Miles Standish - John S. C. Abbott

The Voyage

The Departure from Southampton.—Hindrances.—Delay at Dartmouth and Plymouth.—Abandonment of the Speedwell.—Sketch of Miles Standish.—Death at Sea.—Perils and Threatened Mutiny.—Narrow Escape of John Howland.—Arrival at Cape Cod.—Testimony of Governor Bradford.—The Civil Contract.—John Carver Chosen Governor.—The First Exploring Tour.—The Sabbath.

On the 22nd of July, 1620, the Speedwell, with its little band of Christian heroes, left the haven of Delft for England.

Rev. Mr. Robinson and his friends returned sadly to Leyden. A prosperous wind rapidly bore the vessel across the channel to the British coast, and they entered the port of Southampton. Here they found a party of English emigrants who had chartered a vessel, the Mayflower, of one hundred and twenty tons. They were awaiting the arrival of the Speedwell, intending to unite with the Leyden band and sail in its company for the organization of a Christian colony in the New World.

Here, disappointed in some of their financial plans, it was found that they needed four hundred dollars to pay up sundry bills, before they could sail. To raise this money they were compelled to sell some of their provisions, including many firkins of butter, which luxury they thought they could best spare.

At length, all things being ready, both vessels weighed anchor and put to sea, from Southampton, on the 5th of August. In the two vessels there were about one hundred and twenty passengers. They had gone but about one hundred miles when Captain Reynolds, of the Speedwell, announced that his ship had sprung a leak, and that he did not dare to continue the voyage without having her examined and repaired. Both vessels, therefore, put into Dartmouth, losing a fair wind, and time which, with the rapidly passing summer weather, was invaluable to them. They were detained for more than a week, searching out the leaks and mending them. One of their number, Mr. Cushman, wrote from Dartmouth a doleful letter, full of anticipations of evil.

"We put in here," he wrote, "to trim our vessel; and I think, as do others, also, that if we had stayed at sea for three or four hours more she would have sunk right down. And, though she was twice trimmed at Southampton, yet now she is open and leaky as a sieve. We lay at Southampton seven days in fair-weather waiting for her; and now we lie here in as fair a wind as can blow, and so have done these four days, and are like to do four days more; and by that time the wind will probably turn, as it did at Southampton. Our victuals will be half eaten up, I think, before we go from the coast of England. And if our voyage last long we shall not have a month's victuals when we come into the country.

"If I should write to you all things which promiscuously forebode our ruin, I should overcharge my weak head and grieve your tender heart. Only this I pray you, prepare for evil tidings of us every day. I see not in reason how we shall escape even the gaspings of hunger-starved persons. But God can do much, and His will be done."

Again the two vessels set sail, probably about the 21st of August.

They had been out but a day or two, having made about three hundred miles from Land's End, keeping close company, when the commander of the Speedwell  hung out a signal of distress. Both vessels hove to and it appeared that the Speedwell  had sprung a leak, of so serious a character that, though diligently plying the pumps, they could scarcely keep her afloat.

Nothing was to be done but to put back again to Plymouth, the nearest English port. Here the Speedwell  was carefully examined, and pronounced to be, from general weakness, unseaworthy. The disappointment was very great. The vessel was abandoned; twenty passengers were left behind, who could not be received in the already crowded Mayflower.

"It was resolved," writes Governor Bradford, "to dismiss the Speedwell  and part of the company, and proceed with the other ship. The which, though it was grievous and caused great discouragement, was put in execution. So, after they had taken out such provisions as the other ship could well stow, and concluded what number and what persons to send back, they made another sad parting, the one ship going back to London, the other proceeding on her voyage. Those who went back were, for the most part, those who were willing so to do, either out of some discontent, or from fear they conceived of the ill success of the voyage, seeing so many crosses befall, and the time of the year so far spent. But others, in regard to their weakness and charge of many young children, were thought least useful, and most unfit to bear the brunt of this hard adventure; unto which work of God and judgment of their brethren they were contented to submit. And thus, like Gideon's army, this small number was divided, as if the Lord, by this work of His providence, thought these few too many for the great work He had to do. But here, by the way, let me show, how afterwards it was found that the leakiness of this ship was partly caused by being over-masted and too much pressed with sails; for after she was sold and put into her old trim, she made many voyages and performed her service very sufficiently, to the great profit of her owners. But more especially by the cunning and deceit of the master and his company, who were hired to remain a whole year in America; and now, fancying dislike, and fearing want of victuals, they plotted this stratagem to free themselves, as afterwards was known, and by some of them confessed."

Mr. Cushman, who wrote the doleful letter, was left behind at his own request. There was some excuse for his evil forebodings, for he was in a wretched state of health. He had written,

"Besides the imminent dangers of this voyage, which are no less than deadly, an infirmity of body hath seized me which will not, in all likelihood, leave me until death. What to call it I know not. But it is a bundle of lead, as it were, crushing my heart more and more these fourteen days; and, though I do the actions of a living man, yet 1 am but as dead."

The whole number of persons who took their departure from Dartmouth, in the one solitary vessel, the Mayflower, for the New World, amounted to one hundred and two.

Among these passengers there was a marked man, to whom we have already alluded, Captain Miles Standish. He was a native of Lancashire, England, a gentleman born, and the legitimate heir to a large estate. He had been for some time an officer in one of the British regiments, which had garrisoned a town in the Netherlands. He was not a church member, and we know not what induced him to unite with the pilgrims in their perilous enterprise. Probably love of adventure, sympathy with them in their cruel persecution, and attachment to some of the emigrants, were the motives which influenced him. It is certain that he was very highly esteemed, and very cordially welcomed by the pilgrims. His military skill might prove of great value to the infant colony.

It is but little that we know of the early life of this remarkable man. He was born about the year 1584, and was, consequently, at this time, about thirty-six years of age. The family could boast of a long and illustrious line of ancestors. In the great controversy between the Catholics and the Protestants there was a division in the family, part adhering to the ancient faith, and part accepting the Protestant religion. Thus there arose, as it were, two families; the Catholics, who were of "Standish Hall," and the Protestants, who were of "Duxbury Hall." Both of these family seats are situated near the village of Chorley, in the county of Lancashire. The income of the whole property was large, being estimated at about five hundred thousand dollars a year.

It is probable that Miles Standish was the legal heir to all this property, and that, by gross injustice, he was defrauded of it. A few years ago the heirs of Miles Standish, in this country, sent out an agent, Mr. Bromley, to examine into the title. He thoroughly searched the records of the parish for more than a hundred years, embracing the period between 1549 and 1652. The result of this investigation was fully convincing, to the mind of Mr. Bromley, that Miles Standish was the rightful heir to the property, but that the legal evidence had been fraudulently destroyed. In reference to this investigation, Mr. Justin Winsor, in his History of Duxbury, writes:

"The records were all readily deciphered, with the exception of the years 1584 and 1585; the very dates about which time Standish is supposed to have been born. The parchment leaf, which contained the registers of the births of these years was wholly illegible; and their appearance was such that the conclusion was at once established that it had been purposely done with pumice stone, or otherwise, to destroy the legal evidence of the parentage of Standish, and his consequent title to the estates thereabout. The mutilation of these pages is supposed to have been accomplished when, about twenty years before, similar enquiries were made by the family in America."

Young Miles was educated to the military profession. England was then in alliance with the Dutch, in one of those wars with which the continent of Europe has ever been desolated. Miles was sent to the Netherlands, commissioned as a lieutenant in Queen Elizabeth's forces. After peace was declared he remained in the country and attached himself to the English exiles, who, in Leyden, had found refuge from ecclesiastical oppression. He joined the first company of Pilgrims for America, and by his bravery and sagacity, contributed greatly to the success of their heroic enterprise.

Nothing of special moment occurred during the voyage, which was tedious, occupying sixty-four days. One event is recorded by Bradford as a special providence. One of the seamen, a young man of vigorous health and lusty frame, was a very vile fellow. As he went swaggering about the decks he lost no opportunity to insult the Pilgrims, ever treating their religious faith with contempt. When he saw any suffering from the awful depression of sea sickness, he would openly curse them, and express the wish that he might have the pleasure of throwing their bodies overboard, before they should reach the end of the voyage. The slightest reproof would only cause him to curse and swear more bitterly. Why the captain of the Mayflower  allowed this conduct, we are not informed. But there are other indications that he was not very cordially in sympathy with his persecuted, comparatively friendless, but illustrious passengers. When about half way across the Atlantic, the dissolute young man was seized with sudden and painful sickness. Several days of severe suffering passed, as his ribald songs and oaths were hushed in the languor of approaching death. He died miserably, and his body, wrapped in a tarred sheet, was cast into the sea. "Thus," writes Bradford, "did his curses light upon his own head. And it was an astonishment to all his fellows, for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him."

Very rough storms were encountered, often with head winds, and the frail Mayflower  was sorely strained and wrenched by gale and surge. The shrouds were broken, the sails were rent, and seams were opened, through the oaken ribs, which threatened the engulfing of the ship in the yawning waves. Almost a mutiny was excited, as some, deeming the shattered bark incapable of performing the voyage, urged the abandonment of the expedition, and a return. After a careful examination, by the captain and the officers, of the injury the vessel had received, it was decided that the hull of the ship, under water, was still strong; that, to tighten the seam opened by the main beam, they had on board an immense iron screw, which the passengers had brought from Holland, which would raise the beam to its place; and that, by carefully calking the decks and upper works, and by the cautious avoidance of spreading too much sail, they might still, in safety, brave the perils of a stormy sea.

But we are told that many gales arose so fierce, and the sea ran so high, that for days together they could not spread an inch of canvass, but, in nautical phrase, were compelled to scud under bare poles. In one of these terrific storms a young man, John Howland, who ventured upon deck, was, by the sudden lurching of the vessel and the breaking of a wave, swept into the sea. He seemed to have been carried down fathoms deep under the raging billows. But, providentially, he caught hold of the topsail halyards, which happened to hang overboard. Though they ran out to full length, still, with a death gripe, he kept his hold until he was drawn up to the surface of the water, when, with boat hooks and other means, he was rescued.

The first land they made was Cape Cod. But it had been their intention to seek a settlement somewhere near the mouth of Hudson river. They therefore tacked about and stood for the southward. But after sailing with a fair wind for half a day, they found themselves becalmed in the midst of dangerous shoals and wild breakers. Alarmed by the perils which surrounded them in such unknown seas, they resolved to make their way back and seek the protection of the cape. A gentle breeze rose in their favor, and swept them away from the shoals before night came on. The next morning they anchored their storm-shattered vessel in a safe harbor at the extremity of Cape Cod.

Governor Bradford writes feelingly: "Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element." He continues in language which we slightly modernize:

"But here I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people's present condition. And so I think will the reader too, when he well considers the same. Being thus past the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation, they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies,—no houses, or much less, towns to repair to, to seek for succor.

"It is recorded in Scripture, as a mercy to the apostle and his shipwrecked company, that the barbarians showed them no small kindness in refreshing them; but these savage barbarians, when they met with them, as after will appear, were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. And for the season, it was winter; and they that know the winters of this country, know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? And what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view, from this wilderness, a more goodly country to feed their hopes.

"For, which way soever they turned their eyes, save upward to the heavens, they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For, summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather-beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, presented a wild and savage view. If they looked behind them there was the mighty ocean, which they had passed, and which was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. If it be said they had a ship to succor them, it is true; but what heard they daily from the master and company, but that with speed they should look out a place with their shallop, where they would be at some near distance; for the season was such that he would not stir from thence till a safe harbor was discovered by them, where they would be left, and where he might go without danger; and that victuals consumed apace, but that he must and he would keep sufficient for the crew and their return. Yea, it was muttered by some, that if the Pilgrims got not a place soon, they would turn them and their goods ashore and leave them."

It was in the morning of Saturday, November 11th, that the Mayflower, rounding the white sand cliffs of what is now Provincetown, on the extremity of Cape Cod, entered the bay on the western side of the Cape, where they cast anchor. Just before entering this harbor the Pilgrims had drawn up a brief constitution of civil government, upon the basis of republicanism, by which they mutually bound themselves to be governed. This was the germ of the American Constitution. John Carver they had unanimously chosen as their Governor for one year.

That afternoon a party of sixteen men, well armed, under Captain Miles Standish, was sent on shore to explore the country in their immediate vicinity. They returned in the early evening with rather a discouraging report. The land was sandy and poor, but covered with quite a dense forest of evergreens, dwarf oaks and other deciduous trees. They could find no fresh water, and met with no signs of inhabitants. The peninsula there, seemed to be a mere sand bank, a tongue of barren land, about a mile in breadth. The water in the bay, however, abounded with fish and sea fowl. They brought on board much-needed fuel of the red cedar, which emitted, in burning, a grateful fragrance.

The next day was Sunday. These devout men, who had left their native land to encounter all the hardships and perils of the wilderness, that they might worship God freely, according to their own sense of duty, kept the day holy to the Lord. They had brought with them, as their pastor, as we have mentioned, the Rev. William Brewster. He was a gentleman by birth and in all his habits; a man of fervent piety and of highly cultivated mind, having graduated at Cambridge University, and having already filled several responsible stations in church and state. Mr. Brewster preached from the deck of the Mayflower. In their temple, whose majestic dome was the overarching skies, their hymns blended with the moan of the wintry wind, and the dash of the surge on the rock-bound shore.

"Amidst the storm they sang,

And the stars heard, and the sea,

And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang,

To the anthems of the free."