The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins. — H. L. Mencken

Miles Standish - John S. C. Abbott




The Landing

The Voyage Resumed. Enter an Unknown Harbor.—Aspect of the Land.—Choose it for their Settlements The Mayflower  Enters the Harbor.—Sabbath on Shipboard.—Exploring the Region.—The Storm and Exposure.—The Landing. View from the Hill.—Arduous Labors.—The Alarm.—Arrangement of the Village.—The Evident Hostility of the Indians.—Gloomy Prospects.—Expedition of Captain Standish.—Billington's Sea.—Lost in the Woods.—Adventures of the Lost Men.—The Alarm of Fire.

The Pilgrims, having passed the Sabbath in rest and devotion upon the island, early the next morning repaired their shattered boat and spreading their sails again to the wintry winds continued their tour. Soon a large bay opened before them, partially protected by a long sand bar from the gales and the billows of the ocean. It was but a poor harbor at the best. The low and dreary sand bar broke the fury of the waves, but afforded no protection against the fierce gales which swept the seas.

Cautiously our adventurers sailed around the point of sand, every few moments dropping the lead that they might find a channel of sufficient depth of water to allow their vessel to enter the bay. Having found this passage, they steered for the shore and landed. They found here one or two streams of pure water, several corn fields which had evidently, in former times been cultivated by the Indians, in their rude style of agriculture, but which, for some reason they had abandoned. Eagerly they looked for some navigable river, but could find none. The soil, though not so rich as they could wish, seemed promising. The landscape was pleasingly diversified with hills and valleys, while the forest, in its mysterious gloom, spread far away to unknown regions in the west.

The location was by no means such as they had hoped to find. But it was far superior to any other which had as yet presented itself. As winter was approaching and time pressed they decided to look no further. A party of them, well armed, marched along the shore for a distance of eight miles, in search of a suitable spot for their village. They selected a spot, but saw no natives, no wigwams, and no signs that the region had recently been inhabited.

Having, in their own minds, settled the important question they spread their sails and, instead of returning by the long circuit of the shore, which they had traversed, pushed boldly across the bay, and in a few hours reached the ship with their report. Without loss of time the Mayflower  weighed anchor on the 15th of December, and crossing the bay anchored on the 16th in the shallow water of the harbor about a mile and a half from the shore. The next day was the Sabbath. Strong as was the temptation to land, they all remained on board the vessel, and their hymns of thankfulness blended with the moan of the wintry gale as it swept through the icy shrouds.

Early Monday morning Miles Standish set out with a small but well armed party to explore that part of the country which immediately surrounded the harbor, to decide upon the spot where they should rear their little village of log huts. They traversed the coast for a distance of several miles. Several brooks of crystal water were found, but to their disappointment no navigable river rolling down its flood from the unknown interior. They scarcely knew whether to be glad or sorry that they found no Indians and no indications that the Indians then occupied the region. Several quite extended fields were found, where the heavily timbered forest had disappeared and where it was evident that the Indians, in former years, had raised their harvests of corn. At night the party returned to the ship not having fixed upon any spot for their settlement.

The next day, the 19th, another exploring party set out moving in an opposite direction. They divided into two companies, one to sail along the coast in the shallop, hoping to find the mouth of some large river. The other party landed and marched along the shore, examining the lay of the land, the streams, the soil, and the timber of the forests. At night they returned to the ship, still somewhat undecided. They had however found one spot where there was a small stream of very clear, sweet water, which seemed to be well stocked with fish, and a high hill, a little back from the shore, which could be easily fortified, and which commanded a very extensive view of the surrounding country and the ocean. It had clay, sand and shells," writes Bradford, "for bricks, mortar and pottery, and stone for wells and chimneys. The sea and beach promised abundance of fish and fowl, and four or five small running brooks brought a supply of very sweet, fresh water."

The next morning, after earnest and united prayer for divine guidance, a still larger party of twenty was sent on shore, more carefully to examine the spot which had been suggested for their village. Though it was not all they could desire, it still presented many attractions. It was a cold December day. They climbed the hill, and gazed with pleasure upon a prospect which was sublime and beautiful even on that bleak and windy day, when the boughs of the trees were naked and when the withered leaves were borne like snow flakes on the wintry air. They tried to imagine its loveliness in the luxuriance and bloom of a June morning.

While they stood upon the hill, the clouds, which all the morning had been darkening the sky, began to increase in density and gather in blackness. The wind rose to a gale, and the windows of heaven seemed to be opened, as the rain fell upon them in torrents. All unsheltered they found themselves exposed to the fury of a New England northeast storm. Huge billows from the ocean swept the poorly protected harbor and broke in such surges upon the beach that it was impossible for them to return to the ship. They were totally unprepared for aft emergency so unexpected. Night came, a long, dark, cold, stormy night. They sought shelter in the forest, constructed a rude camp which but poorly sheltered them from wind and rain, and building a large fire, found such comfort as they could in the imperfect warmth which it afforded. All the night of Wednesday and all day Thursday the northeast storm raged with fury unabated. Towards the evening of Thursday the 21st there was a lull in the tempest, so that the weary adventurers succeeded in working their way back to the ship.

The next day was the ever-memorable Friday, December 22nd. A wintry storm, with its angry billows, still swept the bay. The day opened upon the Pilgrims cold, cloudy and dreary. The long and anxiously looked for hour had now come, when the Mayflower, the only material tie which bound them to the Old World, was to be abandoned, and these bold men were to be left three thousand miles from their native shores, to struggle with all the known and unknown perils and hardships of the wilderness. Familiar as are the graphic words of Mrs. Hemans, the first verse of her memorable hymn so truthfully describes the scene which that morning was presented to the Pilgrims, as to be worthy of transcript here:

"The breaking waves dashed high

On a stern and rock-bound coast,

And the woods against a stormy sky,

Their giant branches toss'd."

At an early hour all the passengers of the Mayflower  were assembled upon the deck of their little ship, bowed down by emotions not easily described. Men, women and children, all were there, oppressed by thoughts too deep for utterance. Elder Brewster conducted their morning devotions as the wintry gale breathed forth its requiem through the icy shrouds. Sublime as was the hour, not one of those men of martyr spirit could have had any true conception of its grandeur. They could not have been conscious that then and there they were laying the foundations of one of the mightiest empires upon which the sun has ever shone.

Their devotions being ended, boat load after boat load left the ship which, in consequence of the shallowness of the water, was anchored at the distance of a mile and a half from the shore. There was a large and jagged rock projecting into the sea, upon which a landing was with difficulty effected. Those who first were placed upon shore marked out a street; from their point of landing directly westward to the hill, upon each side of which street their log, huts were to be reared.

One of the first things, however, to be done, was to erect a log store-house, about twenty feet square, where they could deposit their effects, which were immediately to be landed from the ship, and where the women and the children could find a temporary shelter from wind and rain.

In the old style of computing time, the day of their landing was the 11th of December. For many years the 22nd day of September, new style, has been observed as Forefather's Day." It is said, however, that December 11th, O. S., corresponds with December 21st, N. S. But when the anniversary was instituted at Plymouth, in 1769, eleven days were added for difference of style, instead of ten, the true difference.

The common house, to which we have alluded, it is supposed was erected on the south side of what is now called Leyden street, near the declivity of the hill. All hands working energetically, this building was speedily put up, with a thatched roof. Though the situation for their colony was not every thing they could desire, yet, as they prosecuted their labors, they became better and better satisfied with the choice which they had made. One of their number wrote;

"There are here cleared lands, delicate springs, and a sweet brook running under the hill side, with fish in their season, where we may harbor our shallops and boats. On the further side is much corn ground. There is a high hill on which to plant our ordnance. Thence we may see into the bay, and far out at sea, and have a glimpse of the distant cape. Our greatest labor will be the bringing of wood. What people inhabit here we know not, as we have yet seen none."

All the day of Saturday every able-bodied man of the Pilgrims was on the shore laboring with all possible diligence, felling trees, hewing them, and dragging them with their own hands to the building lots, for they had no horses or oxen. The women also were diligently at work cooking at camp fires and helping to stow away their goods as they were brought on shore.

The whole company was divided into nineteen families, each family to build its own log hut. For protection against the Indians it was needful that these huts should be clustered near together. The captain of the Mayflower  brought all the energies of his crew into requisition in transporting the luggage to the shore, for his provisions were last disappearing, and he was exceedingly anxious to set out on his return. The distance of the ship from the land caused much time to be lost in going and coming. For several days a portion of the Pilgrim band remained to lodge in the ship, while others were on the shore. The labors of all were rendered painful and much impeded by cold and stormy weather. Often the bay, swept by the wintry gale, was so rough that no boat could leave the ship, and there could be no communication between the two parties.

Sunday was again with them all a day of rest and devotion, though they were divided, some being still on board the ship, while others were in their frail shelters on the land. Those on shore assembled, for their devotions, in their partially finished store-house. Their harps must have been hung upon the willows, and pensive must have been the strains which were breathed from their lips as they endeavored to sing the Lord's songs in a strange land. As with firm but saddened voices they sang, they were startled by the war-whoop of the Indians in the forest. They knew those fearful cries too well which many of them had heard at the First Encounter.

Their efficient military commander, Miles Standish, had everything arranged for such an emergency. Instantly every man seized his musket and was at his post. Behind their barricade of logs, they could, with their deadly fire arms, repel almost any number of savages approaching over the open fields with only bows and arrows. The Indians, who had been already taught to dread these weapons, after carefully reconnoitering: the position of the Pilgrims, vented their rage in a few impotent yells, and, without any exposure of their persons to the bullet, retreated into the wilderness.

The next day was Christmas. With renewed diligence the Pilgrims plied their labors. "We went on shore," writes Mourt, "some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry. So no man rested all that day."

As we have mentioned, there were nineteen families, but they differed considerably in size. The single men joined themselves to some of these families. The lots of land assigned to these families differed in size, according to the number of the household. To each individual person there was allotted about eight feet in breadth by fifty in length. This would make but about four hundred square feet for each one. Thus, a family, of six persons would have a lot but forty-eight feet wide by fifty deep. This seems an incredibly small amount of land for each homestead, when the Pilgrims had the whole continent of North America before them. The explanation is probably to be found in the fact that it was necessary for them to place their houses as near together as possible; that, with neither horses, oxen, or any other beasts of burden, it was but a small portion of land which any one man could cultivate; and, again, if any one wished for more land, there were fields all around him, entirely free, and no one would dispute his title deed. The homestead lots were so arranged as to make the little cluster of huts a fortress, protected by their cannon, where their whole force could be instantly rallied for the public defense. Towards night of Christmas day, the yells of evidently unfriendly savages were heard in the depths of the forest. This caused every man to seize his musket and place himself in the attitude of defense. The wary savages, however, while uttering these impotent menaces, still kept themselves carefully concealed.

Tuesday, the 26th of December, ushered in such a storm of rain that those on shore could do no work, and the gale so roughened the bay that those on board the ship could not venture an attempt to land. The next day the storm abated, and every available man was at work. As it seemed very evident that the savages were hostile, and it was apprehended that they might be gathering for a general assault, it was deemed necessary, notwithstanding the pressing need of dwellings, that all should go to work upon the hill, in the construction of a rude fort and platform for their ordnance. The vestiges of this fortification are still visible on the Burial Hill, where the guns could sweep with grape shot the approaches to their village. It was hoped that the thunders of these formidable weapons of war, followed by the carnage they could inflict, should the savages approach in great numbers, would overwhelm them with terror.

The weather, during the remainder of the week, continued very unfavorable, it being cold, wet and stormy. Still the works on the land slowly advanced. The savages, without showing themselves, continued to hover around, and the smokes of great fires were seen, apparently at the distance of about six or seven miles, indicating that the Indians, in large numbers, were gathering around them.

The last day of the year 1620 came, somber and sad. It was the Sabbath. Many were sick. All were dejected. Wintry dreariness frowned over earth and sea. Howling savages filled the forest. The provisions of the Pilgrims were very scanty. The Mayflower  was soon to leave them, to contend, a feeble band, against apparently hostile elements, and against the far more formidable hostility of savage men. To meet these perils the Pilgrims could number but forty-one men. Sickness had already commenced its ravages, and of these men, within three months, twenty-one died. The chances that such a colony could long be preserved from extinction, must have seemed almost infinitely small. As usual, the Pilgrims rested from labor, and devoted the day, some on shore, some in the ship, to prayer and praise. On this day the Pilgrims solemnly named their little village Plymouth, in grateful remembrance of the kindness which they had received from the people of Plymouth, in England.

Monday morning, the first day of the new year, dawned propitiously upon these bold-hearted exiles. A cloudless sky and genial atmosphere invited them to labor. It was still necessary to be ever prepared for an attack from their unseen foes. With no little solicitude, while urging forward their work, they watched the moving columns of smoke, which day by day rose from the distant wilderness, and the gleam of the fires, which by night illumined the horizon, indicating the movement and position of the Indians. During Tuesday and Wednesday these fires seemed to increase in numbers. They were thus led to infer that the savages were collecting in large numbers from distant parts, and were making careful preparation for a general and simultaneous assault upon the feeble colony.

On Thursday morning, the 4th of January, Captain Miles Standish, who might be truly called the "bravest of the brave," took with him four men, well armed, and boldly plunged into the forest, intending to find the Indians at their rendezvous, and if possible, to open friendly relations with them. Adopting every precaution to avoid falling into an ambuscade, he rapidly pushed forward several miles into the pathless wilderness, threading gloomy ravines, crossing rivulets, and traversing sublime forests. The wary Indians had undoubtedly their scouts stationed to give warning of any approach of the white men; for Captain Standish could not catch sight of a single one of the savages, though he found several of their deserted wigwams, and even the still glowing embers of their campfires. The adventurers were also disappointed in finding that the woods seemed destitute of game. Upon their return, at the close of the afternoon, they shot one solitary eagle, whose flesh the Pilgrims, in their half famished state, pronounced to be excellent meat, hardly to be discerned from mutton."

Friday and Saturday passed away without any event of importance occurring, while all hands were diligently at work. Another Sabbath of rest, the 7th of January, dawned upon these toil-worn men and women. The sun, of Monday, the 8th, rose in a cloudless sky. All bent themselves eagerly to work. By some unaccountable oversight no small fishhooks had been brought with them. Thus, though the harbor and the brook apparently abounded with fishes, they could not be taken. The shallop, however, was sent out to explore the coast, ascertain where fishes could be found, and supplied with apparatus for taking seals, which were seen in large numbers. In the evening the boat returned, a gale having in the mean time arisen which greatly endangered its safety. The crew had taken three large seals, and in some way, perhaps by spearing, had got an excellent codfish.

One of their number, Francis Billington, had, a few days before, climbed a tree upon the top of a hill, whence he saw, about two miles southwest from the town, a large body of water, which was either a lake or an arm of the sea, he could not tell which. He started to-day, with a companion, to visit it, and found two large lakes of crystal water, nearly connected together. One was about six miles in circuit, embellished with a small, luxuriantly wooded island. The other they estimated to be about three miles in circumference. They both abounded with fish and water fowl, and apparently an unfailing stream of water, which is now called Town Brook, issued from one of the lakes and emptied into the harbor a little south of the rock upon which the Pilgrims landed. Several Indian houses, but all uninhabited, were found upon the margin of these sheets of water, which were essentially one lake.

"This beautiful pond, so accurately described, bears the appropriate name of Billington Sea. In the first century it was called Fresh Lake. It is about two miles southwest from the town, and in it are two small islands. It is now, as at first, embosomed in a wilderness of woods. The eagle still sails over it, and builds in the branches of the surrounding forest. Here the loon cries, and leaves her eggs on the shore of the smaller island. Here too, the beautiful wood-duck finds a sequestered retreat; and the fallow deer, mindful of their ancient haunts, still resort to it to drink and to browse on its margin."

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday all hands were busy in their outdoor work. The store-house, or, as they called it, the Common House, was nearly finished and thatched. The cold, damp weather hindered them very much, so that they could seldom work more than half of the time. Friday morning dawned pleasantly, but about noon the clouds gathered, and the chill rain began to fall, and an increasing gale moaned through the tree tops. Four men had gone out into the woods in the morning to gather tall dry grass for thatching. In the afternoon two of them returned, and said that in some way they had lost sight of their companions. They had searched for them in vain; and though they had hallooed and shouted as loud as they could, they could hear nothing from them. Intense solicitude was felt for them, and a party of four or five men were immediately dispatched to search in the direction in which they were last seen. After an absence of a few hours they returned, at the close of the day, not having been able to discover any traces of the lost, though they found many indications that the Indians were lurking around. The long, stormy wintry night passed slowly away, and still there were no tidings of the wanderers. In the morning twelve men, well armed, probably under the leadership of Captain Miles Standish, set out for a more extended exploration. It was well known that Captain Standish would fail in nothing which mortal energy or courage could accomplish. The prayers of the sorrowing band accompanied them as they plunged into the forest. After a long and careful search, in which they could find no trace whatever of the lost men, they returned at night in deep dejection to their companions. All the Pilgrims gathered around them, men, women and children, to hear the account of their unsuccessful search.

While thus assembled they were startled by a shout in the distance, and looking up, to their inexpressible joy, saw the two men emerging from the forest. They ran to meet the wanderers, John Goodman and Peter Brown, whose apparition was as life from the dead. Their tattered garments and emaciate cheeks testified to the hardships which they had endured. The following was the account which they gave of their adventure:

As they were gathering some long grass, for thatching, about a mile from the village, probably on the banks of Town Brook, they saw a pond in the distance, perhaps Murdock's Pond, and repaired to it. Upon the margin of the pond they found a deer drinking. Two dogs they had with them sprang after the deer, and pursued it eagerly into the forest. The men followed, hoping that the dogs would seize the deer, and that thus they might be able to capture so rich a prize. As, led by the baying of the hounds, they followed the deer in its windings and turnings, they became bewildered and lost in the pathless wilds which they had penetrated. All the afternoon they wandered in vain seeking some clew to lead them back to their home.

Night, dismal night, lowered over them with clouds, a rising gale, and snow mingled with rain. They had no axes with which to construct a shelter. They could find no cave or hollow tree in which to take refuge. Weary, footsore and starving, and with no weapon but a small sickle with which they had been cutting thatch, they heard the howling of wolves around them, and other strange cries from wild beasts, of they knew not what ferocity. Their only protection seemed to be to climb into a tree. They tried it. The keen wintry blast so pierced their thin clothing that they could not endure the cold. Death by freezing would be inevitable.

The blackness of Egyptian darkness was now around them. They also heard a fearful roaring of wild beasts, which was undoubtedly the howling of wolves, but which they supposed to be the roar of lions. They stood at the root of the trees all the night long, exercising as they could to keep themselves warm, ever ready to spring into the branches should danger approach. They were compelled to hold one of their dogs by the neck, he was so eager to rush in pursuit of the beasts whose cries excited him.

The long winter night at length gave way to the gloom of a stormy morning. Half frozen and starving, and expecting to perish in the wilderness, these lost men resumed their search for home. They waded through swamps, forded streams, encountered ponds, struggled through thickets which tore clothing and skin. At last they came to a hill. Climbing one of the tallest trees, they saw the ocean in the distance, and, to their inexpressible joy, recognized the harbor of Plymouth, by two little islands which dotted its surface. The sight reanimated their drooping minds and bodies. All day long, in the extreme of exhaustion, they tottered on their way, until just before nightfall they reached their home. The feet of one of these men, John Goodman, were so swollen that they were compelled to cut off his shoes.

The work of building had advanced slowly. The days were short, cold and stormy. Nearly all were enfeebled by toil and exposure, while some were seriously sick. Both Governor Carver and Mr. Bradford, his successor in office, were prostrate with fevers. They were on beds in the Common House, where cots had been arranged on the floor for the sick, as near one to another as they could be placed. Though many of the Pilgrims were still in the Mayflower, the majority lodged on shore.

The Common House was so far finished, nearly all of its roof being thatched, that it afforded protection from the snow and rain, while its thick walls of logs shut off the piercing wind, and a cheerful fire blazed upon the stone hearth.

On Sunday morning, January 14th, about six o'clock, the wind blowing almost a gale, they were appalled by the cry of "fire." The thatch of grass, dry as tinder, touched by a spark, was in a blaze. All the ammunition and most of the arms had been brought on shore and deposited in the store-house. Its loss would expose them, defenseless, to the tomahawk of the Indian. Nearly all of their scanty supply of food was there. Without it starvation was inevitable. The people in the ship saw the smoke and the flame, but the tide was out, and they could not reach the shore. Soon, however, the tide came in, the gale abated, and a boat load cautiously advanced to the land, where they had all proposed to pass the Sabbath together, the majority of the company being then on shore. Upon landing they were cheered with the tidings that the lost men were found, and that the fire, which had been extinguished, was accidental.