According to family lore, my great-grandmother’s great-grandmother’s great-grandfather was the first white person hanged in North America. His name was John Billington. He emigrated aboard the Mayflower, which anchored off the coast of Massachusetts on November 9, 1620. Billington was not among the company of saints, to put it mildly; within six months of arrival he became the first white person in America to be tried for sassing the police. His two sons were no better. Even before landing, one nearly blew up the Mayflower by shooting a gun at a keg of gunpowder while inside the ship. After the Pilgrims landed the other son ran off to live with some nearby Indians, leading to great consternation and an expedition to fetch him back. Meanwhile Billington père made merry with other non-Puritan lowlifes and haphazardly plotted against authority. The family was “one of the profanest” in Plymouth colony, complained William Bradford, its long-serving governor. Billington, in his opinion, was “a knave, and so shall live and die.” What one historian called Billington’s “troublesome career” ended in 1630 when he was hanged for shooting somebody in a quarrel. My family has always claimed that he was framed—but we would say that, wouldn’t we?

Growing up, I was always tickled by this raffish personal connection to history: part of the Puritans, but not actually puritanical. As an adult, I decided to learn more about Billington. A few hours at the library sufficed to convince me that some aspects of our agreeable family legend were untrue. Although Billington was in fact hanged, at least two other Europeans were executed in North America before him. And one of them was convicted for the much more interesting offense of killing his pregnant wife and eating her. My ancestor was probably only No. 3, and there is a whisper of scholarly doubt about whether he deserves to be even that high on the list.

I had learned about Plymouth in school. But it was not until I was poking through the scattered references to Billington that it occurred to me that my ancestor, like everyone else in the colony, had voluntarily enlisted in a venture that had him arriving in New England without food or shelter six weeks before winter. Not only that, he joined a group that, so far as is known, set off with little idea of where it was heading. In Europe, the Pilgrims had refused to hire the experienced John Smith as a guide, on the theory that they could use the maps in his book. In consequence, as Smith later crowed, the hapless Mayflower spent several frigid weeks scouting around Cape Cod for a good place to land, during which time many colonists became sick and died. Landfall at Patuxet did not end their problems. The colonists had intended to produce their own food, but inexplicably neglected to bring any cows, sheep, mules, or horses. To be sure, the Pilgrims had intended to make most of their livelihood not by farming but by catching fish for export to Britain. But the only fishing gear the Pilgrims brought was useless in New England. Half of the 102 people on the Mayflower made it through the first winter, which to me seemed amazing. How did they survive?

In his history of Plymouth colony, Governor Bradford himself provides one answer: robbing Indian houses and graves. The Mayflower hove to first at Cape Cod. An armed company of Pilgrims staggered out. Eventually they found a deserted Indian habitation. The newcomers—hungry, cold, sick—dug open burial sites and ransacked homes, looking for underground stashes of food. After two days of nervous work the company hauled ten bushels of maize back to the Mayflower, carrying much of the booty in a big metal kettle the men had also stolen. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn,” Winslow wrote, “for else we know not how we should have done.”

The Pilgrims were typical in their lack of preparation. Expeditions from France and Spain were usually backed by the state, and generally staffed by soldiers accustomed to hard living. English voyages, by contrast, were almost always funded by venture capitalists who hoped for a quick cash-out. Like Silicon Valley in the heyday of the Internet bubble, London was the center of a speculative mania about the Americas. As with the dot-com boom, a great deal of profoundly fractured cerebration occurred. Decades after first touching the Americas, London’s venture capitalists still hadn’t figured out that New England is colder than Britain despite being farther south. Even when they focused on a warmer place like Virginia, they persistently selected as colonists people ignorant of farming; multiplying the difficulties, the would-be colonizers were arriving in the middle of a severe, multiyear drought. As a result, Jamestown and the other Virginia forays survived on Indian charity—they were “utterly dependent and therefore controllable,” in the phrase of Karen Ordahl Kuppermann, a New York University historian. The same held true for my ancestor’s crew in Plymouth.

Inexperienced in agriculture, the Pilgrims were also not woods-people; indeed, they were so incurious about their environment that Bradford felt obliged to comment in his journal when Francis Billington, my ancestor’s son, climbed to the top of a tall tree to look around. As Thoreau noted with disgust, the colonists landed at Plymouth on December 16, but it was not until January 8 that one of them went as far away as two miles—and even then the traveler was, again, Francis Billington. “A party of emigrants to California or Oregon,” Thoreau complained,

with no less work on their hands,—and more hostile Indians,—would do as much exploring in the first afternoon, and the Sieur de Champlain would have sought an interview with the savages, and examined the country as far as the Connecticut [River, eighty miles away], and made a map of it, before Billington had climbed his tree.

Huddled in their half-built village that first terrible winter, the colonists rarely saw the area’s inhabitants, except for the occasional shower of brass- or claw-tipped arrows. After February, glimpses and sightings became more frequent. Scared, the Pilgrims hauled five small cannons from theMayflower and emplaced them in a defensive fortification. But after all the anxiety, their first contact with Indians went surprisingly easily. Within days Tisquantum came to settle among them. And then they heard his stories.

No record survives of Tisquantum’s first journey across the Atlantic, but arithmetic gives some hint of the conditions in Hunt’s ship. John Smith had arrived with two ships and a crew of forty-five. If the two ships had been of equal size, Hunt would have sailed with a crew of about twenty-two. Because Hunt, Smith’s subordinate, had the smaller of the two vessels, the actual number was surely less. Adding twenty or more captured Indians thus meant that the ship was sailing with at least twice its normal complement. Tisquantum would have been tied or chained, to prevent rebellion, and jammed into whatever dark corner of the hull was available. Presumably he was fed from the ship’s cargo of dried fish. Smith took six weeks to cross the Atlantic to England. There is no reason to think Hunt went faster. The only difference was that he took his ship to Málaga, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. There he intended to sell all of his cargo, including the human beings.

The Indians’ appearance in this European city surely caused a stir. Not long before, Shakespeare had griped in The Tempest that the populace of the much bigger city of London “would not give a doit [a small coin] to a lame beggar, [but] will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” Hunt managed to sell only a few of his captives before local Roman Catholic priests seized the rest—the Spanish Church vehemently opposed brutality toward Indians. (In 1537 Pope Paul III proclaimed that “Indians themselves indeed are true men” and should not be “deprived of their liberty” and “reduced to our service like brute animals.”) The priests intended to save both Tisquantum’s body, by preventing his enslavement, and his soul, by converting him to Christianity. It is unlikely that Tisquantum was converted, though it’s possible that he allowed the friars to think he had been. In any case, this resourceful man convinced them to let him return home—or, rather, to try to return. He got to London, where he stayed with John Slany, a shipbuilder with investments in Newfoundland. Slany apparently taught Tisquantum English while maintaining him as a curiosity in his townhouse. Meanwhile, Tisquantum persuaded him to arrange for passage to North America on a fishing vessel. He ended up in a tiny British fishing camp on the southern edge of Newfoundland. It was on the same continent as Patuxet, but between them were a thousand miles of rocky coastline and the Mi’Kmac and Abenaki alliances, which were at war with one another.

Because traversing this unfriendly territory would be difficult, Tisquantum began looking for a ride to Patuxet. He extolled the bounty of New England to Thomas Dermer, one of Smith’s subordinates, who was then staying in the same camp. Dermer, excited by Tisquantum’s promise of easy wealth, contacted Ferdinando Gorges. Gorges, a longtime, slightly dotty enthusiast about the Americas, promised to send over a ship with the men, supplies, and legal papers necessary for Dermer to take a crack at establishing a colony in New England. Dermer, with Tisquantum, was supposed to meet the ship when it arrived in New England.

One Edward Rowcraft captained the ship sent by Gorges from England. According to Gorges’s principal biographer, Rowcraft “appears to have been unfit for such an enterprise.” This was an understatement. In a bizarre episode, Rowcraft sailed to the Maine coast in early 1619; promptly spotted a French fishing boat; seized it for supposedly trespassing on British property (North America); placed its crew in chains aboard his own ship; sent that ship back to Gorges with the prisoners; continued his journey on the smaller French vessel, which led to a mutiny; quelled the mutiny; stranded the mutineers on the Maine coast; discovered that a) without the mutineers he didn’t have enough people to operate the captured ship and b) it was slowly filling up with water from leaks; and decided to sail immediately for Britain’s colony in Jamestown, Virginia, which had the facilities to repair the hull—a course that entailed skipping the promised rendezvous with Dermer. At Jamestown, Rowcraft managed, through inattentiveness, to sink his ship. Not long afterward he was killed in a brawl.

Incredibly, Dermer failed to execute his part of the plan, too. In orthodox comedy-of-errors style, he did not wait for Rowcraft in Maine, as he was supposed to, but sailed back to England, Tisquantum in tow. (The two ships more or less crossed paths in the Atlantic.) Dermer and Tisquantum met personally with Gorges. *6 Evidently they made an excellent impression, for despite Dermer’s proven inability to follow instructions Gorges sent him back with Tisquantum and a fresh ship to meet Rowcraft, who was supposed to be waiting for them in New England. Dermer touched land in Maine and discovered that Rowcraft had already left. On May 19, 1619, still accompanied by Tisquantum, he set out for Massachusetts, hoping to catch up with Rowcraft (he didn’t know that Rowcraft had sunk his own ship).

What Tisquantum saw on his return home was unimaginable. From southern Maine to Narragansett Bay, the coast was empty—“utterly void,” Dermer reported. What had once been a line of busy communities was now a mass of tumbledown homes and untended fields overrun by blackberries. Scattered among the houses and fields were skeletons bleached by the sun. Slowly Dermer’s crew realized they were sailing along the border of a cemetery two hundred miles long and forty miles deep. Patuxet had been hit with special force. Not a single person remained. Tisquantum’s entire social world had vanished.

Looking for his kinsfolk, he led Dermer on a melancholy march inland. The settlements they passed lay empty to the sky but full of untended dead. Tisquantum’s party finally encountered some survivors, a handful of families in a shattered village. These people sent for Massasoit, who appeared, Dermer wrote, “with a guard of fiftie armed men”—and a captive French sailor, a survivor of the shipwreck on Cape Cod. Massasoit asked Dermer to send back the Frenchman. And then he told Tisquantum what had happened.

One of the French sailors had learned enough Massachusett to inform his captors before dying that God would destroy them for their misdeeds. The Nauset scoffed at the threat. But the Europeans carried a disease, and they bequeathed it to their jailers. Based on accounts of the symptoms, the epidemic was probably of viral hepatitis, according to a study by Arthur E. Spiess, of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Bruce D. Spiess, of the Medical College of Virginia. (In their view, the strain was, like hepatitis A, probably spread by contaminated food, rather than by sexual contact, like hepatitis B or C.) Whatever the cause, the results were ruinous. The Indians “died in heapes as they lay in their houses,” the merchant Thomas Morton observed. In their panic, the healthy fled from the sick, carrying the disease with them to neighboring communities. Behind them remained the dying, “left for crows, kites, and vermin to prey upon.” Beginning in 1616, the pestilence took at least three years to exhaust itself and killed as much as 90 percent of the people in coastal New England. “And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle,” Morton wrote, that the Massachusetts woodlands seemed to be “a new-found Golgotha,” the Place of the Skull, where executions took place in Roman Jerusalem.

The religious overtones in Morton’s metaphor are well placed. Neither the Indians nor the Pilgrims had our contemporary understanding of infectious disease. Each believed that sickness reflected the will of celestial forces. As the writer and historian Paula Gunn Allen put it,

The idea that the realm of the spirits or the supernatural was powerfully engaged in the day-to-day life of nations as well as of villagers was commonly held on both sides of the Atlantic…. Both [Indians and Europeans] predicted events by the position of certain stars on the ecliptic plane around earth as much as by visionary techniques, and both assumed the reality of malicious as well as beneficent supernaturals.

The only real question in the minds of either side was whether Indian spiritual forces could affect Europeans, and vice versa. (As an experiment, Cotton Mather, a celebrated New England minister, tried to exorcise the “daemons in a possessed young woman” with incantations in Massachusett. To his satisfaction, the results demonstrated empirically that Indian magic had no effect on Christian devils.) Until the sickness Massasoit had directly ruled a community of several thousand and held sway over a confederation of as many as twenty thousand. Now his group was reduced to sixty people and the entire confederation to fewer than a thousand. The Wampanoag, wrote Salisbury, the Smith historian, came to the obvious logical conclusion: “their deities had allied against them.”

The Pilgrims held similar views. Governor Bradford is said to have attributed the plague to “the good hand of God,” which “favored our beginnings” by “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives…that he might make room for us.” Indeed, more than fifty of the first colonial villages in New England were located on Indian communities emptied by disease. The epidemic, Gorges said, left the land “without any [people] to disturb or appease our free and peaceable possession thereof, from when we may justly conclude, that GOD made the way to effect his work.”

Much as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed tens of thousands in one of Europe’s richest cities, prompted spiritual malaise across Europe, the New England epidemic shattered the Wampanoag’s sense that they lived in balance with an intelligible world. On top of that, the massive death toll created a political crisis. Because the hostility between the Wampanoag and the neighboring Narragansett had restricted contact between them, the disease had not spread to the latter. Massasoit’s people were not only beset by loss, they were in danger of subjugation.


In this engraving taken from a John White watercolor of an East Coast village, the palisaded wall suggests that warfare was common enough to merit the considerable labor of cutting down many trees with stone tools, but the forces were not large enough to require moats, stone walls, earthen embankments, or any other big defensive fortification.

After learning about the epidemic, the distraught Tisquantum first returned with Dermer to southern Maine. Apparently concluding he was never going to meet Rowcraft, Dermer decided in 1620 to make another pass at New England. Tisquantum returned, too, but not with Dermer. Instead he walked home—the long, risky journey he had wanted to avoid. In the interim, yet another English expedition had attacked the Wampanoag, killing several without apparent provocation. Understandably enraged, Indians attacked Dermer several times on his journey south; he was eventually slain on Martha’s Vineyard by another former Indian abductee. For his part, Tisquantum was seized on his journey home, perhaps because of his association with the hated English, and sent to Massasoit as a captive.

As he had before, Tisquantum talked his way out of a jam. This time he extolled the English, filling Massasoit’s ears with tales of their cities, their great numbers, their powerful technology. Tisquantum said, according to a colonist who knew him, that if the sachem “Could make [the] English his Friends then [any] Enemies yt weare to[o] strong for him”—in other words, the Narragansett—“would be Constrained to bowe to him.” The sachem listened without trust. Within a few months, word came that a party of English had set up shop at Patuxet. The Wampanoag observed them suffer through the first punishing winter. Eventually Massasoit concluded that he possibly should ally with them—compared to the Narragansett, they were the lesser of two evils. Still, only when the need for a translator became unavoidable did he allow Tisquantum to meet the Pilgrims.

Massasoit had considerable experience with Europeans—his father had sent Martin Pring on his way seventeen years before. But that was before the epidemic, when Massasoit had the option of expelling them. Now he told the Pilgrims that he was willing to leave them in peace (a bluff, one assumes, since driving them away would have taxed his limited resources). But in return he wanted the colonists’ assistance with the Narragansett.

To the Pilgrims, the Indians’ motives for the deal were obvious. They wanted European technology on their side. In particular, they wanted guns. “He thinks we may be [of] some strength to him,” Winslow said later, “for our pieces [guns] are terrible to them.”

In fact Massasoit had a subtler plan. It is true that European technology dazzled Native Americans on first encounter. But the relative positions of the two sides were closer than commonly believed. Contemporary research suggests that indigenous peoples in New England were nottechnologically inferior to the British—or, rather, that terms like “superior” and “inferior” do not readily apply to the relationship between Indian and European technology.

Guns are an example. As Chaplin, the Harvard historian, has argued, New England Indians were indeed disconcerted by their first experiences with European guns: the explosion and smoke, the lack of a visible projectile. But the natives soon learned that most of the British were terrible shots, from lack of practice—their guns were little more than noisemakers. Even for a crack shot, a seventeenth-century gun had fewer advantages over a longbow than may be supposed. Colonists in Jamestown taunted the Powhatan in 1607 with a target they believed impervious to an arrow shot. To the colonists’ dismay, an Indian sank an arrow into it a foot deep, “which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not pierce it.” To regain the upper hand, the English set up a target made of steel. This time the archer “burst his arrow all to pieces.” The Indian was “in a great rage”; he realized, one assumes, that the foreigners had cheated. When the Powhatan later captured John Smith, Chaplin notes, Smith broke his pistol rather than reveal to his captors “the awful truth that it could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.”

At the same time, Europeans were impressed by American technology. The foreigners, coming from a land plagued by famine, were awed by maize, which yields more grain per acre than any other cereal. Indian moccasins were so much more comfortable and waterproof than stiff, moldering English boots that when colonists had to walk for long distances their Indian companions often pitied their discomfort and gave them new footwear. Indian birchbark canoes were faster and more maneuverable than any small European boat. In 1605 three laughing Indians in a canoe literally paddled circles round the lumbering dory paddled by traveler George Weymouth and seven other men. Despite official disapproval, the stunned British eagerly exchanged knives and guns for Indian canoes. Bigger European ships with sails had some advantages. Indians got hold of them through trade and shipwreck, and trained themselves to be excellent sailors. By the time of the epidemic, a rising proportion of the shipping traffic along the New England coast was of indigenous origin.

Reading Massasoit’s motives at this distance is a chancy business. But it seems likely that he did not want to ally with the foreigners primarily for their guns, as they believed. Although the sachem doubtless relished the possibility of additional firepower, he probably wanted more to confront the Narragansett with the unappetizing prospect of attacking one group of English people at the same time that their main trading partners were other English people. Faced with the possibility of disrupting their favored position as middlemen, the Narragansett might think twice before staging an incursion. Massasoit, if this interpretation is correct, was trying to incorporate the Pilgrims into the web of native politics. Not long before Massasoit had expelled foreigners who stayed too long in Wampanoag territory. But with the entire confederation now smaller than one of its former communities, the best option seemed to be allowing the Pilgrims to remain. It was a drastic, even fatal, decision.

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