British fishing vessels may have reached Newfoundland as early as the 1480s and areas to the south soon after. In 1501, just nine years after Columbus’s first voyage, the Portuguese adventurer Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine. Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings. As James Axtell has noted, Corte-Real probably was able to kidnap such a large number of people only because the Indians were already so comfortable dealing with Europeans that big groups willingly came aboard his ship. *4

The earliest written description of the People of the First Light was by Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian mariner-for-hire commissioned by the king of France in 1523 to discover whether one could reach Asia by rounding the Americas to the north. Sailing north from the Carolinas, he observed that the coastline everywhere was “densely populated,” smoky with Indian bonfires; he could sometimes smell the burning hundreds of miles away. The ship anchored in wide Narragansett Bay, near what is now Providence, Rhode Island. Verrazzano was one of the first Europeans the natives had seen, perhaps even the first, but the Narragansett were not intimidated. Almost instantly, twenty long canoes surrounded the visitors. Cocksure and graceful, the Narragansett sachem leapt aboard: a tall, longhaired man of about forty with multicolored jewelry dangling about his neck and ears, “as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe,” Verrazzano wrote.

His reaction was common. Time and time again Europeans described the People of the First Light as strikingly healthy specimens. Eating an incredibly nutritious diet, working hard but not broken by toil, the people of New England were taller and more robust than those who wanted to move in—“as proper men and women for feature and limbes as can be founde,” in the words of the rebellious Pilgrim Thomas Morton. Because famine and epidemic disease had been rare in the Dawnland, its inhabitants had none of the pox scars or rickety limbs common on the other side of the Atlantic. Native New Englanders, in William Wood’s view, were “more amiable to behold (though [dressed] only in Adam’s finery) than many a compounded fantastic [English dandy] in the newest fashion.”

The Pilgrims were less sanguine about Indians’ multicolored, multitextured mode of self-presentation. To be sure, the newcomers accepted the practicality of deerskin robes as opposed to, say, fitted British suits. And the colonists understood why natives’ skin and hair shone with bear or eagle fat (it warded off sun, wind, and insects). And they could overlook the Indians’ practice of letting prepubescent children run about without a stitch on. But the Pilgrims, who regarded personal adornment as a species of idolatry, were dismayed by what they saw as the indigenous penchant for foppery. The robes were adorned with animal-head mantles, snakeskin belts, and bird-wing headdresses. Worse, many Dawnlanders tattooed their faces, arms, and legs with elaborate geometric patterns and totemic animal symbols. They wore jewelry made of shell and swans’-down earrings and chignons spiked with eagle feathers. If that weren’t enough, both sexes painted their faces red, white, and black—ending up, Gookin sniffed, with “one part of their face of one color; and another, of another, very deformedly.”


In 1585–86 the artist John White spent fifteen months in what is now North Carolina, returning with more than seventy watercolors of American people, plants, and animals. White’s work, later distributed in a series of romanticized engravings (two of which are shown here), was not of documentary quality by today’s standards—his Indians are posed like Greek statues. But at the same time his intent was clear. To his eye, the people of the Carolinas, cultural cousins to the Wampanoag, were in superb health, especially compared to poorly nourished, smallpox-scarred Europeans. And they lived in what White viewed as well-ordered settlements, with big, flourishing fields of maize.

And the hair! As a rule, young men wore it long on one side, in an equine mane, but cropped the other side short, which prevented it from getting tangled in their bow strings. But sometimes they cut their hair into such wild patterns that attempting to imitate them, Wood sniffed, “would torture the wits of a curious barber.” Tonsures, pigtails, head completely shaved but for a single forelock, long sides drawn into a queue with a raffish short-cut roach in the middle—all of it was prideful and abhorrent to the Pilgrims. (Not everyone in England saw it that way. Inspired by asymmetrical Indian coiffures, seventeenth-century London blades wore long, loose hanks of hair known as “lovelocks.”)

As for the Indians, evidence suggests that they tended to view Europeans with disdain as soon as they got to know them. The Wendat (Huron) in Ontario, a chagrined missionary reported, thought the French possessed “little intelligence in comparison to themselves.” Europeans, Indians told other Indians, were physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly, and just plain smelly. (The British and French, many of whom had not taken a bath in their entire lives, were amazed by the Indian interest in personal cleanliness.) A Jesuit reported that the “savages” were disgusted by handkerchiefs: “They say, we place what is unclean in a fine white piece of linen, and put it away in our pockets as something very precious, while they throw it upon the ground.” The Mi’kmaq in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia scoffed at the notion of European superiority. If Christian civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants all trying to settle somewhere else?

For fifteen days Verrazzano and his crew were the Narragansett’s honored guests—though the Indians, Verrazzano admitted, kept their women out of sight after hearing the sailors’ “irksome clamor” when females came into view. Much of the time was spent in friendly barter. To the Europeans’ confusion, their steel and cloth did not interest the Narragansett, who wanted to swap only for “little bells, blue crystals, and other trinkets to put in the ear or around the neck.” On Verrazzano’s next stop, the Maine coast, the Abenaki did want steel and cloth—demanded them, in fact. But up north the friendly welcome had vanished. The Indians denied the visitors permission to land; refusing even to touch the Europeans, they passed goods back and forth on a rope over the water. As soon as the crew members sent over the last items, the locals began “showing their buttocks and laughing.” Mooned by the Indians! Verrazzano was baffled by this “barbarous” behavior, but the reason for it seems clear: unlike the Narragansett, the Abenaki had long experience with Europeans.



During the century after Verrazzano Europeans were regular visitors to the Dawnland, usually fishing, sometimes trading, occasionally kidnapping natives as souvenirs. (Verrazzano had grabbed one himself, a boy of about eight.) By 1610 Britain alone had about two hundred vessels operating off Newfoundland and New England; hundreds more came from France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. With striking uniformity, these travelers reported that New England was thickly settled and well defended. In 1605 and 1606 Samuel de Champlain, the famous explorer, visited Cape Cod, hoping to establish a French base. He abandoned the idea. Too many people already lived there. A year later Sir Ferdinando Gorges—British, despite the name—tried to found a community in Maine. It began with more people than the Pilgrims’ later venture in Plymouth and was better organized and supplied. Nonetheless, the local Indians, numerous and well armed, killed eleven colonists and drove the rest back home within months.

Many ships anchored off Patuxet. Martin Pring, a British trader, camped there with a crew of forty-four for seven weeks in the summer of 1603, gathering sassafras—the species was common in the cleared, burned-over areas at the edge of Indian settlements. To ingratiate themselves with their hosts, Pring’s crew regularly played the guitar for them (the Indians had drums, flutes, and rattles, but no string instruments). Despite the entertainment, the Patuxet eventually got tired of the foreigners camping out on their land. Giving their guests a subtle hint that they should be moving on, 140 armed locals surrounded their encampment. Next day the Patuxet burned down the woodlands where Pring and his men were working. The foreigners left within hours. Some two hundred Indians watched them from the shore, politely inviting them to come back for another short visit. Later Champlain, too, stopped at Patuxet, but left before wearing out his welcome.

Tisquantum probably saw Pring, Champlain, and other European visitors, but the first time Europeans are known to have affected his life was in the summer of 1614. A small ship hove to, sails a-flap. Out to meet the crew came the Patuxet. Almost certainly the sachem would have been of the party; he would have been accompanied by his pniese, including Tisquantum. The strangers’ leader was a sight beyond belief: a stocky man, even shorter than most foreigners, with a voluminous red beard that covered so much of his face that he looked to Indian eyes more beast than human. This was Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame. According to Smith, he had lived an adventurous and glamorous life. As a youth, he claimed, he had served as a privateer, after which he was captured and enslaved by the Turks. He escaped and awarded himself the rank of captain in the army of Smith. *5 Later he actually became captain of a ship and traveled to North America several times. On this occasion he had sailed to Maine with two ships, intending to hunt whales. The party spent two months chasing the beasts but failed to catch a single one. Plan B, Smith wrote later, was “Fish and Furs.” He assigned most of the crew to catch and dry fish in one ship while he puttered up and down the coast with the other, bartering for furs. In the middle of this perambulating he showed up in Patuxet.

Despite Smith’s peculiar appearance, Tisquantum and his fellows treated him well. They apparently gave him a tour, during which he admired the gardens, orchards, and maize fields, and the “great troupes of well-proportioned people” tending them. At some point a quarrel occurred and bows were drawn, Smith said, “fortie or fiftie” Patuxet surrounding him. His account is vague, but one imagines that the Indians were hinting at a limit to his stay. In any case, the visit ended cordially enough, and Smith returned to Maine and then England. He had a map drawn of what he had seen, persuaded Prince Charles to look at it, and curried favor with him by asking him to award British names to all the Indian settlements. Then he put the maps in the books he wrote to extol his adventures. In this way Patuxet acquired its English name, Plymouth, after the city in England (it was then spelled “Plimoth”).

Smith left his lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, behind in Maine to finish loading the other ship with dried fish. Without consulting Smith, Hunt decided to visit Patuxet. Taking advantage of the Indians’ recent good experience with English visitors, he invited people to come aboard. The thought of a summer day on the foreigners’ vessel must have been tempting. Several dozen villagers, Tisquantum among them, canoed to the ship. Without warning or pretext the sailors tried to shove them into the hold. The Indians fought back. Hunt’s men swept the deck with small-arms fire, creating “a great slaughter.” At gunpoint, Hunt forced the survivors belowdecks. With Tisquantum and at least nineteen others, he sailed to Europe, stopping only once, at Cape Cod, where he kidnapped seven Nauset.

In Hunt’s wake the Patuxet community raged, as did the rest of the Wampanoag confederacy and the Nauset. The sachems vowed not to let foreigners rest on their shores again. Because of the “worthlesse” Hunt, lamented Gorges, the would-be colonizer of Maine, “a warre [was] now new begunne between the inhabitants of those parts, and us.” Despite European guns, the Indians’ greater numbers, entrenched positions, knowledge of the terrain, and superb archery made them formidable adversaries. About two years after Hunt’s offenses, a French ship wrecked at the tip of Cape Cod. Its crew built a rude shelter with a defensive wall made from poles. The Nauset, hidden outside, picked off the sailors one by one until only five were left. They captured the five and sent them to groups victimized by European kidnappers. Another French vessel anchored in Boston Harbor at about the same time. The Massachusett killed everyone aboard and set the ship afire.

Tisquantum was away five years. When he returned, everything had changed—calamitously. Patuxet had vanished. The Pilgrims had literally built their village on top of it.

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