “which died in a great plague not long since: and pity it was and is to see, so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same.” With so many dead, the Pokanokets’ connection to the past was hanging by a thread—a connection that the memory holes, and the stories they inspired, helped to maintain.
At Nemasket, they enjoyed a meal of corn bread, herring roe, and boiled acorns. Squanto suggested that they push on another few miles before nightfall to give themselves enough time to reach Pokanoket the next day. Soon after leaving Nemasket, the path joined a narrow, twisting river called the Titicut. Known today as the Taunton River, this waterway flows southwest through modern Bridgewater, Raynham, and Taunton till it widens into a broad tidal estuary at the hilltop city of Fall River before emptying into the dramatic expanse of Mount Hope Bay. In 1621, the Titicut functioned as a kind of Native American highway. Whether by dugout canoe or by foot, the Indians followed the river between Pokanoket and Plymouth, and in the years ahead, the Titicut inexorably led the Pilgrims to several new settlement sites above Narragansett Bay.
But the Titicut was much more than a transportation system; it also provided the Indians with a seasonal source of herring and other fish. Around sunset, Winslow and Hopkins reached a spot on the river where the Indians had built a weir and were harvesting striped bass, and that night they “lodged in the open fields.”
Six Indians decided to continue on with them the next morning. They followed the riverbank for about half a dozen miles until they came to a shallow area, where they were told to take off their breeches and wade across the river. They were midstream, with their possessions in their arms, when two Indians appeared on the opposite bank. In the aftermath of the plague, the Narragansetts had taken to raiding Pokanoket territory at will, and the two Indians feared that Winslow and Hopkins’s group was the enemy. Winslow judged one of the Indians to be at least sixty years old, and despite their age, both men displayed great “valor and courage” as they ran “very swiftly and low in the grass to meet us at the bank” with their arrows drawn. On realizing that Winslow and Hopkins were accompanied by some of their Indian friends, the old warriors “welcomed us with such food as they had.” Winslow later learned that these were the last two survivors of a once thriving village.
Edward Winslow, painted in England, 1651
As the sun reached its height, the traveling became quite hot, and their companions cheerfully offered to carry their guns and extra clothing for them. The grassy fields and open forests were, in Winslow’s words, “like many places in England.” They came upon other Indians along the way, but all proved friendly, and before the day was over they reached Massasoit’s village, known as Sowams. In the years to come, as the Pilgrims began to purchase land from the Pokanoket sachem, they spoke of Sowams as “the garden of the patent”—a fertile sweep of land with two rivers providing easy access to Narragansett Bay. As anyone could plainly see, Massasoit was positioned at a place that made Plymouth seem, by comparison, a remote and hilly wasteland.
The sachem invited them into his wigwam, where they presented him with the copper chain and horseman’s coat. Winslow reported that once the sachem had “put the coat on his back and the chain about his neck, he was not a little proud to behold himself, and his men also to see their king so bravely attired.” Indeed, the Pokanoket sachem appears to have been pleasantly surprised by Winslow’s and Hopkins’s appearance and readily agreed to all the Pilgrims’ requests.
The sachem gathered his people around him and began to deliver a long and exuberant speech. “Was not he Massasoit commander of the country about him?” he proclaimed. He spoke of the many villages that paid him tribute and of how those villages would all trade with the Pilgrims. With the naming of each place, his men responded with a refrain about Massasoit’s power over the village and how the village would be at peace with the English and provide them with furs. This went on until thirty or more settlements had been named. “[S]o that as it was delightful,” Winslow wrote, “it was tedious unto us.”
By this time, Winslow and Hopkins were desperate for something to eat. It had been more than a day since they’d had a decent meal, but the entire village of Sowams appeared to be without any food. Massasoit had only recently returned to the village after an extended time away, and his people had not yet had time to procure any fish or fowl. Unlike the Europeans, who relied on large stores of provisions, the Native Americans tended to follow the food wherever it might be seasonally available, whether it be a lobster-laden beach, an inland-river fishing weir, or, come fall, a forest full of deer. By arriving unannounced, Winslow and Hopkins had unintentionally placed Massasoit in a difficult and potentially embarrassing situation. He was happy, even ecstatic, to see them, but he had no food to offer.
Once he’d completed his speech, Massasoit lit his pipe and encouraged all of them to smoke as he “fell to discoursing of England.” He said he was now “King James his man.” As a consequence, the French were no longer welcome in Narragansett Bay. When he learned that the English king had been a widower for more than a year, Massasoit expressed wonder that James had chosen to live “without a wife.”
It was getting late, and it was now clear to the Pilgrims that there was nothing for them to eat. So they asked to go to bed. Much to their surprise, the sachem insisted that they share the wigwam’s sleeping platform with himself and his wife, “they at the one end and we at the other.” What’s more, two of Massasoit’s warriors crowded onto the platform with them.
That night, neither Winslow nor Hopkins slept a wink. Not only were they starving, they were kept awake by the Indians’ habit of singing themselves to sleep. They also discovered that the dirt floor and reed mats of the wigwam were alive with lice and fleas even as voracious mosquitoes buzzed around their ears.
The next day, several minor sachems made their way to Sowams to see the two Englishmen. The increasingly crowded village took on a carnival atmosphere as the sachems and their men entertained themselves with various games of chance, in which painted stones and stiff reeds were used, much like dice and cards, to gamble for each other’s furs and knives. Winslow and Hopkins challenged some of them to a shooting contest. Although the Indians declined, they requested that the English demonstrate the accuracy of their muskets. One of them fired a round of small shot at a target, and the Natives “wondered to see the mark so full of holes.” Early that afternoon, Massasoit returned with two large striped bass. The fish were quickly boiled, but since there were more than forty mouths to feed, the bass did not go far. Meager as it was, it was the first meal Winslow and Hopkins had eaten in two nights and a day.
Their second night at Sowams proved to be as sleepless as the first. Even before sunrise, the two Englishmen decided that they best be on their way, “we much fearing,” Winslow wrote, “that if we should stay any longer, we should not be able to recover home for want of strength.”
Massasoit was “both grieved and ashamed that he could no better entertain” the Pilgrims, but that did not prevent the visit from ending on a most positive note. Squanto, it was decided, would remain at Pokanoket so that he could go from village to village to establish trading relations for the Pilgrims, who had brought necklaces, beads, and other trade goods to exchange with the Indians for furs and corn. It may have been that Massasoit also wanted the chance to speak with the interpreter alone. Until Squanto returned to Plymouth, Tokamahamon would serve as the Englishmen’s guide.
Two days later, on the night of Saturday, July 7, after a solid day of rain, Winslow and Hopkins arrived back at Plymouth. They were wet, weary, footsore, and famished, but they had succeeded in strengthening their settlement’s ties with Massasoit and the Indians to the west. It would be left to a boy—and a Billington at that—to do the same for the Indians to the east.
Back in January, fourteen-year-old Francis Billington had climbed into a tree near the top of Fort Hill. Looking inland to the west, he claimed he saw “a great sea.” Like his father, the Billington boy had already developed a reputation as a troublemaker. When the Mayflower had still been at anchor in Provincetown Harbor, he had fired off a musket in his family’s cabin that had nearly ignited a barrel of gunpowder that would have destroyed the ship and everyone aboard. Given the boy’s past history, no one seemed to take his claim about a large inland sea very seriously. Eventually, however, someone agreed to accompany the teenager on an exploratory trip into the woods. About two miles in, they came upon a huge lake that was “full of fish and fowl.” Even Bradford, who had no great love of the Billington family, had to admit that the lake would be “an excellent help to us in time,” particularly since it was the source of Town Brook. To this day, the lake, which is close to five miles in circumference, is known as the Billington Sea.
In late March, Francis’s father had berated Miles Standish and narrowly escaped public punishment. Toward the end of July, Francis’s older brother John got into some trouble of his own. Not long after the return of Winslow and Hopkins, the sixteen-year-old lost his way in the woods somewhere south of the settlement. For five days, he wandered aimlessly, living on nuts, roots, and anything else he could find until he stumbled on the Indian village of Manomet, some twenty miles from Plymouth. Instead of returning the boy to the English, the Manomet sachem, Canacum, passed him to the Nausets of Cape Cod—the very people who had attacked the Pilgrims during the First Encounter back in December. The Nausets, led by sachem Aspinet, were also the ones whose corn pits and graves they had rifled.
Massasoit’s influence in the region was apparently not as dominant as he had led Winslow and Hopkins to believe. The plagues that had decimated the Pokanokets appear to have had less of an impact on the Nausets. Even if sachem Aspinet was Massasoit’s ally, he now commanded a larger number of warriors. By turning the Billington boy over to the Nausets instead of the Pokanokets, Canacum made a conscious effort to defer to a neighbor whose relative strength had increased dramatically since the plagues. It may also have been a way for Canacum to express his displeasure with Massasoit’s decision to make peace with the Pilgrims. With the boy in their possession, the Nausets were able to send an unmistakable message to the English: “You stole something of ours; well, now we have something of yours.”
It took awhile for Bradford to discover what had happened to the boy. Eventually word filtered back from Massasoit that Billington was alive and well and living with the Nausets. The Pilgrims had no choice but to return to the scene of the crime.
Well aware that they were venturing back into potentially hostile territory, Bradford ordered a party of ten men—more than half the adult males in the settlement—to set out in the shallop with both Squanto, who had recently returned from his trading mission in the region, and Tokamahamon as guides. Not long after departing from Plymouth, they were socked by a tremendous thunderstorm that forced them to put in at Cummaquid, a shallow harbor near the base of Cape Cod known today as Barnstable.
At dawn the next morning they found themselves hard aground on the tidal flats. They could see several Indians collecting lobsters, and Squanto and Tokamahamon went to speak with them. The Pilgrims were soon introduced to the Indians’ sachem, Iyanough. Still in his twenties, he impressed them as “very personable, courteous, and fair conditioned.”
At Cummaquid they encountered disturbing evidence that all was not forgotten on Cape Cod when it came to past English injustices in the region. An ancient woman, whom they judged to be a hundred years old, made a point of seeking out the Pilgrims “because she never saw English.” As soon as she set eyes on them, she burst into tears, “weeping and crying excessively.” They learned that three of her sons had been captured seven years before by Thomas Hunt, and she still mourned their loss. “We told them we were sorry that any Englishman should give them that offense,” Winslow wrote, “that Hunt was a bad man, and that all the English that heard of it condemned him for the same.”
Iyanough and several others offered to accompany them to Nauset, about twenty miles to the east. Unlike the winter before, when the shores of Cape Cod had been empty of people, the Pilgrims found Indians almost everywhere they looked. They now realized why the Nausets had felt compelled to attack them; by setting up camp near First Encounter Beach, they had ventured into the very “midst of them.”
They brought the shallop to within wading distance of shore and were soon approached by a huge number of Indians. Given their past history in this place, the Pilgrims ordered the crowd to back away from the boat. They could only hope that their alliance with Massasoit ensured their safety. Keeping their muskets ready, they insisted that only two Indians approach at a time. One of the first to come forward was the man whose corn they had stolen. The Pilgrims arranged to have him visit their settlement, where they promised to reimburse him for his loss.
It was growing dark by the time the Nauset sachem, Aspinet, arrived with more than a hundred men, many of whom had undoubtedly participated in the First Encounter back in December. Half the warriors remained on shore with their bows and arrows while the others waded out to the boat unarmed. One of Aspinet’s men carried John Billington in his arms. Looking none the worse for his time in captivity, the teenager wore a string of shell beads around his neck. The Pilgrims presented Aspinet with a knife, and peace was declared between the two peoples. From the Pilgrims’ perspective, it was a great relief to have finally righted the wrongs they’d committed during their first anxious and confusing weeks in America.
But Aspinet had some disturbing news. The Narragansetts were said to have killed several of Massasoit’s men and taken their leader captive. “This struck some fear in us,” Winslow wrote. If the Narragansetts should decide to attack their settlement, it would be a catastrophe: there were only about half a dozen men back at Plymouth. They must return as quickly as possible. If Massasoit had indeed been captured, they were, according to the terms of the treaty they had recently signed, at war with the most powerful tribe in the region.
Massasoit had indeed been taken, temporarily it turned out, by the Narragansetts. But they soon learned that the greatest threat was not from the Narragansetts but from the Pokanokets’ supposed allies. For the lesser sachems who had opposed Massasoit’s treaty with the Pilgrims, this was just the opportunity they had been looking for. One sachem in particular—Corbitant from the village of Mattapoisett just to the east of Massasoit’s headquarters at Sowams—was attempting to use the sachem’s troubles to break the Pokanoket-English alliance. Corbitant had arrived at the nearby village of Nemasket and was now attempting to “draw the hearts of Massasoit’s subjects from him.” Bradford decided to send Squanto and Tokamahamon to Nemasket to find out what Corbitant was up to.
The next day, one of Massasoit’s men, a warrior named Hobbamock, arrived at Plymouth, gasping for breath and covered in sweat. He’d just run the fifteen miles from Nemasket, and he had terrible news. Squanto, he feared, was dead. When Hobbamock had last seen the interpreter, one of Corbitant’s warriors had been holding a knife to his chest. Corbitant quite rightly viewed Squanto as the instigator of Massasoit’s shift toward the Pilgrims. If Squanto was dead, Corbitant told the Indians at Nemasket, “the English had lost their tongue.” Bradford immediately called a meeting of his advisers.
The Pilgrims were men of God, but this did not mean they were loath to use force. For more than a millennium and a half, Christians had looked to the Scriptures to sanction just about every conceivable act of violence. Moses had led the Jews to the Promised Land, but there had also been Joshua, a warrior king who had fought to uphold his people’s claims. Undoubtedly counseling Bradford to take immediate and forceful action was the Pilgrims’ Joshua, Miles Standish. This was their chance to show the Indians the consequences of challenging the English—either directly or indirectly through one of their emissaries. “[I]t was conceived not fit to be borne,” Bradford wrote; “for if [the Pilgrims] should suffer their friends and messengers thus to be wronged, they should have none would cleave to them, or give them any intelligence, or do them service afterwards, but next they would fall upon themselves.”
They decided to hit Corbitant quickly and to hit him hard. Standish volunteered to lead ten men on a mission to Nemasket. If Squanto had in fact been killed, they were to seize Corbitant. And since he’d been disloyal to Massasoit, he was to suffer the fate of all notorious traitors in Jacobean England. Standish was to cut off his head and bring it back to Plymouth for public display.
They left the next morning, Tuesday, August 14, with Hobbamock as their guide. Hobbamock was named for the same mysterious spirit of darkness as Squanto was. But unlike Squanto, Hobbamock was a pniese—a warrior of special abilities and stamina (it was said a pniese could not be killed in battle) who was responsible for collecting tribute for his sachem. From the start, Standish and Hobbamock had much in common, and the two warriors quickly became good friends.
Soon after they left Plymouth, it began to rain. About three miles from Nemasket, they ventured off the trail and waited for dark. In the summer rain, Standish briefed his men on his plan. Hobbamock was to lead them to Corbitant’s wigwam around midnight. Once Standish had positioned them around the dwelling, he and Hobbamock would charge inside and take Corbitant. The men were instructed to shoot any Indians who attempted to escape. For those with no previous military experience, it was a terrifying prospect, and Standish did his best to instill some confidence in his ragtag commando unit. Soon “all men [were] encouraging one another to the utmost of their power.”
After a last, quick meal, it was time for the assault. In the starless dark, Hobbamock directed them to the wigwam. The dwelling was probably larger than most, with a considerable number of men, women, and children inside, sleeping on the low platforms built along the interior walls. By this late hour, the central fire had dwindled to a few glowing embers. The drum of rain on the wigwam’s reed mats masked the sounds of the Pilgrims taking their positions.
Standish burst in, shouting Corbitant’s name. It was very dark inside, and with Hobbamock acting as his interpreter, the Pilgrim captain demanded to know where the petty sachem was. But the people inside the wigwam were too terror stricken to speak. Some leaped off their sleeping platforms and attempted to force their way through the matted walls of the wigwam. Soon the guards outside were shooting off their muskets as the people inside screamed and wept. Several women clung to Hobbamock, calling him friend. What had been intended as a bold lightning strike against the enemy was threatening to become a chaotic exercise in futility.
Gradually they learned that Corbitant had been at Nemasket, but no one was sure where he was now. They also learned that Squanto was still alive. Hobbamock pulled himself up through the wigwam’s smoke hole and, balancing himself on the roof, called out for the interpreter. Tokamahamon, it turned out, was also alive and well.
The next morning, they discovered that Corbitant and his men had fled, probably for their home at Mattapoisett. Standish delivered a message to the residents of Nemasket: “although Corbitant had now escaped us, yet there was no place should secure him and his from us if he continued his threatening us.” A man and a woman had been wounded in the melee that night, and the Pilgrims offered to bring them back to Plymouth for medical attention. The following day the settlement’s self-taught surgeon, Samuel Fuller, tended to the Indians’ injuries, and they were free to return home.
Over the next few weeks, Bradford began to learn of the reaction to Standish’s midnight raid. Just as his military officer had predicted, the show of force—no matter how confused—had won the Pilgrims some new respect. Several petty sachems sent their “gratulations” to Governor Bradford. Epenow, the Martha’s Vineyard sachem who had attacked Dermer, made overtures of friendship. Even Corbitant let it be known that he now wanted to make peace. By this time, Massasoit was back in Sowams, and with the Pilgrims having proven themselves to be loyal and resolute supporters, “a much firmer peace” existed throughout the region.
On September 13, nine sachems—including Corbitant, Epenow, Massasoit’s brother Quadequina, and Canacum, the sachem who had sent John Billington to the Nausets—journeyed to Plymouth to sign a treaty professing their loyalty to King James. About this time, Bradford determined that an exploratory expedition should be sent north to the land of the Massachusetts. Squanto had warned them that the Massachusetts, who lived in the vicinity of modern Boston, “had often threatened us.” It was time to bring them into the fold as well.
They soon discovered where they should have settled. As they sailed their shallop across the island-speckled immensity of modern Boston Harbor, they were filled with envy. Instead of the shallow reaches of Plymouth Harbor, here was a place where ships of any size could venture right up to land. Instead of little Town Brook, there were three navigable rivers converging at an easily defensible neck of high ground known as Shawmet.
This was a place where an English settlement might blossom into a major port, with rivers providing access to the fur-rich interior of New England. Not surprisingly, the Indians in the region, who had been devastated by both disease and war with the rival tribes to the north, possessed many more furs than the Pilgrims had so far found among the Pokanokets.
But the thought of relocating themselves after so much loss and sacrifice was too much to bear. They decided to stay put. It would be left to others to transform this place into the “city on a hill” called Boston. The Pilgrims’ ambitions were more modest. They were quite content with a village by a brook. The important thing was their spiritual life, and for that to flourish as it once had in Leiden, they needed their minister, John Robinson, and the rest of the congregation to join them there in the New World.
We do not know the exact date of the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving, but it was probably in late September or early October, soon after their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas had been harvested. It was also a time during which Plymouth Harbor played host to a tremendous number of migrating birds, particularly ducks and geese, and Bradford ordered four men to go out “fowling.” It took only a few hours for Plymouth’s hunters to kill enough ducks and geese to feed the settlement for a week. Now that they had “gathered the fruit of our labors,” Bradford declared it time to “rejoice together…after a more special manner.”
The term Thanksgiving, first applied in the nineteenth century, was not used by the Pilgrims themselves. For the Pilgrims a thanksgiving was a time of spiritual devotion. Since just about everything the Pilgrims did had religious overtones, there was certainly much about the gathering in the fall of 1621 that would have made it a proper Puritan thanksgiving. But as Winslow’s description makes clear, there was also much about the gathering that was similar to a traditional English harvest festival—a secular celebration that dated back to the Middle Ages in which villagers ate, drank, and played games.
Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on. Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement with five freshly killed deer. Even if all the Pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages—stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown—simmered invitingly.
In addition to ducks and deer, there was, according to Bradford, a “good store of wild turkeys” in the fall of 1621. Turkeys were by no means a novelty to the Pilgrims. When the conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, they discovered that the Indians of Central America possessed domesticated turkeys as well as gold. The birds were imported to Spain as early as the 1520s, and by the 1540s they had reached England. By 1575, the domesticated Central American turkey had become a fixture at English Christmases. The wild turkeys of New England were bigger and much faster than the birds the Pilgrims had known in Europe and were often pursued in winter when they could be tracked in the snow.
The Pilgrims may have also added fish to their meal of birds and deer. In fall, striped bass, bluefish, and cod were abundant. Perhaps most important to the Pilgrims was that with a recently harvested barley crop, it was now possible to brew beer. Alas, the Pilgrims were without pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce. There were also no forks, which did not appear at Plymouth until the last decades of the seventeenth century. The Pilgrims ate with their fingers and their knives.
Neither Bradford nor Winslow mention it, but the First Thanksgiving coincided with what was, for the Pilgrims, a new and startling phenomenon: the turning of the green leaves of summer to the incandescent yellows, reds, and purples of a New England autumn. With the shortening of the days comes a diminshment in the amount of green chlorophyll in the tree leaves, which allows the other pigments contained within the leaves to emerge. In Britain, the cloudy fall days and warm nights cause the autumn colors to be muted and lackluster. In New England, on the other hand, the profusion of sunny fall days and cool but not freezing nights unleashes the colors latent within the tree leaves, with oaks turning red, brown, and russet; hickories golden brown; birches yellow; red maples scarlet; sugar maples orange; and black maples glowing yellow. It was a display that must have contributed to the enthusiasm with which the Pilgrims later wrote of the festivities that fall.
The First Thanksgiving marked the conclusion of a remarkable year. Eleven months earlier the Pilgrims had arrived at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed. They had spent the next month alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across. By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive. Like the French sailors before them, they all might have been either killed or taken captive by the Indians.
That it had worked out differently was a testament not only to the Pilgrims’ grit, resolve, and faith, but to their ability to take advantage of an extraordinary opportunity. During the winter of 1621, the survival of the English settlement had been in the balance. Massasoit’s decision to offer them assistance had saved the Pilgrims’ lives in the short term, but there had already been several instances in which the sachem’s generosity could all have gone for naught. Placing their faith in God, the Pilgrims might have insisted on a policy of arrogant isolationism. But by becoming an active part of the diplomatic process in southern New England—by sending Winslow and Hopkins to Sowams; by compensating the Nausets for the corn; and most important, by making clear their loyalty to Massasoit at the “hurly-burly” in Nemasket—they had taken charge of their own destiny in the region.
In 1620, New England was far from being a paradise of abundance and peace. Indeed the New World was, in many ways, much like the Old—a place where the fertility of the soil was a constant concern, a place where disease and war were omnipresent threats. There were profound differences between the Pilgrims and Pokanokets to be sure—especially when it came to technology, culture, and spiritual beliefs—but in these early years, when the mutual challenge of survival dominated all other concerns, the two peoples had more in common than is generally appreciated today. For the Pilgrims, some of whom had slept in a wigwam and all of whom had enjoyed eating and drinking with the Indians during that First Thanksgiving, these were not a despicable pack of barbarians (even if some of their habits, such as their refusal to wear clothes, struck them as “savage” ); these were human beings, much like themselves—“very trust[worth]y, quick of apprehension, ripe witted, just,” according to Edward Winslow.
For his part, Massasoit had managed one of the more wondrous comebacks of all time. Scorned and humiliated by the Narragansetts, he had found a way to give his people, who were now just a fraction of the Narragansetts in terms of population, a kind of parity with the rival tribe. Massasoit had come to the Pilgrims’ rescue when, as his son would remember fifty-four years later, the English were “as a little child.” He could only hope that the Pilgrims would continue to honor their debt to the Pokanokets long after the English settlement had grown into maturity.
Amid all the bounty and goodwill of the First Thanksgiving, there was yet another person to consider. The Pilgrims had begun their voyage to the New World by refusing to trust John Smith; no Stranger, they decided, was going to tell them what to do. But instead of being led by an English soldier of fortune, they were now being controlled—whether they realized it or not—by a Native American named Squanto. For, unknown to both Bradford and Massasoit, the interpreter from Patuxet had already launched a plan to become the most powerful Indian leader in New England.