Miles Standish - John S. C. Abbott

The Sickness of Massasoit
and the End of the Weymouth Colony

Search for Corn.—Trip to Buzzard's Bay.—Interesting Incident.—Energy and Sagacity of Captain Standish.—Hostile Indications.—Insolence of Wituwamat.—The Plot Defeated.—Sickness of Massasoit: The Visit.—Gratitude of the Chief.—Visit to Corbitant.—Condition of the Weymouth Colony.—The Widespread Coalition.—Military Expedition of Captain Standish.—His Heroic Adventures.—End of the Weymouth Colony.

The Governor soon took one or two men and went to Middleborough, the Namasket of the Indians, to purchase corn. It all had to be brought home in sacks upon the back. The Indian women aided in transporting it. The Pilgrims were astonished to see what burdens they would bear. It is almost incredible," writes Roger Williams, what burdens the poor women carry of corn, of fish, of beans, of mats, and a child besides." An Indian woman, of small stature, would take a hundred weight of corn upon her shoulders and trudge through the wilderness for miles without resting. But a small supply of corn could be obtained at Namasket.

The Governor then took an inland trip of sixty miles to an Indian settlement called Manomet, at the head of Buzzard's Bay. The distance across the cape here to Massachusetts Bay is but six miles. They could, after that short land carriage, by an easy voyage in the boats, transport their corn to Plymouth. Here the Governor purchased quite a supply, which he left in the custody of the sachem, Canacum, until the boats could be sent to fetch it. While here, an incident occurred which is worthy of record, as illustrative of Indian customs:

It was the month of February. The night was bitterly cold, a fierce storm raging. The Governor was in the snug wigwam of the sachem, sitting by the bright fire blazing in the centre of the hut. Two stranger Indians entered. Without speaking a word they laid aside their bows and arrows, sat down upon the mats by the fire, took out their pipes and began to smoke. Having finished their pipes, one of them made a short address of greeting to the chief, and presented him with a basket containing tobacco and some beads. The chief received the gift graciously. The Indian then, in quite a long speech, delivered his message, which was interpreted to the Governor by Hobbomak. It was as follows:

Two Indians of the tribe to which the messengers belonged, while gambling, quarreled, and one killed the other. The murderer was a man of special note, and one who could not be well spared. His chief was unwilling to order his execution. But the sachem of another powerful tribe had declared that unless he put the offender to death he would wage war against him with all his force. The chief therefore desired the advice of his powerful friend, Canacum, as to the course it was proper for him to pursue.

There was then, for some time, silence. At length Canacum asked the opinion of all who were present. When Hobbomak was questioned, he said: "I am a stranger; but it seems to me better that one should die than many, especially since that one deserves death, and the many are innocent." Canacum then directed the messengers to inform their sachem that in his opinion the murderer should be put to death.

The Governor returned to Plymouth, intending to send Captain Standish in the shallop, to fetch the corn which he had purchased. Just after his arrival, a messenger came from John Sanders, in Weymouth, stating that the colonists there were actually in a starving condition; that they could obtain no corn from the Indians, as the Indians would not lend it to them, and that they had no means of buying. Under these circumstances he said that he should be under the necessity of taking it from them by force. Weak as the colonists were, by the aid of powder and bullets, they could, without difficulty, rob the comparatively defenseless Indians. The Governor remonstrated in the strongest terms against this plan of robbery. He assured Sanders that such an act would inevitably combine all the tribes in a coalition against both colonies, and might lead to the utter extirpation of the English from this continent. From his own scanty store of corn he sent to Weymouth a small supply, entreating them to make shift to live, as they did at Plymouth, upon ground-nuts, clams, and muscles.

In the mean time, Captain Standish took the shallop and sailed to Sandwich harbor, to get the corn which the Governor had purchased and ordered to be stored there. It was in the severest of winter weather. Icy gales swept the ocean, and dashed the surge upon the snow-drifted beach. They succeeded in entering the harbor, but the first night they were frozen up there. The outrageous conduct of the Weymouth colonists, and the threats which they had openly, uttered of their intention to rob the Indians, had spread far and wide, producing great exasperation; and the natives who were adverse to the colonists were taking advantage of it to form a general coalition against them.

Captain Standish, upon landing, perceived at once that there was a change coming over the minds of the Indians. The friendliness they affected appeared to him constrained and insincere. He was frozen in, and large numbers of Indians began to gather around him, some manifestly unfriendly; and there were not a few indications that a conspiracy was being formed for his destruction. The weather was so cold that the Pilgrims could not sleep in the shallop, but were constrained to accept the shelter and the fires found in the Indian wigwams.

The captain was not a man to be taken by guile. Avoiding all display of his suspicions, he gave strict charge that a part of the company should always watch by night while the rest slept. Some of the Indians stole several articles from the boat. Captain Standish immediately marched his whole force of six men, and surrounded the wigwam of the sachem, where many of the most prominent of the Indians were assembled. He then sent in word to the sachem that as he would not allow himself, or any of his men, to be guilty of the slightest injustice towards the Indians, neither would he submit to any injustice from them; that he held the sachem responsible for the stolen goods, and that unless they were immediately restored he should obtain redress by force of arms.

The crafty sachem sent agents who, without difficulty, obtained the goods and secretly conveyed them to the shallop. He then told Captain Standish that probably he had overlooked them, and he thought that if he should look more carefully he would find that they were all there. The captain, understanding this, sent to the shallop, and there the stolen goods were, lying openly upon the boat's cuddy. The sachem however was much alarmed by this decision and boldness manifested by the captain. In endeavors to win back his favor he brought to him quite an additional quantity of corn to sell. The captain loaded down his shallop with the treasure; and, a southerly wind freeing the harbor of ice, he returned in safety to Plymouth.

A portion of this supply was forwarded to Weymouth. It soon, however, was consumed, and impelled by want, in March, Captain Standish again took the shallop and returned to Manomet, hoping to get an additional supply of food. He met with a chilling reception, and with increasing evidence that the Indians were plotting against the colonists. He soon found the explanation of this. Leaving three men in charge of the shallop, he took three with him, and went to the wigwam of Canacum, the sachem. While there, two Massachusett Indians came in. They were from the immediate vicinity of Weymouth, violent and hostile men, and had come to Canacum to engage him and his warriors in a coalition against the English.

"The chief of them," writes Mr. Winslow, "was called Wituwamat, a notable insulting villain, one who had formerly imbued his hands in the blood of English and French, and had often boasted of his own valor, and derided their weakness, especially because, as he said, they died crying, making sour faces, more like children than men."

This boastful fellow, in the presence of Captain Standish, presented Canacum with a dagger, which he had obtained from the Weymouth men. He then addressed him in a long speech, in a language which he knew that the Captain could not understand, but in a tone and with gestures which could not but be considered insulting. The purport of this address, as afterwards interpreted, was as follows:

"We have decided to exterminate the weak and starving colony at Weymouth. We are strong enough to do it any day. But we fear that the colony at Plymouth will avenge the death of their countrymen. It is therefore necessary to destroy both colonies. To do this we must unite our tribes against them. We now come to solicit your aid. The redoubtable Captain of the Plymouth colony is now with you, with six of his men. They can all easily be killed. This will make our work easy."

Canacum was evidently impressed by this speech. He neglected Captain Standish, and treated his Indian guest with marked distinction. A plot was formed for the assassination of the whole boat's crew. The Indians stood in deadly fear of the muskets of the English, and did not dare approach the shallop with hostile intent. The Captain did not allow any armed men to draw near them. The Indians tried to lure them all on shore, saying that it was too cold for them to sleep in the shallop. They hoped to fall upon them, in sudden massacre, while asleep in the huts. With this purpose in their hearts they feigned great friendship, made presents to Captain Standish, and with alacrity aided in carrying corn to the shallop. The Captain evaded all their wiles, and a fair wind soon bore him back again to his friends.

While he was absent, word came to Plymouth that Massasoit was very dangerously sick, and that his death was daily expected; and also that a Dutch ship had been driven ashore almost opposite his dwelling. It was a custom with the Indians that when any chief was sick, all his friends should hasten to visit him. In observance of this custom, and also to obtain some intercourse with the Dutch, and hoping also to secure the friendship of the neighboring sachems, it was decided that Mr. Winslow and Mr. Hampden, with Hobbomak as a guide, should visit the dying chief at his home in Paomet.

It was a perilous journey in the then unsettled state of affairs. It was not known who of the Indians were friendly, and who were hostile. The death of Massasoit might bring the hostile party into power, and then there would be hardly a possibility that the two envoys could escape with their lives. Hobbomak, who had embraced Christianity, and was apparently a consistent Christian, seemed to be deeply grieved in view of the death of his chief. He said to Mr. Winslow,

"I shall never see his like again. He was no liar; he was not bloody and cruel, like other Indians. In anger and passion he was soon reclaimed. He was easy to be reconciled to those who had offended him. Ruled by reason, he scorned the advice of mean men, and governed his people better with few strokes than others did with many. When he is gone the English will not have a true and faithful friend left among the Indians."

Massasoit had two sons, Wamsutta and Pometacom. According to Indian usage, upon the death of the father, the eldest son inherited the chieftainship. But it was feared that Corbitant, who had already manifested hostility, and in whose assumed reconciliation but little reliance could be placed, would by violence grasp the power, and bring the whole weight of the tribe against the colonists.

The deputation traveled the first day as far as the little Indian hamlet of Namasket, which, it will be remembered, occupied the present site of Middleborough. They passed the night in the wigwam of an Indian. The next day they continued their journey to Mattapoisit, in the present town of Swanzey. Here Corbitant resided. The rumor had already reached them that Massasoit was dead. There were indications that Corbitant had already taken steps as an usurper, and there were serious apprehensions that the two defenseless Englishmen would immediately fall victims to his hostile policy.

The two envoys, however, to avoid all appearance of suspicion, went directly to Corbitant's house. The sachem was not at home, but his wife received them kindly. They sent forward an Indian runner to Paomet, to bring them back tidings respecting the condition of Massasoit. He returned with the tidings that the chief was still living when he left, but was expected every moment to die. They hurried on, and reached Paomet late at night. In the following terms Mr. Winslow describes his visit to the dying chief:

"When we came thither we found the house so full of men as we could scarce get in, though they used their best diligence to make way for us. There were they in the midst of their charms for him, making such a hellish noise as it distempered us that were well, and therefore unlike to ease him that was sick. About him were six or eight women, who chafed his arms, legs and thighs, to keep heat in him. When they had made an end of their charming, one told him that his friends, the English, were come to see him. Having understanding left, but his sight being wholly gone, he asked who was come. They told him Winsnow, for they cannot pronounce the letter l,  but ordinarily n  in the place thereof. He desired to speak with me. When I came to him, and they told him of it, he put forth his hand to me, which I took. Then he said twice, though very inwardly, Keen Winsnow, which is to say, Art thou Winslow? I answered, Ah he, that is, Yes. Then he doubled these words, Matta neen wonckanet namen, Winsnow!  that is to say, O Winslow, I shall never see thee again."

Mr. Winslow then informed the dying chief, through Habbomak, that the Governor was sorry to bear of his sickness, and would have visited him in person had not important business prevented; that he had consequently sent Mr. Winslow and Mr. Hampden in his stead, with such medicines as the English used in case of sickness. Mr. Winslow administered these medicines, which proved so wonderfully efficacious that soon his patient quite revived, his sight was restored, and he was able to take some refreshing broth. All the Indians were surprised and delighted by the change. Two Indians were sent to Plymouth for more medicine, and for two chickens for broth. They were dispatched at two o'clock in the morning, bearing letters informing the Governor of the success of their mission. Mr. Winslow gives the following account of his medical practice on this important occasion:

"He requested me that, the day following, I would take my piece and kill him some fowl, and make him some English pottage, such as he had eaten at Plymouth. After, his stomach coming, I must needs make him some without fowl, before I went abroad. This somewhat troubled me, being unacquainted and unaccustomed in such business, especially having nothing to make it comfortable, my consort being as ignorant as myself. But being we must do somewhat, I caused a woman to bruise some corn and take the flour from it, and set over the broken corn in a pipkin, for they have earthen pots of all sizes.

"When the day broke we went out, it being now March, to seek herbs, but could not find any but strawberry leaves, of which I gathered a handful and put into the same. And because I had nothing to relish it, I went forth again and pulled up a sassafras root, and sliced a piece thereof and boiled it till it had a good relish, and then took it out again. The broth being boiled, I strained it through my handkerchief, and gave him at least a pint, which he liked very well. After this his sight mended more and more; and he took some rest, insomuch that we with admiration blessed God for giving his blessing to such raw and ignorant means; making no doubt of his recovery, himself and all of them acknowledging us the instruments of his preservation."

The grateful chief requested Mr. Winslow to visit all the sick in his village, and to administer to them the same remedies which had been so available in his case. With true Christian philanthropy Mr. Winslow undertook this task, finding it needful to perform many revolting offices, from which he did not shrink. With the utmost tenderness he watched the fluctuations of the disease of the king, and administered remedies apparently with much intuitive skill. Having succeeded in shooting a duck, just before the men returned with the pigeons, Massasoit decided to preserve them alive for breed. His recovery excited so much astonishment that many persons came a hundred miles to see him. Great efforts had been made by the hostile Indians to prejudice him against the English, and to induce him to join their coalition.

"Now I see," he said, that the English are my friends, and love me. And whilst I live I will never forget this kindness they have showed me. They have been more kind to me than any others have been."

As Mr. Winslow was leaving, Massasoit called Hobbomak privately to him, one or two of his warriors only being present, and informed him in full of the plot of the Massachusetts Indians to destroy the Weston colony, and then to attack that at Plymouth. He mentioned seven tribes who were united with them in the coalition, among others mentioning some who were making loud professions of friendship. He said that he had been earnestly solicited to join them, but that he would not do so, neither would he allow any of the tribes under his sway to make any hostile movement.

Massasoit advised the pilgrims, through Hobbomak, that if they would save the lives of their countrymen, they should immediately put to death the leading men of the Massachusetts tribes who were organizing this formidable conspiracy. "Say to them," said he, "that they often say that they will never strike the first blow. But if they wait until their countrymen at Weymouth are killed, who are entirely unable to defend themselves, it will then be too late for them to protect their own lives. I therefore advise them, without any delay, to put the leaders of this plot to death. Communicate what I say to you to Mr. Winslow, on your way home, that he may relate the same to Governor Bradford."

Very affectionately the two parties took leave of each other. The envoys were disappointed in not meeting the Dutch; but the day before their arrival, a high tide enabled them to move the ship from the shoals, upon which it had been stranded, and they had proceeded on their voyage. The Pilgrims called upon Corbitant on their return, and passed the night with him. He received them with great apparent cordiality. Mr. Winslow gives the following pleasing account of the visit.

"I had much confidence with him; he being a notable politician, yet full of merry jests and quips, and never better pleased than when the like are returned upon him. Among other things he asked me, if in case he were thus dangerously sick, as Massasoit had been, and should send word thereof to Plymouth for medicine, whether the Governor would send it; and if he would, whether I would come therewith to him. To both which I answered, yea; whereat he gave me joyful thanks.

"After that, he demanded further how we durst, being but two, come so far into the country. I answered, where was true love there was no fear; and my heart was so upright towards them that, for my own part, I was fearless to come amongst them.

"'But,' said he, 'if your love be such, and it bring forth such fruits, how cometh it to pass that when we come to Plymouth, you stand upon your guard, with the mouths of your pieces presented towards us.'

"Whereupon I answered it was the most honorable and respective entertainment we could give them, it being an order amongst us so to receive our best respected friends. And as it was used on the land, so the ships also observed it at sea, which Hobbomak knew and had seen observed. But, shaking his head, he answered that he liked not such salutations."

Noticing that Mr. Winslow asked a blessing upon his food, and returned thanks after partaking of it, he asked him the meaning of the custom. He listened very attentively to Mr. Winslow's account of the ten commandments and of the Christian religion, and expressed his cordial approval of nearly all. The next day the Pilgrims continued their journey, and lodged that night at Middleborough. The next day, when they had reached about half way home, they met two Indians, who informed them that Captain Standish had that morning set sail for Massachusetts, but that contrary winds had driven him back. Upon their arrival, they found Captain Standish waiting for a fair wind to resume his voyage.

It was the latter part of February. The news from the Weston colony was continually becoming more disastrous. These wretched adventurers were sinking into degradation almost beneath that of the savages. John Sanders had taken the Swan, and, with a small crew, had sailed for the coast of Maine, hoping to obtain some food from the fishermen there. The religionless rabble, left behind, sold their clothes and bed coverings for food. They became servants to the insolent Indians, cutting wood and bringing water to them for a cup full of corn. They stole, night and day, from the Indians. Several died from cold and hunger. One man was digging clams. He got stuck in the mud, and was so weak that he could not extricate himself, and miserably perished. They scattered, wandering about in search of ground nuts and shell-fish, and became utterly despicable, even in the eyes of the savages.

"They became contemned and scorned by the Indians," writes Governor Bradford, and they began greatly to insult over them in the most insolent manner; insomuch, many times, as they lay thus scattered abroad, and had set on a pot with ground nuts or shell-fish, when it was ready, the Indians would come and eat it up. And when night came, whereas some of them had a sorry blanket or such like to lap themselves in the Indians would take it, and let the others lie all night in the cold; so as their condition was very lamentable. Yea, in the end they were fain to hang one of their men, whom they could not reclaim from stealing, to give the Indians content."

A waggish report was circulated, with which Hudibras makes himself merry, that, the thief being a man of some importance, who could not well be spared, a poor decrepit old man, who was utterly unserviceable, was hung in his stead. There was no truth in this report. And it was still more atrocious, as a calumny, when attributed to the Pilgrims. It cannot be denied, however, that the deed would have been in character with the conduct of the Weymouth miscreants. They were not Puritans. There is no evidence that they had any church, any divine worship, or any religion.

The state of the Weston colony caused much anxiety at Plymouth. The savages were learning to despise the English. It was necessary to take some very decisive action, and yet it was difficult to determine what that action should be. Captain Standish's voyage was delayed, to wait for further developments, and many consultations were held. At length, on the 23rd of March, the Governor assembled the whole company of the Pilgrims in general council, and, expressing the deepest regret that it seemed to be necessary to resort to warlike measure against those whose good only they sought to promote, proposed that Captain Standish should take so many well-armed men as he judged to be necessary, and, assailing the Indians with the same weapons of guile which they were persistently using, should go to Massachusetts as if for trade with the Indians. On the way he was to visit Weymouth and inform the people there of the plot which was formed against them, and of the object of his coming, and to invite them to embark on board the Swan, and come to Plymouth for protection. He was then to visit the Indians, carefully scrutinize their conduct, and adopt such measures to thwart their plans and punish their ringleaders as in his judgment might seem expedient. He was particularly requested to bring back with him, as a warning to all the savages, the head of that bold and bloody villain Wituwamat, of whom we have before spoken, who was loud and boastful in his threats, and undisguised in his measures to array all the Indians against the English.

Captain Standish took eight men only, selecting those in whose courage and discretion he could repose perfect reliance. The day before he was to sail, a man by the name of Phineas Pratt came from Weymouth, through the woods, with his pack upon his back. He brought a deplorable report of the degradation and helplessness of the colonists. They were dispersed in three companies in search of food, and were almost destitute of powder and shot. He had fled from the impending ruin, and begged permission to remain at Plymouth.

The next day the wind was fair, and Captain Standish set sail on his difficult and perilous expedition. They entered the harbor at Weymouth, and proceeded first to the Swan, which was at anchor there, "but neither man, or so much as a dog therein." The discharge of a musket attracted the attention of the master of the vessel, who was on shore, with some of the colonists, searching for ground-nuts. Upon Captain Standish reproaching them with their carelessness in leaving a vessel so important to their safety thus exposed, they replied, like men bereft of reason, that they had no fear of the Indians. The Captain gathered around him as many of the colonists as he could, and informed them of the plot already ripe for their massacre. He then gave them the invitation, on the part of the Governor and all the colonists, to repair to Plymouth, where they would share their scanty food with them until some better plan for their welfare could be devised. A more heroic act of hospitality than this the world has seldom witnessed. He also added that if there were any other plan which they preferred to adopt, he would do everything in his power to aid them in it.

These wretched men gladly accepted the generous offer which rescued them from the tomahawk of the savage, and decided at once to abandon the colony. Captain Standish then enjoined upon them the most entire secrecy in respect to their contemplated movement. The stragglers were all to be immediately called in, and ordered not to leave the town under penalty of death. A pint of corn was allotted to them each day, though this had to be taken from the store which the Pilgrims had reserved for planting.

The weather was cold, wet and stormy, and thus Captain, Standish was much delayed in his operations. The Indians, hearing of the arrival of the shallop from Plymouth, sent a spy to Weymouth, ostensibly to sell some furs. Though the Captain treated him with the customary courtesy, the sagacious savage returned with the report that he saw, by his eyes, that he was angry in his heart." But the Indians had become so emboldened that they hesitated not to use any language of insolence and menace. One of the vilest of them, a fellow of gigantic stature, by the name of Pecksuot, with Wituwamat and his brother, came swaggering into the little village. "Tell your Captain," said he, "that we know that he has come to kill us. But we do not fear him. Let him begin as soon as he dares. We are ready for him."

These three men, with another Indian, followed by quite a mob of the savages, entered one of the houses, where Captain Standish was with four of the Pilgrims. The object, evidently, was to provoke a quarrel, and murder the Englishman. Captain Standish was a slender man, of small stature. Pecksuot was almost a giant. The savage approached him, whetting his knife, and boasting of his power to lay the little man low. The other Indians were equally insulting and threatening, with both word and gesture. The Captain, perfectly preserving his calmness and self-possession, ordered the door to be shut and fastened, that no other Indians could come in. Then, giving the signal to the others of his men, he sprang, with the wonderful strength and agility for which he was celebrated, upon the burly savage, wrenched the knife, which was sharp as a needle at the point, from his hand, and after a desperate conflict, in which he inflicted many wounds, succeeded in plunging it to the hilt in the bosom of his foe. In like manner Wituwamat and the other Indian, after the fiercest struggle, during which not a word was uttered, were killed. Wituwamat's brother, a boastful, blood-thirsty villain of eighteen, was taken and hanged for conspiring for the massacre of the English.

The Indians around the house, appalled by so unexpected an exhibition of courage and power, fled into the wilderness. Captain Standish marshaled his whole force to pursue. The Indians rallied in an advantageous position, and made a brief stand. But, three of their number falling before the bullets of the Englishmen, they again turned, and on swift foot disappeared.

The Weymouth men, aware of their danger of suffering from hunger in Plymouth, decided to embark in the Swan  for the fishing fleet on the coast, hoping there to obtain provisions to enable them to return to England. It was probably an acceptable decision to the Captain. Retaining simply corn enough for his homeward trip, he gave all the rest he had with him to them. A few decided to go to Plymouth, whom the Captain took with him. Having seen the Swan  set sail, and fairly clear of Massachusetts Bay, the conquering hero spread his sail, and was soon greeted by his friends for his success in his chivalric adventure. Thus the godless colony at Weymouth came to an ignoble end.