Cape Cod – The Old Colony – Pt. 1

IT is a welcoming country, and easily enough some of the Pilgrims, after they had established their settlement at Plymouth, returned to the sandy shores, the woods and meadows that had first offered them the possibility of home. They must have had a peculiar sentiment for the place: for here began their adventure in the great free country of the wilderness, and the chronicles of Bradford and Winslow show an ingenuous pleasure in the recital of it. They were for the most part yeomen and farmers, exiles from the pretty valley of the Trent, who for some eleven years had lived restricted in small Dutch cities; and for sixty-seven days all of them, yeomen and artisans, men, women, and children, many more than the Mayflower could well accommodate, had been buffetted about the Atlantic by autumn gales. Driven out of their calculated course to the southward, they made their landfall at Cape Cod, “the which being certainly known to be it,” no wonder that they were “not a little joyful.” “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land,” writes William Bradford, “they fell upon their knees and blessed ye God of Heaven, who had brought them over ye vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles and miseries thereof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente.”

Nor was it a country unknown to them. Since Cabot’s voyage of discovery more than a hundred years earlier, the whole coast from Cape Breton to the Hudson had been increasingly visited by French and English seamen who were attracted chiefly by the rich fishing-grounds. It is even said that the great Drake was the first Englishman to set foot in New England, and that it was upon Cape Cod he landed. There are stories of ancient adventurers voyaging, as it might be, to the rhythm of Masefield’s Galley-Rowers:

“… bound sunset-wards, not knowing, Over the whale’s way miles and miles, Going to Vine-Land, haply going To the Bright Beach of the Blessed Isles.

“In the wind’s teeth and the spray’s stinging Westward and outward forth we go, Knowing not whither nor why, but singing An old old oar-song as we row — ”

Madoc of Wales, Saint Brendan the Irishman, Icelanders, Phoenicians even; and, more certainly, a company of Norsemen who set up a wrecked boat on the Cape Cod bluffs, the Long Beaches, to guide the landfall of later visitors to their Keel Cape.

French, Dutch, Spanish, English, all had their names for the Cape, but in 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold, examining the coast of New England with a view to colonization, was to give it the predestined and only right name: “Cape Cod.” Making across Massachusetts Bay “with a fresh gale of wind,” writes his chronicler, “in the morning we found ourselves embayed with a mightie headland” with “a white sandie and very bolde shore,” where, landing, they met an Indian “of proper stature, and of a pleasing countenance; and after some familiaritie with him, we left him at the seaside and returned to our ship.” Another scribe of the party remarks that the Indian had plates of copper hanging from his ears and “shewed willingness to help us in our occasions.” “From this place, we sailed round about this head-land, almost all the points of the compass,” and so on to Cuttyhunk, “amongst many faire Islands.” But the significant point for us is that they “pestered” their ship so with cod-fish that they threw numbers of them overboard, and thereupon named the land Cape Cod.

In 1604, and for several years thereafter, Champlain was much upon the New England coast, helping Du Monts in a colonizing scheme under a charter of Henri Quatre; had they succeeded, New France would have reached Long Island Sound. Champlain landed at Barnstable and named the harbor “Port aux Huistres,” ” for the many good oysters there.” He judged, also, that it would have been “an excellent place to erect buildings and lay the foundations of a state, if the harbor were somewhat deeper and the entrance safer.” The tip of the Cape he called ” Cap Blanc,” the treacherous shoals at the elbow “Mallebarre,” and at Chatham he was like to have been swamped in the shoals had the Indians not dragged his boats over into the harbor —” Port Fortune” he called it. But it held no good fortune for him: for his men quarrelled with their rescuers, and after two of them had been killed, he sailed away. Champlain, a scientific man, the king’s geographer, wrote interestingly of the savages, their appearance, customs, agriculture, dwellings, and weighed the advantages of colonization there, but French the land was not to be.

After Gosnold came several Englishmen, Martin Pring among them, searching for sassafras, which he knew was to be found in sandy soil, and was then much esteemed in pharmacy as of “sovereign vertue against the Plague and many other Maladies.” Pring coasted along to Plymouth, where at last he found “sufficient quantitie” of his sassafras, and camped for several months. There one of his company played the “gitterne” to the joy of the savages who danced about him “twentie in a Ring, . . . singing lo la lo la la and him that first brake the ring the rest would knocke and cry out upon.” Henry Hudson spent a night off the Cape and had some difficulty with shoals and tides and mists; but he testified that “the land is very sweet,” and some of his men brought away wild grapes and roses; as did also Edward Braunde, who hoped to discover “sertayne perell which is told by the Sauvages to be there,”and found near Race Point, where he landed, only some “goodly grapes and Rose-Trees.” It should be noted that as Hudson cruised thereabouts, Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayney of his crew saw “the mermaid.” And in 1614 Captain John Smith set sail for these shores to look for whales and gold-mines, failing which they would take “Fish and Furres,” as the event proved to an amount of some fifteen hundred pounds. Smith, with eight men in an open boat, explored and charted the coast and dedicated his map to Prince Charles, with the request that he change “the barbarous names” thereon. “As posteritie might say,” writes Smith, “Prince Charles was their godfather.” New England, the river Charles, Plymouth retain the royal nomenclature. But his Stuart Bay and Cape James are still Cape Cod and Cape Cod Bay, and Milford Haven is Provincetown Harbor. Cape Cod, “a name, I suppose, it will never lose,” said Cotton Mather, “till the shoals of codfish be seen swimming on the highest hills.” “This Cape,” wrote Smith, “is made by the main Sea on the one side, and a great Bay on the other in forme of a Sickell.” “A headland of high hills, over growne with shrubby Pines, hurts [huckleberries] and such trash, but an excellent harbour for all weathers.”

And while Smith was engaged in his scientific expedition, Captain Thomas Hunt, whom he had placed in command of the larger boat, after lading her with fish and furs, put his time to profit by capturing twenty-four savages, Nauset and Patuxet Indians among them; and setting sail for Malaga, he sold the cargo for his masters and the savages at twenty pounds the head for the advantage of his own pocket. “This vilde act,” wrote Smith,” kept him ever after from anymore emploiment in these parts.” But such commerce was not unknown: in 1611, Harlow, sailing for the Earl of Southampton, with “five Salvages returned for England,” and one of these men “went a Souldier to the Warres of Bohemia.” The Cape Cod Indians seem to have been a gentle, even a forgiving race, but they had a long memory for such perfidy, which was to prove a bad business for all later visitors to the region. Yet more often than not whites and natives fought, however friendly the first overtures might have been; and Smith reports, as a matter of course, of the Indians about Plymouth: “After much kindnesse wee fought also with them, though some were hurt, some slaine, yet within an houre after they became friends.” But kidnapping seems to have been the unforgivable offence.

Only the summer before the Pilgrims arrived came Thomas Dermer, sailing for Fernando Gorges, Governor of Old Plymouth, and returned the Indian Tasquantum or Squanto, captured by Hunt and survivor of many vicissitudes, to the end that he might serve as interpreter and find out the truth about tales of treasure in the country. Dermer thought favorably of Plymouth for a settlement, and rescued a French-man who had been wrecked three years before on Cape Cod and was living with the Indians. He brought back, with Squanto, Epenow, one of Harlow’s victims, who, however, succeeded in escaping at Martha’s Vineyard. Epenow, during his exile, had been something of a personage: “being of so great stature he was shewed up and downe London for money as a wonder, and it seemes of no lesse courage and authoritie, than of wit, strength and proportion.”

It is reasonably certain that some of these adventures, perhaps all of them, were known to the Pilgrims. They would have been common talk in Ply-mouth, the city of Fernando Gorges, and in London; and the Pilgrims were come to a region familiar at least to their captain or his pilot, who is said to have sailed once with Dermer. But every man aboard the Mayflower, as they rounded the tip of Cape Cod, knew that they were about to land beyond the bounds of their permission to colonize, which lay within the jurisdiction of the North Virginia Company and “not for New England, which belonged to another government”; and “some of the strangers amongst them had let fall mutinous speeches — that when they cam ashore they would use their own libertie.”

Not for such liberty had Brewster, Bradford, Winslow, Carver, come upon their pilgrimage; they were men who meant to be free only within lawful bounds; and they were true pioneers, men who in an unforeseen perplexity could make a just decision. Hardly had they sighted the golden dunes of the Cape, and fetched short about to escape its treacherous shoals, than they were meeting their first test. As they made the “good harbor and pleasant bay” of Provincetown, “wherein a thousand sail of ships might safely ride,” the famous Compact was written, and forty-one men of the company signed it ere they set foot to land. It was a simple act, and none could have been more amazed than the Pilgrims had they known its historical significance. But because they meant to be both free and obedient, their Compact contained the germ of all just government: “It was thought good that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose.”

“In ye name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne, King James, . . . haveing undertaken, for ye glorie of God and advancemente of ye Christian faith, and honour of our king and countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonic in ye Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutualy in ye presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of ye ends aforesaid, and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute and frame such just and equall lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for ye generall good of ye colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

There is the Compact. Freedom within due limits set by the consent of the governed, these men who had chosen exile rather than submission to a tyrannous reading of the law proclaimed as the rule of their future, a principle vital to the spirit of the nation that was to be. And their Compact signed, and John Carver chosen governor for the ensuing year, the captain anchored offshore and they proceeded upon the next step of their adventure.

After the cramped wretchedness of the Mayflower, they must have been eager for release. “Being pestred nine weeks in the leaking unwholsome shipe, lying wet in their cabins, most of them grew very weake and weary of the Sea,” John Smith wrote of their passage thither. In any case there could be no question as to the necessity of landing: they must have wood and water; the women wanted to wash, the men to stretch their legs and replenish the larder with fish and game and corn. If in the process they found a spot suitable for settlement and offering a prospect of fair return on the investment made by their financial backers, the “Merchant Adventurers” of London, so much the better.

That first day, November 11, Old Style, after the Compact was signed, some fifteen men landed rather to gather firewood than to explore. They saw no Indians, and found the “sand hills much like the downs of Holland, but better, the crust of the earth a spit’s depth excellent black earth all wooded with oaks, pines, sassafras, juniper, birch, holly, vines, some ash, walnut; the wood for the most part open and without Underwood, fit either to go or ride in.” Comment which would ill describe the present appearance of Provincetown and Truro; but then the whole inner shore of the Cape, at least, seems to have been wooded to the water’s edge. The party returned with a boat-load of juniper, ” which smelled very sweet and strong.” The Sunday they kept aboard ship, with what thankful hearts for their “preservation on the great deep,” and steadfast hope of the future as we may imagine. On Monday the men went ashore to do some boat-building, and the women to wash. These landing parties had an uncomfortable time of it, for the water was too shallow to beach a boat, and they “were forced to wade a bow-shot or two in going a-land, which caused many to get colds and coughs, for it was many times freezing weather.”

On the fifteenth an exploring party set off under the command of Captain Miles Standish. For drink, wrote Edward Winslow,` there was “a little bottle of aqua vitae — and having no victuals save biscuit and Holland cheese — at last we came into a deep valley full of brush, wood gaile [bayberry] and long grass through which we found little paths or tracts; and there we saw a deer, and found springs of fresh water, and sat us down and drank our first New England water with as much delight as we ever drank drink in all our lives.” They sighted a few Indians, who “ran into the woods and whistled their dogge after them”; and William Bradford, lagging behind to examine a deer-trap, was caught by the leg for his pains. “It was a pretty device made with a rope of the Indians’ own making which we brought away with us.” They were as eager as boys on a Scout trail; and when they came upon an old palisado, they were sure it must have been the work of Christians; and on what is still known as Corn Hill they found a cache of corn packed in baskets, and an old ship’s kettle. Whereupon they took a kettleful of corn along with them — they meant to pay for it when they found the owners, they said, and, moreover, many months after, they did so. They saw flocks of geese and ducks, and also three fat bucks, but would rather have had one. And they camped in the open near Stout’s Creek at East Harbor, and next day kept on to Pamet Harbor in Truro. Altogether a satisfying expedition for Miles Standish and his men who had been cooped up for so many weeks in the Mayflower, but they had found no spot to their taste for a settlement. They wanted not only good farm lands, but an adequate harbor for the trade that was to be: Pamet Harbor they dismissed on account of the “insufficiency of the place for the accommodation of large vessels and the uncertainty as to the supply of fresh water.” These way-worn stragglers were entirely sure they were to need accommodation for large vessels; fresh water, by the way, was there a-plenty, although they did not find it.

On the twenty-seventh they set out on their Second Discovery, this time by boat under the command of Master Jones, the Mayflower skipper, who landed them short of their destination at Pamet River. They camped in a freezing sleet, and taking boat again in the morning kept on to Pamet. That night they camped under some pines and supped on “three fat geese and six ducks which we ate with souldiers’ stomachs, for we had eaten little that day.” Next morning, on the way to Corn Hill, they killed a brace of geese at a single shot. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found the corn, for else we know not how we should have done.” Again they camped in the open, and again marched on by Indian wood paths until they came upon a broad trail Ieading to a settlement. And although they saw no Indians — no doubt keen eyes were watching them from woodland coverts — they poked into the wigwams that were low wattled huts with doorways scarce a yard high hung with mats; and they noted the wooden bowls and trays, earthen-ware pots, and baskets of wrought crab-shells, and “harts’ horns and eagles’ claws.” They seem, here and there, to have taken a sample of the best, and regretted that they had nothing to leave in exchange. “We intended to have brought some beads and other things to have left in their homes in sign of peace and that we meant to truck with them, but it was not done; but as soon as we can conveniently meet with them, we will give them full satisfaction.” They discovered the grave of a white man, they thought, decently buried, with his sailor’s clothes and treasures beside him, and a child’s grave, from which they took a few pretty ornaments. Some burial mounds they left undisturbed, saying sententiously that “it might be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchres,” which very likely was no more than truth. And still they found no place to strike root.

But the Third Discovery was to have a better result. On December 6 they set out, again by boat, and rounded Billingsgate Point before they landed to camp for the night. About five in the morning, their picket rushed in with cries of “Indians ! Indians!” and they roused to savage war-whoops and arrows rattling down upon the camp. But when they fired their muskets the Indians, probably some of the Nausets whom Thomas Hunt had despoiled of men, ran away as they had come, with no one harmed on either side. The place, situated near Great Meadow Creek in Eastham, was named “The First Encounter.” Again the explorers took boat, and passing the harbor and fertile lands of Barnstable in a driving northeast gale and snowstorm, drenched with the freezing spray that made their clothes “many times like coats of iron,” they pressed on to Plymouth Bay. So thick was the weather that their pilot, who had probably sailed with Smith or Dermer, lost his bearings. “Lord be merciful, my eyes never saw this place be-fore,” cried he as they passed the Gurnet. He would there and then have beached the boat, but one of stouter heart shouting, “About with her, or we are all dead men,” they turned and ran under the lee of Clark’s Island where they landed. There, in storm and wet, they miserably bivouacked over the next day, a Sunday; and on the Monday exploring the mainland and finding harbor, meadow, and brook to their mind, they determined to make here at Plymouth their permanent settlement. Very likely they had bethought them of Dermer’s commendation of it to Fernando Gorges, although they seem not to have been amen-able to advice from John Smith, who cites them as a warning in his “advertisemente to Unexperienced Planters.” “For want to good take heede,” writes he of them in 1630, “thinking to finde all things better than I advised them, spent six or seven weekes in andering up and downe in frost and snow, winde and raine, among the woods, cricks, and swamps.” On December 16, Old Style, the whole company, reunited at Plymouth, set about the building of their new home.

The Pilgrims had been little more than a month at Provincetown, but, beside the great achievement of the Compact, history had been making to open the annals of Anglo-Saxon New England : Edward Thompson, Jasper Moore, and James Chilton had died; Dorothy, the young wife of William Bradford, had fallen overboard to her death; and Mrs. William White had been delivered of a son, fittingly named Peregrine, the first born of English parents in New England. Not unreasonably does Cape Cod claim precedence of Plymouth when homage is paid the Pilgrim Fathers.