Plymouth: Thanksgiving and slaughter in one lifetime

Photograph of Cape Cod taken by crew member of Expedition 16 of the International Space Station, November 7, 2007

The Pilgrims, as we now call them, arrived in North America on November 11, 1620 (os: November 21, 1620 under the modern Gregorian calendar). They anchored off what is now Provincetown, near the end of Cape Cod where the cape curls back on itself. The Mayflower had missed its destination. It was destined for the mouth of the Hudson, where the colonists had a patent purchased from the London Company. (The London Company had been granted by James I the right to found settlements between Cape Fear (North Carolina) to the coast at Long Island (New York). (North of that they were permitted to make arrangements with the Plymouth Company. )

The settlers were afraid to make landfall because they had no legal right to settle the area. It was decided to draw up a contract to govern the settlement. Although the document, the Mayflower Compact, was based on no authority in granting settlement rights, it provided for the government of the settlers and evidently satisfied the uncertainty in the minds of some of the passengers. Necessity, in the form of imminent winter, probably eliminated any further doubt.

The passengers spent that day and the following, Sabbath, on board. Thereafter various scouting expeditions were sent out under Myles Standish (one of the secular settlers that the venture capitalists put on board to protect their investment). The parties discovered a cache of corn (or maize as the English would later call it) stored by the indigenous settlers. The temptation proved too great and on the last expedition the English settlers stole the corn. Fear of reprisals for the theft together with a skirmish with the Wampanoag (the first shootings on natives in New England) decided them on moving out of the area.

While in harbor at Provincetown, however, the first Englishman born in North America arrived. Peregrine White was born on the Mayflower and given a name meaning “pilgrim.” His father died that winter but in a society governed by necessity he did not go long without a father. His mother remarried that spring. The records of the colony recount his career in the militia and his run-ins with the law in a closely governed society. They also show the practicality of the Puritans, who suffer to this day from the caricature of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  When he was 28, he and his wife Sara were presented to the General Court under the charge of fornication before marriage. Because they were now married, they were “cleared” by the payment of a fine. They would go on to have nine children.

The Mayflower sailed across Cape Cod Bay and set anchor on December 21 (os) at what they called Plimouth, after the major port in southern England. The NASA page from which the above photograph was taken notes that none of the settlers recorded any mention of a rock. It also notes that Plymouth Rock itself is what is called a “glacial erratic.”

A map of Plymouth Colony from Wikipedia

The First Winter was as brutal an experience as humans can endure. Inadequate shelter, unrelenting Massachusetts weather, insufficient food and tense relations with the local inhabitants all beat down on the poorly prepared group. Myles Standish was elected military leader to protect against attacks. Many from sickness or necessity stayed on board the Mayflower for the entire winter. Forty-five of the 102 settlers died before spring.

It was not until March 16, 1621 (os) that the first friendly encounter took place, when Samoset, member of the Abenaki (Alnôbak) tribe from Maine, entered the English camp and greeted them in English, requesting a beer of all things. His English was probably quite limited. He learned what he knew from the original Plymouth Company settlers, the abandoned Popham Colony at Kennebec River in Maine. The stragglers of that settlement had since died out from smallpox. The Englishmen fed him, and he stayed the night.

The next day he returned with Squanto, who had much better command of English. Squanto, called Tisquantum (meaning Divine Wrath) was fully familiar with Europeans, having been twice kidnapped by them—once in 1611 in Maine, then again in 1614 from Patuxet (Plymouth), from which place he was sent to be sold in Spain. From the latter place he again made his way to England, where he sought an opportunity to return home, which he found in Thomas Dermer, explorer associate of Captain John Smith (who had explored and named New England after his adventures in Jamestown with the Powhatans) and Ferdinando Gorges, the guiding spirit behind commercial settlement of English North America. Squanto having been taught English, with Gorges’s approval was brought along by Decker on his 1619 voyage, to act as interpreter  and perhaps as a token of good faith to mollify indigenous inhabitants of the good faith of the settlers sponsored by the English companies—persuasion being made necessary by the kidnapping activities of previous English explorers. When they arrived, however, they they discovered the effects of the devastating disease which wiped out the English settlement in Maine and large numbers of the native peoples.

Squanto arranged for the English settlers to meet Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) people and head of the confederacy of tribes that the Wampanoag dominated. A peace treaty soon followed. According to Governor William Bradford, it was with Squanto’s assistance that the remaining Mayflower settlers were able to plant, tend and harvest that first crop which produced the harvest feast that following fall that became part of the American classical myth. Only 53 of the original 102 settlers were alive to celebrate that feast. Squanto and Massasoit remainder allies of the English settlers, but intrigued flared up between them, and Squanto’s death may have been by poison from Massasoit.

President Lincoln in 1863 in the midst of another calamity of breath-taking proportions established the last day of November as a day of national thanksgiving. (FDR would later fix it as the fourth Thursday in November.) His proclamation establishing the date gave the rationale: It was to acknowledge our great gifts, despite our own unworthiness. The proclamation showed the kind of humility that Lincoln regularly displayed, and one that we have not seen among our own politicians (especially the ones who believe they are closest to god) for a very long time:

“Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

The Plymouth Colony of course grew and prospered. And with prosperity came tensions with the natives whose help they celebrated during that first harvest. The natives watched as the Englishmen transformed the land and grew rapidly in population. The practical, law-fearing combination of religious pilgrims and commercial venturers turned into a colony dominated by the inflexible Puritanism represented by Increase Mather, who with his son Cotton Mather would go on to infamy in that awful warning how religious learning and political intolerance can lead to stunningly inhuman consequences: the Salem witch trials. Before then he was involved in justifying the first great massacres by European North Americans. King Philip’s War took place between 1675-1678. Peregrine White was still alive at the time (although he was no longer a soldier). It was as bloody and as unscrupulous an encounter as any between two ethnic groups determined to eliminate the other. There were no civilians in this war, nor were war crimes prohibited. Given the sizes of the populations then, the casualties make it arguably the deadliest war ever engaged in by Americans.

Some will suggest that a war with the natives some 50 years later has nothing to do with the First Thanksgiving, and it doesn’t belong in any of our historical reminiscences and self-congratulations that will take place this week. And I will not take the time now to describe this conflict.  It is perhaps proper to remember, however, especially at a time when we are trying to determine the destinies of two other nations, that we have not experienced since the First Thanksgiving a straight trajectory and unobstructed ascent to perfection, no matter what our romantic and unreflecting political and historical guardians try to peddle.

Here is one more map of Plymouth Colony. This is from William Hubbard, The History of the Indian Wars in New England (London and Boston: 1677 and reprinted (ed. Samuel G. Drake) in 1865). Perhaps fittingly this woodcut was printed with the colony upside down.

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  1. A fine Thanksgiving tale.
    I guess I’ve known this early history of settlement, more or less, but somehow I never quite remember what actually happened, and it’s fascinating — and terrible. We have such great regrets about the deadly conflicts that soon came on. Histories of settlers everywhere always full, it seems, of violence and regret — maybe that’s why I don’t seem to remember them. Still, those first winters — fascinating. Man against the elements so great a drama, whereas man against himself just pitiable.

  1. December 25th, 2010
  2. January 28th, 2011

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