Miles Standish - John S. C. Abbott

Menaces of Famine and War

Arrival of the Fortune.—Object of the Pilgrims in their Emigration.—Character of the Newcomers.—Mr. Winslow's Letter.—The First Thanksgiving.—Advice to Emigrants.—Christmas Anecdote.—Alarming Rumor.—The Narragansets.—Curious Declaration of War.—The Defiance.—Fortifying the Village.—The Meeting in Council and the Result—The Alarm—The Shallop Recalled.

Early in July of this year, 1621, the Fortune, a small vessel of but fifty-five tons, which they called a ship, sailed from London for the colony. There were thirty-five passengers on board, many of whom appear to have been mere adventurers, emigrating to the New World through restlessness, curiosity, or love of gain. The men of this party outnumbered the devout Pilgrims who were still living at Plymouth. Thus an influence was introduced to the colony quite adverse to the religious element which had hitherto pervaded it. In Mr. Robert Cushman's Relation of the Reasons for Emigrating from England to America, he writes:

"And first, seeing we daily pray for the conversion of the heathen, we must consider whether there be not some ordinary means and course for us to take to convert them; or whether prayer for them be only referred to God's extraordinary work from Heaven. Now it seemeth unto me that we ought also to endeavor and use the means to convert them. And the means cannot be used unless we go to them or they come to us. To us they cannot come. Our land is full. To them we may go. Their land is empty. This then is sufficient reason to prove our going thither to live, lawful."

The reckless men on board the Fortune, supposing that they should find an ample supply of everything in the New World, took with them scarcely provisions enough to last during the voyage. Contrary winds so retarded their progress that they did not clear the English channel until the end of August. It was not until the 9th of November that, in almost a famishing condition, they cast anchor in the harbor at the extremity of Cape Cod. Mr. Cushman, who had been left behind by the abandonment of the Speedwell, was with this party. The Fortune  entered Plymouth harbor on the 23rd of November. The Pilgrims were, of course, very happy to welcome such a re-enforcement from home. They were not then aware of the uncongenial elements of which it was composed. Mr. Bradford, in his account of this event, writes:

"Most of them were lusty young men, and many of them wild enough, who little considered whither or about what they went, till they came into the harbor at Cape Cod, and there saw nothing but a naked and barren place.

"They then began to think what would become of them if the people here were dead, or cut off by the Indians. They then began to consult upon some speeches that some of the seamen had cast out, to take the sails from the yards lest the ship should get away and leave them there. But the master, hearing of it, gave them good words, and told them that if anything but well should have befallen the people here, he hoped he had victuals enough to carry them to Virginia; and that while he had a bit they should have their parts; which gave them good satisfaction."

These men were landed at Plymouth in a state of great destitution. Of the thirty-five thus added to the colony twenty-seven were men. The remainder were women and children. Some of these men constituted a valuable addition to the colony; but others of them were utterly worthless. They brought with them no food, no furniture, no domestic utensils, no extra clothing; and, worst of all, no habits of industry or established principles of industry.

The Fortune  remained at Plymouth but about a fortnight, and on the 13th of December commenced her return voyage. She took back, as freight, various kinds of timber, sassafras, and beaver skins. The estimated value of her cargo was about two thousand five hundred dollars. We may mention, in passing, that England was then at war with France. The Fortune, when near the coast of England, was captured by a French cruiser, relieved of her cargo, and sent home.

It will be remembered that there were but seven families composing the colony at the time of the arrival of the Fortune. The Governor disposed of these destitute and half famished new-comers, in these families, as best he could. The Pilgrims had, before this arrival, an ample supply of food for the winter. But upon this unexpected doubling of their number of hungry mouths, it was found, upon careful examination, that their food was quite inadequate to meet their wants until another harvest. The fishing season was over; the summer game was gone; the harvest was all gathered in. There could be no more addition to their supply of provisions for many months. There could be nothing obtained from the Indians. The thoughtless creatures would themselves be hungry before another summer should come. Under these circumstances the Pilgrims, quite to their dismay, found it necessary to put the colony upon half allowance of food.

Before the arrival of the Fortune  they were rejoicing in abundance. Now they found themselves upon the verge of famine. Mr. Edward Winslow wrote a letter to Mr. George Morton; probably the G. Mourt," author of the celebrated Relation." This letter was sent to England by the Fortune, on her return voyage, and was dated the 21st of December, 1621. It was consequently written just a year after the arrival of the Pilgrims. It gives a very glowing account of the prosperity of the colony, for it was written before the facts were ascertained consequent upon the irruption of the destitute adventurers in the Fortune. Its statements can, of course, be relied upon, as coming from one of the most illustrious of the Pilgrims, and one who had taken a conspicuous part in the scenes which he describes. It was as follows:


"Although I received no letter from you by this ship, (the Fortune) yet forasmuch as I know you expect the performance of my promise, which was to write you truthfully and faithfully of all things, I have therefore, at this time, sent unto you accordingly, referring you for further satisfaction, to our large 'Relations.'

"You shall understand that, in the little time that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others.

"We set, the last spring, some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and pease. And, according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings, or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well; and, God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good; but our pease were not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor (Bradford) sent four men on fowling, that so we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and, among the rest, their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation, and bestowed on our Governor and the Captain, (Standish,) and others."

In reference to this festival, we read, in the Life of Elder Brewster:  "The provisions for the little colony being secured for the ensuing winter, their Governor set apart a day for public thanksgiving. Accordingly, with the fruits of their labors, the thankful feast was prepared, that all might, in a special manner, rejoice together, under a grateful sense of these tokens of divine mercy. It was their first thanksgiving or harvest festival in the New World. And we may well conjecture what were the feelings and what the theme of the Elder (Brewster), as, assembled in their Common House, he led the devotions of these worshippers, and spoke to them words befitting the occasion."

"We have found the Indians," continues Mr: Winslow, very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them and they come to us. Some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them; the occasions and Relations whereof you shall understand, by one general and more full declaration of such things as are worth the noting. Yea, it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us, that not only the greatest king among them, called Massasoit, but also all the princes and peoples round about us, have either made suit unto us, or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us; so that seven of them, at once, have sent their messengers to us to that end. Yea, an isle at sea, [probably Martha's Vineyard, then called Capawock] which we never saw, hath also, together with the former, yielded willingly to be under the protection, and subjects to our sovereign lord, King James; so that there is now great peace among the Indians themselves, which was not formerly, neither would have been but for us.

"We, for our parts, walk as peaceably and safely in the woods as in the highways of England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestow their venison upon us. They are a people without any religion, or knowledge of any God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe witted, just. The men and women go naked, only a skin about their middles. For the temper of the air here, it agreeth well with that of England. And if there be any difference at all, this is somewhat hotter in summer. Some think it to be colder in winter; but I cannot, out of experience, so say. The air is very clear and not foggy, as hath been reported.

"I never in my life remember a more seasonable year than we have here enjoyed. And if we have once but kine horses and sheep, I make no question but men, might live as contented here as in any part of the world. For fish and fowl we have great abundance. Fresh cod in summer is but coarse meat with us. Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer, and affordeth variety of other fish. In September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have muscles and clams at our doors. Oysters we have none near; but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will. All the spring time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good salad herbs.

"Here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also; strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, etc.; plums of three sorts, white, black and red, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, red and damask, single, but very sweet indeed.

"The country wanteth only industrious men to employ; for it would grieve your hearts if, as I, you had seen so many miles together, by goodly rivers, uninhabited, and withall to consider those parts of the world wherein you live to be even greatly burdened with abundance of people. These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us.

"Our supply of men from you came the 9th of November, 1621, putting in at Cape Cod, some eight or ten leagues from us. The Indians, who dwell thereabout, were they who were owners of the corn which we found in caves, for which we have given them full content, and are in great league with them. They sent us word there was a ship near unto them, but thought it to be a Frenchman; and, indeed, ourselves, we expected not a friend so soon.

"But when we perceived she made for our bay, the Governor commanded a great piece to be shot off, to call home such as were abroad at work. Whereupon every man, yea boy, that could handle a gun was ready, with full resolution that, if she were an enemy, we would stand in our just defense, not fearing them. But God provided better for them than we had supposed. These came all in health, not any being sick by the way, otherwise than by sea sickness, and so continue, at this time, by the blessing of God.

"When it pleaseth God we are settled and fitted for the fishing business and other trading, I doubt not but, by the blessing of God, the grain will give content to all. In the mean time, that which we have gotten we send by this ship; and though it be not much, yet it will witness for us that we have not been idle, considering the smallness of our number, all this summer.

"Now, because I expect your coming unto us, with other of our friends, whose company we much desire, I thought good to advise you of a few things needful. Be careful to have a very good bread-room to put your biscuits in. Let your cask for beer and water be iron-bound, for the first tire, if not more. Let not your meat be dry salted; none can better do it than the sailors. Let y our meal be so hard trod in your cask that you shall need an adz or hatchet to work it out with. Trust not too much on us, for corn at this time, for by reason of this last company that came, depending wholly upon us, we shall have little enough till harvest.

"Be careful to come by some of your meal to spend by the way. It will much refresh you. Build your cabins as open as you can, and bring good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket or fowling-piece. Let your piece be long in the barrel, and fear not the weight of it, for most of our shooting is from stands. Bring juice of lemon, and take it fasting; it is of good use. For hot waters, aniseed water is the best; but use it sparingly. If you bring anything for comfort in the country, butter or sallet oil, or both, is very good. Our Indian corn, even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant meat as rice; therefore spare that, unless to spend by the way. Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps. Let your shot be most for big fowls, and bring store of powder and shot."

The Pilgrims, it seems, had only oiled paper to keep out the storms of a New England winter. Eight years after this, the arts had made such progress that Mr. Higginson in the year 1629, in a letter addressed from Salem to his friends in England writes, "Be sure to furnish yourselves with glass for windows." Indeed, glass windows were not introduced into England until the year 1180. Then they were so costly that none but the most wealthy could have them. Even in the time of Henry VIII. they were considered a luxury which the common people could not think of enjoying.

One of the passengers in the Fortune, Mr. William Hilton, fit a letter addressed to his friends at home, immediately after his arrival, having written in glowing terms of the richness of the country and the prospects of the colony, adds:

"We are all freeholders. The rent day doth not trouble us; and all those good blessings we have of which and what we list in their seasons for taking. Our company are, for the most part, very religious, honest people. The word of God is sincerely taught to us every Sabbath; so that I know not anything a contented mind can here want. I desire your friendly care to send my wife and children to me, where I wish were all the friends I have in England."

Mr. Hilton's family came in the next ship. Not only had the Fortune  brought no supply to the colonists, but they were compelled to take from their own rapidly diminishing stores to supply the ship's crew with provisions for her return voyage. Another winter came. In the absence of all domestic animals such as horses, mules, cows, oxen, sheep, there was but little of the usual winter work of farmers which remained for the Pilgrims to perform. Fishing, hunting and the collection of fuel, which they drew with their own hands to their doors, occupied the most of their time.

On Christmas day rather an amusing event occurred, which has been recorded by Governor Bradford. In the papal church and with the common people in England, Christmas had become a day of revelry, carousing and drunkenness. Ostensibly set apart as a religious festival, the depravity of man had so perverted it that, of all the days in the year, Christmas was the one most utterly abandoned to wickedness. Under these circumstances the Puritans, perhaps unwisely, deemed it expedient to abolish the observance of the day altogether.

On the morning of Christmas day the. Governor, as usual on other days, went out with the Pilgrims of the Mayflower  to their usual occupation in the fields. But some of the new-comers, idle and frivolous, and accustomed to the Christmas games of England, excused themselves from going into the field, saying that their consciences would not allow them to do any work on Christmas day.

The Governor replied that if it were a matter of conscience they might certainly be excused,—that he did not wish that any persons in the colony should have violence done to their religious convictions. He therefore left these men at home, while he went, with the rest of the colonists, to their daily toil. But when they returned at noon, they found these scrupulous men, whose consciences would not allow them to perform any useful labor on Christmas day, out in the streets engaged in all manner of old country sports, They were pitching the bar, playing ball, and engaged in games of petty gambling. Governor Bradford went to them, and by virtue of his office, took away from them their implements of gaming, saying:

"It is against my conscience that you should play while others work. If your religious convictions constrain you to observe Christmas, you should keep the day religiously, at home or in the church. But there must be no gambling or revelry on that day."

This settled the question, and there were no more demands for an idle or riotous Christmas.

Soon after the departure of the Fortune, in the depth of winter, painful rumors came that the powerful Narragansets, under their redoubtable Chief, Canonicus, were assuming a threatening attitude. The English had now about fifty men capable of bearing arms, and not a large supply of ammunition. The Narragansets could bring against them five thousand warriors. They occupied the region extending from the western shores of Narraganset Bay to Pawcatuck River, and the tribe was estimated to number about thirty thousand. The Pilgrims, all counted, men, women and children, were less than one hundred in number. This was a fearful cloud of war with which they thus found themselves menaced.

While such was the position of affairs, one day a strange Indian entered the settlement. It soon appeared that he was a Narraganset. He seemed not a little embarrassed, and enquired for Squantum, the interpreter. It seemed some relief to him to learn that he was absent. He then left for him a bundle of arrows, wrapped up in the skin of a rattlesnake, and was hastily departing, when Governor Bradford, wishing to know the significance of this strange conduct, ordered Captain Standish to detain him. He was arrested and entrusted to the safe keeping of Mr. Winslow and Mr. Hopkins. Captain Standish gave orders that he should be treated with the utmost kindness, supplied with everything he needed, and while assured that he should not be harmed, Mr. Winslow and Mr. Hopkins should endeavor to obtain from him a full and minute account of the object of his strange mission.

At first he was so terrified that he could scarcely speak a word. But gradually regaining composure, he stated that the messenger who had been sent to the Pilgrims in the summer with terms of peace, had brought back such tidings of the weakness of the colony that Canonicus was encouraged to seek its destruction; that he was angry in consequence of the alliance of the colonists with his enemies, the Wampanoags; that he professed to despise the meanness of the presents sent to him by the Governor, and scorned to receive them; and that the arrows and the rattlesnake skin were to be understood as his declaration of war.

It is worthy of notice that this savage chieftain should have had such a sense of honor as to send this warning to his foes, instead of treacherously falling upon them when unprepared. And it is also remarkable that this challenge should have been so similar to that which, in ancient days, the Scythian prince sent to Darius, which consisted of five arrows.

When the Governor and Captain Standish were informed of the results of the interview, they justly regarded their captive as an innocent messenger, whom, in accordance with all the laws of war, they were to hold unharmed. They therefore, after offering him food, which he refused to eat, set him at liberty, directing him to say to Canonicus, that while they wished to live at peace with all men, and while they had done him no harm, they were indignant in view of his threatenings, had no fear of his power, and bade him defiance.

A violent storm was raging. But, notwithstanding the storm and the entreaties of the Pilgrims, that he would remain with them until it should abate, he refused to accept of their hospitality, and soon disappeared, travelling with all speed through one of the trails of the drenched and surging forest.

The Pilgrims held a council. It was deemed important that no timidity whatever should be manifested, but that they should present a bold front to their foes. In the mean time Squantum had returned to aid them with his counsel. After some deliberation, they sent a friendly Indian, as a messenger to Canonicus, returning to him his rattlesnake skin, filled with powder and bullets. This was a defiance which would be understood. The superstitious savage chief was quite alarmed by this response. Squantum, who appears to have been quite a meddling, unscrupulous man, had declared to the Indians that the English had a box in which they kept the plague, and that if the Indians offended them they would let the awful scourge loose. They still retained a very vivid recollection of the horrors of the pestilence which had swept over them.

Canonicus feared that the snake-skin contained some secret and fatal charm for his destruction. He dared not touch it. He dared not attempt to destroy it. He dared not allow it to remain in his house or country. And thus it was conveyed from place to place until finally it was returned whole to the colony at Plymouth.

Notwithstanding the brave attitude the colonists had assumed, they had great cause for uneasiness. They promptly decided that it was necessary to surround the whole of their little village with a palisade consisting of strong posts, ten or twelve feet high, planted in the ground in contact with each other. This palisade also included a portion of the top of the hill, where their ordnance was planted, and at the bottom of which their village was built. There were three gates of entrance, which were locked every night, and carefully guarded every day. Captain Standish divided his whole force into four companies of about twelve men each, and appointed a captain over each band. A general muster was appointed, which was the first general muster in New England. At this gathering, Captain Standish reviewed his troops and gave minute directions to each company where to assemble and what to do in case of alarm. The months of January and February were devoted incessantly to fortifying their little village, the work being completed early in March.

Captain Standish, in his visit to the Massachusetts, had informed the natives that he would soon visit them again, to purchase such furs as they might have collected. It was deemed important now to fulfill this promise, one principal object being to impress the Indians with the conviction that the colonists had no fear of them. It was also rumored to them that the several tribes of Massachusetts Indians, and that even their friends the Wampanoags, under Massasoit, were entering into the confederacy of the Narragansets against the white men. The friendly Indian, Hobbomak, who resided with the Pilgrims at Plymouth, seemed deeply impressed with the conviction that the Massachusetts Indians were hostile, and assured Captain Standish that should he attempt a journey to Massachusetts, he would be surely cut off by the savages. He gave many plausible reasons in support of the correctness of his views, and even declared that Squantum, in whom they reposed much confidence, was treacherously their foe, aiding the Indians; and that Squantum would endeavor to draw them as far as possible from their shallop, that the Indians might fall upon them and destroy them. He however did not believe that Massasoit meditated any treachery.

The Governor, Captain Standish, and few others of the most judicious then held a council together, and came to the following conclusion, which I give in the words of Edward Winslow, who was one of the council:

"That as hitherto, upon all occasions between the Indians and us, we had ever manifested undaunted love and resolution, so it would not now stand with our safety to mew ourselves up in our new-enclosed town; partly because our store was almost empty, and therefore we must seek out our daily food, with out which we could not long subsist; but especially that thereby they would see us dismayed and be encouraged to prosecute their malicious purposes with more eagerness than ever they had intended.

"Whereas, on the contrary, by the blessing of God, our fearless carriage might be a means to discourage and to weaken their proceedings. And therefore we thought best to proceed in our trading voyage, making this use of what we had heard, to go the better provided, and use the more carefulness both at home and abroad, leaving the event to the disposing of the Almighty; whose providence, as it had hitherto been over us for good, so we had now no cause, save our sins, to despair of his mercy in our preservation and continuance, where we desired rather to be instruments of good to the heathen about us, than to give them the least measure of just offense."

In accordance with this resolve, early in April Captain Standish took ten men, with Squantum and Hobbomak as interpreters, and set out in the shallop for what is now Boston harbor. In Plymouth bay there is a remarkable promontory, connected with Marshfield by a beach, now called Salt-house beach, about six miles long. The extremity of this promontory was call Gurnet's Nose, from its resemblance to a similar point of land on the coast of England. The peninsula contains about twenty-seven acres of good land, and, upon its southern extremity, there have since been erected two light-houses.

Just as the shallop was doubling Gurnet's Nose, an Indian, who was one of the family of Squantum, came rushing in apparent terror, his face covered with blood, to some of the Pilgrims at work in the woods, looking behind, him as if pursued, and calling upon them to hasten with all possible speed within the protection of the palisades. Breathlessly he told them that at Namasket, now Middleborough, within fifteen miles of Plymouth, a war party of Narragansets and Wampanoags, united under Massasoit, the professed friend, but treacherous foe, of the colonists, was marching to attack them. He said that he had been attacked and wounded for speaking friendly words in behalf of the colonists, and that by breaking away he had narrowly escaped death.

Upon receiving this startling intelligence, the Governor ordered the cannon upon the hill to be instantly discharged to recall the shallop. The day was calm, the boat had been retarded in its progress, and the report, booming over the still waters of the bay, reached the ears of the crew just as the shallop was disappearing around the point of Gurnet's Nose. Captain Standish immediately returned, the whole military force of the colony was at once called into requisition, and measures were adopted for a vigorous defense.

Upon the return of the shallop, Hobbomak, who was with Captain Standish, declared, with great positiveness, that the rumor was false. He said that he was sure that Massasoit would prove faithful to his pledges; that it was impossible that he could undertake such an enterprise without communicating his intentions to his sub-chiefs, of whom Hobbomak himself was one of the principal. This tended rather to increase the suspicions of the colonists that Squantum might be playing a double part.

To ascertain the facts, the wife of Hobbomak; who seems to have been a very intelligent and reliable woman, was sent as a secret agent or spy to Pokanoket, the seat of Massasoit, to inform herself respecting the true posture of affairs, and to bring back a report. Her difficult and important mission she performed very creditably. Finding there everything quiet, and no indication whatever of any hostile movement, she frankly informed Massasoit of the rumors which had reached the ears of the Pilgrims. He was very indignant in being thus traduced, threw much blame upon Squantum, and expressed his gratitude that the Governor had not distrusted him. He requested the squaw to assure the Governor that he would prove faithful to his treaty obligations, and that should he see any indications of hostility in any quarter he would immediately give the Governor warning.