In 1620, the 60-ton Pinnace Speedwell departed Delfshaven, meeting with Mayflower at Southampton, Hampshire. The two vessels set out on August 15, but soon had to turn back as Speedwell was taking on water. Speedwell was abandoned after a second failed attempt, Mayflower setting out alone on September 16, 1620, with an estimated 142 passengers and crew.
66 days at sea brought the “Old Comers” up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod on November 11, near the present-day site of Provincetown Harbor. There, the group stayed long enough to draw up the first written framework of government established in the New World, a “civil body politic” called the Mayflower Compact.
As anyone familiar with the area will understand, a month in that place and time convinced them of its unsuitability. By mid-December the Mayflower had crossed Cape Cod Bay and fetched up at Plimoth Harbor.
Words fail to describe the terrible conditions of that first winter. Over half of these “Pilgrims” died during those first few months, eighty-two in all, of malnutrition, disease, exposure and starvation. It was nearly as awful as the “starving time” of the Jamestown colony of ten years earlier, in which all but 60 of 214 colonists perished.
The morning of March 16, 1621 dawned fair and clear, warm for the season. The settlers had long heard tales of their new neighbors, and even spotted a few back in November, at the modern-day “First Encounter Beach”, in Eastham. There were wild stories of “cannibals” and “savages”, but none had yet been observed, at anything but a distance. This morning, the newcomers realized that it was they who were being observed.
They were hurriedly arranging defenses when one of the “savages” approached the group, naked as the day he was born but for a leather fringe about his waist, holding a bow and two arrows. Tall and straight with flowing black hair, the man walked straight up and introduced himself, to the astonishment of the group, in English. He said his name was Samoset.
The following account appears in Mourt’s Relation (1622) written primarily by Edward Winslow and William Bradford:
“ Friday the 16th was a fair warm day….We were finishing our work, when a strange looking man, a man which caused us to be surprised becaused he seemed unafraid …. walked into the village. We stopped him. … He spoke to us in English, and was friendly. He said he had learned some English among the Englishmen that came to fish at Monhegan Island, and he gave us their names. He was a man who spoke freely and openly. We questioned him about many things. He was the first Indian we met. He said he was from Morattiggon (modern day Maine) and been 8 months in these parts…He asked for a drink and we gave him strong water and biscuit, and butter, and cheese, and pudding, and a piece of mallard (duck), all which he liked well. He said he had also eaten this food before with the English that had come before where he was from.
He told us the place where we now live was known as Patuxet by the Indians. Four years ago all the Indians who lived there died of a sickness and none were left, so they cannot hurt us, or to say the land where we now live belongs to them. All the afternoon we spent talking with him; we thought he would leave that night, but he did not leave. Then we thought to carry him on shipboard, and he intended to leave, but the wind was high and the water not deep enough so he could not return back that day. We lodged him that night at Stephen Hopkins house, and watched him.
Samoset was a Sagamore (minor Chief) of the Abenaki tribe of modern-day Maine, visiting at that time with Ousamequin, the Pokanoket Sachem (leader) of the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Massassoit (Great Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Samoset warned the newcomers to beware the Nauset, later called “Cape Cod Indians”, a tribal unit of some one-hundred individuals sharing the Massachusett (Natick) language and occupying modern-day Cape Cod and surrounding islands. Small wonder. Long before the large-scale colonization of the New World, European seafarers had kidnapped some twenty Nausets, and sold them into slavery, leaving in their wake diseases with which the native immune system was ill-equipped to deal. It was a Nauset corn cache the Pilgrims themselves had plundered back in November, a stash laid up to take their people through the long, barren winter.
Samoset departed the following day, March 17, but returned on the 22nd with Tisquantum, (Squanto), one of the few surviving Pawtuxet. A man who spoke better English than Samoset himself, Squanto would mediate between the settlers and the native tribes, including Massasoit. Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant corn: several kernels in a mound, buried with a fish head to enrich the soil. When planted together in a circle, the “three sisters” would support one another and thrive together, the corn stalks acting as poles for the beans, and squash leaves providing ground cover & holding in moisture, while keeping weeds at bay.
The newcomers reciprocated, teaching the natives about their own crops, with the aid of European farming tools.
“Days of Thanksgiving” took place in the New World as early September 8, 1565, when a group of Spaniards lead by explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the Timucua tribe to a day of Thanksgiving in Saint Augustine, Florida. Yet, the harvest feast of 1621, shared between the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets, is generally considered to be the basis for our own Thanksgiving holiday.
In the following months, the debt of corn was repaid to the Nauset people, who returned the favor by restoring a small boy to the colony, who’d been found lost and wandering in the woods. The Nauset would become Christianized in the following years, turning out to be the European’s greatest allies.
Years later, colonists would go to war against the Wampanoag people and ‘King Philip’, the English name for Metacomet, the son of Massasoit. The Nauset would act as warriors and scouts against the Wampanoag people in King Philip’s War, a conflict which killed some 5,000 New England inhabitants, three quarters of whom were indigenous people.
In terms of the percentage killed of the overall population, King Philip’s War was over twice as costly as the American Civil War, and seven times that of the American Revolution. But that must be a story for another day.
Feature image, top of page: First Encounter Beach, Eastham Massachusetts