Miles Standish - John S. C. Abbott

Domestic and Foreign Policy

Letter from Rev. Mr. Robinson.—Defense of Captain Standish.—New Policy Introduced.—Great Destitution.—Day of Fasting and Prayer.—Answer to Prayer.—The First Thanksgiving.—The Colony at Weymouth.—Worthless Character of the Colonists.—Neat Cattle from England.—Captain Standish Sent to England.—Captain Wollaston and His Colony.—Heroism of Captain Standish.—Morton Vanquished.—Difficulty at Cape Ann.—Increasing Emigration.—The Division of Property.

When the Rev. Mr. Robinson, the Pilgrims' former pastor in Holland, heard of these sanguinary scenes, he was greatly afflicted. Captain Standish was not a church member, and Mr. Robinson feared that he had acted with the impetuosity of the soldier, and not with the forbearance of the Christian. He wrote to the Pilgrims:

"It is necessary to bear in mind the disposition of your captain, whom I love, who is of a warm- temper. I had hoped that the Lord had sent him among you for good, if you used him right. He is a man humble and meek among you, and towards all in ordinary course. But I doubt whether there is not wanting that tenderness of the life of man, made after God's image, which is meet. O how happy a thing had it been that you had converted some before you had killed any."

To this it was replied that two of the Indians, Squantum and Hobbomak, it was hoped, had already become Christians; that Captain Standish was the military commander of the colony, and in a sense responsible for its safety; that the measures he adopted were purely in self-defense, and that in no other way could he possibly have saved the colonies from massacre. Captain Standish took back with him the head of Wituwamat, which was placed upon the fort as a warning to all hostile Indians. This measure has been severely censured. But it is replied that the savages, whose bloodthirsty desires were fully roused, could be influenced by deeds only, and not by words; that no people should be blamed for not being in advance of the age in which they lived, and that more than a century after this, in the year 1747, in refined and Christian England, the heads of the lords, who were implicated in the Scots rebellion, were exposed upon Temple Bar, the most frequented avenue between London and Westminster. Judge Davis, in his New England's Memorial, commenting upon Mr. Robinson's letter, writes:

"These sentiments are honorable to Mr. Robinson. They indicate a generous philanthropy, which must always gain our affection, and should ever be cherished. Still the transactions, to which the strictures relate, are defensible. As to Standish, Belknap places his defense on the rules of duty imposed by his character as the military servant of the colony. The government, it is presumed, will be considered as acting under severe necessity, and will require no apology if the reality of the conspiracy be admitted, of which there can be but little doubt. It is certain that they were fully persuaded of its existence; and with the terrible example of the Virginia massacre in fresh remembrance, they had solemn duties to discharge. The existence of the whole settlement was at hazard."

As we have mentioned, the unintelligent Indians often behaved like children. This energetic action seemed to overwhelm all those tribes with terror, who were contemplating a coalition with the Massachusetts Indians against the English. They acted as if bereft of reason, forsaking their houses, fleeing to the swamps, and running to and fro in the most distracted manner. Many consequently perished of hunger, and of the diseases which exposure brought on. The planting season had just come. In their fright they neglected to plant; and thus, in the autumn, from want of their customary harvest of corn, many more perished.

Tyanough, who, the reader will recollect, was sachem of the tribe at Mattakiest, the country between Barnstable and Yarmouth harbors, had been drawn into the conspiracy. He sent four men in a boat to the Governor at Plymouth, with a present, hoping to appease his anger. The boat was cast away. Three were drowned. The one survivor went back, not daring to show himself at Plymouth. The Indians regarded the disaster as evidence of the anger of the Englishman's God.

The month of April 1623 had arrived. It was necessary immediately to prepare the ground for planting. The Pilgrims had but a scanty supply of corn reserved for seed. Scarcely a kernel could be spared for food. Until now necessity had compelled the Pilgrims to act in partnership, having a common store of corn to be equally distributed, the fields being cultivated in common. It was now deemed best that each man should have his own lot, to possess whatever amount his industry might raise. As the wants of the Colony rendered it necessary that some should devote all their time to fishing, and there were certain other public employments which would engross the time of individuals, a small tax, in corn, was imposed, to defray these public expenses.

About the middle of April they began to plant, the weather being very favorable. Each man took about an acre of land. Without ploughs, or the aid of cattle, this was all one man could cultivate. Immediately the advantages of individual property, instead of having a community of interest, was manifest. All the boys and youth were ranged under some family. This created a new scene of active industry. Much more corn was planted, it is said, than would have been otherwise. Even the women went willingly into the field to aid in planting, taking their little ones with them. The situation of the colonists, at this time, seems to have been deplorable. Governor Bradford writes:

"By the time our corn is planted our victuals are spent; not knowing, at night, where to have a bit in the morning, and have neither bread nor corn for three or four months together, yet bear our wants with cheerfulness. Having but one boat left, we divide the men into several companies, six or seven in each, who take their turns to go out with a net and fish, and return not till they get some, though they be five or six days out, knowing there is nothing at home, and to return empty would be a great discouragement. When they stay long, or get but little, the rest go a digging shell fish. And thus we live in the summer, only sending one or two to range the woods for deer. They now and then get one, which we divide among the company. In the winter we are helped with fowl and ground nuts."

The friends in England sent a supply ship, the Paragon, to the suffering colony. Three months passed, and no tidings were received of her. But fragments of wreck were picked up, which indicated her fate. It afterwards appeared that, having reached six hundred miles from land, she encountered a terrible gale, by which she was so much disabled as to be compelled to put back. Again she set sail, and again put back, with all her upper works carried by the board. A disastrous drouth, of six weeks continuance also ensued, which threatened the utter destruction of their corn crop. Inevitable starvation seemed to stare them in the face. Mr. Winslow writes:

"The most courageous were now discouraged, because God, who had hitherto been our only shield and supporter, now seemed, in his anger, to arm himself against us. And who can withstand the fierceness of his wrath?"

In this extremity a day of fasting and prayer was appointed. It was the middle of July. The morning was cloudless, without a sign of rain. The sky was as brass, scarce a green herb was to be seen, and the earth was as ashes. The exercises of devotion continued for eight hours. All felt alike that there was no help but in God. Elder Brewster, an Israelite indeed, in whom there was no guile, preached. Mr. Winslow writes:

"The exercises, on this special occasion, as of life and death, being continued eight hours or more, ere their close the clouds gathered, the heavens were overcast, and before the next morning passed, gentle showers were distilling upon the earth, and so it continued some fourteen days, with seasonable weather intervening. It were hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened and revived, such was the bounty and goodness of our God."

Unexpectedly the withered corn thrust out green leaves and gave promise of a joyful harvest. Even the Indians were impressed with this evidence of divine interposition. Hobbomak said feelingly:

"Now I see that the Englishman's God is a good God, for he hath heard you and sent you rain, and without storms, tempest or thunder beating down your corn. Surely your God is a good God."

In the mean time, Captain Standish was sent out, with the shallop and a few men, to explore the coast and purchase all the corn he could of the Indians. Valiant as he was in fight, he was, in ordinary life, a mild and gentle man, and eminently just in all his dealings. Much as the Indians dreaded his avenging arm, they seemed to be fully conscious that he would do them no wrong. Early in August he returned from this trading-voyage, with his shallop well loaded down with corn, which proved invaluable to the Pilgrims until their own harvest should come in.

He brought back with him Mr. David Thompson, a Scotchman, who, with a small party of emigrants, had commenced a plantation at the mouth of the Piscataqua, where Portsmouth now stands. For these many tokens of the divine goodness, Governor Bradford appointed another day of thanksgiving. It may be instructive here to insert Governor Bradford's testimony respecting the effect of a community of goods, which experiment was so fairly tried, and under such favorable circumstances, at Plymouth:

"The experience which was had in this common course and condition," he writes, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, and applauded by some of later times, that the taking away of property, and bringing a community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community, so far as it was such, was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and to retard much employment which would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, who were the most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children, without any recompense.

"The strong, or man of parts, had no more in the division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. As for men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Let none object, this is men's corruption, and nothing against the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God, in his wisdom, saw another course fitter for them."

Early in August two ships arrived, the Anne  and the Little James. The latter was a small vessel of about forty-four tons, which was built for the company and was to remain at Plymouth. The two vessels brought sixty passengers. Some of them were very worthy people and constituted a valuable addition to the colony. Others were such sad miscreants that the Pilgrims instructed by the disasters which the Weymouth colonists had caused, refused to receive them into their colony. The thriftless creatures, unable to establish a settlement of their own, were compelled to return to England.

The corn harvest was not yet ripe, and the new-comers were greatly surprised at the destitution in which they found the colonists. "The best dish," writes Bradford, "they could present them with, was a lobster or a piece of fish, without bread or anything else but a cup of fair spring water." The new-comers were afraid that the hungry colonists would eat up all the provisions they had brought with them. On the other hand the colonists were fearful that the new-comers would devour their harvest of corn, which was scarcely sufficient for so large an addition to their numbers. They therefore decided that each of the parties should rely upon its own resources.

On the l0th of September the Anne  returned to England, laden with clapboards and furs: Mr. Winslow also sailed in her, on business for the colony. The harvest was now in, and there was comparative plenty. Many had raised more corn than their own families would consume, and thus they had a supply to sell to others. About the middle of this month Captain Robert Georges arrived in Massachusetts Bay with a number of families, to commence a new plantation there. His grant of land was very indefinite. It embraced all the land lying on the northeast side of Massachusetts Bay, together with all the shores and coasts, for ten English miles, in a straight line towards the northeast, and thirty miles into the main land. He selected for his settlement, the spot at Weymouth which had been abandoned by the Weston Colony. Governor Georges visited Governor Bradford, where he met with a very kind reception.

Some of the seamen, carousing in one of the houses, built a great fire on a cold and windy night, which was communicated to the thatch, and four houses were burnt down. The store-house was greatly endangered. Its loss would have been irreparable. The Little James  went on a cruise to the coast of Maine, and there, in a violent storm, was wrecked. Mid-winter now frowned around the Pilgrims as they entered upon a new year, the year 1624.

Mr. Winslow returned from England, bringing with him two heifers and a bull, an invaluable acquisition to the colonists, being the first cattle that were brought over. As they had no money, corn had become the circulating medium. With the opening spring all hands set to work to raise as much corn as possible. This led to a petition to the Governor to have a portion of land assigned, in perpetuity, to each individual. When assigned yearly, by lot, that field which one man, by skill and industry, had brought into a good state of cultivation, was often taken from him, and he received, perhaps, instead, a field neglected and overrun with weeds. The request was manifestly so reasonable, than one acre was given to every man, as near the village as might be, to be held seven years. It was deemed necessary, for safety against the Indians, to keep as close together as possible.

With some internal disorders, the affairs of the colony went on prosperously during the year, nothing occurring to call the energies of Captain Standish into requisition. The colony numbered one hundred and eighty souls. They had some cattle and goats, quite a number of swine, and numerous poultry. Thirty-two dwelling houses were now occupied. The palisades which surrounded the village were half a mile in extent. A well-built fort stood upon Burial Hill.

Mr. Winslow made a trading-voyage eastward one hundred and fifty miles, in an open boat, "up a river called the Kennebec." He brought home seven hundred pounds of beaver and other furs, having exchanged corn for them. It was mid-winter, and they encountered much tempestuous weather. The boat was built by their ship carpenter, and had a small deck over her midships to keep the corn dry. But the men were exposed, unsheltered to winter on the coast of Maine. These furs were purchased of the natives, at a small price, and were sold in London at a great profit.

The Pilgrims wished to hire money with which to purchase in England the commodities which the Indians greatly prized, and which they could exchange with them for furs. Captain Standish was sent to England to adjust certain difficulties which had arisen between the colonists and their partners in London, and also to hire money with which to purchase goods to trade with the Indians. But the Captain arrived in London at a very unfortunate hour. The city was then desolated by that awful plague which was sweeping thousands into the grave. It would also appear that the credit of the colony was far from good. With great difficulty Captain Standish succeeded in raising seven hundred and fifty dollars, for which he paid the enormous interest of fifty per cent. The risk to the lender was indeed great. The only chance the colonists had to pay the debt, was mainly in sending home furs. But the ships thus laden had to run the gauntlet of the hostile fleets of France and Turkey, with both of which powers England was then at war.

Captain Standish expended the small sum he had raised, in trading commodities. He also brought back the mournful intelligence of the death of the Reverend Mr. Robinson, who died at Leyden the 1st of March, 1625. There were so many vessels sent from England to the coast of Maine, engaged in the fishing business, that the colonists, in consequence of the competition, relinquished the fisheries, and engaged in trading and planting, both of which had now become profitable. Immense numbers of fishes were, however, taken at their very door, which were used to enrich the fields.

The rapid brook of fresh water, which ran at the south side of the town, took its rise in several lakes in the land above. Early in May vast shoals of herring darkened the waters as they ascended the brook from the sea to deposit their spawn in the lakes. The colonists constructed, at the mouth of this brook, a sort of net, made of planks and trellis work, so that at one tide they would often take twelve thousand fishes. Three or four were deposited in each hill of corn, which promoted a luxuriant growth. This corn was eagerly purchased by the Indians, they paying one pound of beaver skin for one bushel of corn. Fishing vessels occasionally called and purchased their corn at six shillings a bushel. Several other colonies were also established, which needed supplies. Thus days of prosperity dawned upon the colony, which had so long struggled with adversity. But little occurred during the year 1626 worthy of especial notice. The coasting-trade was becoming increasingly important. Governor Bradford writes:

"Finding they ran a great hazard to go so long voyages in a small, open boat, especially in the winter season, they began to think how they might get a small pinnace. They had no ship carpenter among them, neither knew how to get one at present. But they having an ingenious man, who was a house carpenter, who had also wrought with the ship carpenter that was dead, when he built their boats, at their request, he put forth himself to make a trial that way, of his skill, and took one of the biggest of the shallops and sawed her in the middle, and so lengthened her some five or six feet, and strengthened her with timbers, and so built her up and laid a deck on her, and so made her a convenient and wholesome vessel, very fit and comfortable for their use, which did them service seven years. And thus passed the affairs of this year."

The prospects of the colony had so far brightened that Mr. Allerton, who had been sent to England this year, succeeded in raising one thousand dollars at thirty per cent interest. During the year 1625 Captain Wollaston, with thirty emigrants, commenced a settlement at a place they named Mount Wollaston, in the northerly part of Braintree, now Quincy, in Massachusetts. Most of these emigrants were men of low condition, the hired laborers of Wollaston. He soon became discontented, and took a large portion of his servants to Virginia, where he disposed of their labor as best he could. He left a man by the name of Fitcher to guide the labor of those who remained until his return. In the mean time one Thomas Morton, "a pettifogging attorney of Furnival's Inn, a man of low habits," succeeded in persuading those who were left to renounce the authority of Fitcher, and to live on terms of perfect equality and freedom, without any laws whatever. He arranged a great feast, and induced the men, in the frenzy of intoxication, to drive Fitcher from the settlement. They then entered upon an astonishing course of rioting and drunkenness. They prosecuted vigorously a trade with the natives, which was forbidden by royal charter, of muskets, powder and bullets. This trade was very profitable. The Indians, eager to obtain muskets, would pay almost any sum for them. Morton taught them how to use the guns, and employed them to hunt, purchasing their furs.

Thus they rioted in abundance, and disgraced themselves with the most shameless indulgence in profanity and profligacy. They erected a Maypole, and danced around it with the Indian women. In accordance with these scenes of revelry, they changed the name of the place to Merry Mount. Morton was an Atheist: teaching that this was the only life; that there was no responsibility to God, and that it was the part of wisdom to indulge freely in all one's desires.

This state of things created great alarm, in all the various settlements, which had by this time been established. The Indians, if once supplied with European weapons of war, could easily, by combining, destroy all the colonies. Governor Bradford complains very bitterly of the peril. The Indians had muskets in abundance; they were taught how to repair their muskets when injured; they were furnished with moulds for running bullets of various sizes.

"Yea," writes Governor Bradford, "some have seen them have their screw-plates to make screw-pins themselves, when they want them, with sundry other implements, wherewith they are ordinarily better fitted and furnished than the English themselves. It is well known that they will have powder and shot when the English want it, and cannot get it; and yet in a time of war or danger, as experience hath manifested, when lead hath been scarce, and men for their own defense would gladly have given four pence a pound, which is dear enough, yet hath it been bought up and sent to other places, and sold to such as trade it with the Indians at twelve pence a pound And it is likely the Indians give three or four shillings the pound, for they will have it at any rate.

"And these things have been done in the same times when some of their neighbors and friends are daily killed by the Indians, or are in danger thereof, and live but at the Indians' mercy. Yea, some have told them how gunpowder is made, and all the materials in it, and that they are to be had in their own land; and I am confident that could they attain to make salt-petre they would teach them to make powder. Oh the horribleness of this villainy! How many, both Dutch and English, have been lately slain by those Indians thus furnished! And no remedy provided, nay the evil more increased, and the blood of their brethren sold for gain; and in what danger all these colonies are is too well known.

"Oh! that princes and parliaments would take some timely order to prevent this mischief and, at length to suppress it, by some exemplary punishment upon some of those gain-thirsty murderers, for they deserve no better title, before their colonies in these parts be overthrown by these barbarous savages, thus armed with their own weapons, by these evil instruments and traitors to their neighbors and country.

"But I have forgotten myself, and have been too long in this digression; but now to return. This Morton having thus taught them the use of muskets he sold them all he could spare; and he and his consorts determined to send for many out of England, and had, by some of the ships, sent for above a score. The which being known, and his neighbors meeting the Indians in the woods, armed with guns in this sort, it was a terror unto them who lived strugglingly and were of no strength in any place. And other places, though more remote, saw that this mischief would quickly spread over all if not prevented. Besides, they saw they should keep no servants, for Morton would entertain any, how vile soever, and all the scum of the country, or any discontents would flock to him from all places, if this nest was not broken; and they would stand in more fear of their lives and goods, in a short time, from this wicked and debauched crew, than from the savages themselves."

The leading men of several settlements met together to deliberate upon what measures to adopt in this emergence. The Plymouth colony was stronger than all the rest united.

The delegates came from Plymouth, from the trading-house at the Kennebec, from the small settlement at Salem, from Weymouth, and from several other places where infant settlements had been commenced. They decided to write a joint and friendly letter to Morton, informing him of the danger to which he was exposing all the English, and entreating him, out of regard to the common safety, to change his course. A messenger was sent with this letter, and to bring back an answer. Morton replied insultingly and defiantly, saying that they were meddling with that which they had no concern; that he should continue trade with the Indians just as he pleased, selling them muskets, powder and shot, without asking any one's advice. The answer throughout was couched in the most insulting terms.

Again, with the most singular moderation, a messenger was sent to him with another friendly letter, saying that they were consulting, not for selfish interests, but for the good of all alike; that the lives of all were endangered, and that the King's proclamation had forbidden the sale of fire-arms to the savages. Another insolent answer was returned. He assured them that he cared neither for the King's proclamation nor for them; and that if they thought they could coerce him, they might come on as soon as they pleased; he was ready for them.

It was now manifestly time to summon the energies of Captain Standish to the rescue. He was exactly the man for the occasion. With a small body of armed men, eight in number, as valiant as himself, Captain Standish set out for Merry Mount. In some way, Morton had heard of his approach. With his desperate men he had barricaded himself in a strong log house, with an ample supply of powder and balls. They well knew the reputation of the foe they were to encounter, and in order to stimulate their waning courage, had all become drunk. From their fortress, which they deemed impregnable, they shouted their scurrilous defiance to the Captain and his little band. There are men with whom apparently the most reckless bravery is combined with prudence and sound judgment; who seem to be endowed with a sort of instinct which teaches them when an act of seeming desperation may be demanded by wisdom. Captain Standish was such a man.

He was making arrangements to carry the house, perhaps by approaching it from some unguarded point, and setting it on fire, when Morton, drunk as he was, saw his danger. Selecting a few of his men, he emerged from his fortress, with the intention of making a sudden and simultaneous rush upon Captain Standish, and shooting him. Morton himself was so intoxicated that, as afterwards found, his carbine was overloaded, being nearly half filled with powder and shot.

The captain, though of short stature, possessed dignity of character and authority of bearing which often overawed his foes. Without a moment's hesitation, he advanced with stately tread upon Morton, totally regardless of his weapon, seized him by the collar, wrenched the gun from his hands, and delivered him over to his men, a humiliated and helpless captive. The rest of the drunken crew, deprived of their leader, were deemed powerless. The culprit was taken to Plymouth, and was sent to England by the first vessel that sailed, there to be tried for his crimes.

The Pilgrims, at Plymouth, had for some time been in the habit of sending yearly to the fishing-grounds off Cape Ann for a supply of cod. They had erected quite a commodious stage upon the cape, where they dressed and dried their fish. Some London adventurers fitted out a fishing vessel for the cape, and arriving there before the Plymouth people, took possession of their stage, which they refused to surrender when the Pilgrims came and demanded their own.

The code militaire  was, at this time, the rule of life with Captain Standish. He would do no wrong; and he would submit to no wrong. He was immediately sent to Cape Ann to adjust the difficulty. There was no room for question about the right and wrong in the case. The new-comers had stolen the property of the Pilgrims. Captain Standish peremptorily demanded its restoration. The thieves barricaded themselves on the stage. Captain Standish prepared for battle, and would doubtless have recovered the stage by force. "But Mr. Conant," writes Baylies, "who dwelt there, and who was a man of a mild and conciliatory disposition, and Captain Pierce, a fast friend of the Plymouth people, also happening to be there with his ship, interposing their good offices, the dispute was compromised, the ship's crew having promised to build another stage."

Emigration to the New World was now rapidly increasing. Many new settlements sprang up and many worthless characters came over, lured by the love of adventure. Not a few of these came to the flourishing Plymouth colony. This led to a new organization of the colony, the details of which it is not necessary to enter into here. The company in London, who had obtained the charter from the King and held the territory, sold out their whole property to the colonists, for nine thousand dollars, to be paid in nine annual installments of one thousand dollars. The general features of this important change is thus given by Baylies.

"Every head of a family, and every prudent young man who was of age, both of the first and later corners, were admitted into a general partnership; and all agreed that the trade should be managed as usual, devoting all its profits to the payment of the debt; that every single freeman should have a single share, and that every father of a family should have leave to purchase a share for himself, another for his wife, and one for each of his children who lived with him, and that every one should pay his share of the debts, as according to his number of shares. One cow and two goats were divided by lot to every six shares, and the swine in proportion. And to every share, in addition to the acre lots, which they already held, and the gardens and homestead of which they were possessed, twenty acres of tillage land was assigned by lot, which were to be five acres broad on the water and four acres deep."

The meadow lands, for mowing, being quite small in extent, were held in common, mowing places being assigned, as the seasons came around, to all the families, according to their number of cattle. As the Pilgrims were living in constant apprehension of a combination of the Indians against them, it was deemed important that they should not be widely scattered in their fields of labor. A sudden attack might expose them to destruction, unless they could be speedily rallied. Twenty acres of land was much more than any one man could cultivate with the agricultural facilities then at their control. It was therefore agreed, before any lots were cast, that those whose lots should fall next to the town, should take a neighbor or two, whom they best liked, to plant corn with them for four years. By that time it was supposed the colony would be out of danger from any hostile attack. This arrangement gave general satisfaction, and inspired the colonists with new energies.