Cape Cod – The Old Colony – Pt. 4

THE country was sparsely settled by natives: for some four years earlier an “unwanted plague,” an act of God the pious might have been excused for judging it to sweep the country bare for the uses of white immigrants, had all but depopulated the coast from the Penobscot to Narragansett. The vicinity of Plymouth, in particular, had been affected, and when Squanto was returned there by Dermer, he found all his kinsmen dead. It is said that a short time before the calamity, the Nausets, making reprisals on a ship-wrecked French crew for the kidnapping activities of the whites, had been promised by one of their victims the vengeance of the white man’s God who would surely destroy them and give over their country to his people. `We are too many for him to destroy,” boasted the Indians. But when the plague wasted them, and the arrival of the Mayflower might be held as confirmation of the prophecy, their assurance may have weakened. It seemed that the white man’s God might have more power than they supposed; and perhaps that futile flight of arrows at the First En-counter was no more than a half-hearted protest at the decree of fate. The natives had some pretty superstitions of their own—as to the discovery of Nantucket, for instance, which, they told the English-men, had been quite unknown until many moons earlier when a great bird had borne off in his talons so many children from the south shore that a giant, one Maushope, moved with pity, had waded out into the sea and followed the bird to the island where he found the bones of the ravished children under a tree. Whereupon, recognizing the futility of regret, he sat him down to smoke, and the smoke was borne back across the waters he had traversed — the true origin of fog in the Sound. And Indians, as it drove in from sea, would say: “There comes old Maushope’s smoke.” Another story has it that Nantucket was formed of the ashes from Maushope’s pipe; but that the island was discovered by the parents of a papoose that was borne off by an eagle. They followed fast in their canoe, but not fast enough, for they were only in time to find the bones of their child heaped under a tree in the hitherto unknown land of Nantucket.

The Plymouth settlers seem to have encountered no great opposition from the natives who, although shy and suspicious as might be any creatures of the forest, were responsive to the just dealing that was the considered policy of the Pilgrims; and on both sides there was an impulse to friendliness tempered, however, by the ineradicable racial instinct to be wary of whatever is strange. Within a few months the settlers had concluded a treaty with Massasoit, the great overlord of the region. And Samoset, who had learned a little English from traders, soon presented himself with his friendly greeting: “Welcome, Englishmen, welcome.” And Squanto, from the first, was their faithful interpreter. The remnants of the Cape tribes, the Cummaquids, the Nausets, and Pamets, scattered among their _little settlements from Sandwich to Truro — Mashpee, Sacuton, Cummaquid, Mattacheesett, Nobscusset, Monomoyick, Sequautucket,-Nauset, and Pamet — were, save the Nausets possibly, a singularly gentle race. Nor were the Nausets, when it was well within their power once, disposed to take vengeance upon a boy.

In July, 1621, young John Billington set out from Plymouth to do some independent exploring; nor was this the first escapade of the Billington family. Back there at Provincetown, one morning, John’s brother Francis was like to have blown up the Mayflower by firing off a fowling-piece in the cabin where there was an open keg of powder. “By God’s mercy, no harm was done.” The Billingtons seem to have been among the undesirables of the Mayflower: the father “I know not by what friends shuffled into our company,” Bradford writes of him. And later, in 1630, the man was hanged for murder. But the settlers were not men to leave young John to his fate; yet search as they would, they could find no trace of him until Indians brought in rumors of a white lad roaming about the Cape. Ten men, with two Indians as interpreters, set sail for Barnstable Bay, and asked news of the boy from some natives catching lobsters there. Yes, such a boy was known to be with the Nausets, and the company was invited to land. They were welcomed by Iyanough, sachem of the Cummaquids, “a man,” wrote Edward Winslow of him, “not exceeding twenty-six years of age, but very personable, gentle, courteous and fair-conditioned; indeed, not like a savage except in his attire. His entertainment was answerable to his parts, and his cheer plentiful and various.” And here at Cummaquid they saw a woman, upwards of a hundred years old, who was mother of three of Hunt’s victims and bewailed the loss of her sons so piteously that the visitors sought to comfort her not only with futile words, but with a gift of “some small trifles which somewhat appeased her.” And after partaking of the “plentiful and various cheer,” they set out again, with Iyanough himself and two of his men as a guard of honor, and grounded their boat near the Nauset shore. But they did not land, and after some cautious interchange of civilities, Aspinet, the sachem there, brought the boy, whom he “had bedecked like a salvage,” and “behung with beads,” out to their boat. And through Aspinet, the Plymouth men arranged to pay for the seed corn they had taken from his cache on Corn Hill in the previous November. Returning with Iyanough to Cummaquid, there was further “entertainment”: the women and children joined hands in a dance before them; Iyanough himself led the way through the darkness to a spring where they might fill their water cask; he hung his own necklace about the neck of an Englishman. And the party set out for home with due reciprocation of courtesy, but were hindered by tide and wind, and again returned, and again were welcomed by the natives. Truly, a fine adventure for young John Billington.

This expedition seems to have cemented a friendly understanding with the Cape Indians. In November, when the Fortune was sighted off the Cape and the Indians feared she might be a hostile French ship, they warned Plymouth in time for the townsmen to prepare for possible attack. And the natives were always ready to supplement the settlers’ scanty stock of food, which, but for them, would have had no other variety than game from the forest and fish from the sea. Not that the pious were unmindful of such mercies. “Thanks to God who has given us to suck of the abundance of the seas and of treasure hid in the sands,” was the grace said over a dish of clams to which a neighbor had been invited. But for the fruits of the earth they were chiefly dependent upon the savages. “The cheapest corn they planted at first was Indian grain, before they had ploughs,” runs the record. “And let no man make a jest at pumpkins, for with this food the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content till corn and cattle were increased.”

“We have pumpkins at morning, and pumpkins at noon. If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undone.”

The first harvest was not sufficient for the winter’s need, and in November a company under William Bradford set out in the Swan — a boat lent by their neighbors of Weymouth, who had had no small share in depleting their supplies — for a coasting trip around the Cape to trade knives and beads for corn. With them was their interpreter Squanto; and this was to prove poor Squanto’s last voyage, for at Monomoyick (Chatham) he was taken ill and died. At Monomoyick eight hogsheads of corn and beans were stowed away on the Swan; at Mattacheesett (Barnstable or Yarmouth) and Nauset an additional supply was had. But at Nauset, where a few men had run in shore in the shallop, their boat was wrecked, and caching the stores, the party procured a guide and set out overland for Plymouth, while their companions in the Swan proceeded by sea. In January Standish took the lead in another expedition by boat, recovered and repaired the wrecked shallop at Nauset, brusquely demanded restitution of the Indians for “some trifles” he charged them with stealing, and then and afterwards at Mattacheesett where he made a like charge, received the articles and ample apology from their chiefs.

All visitors to these shores seem to be agreed on the thievish propensities of the natives: Gosnold’s chronicler remarks that they are “more timerous” than those to the north, but thievish; Champlain thought them of “good disposition, better than those of the north, but they are all in fact of no great worth. They are great thieves and if they cannot lay hold of anything with their hands, they try to do so with their feet.” He adds, charitably: “I am of opinion that if they had anything to exchange with us, they would not give themselves to thieving.” The fact seems to have been that these children of nature could not resist the lure of any unguarded bits of treasure; but Miles Standish was not the man to enter into psychological elucidations of behavior, and at Mattacheesett, as at Nauset, he suspected the natives of treachery as well as thieving, and kept strict watch while they filled his shallop with grain.

In the folic wing month, March, he had still more reason, he thought, to question the friendly intention of the chief Canacum at Manomet, or Bourne, who, however, one bitter cold night had suitably entertained Bradford’s party and sold them the corn which Standish had come to fetch. Standish’s suspicions increased to certainty when two Massachusetts Indians joined the company and one of them began a tirade to Canacum which afterwards was known to be a complaint of outrages committed by the English at Weymouth and a plea to cut off Standish and his handful of men. Winslow writes that there was also “a lusty Indian of Pawmet, or Cape Cod, there present, who had ever demeaned himself well towards us, being in his general carriage very affable, courteous, and loving, especially towards the captain.” But “this savage was now entered into confederacy with the rest, yet to avoid suspicion, made many signs of his continued affection, and would needs bestow a kettle of some six or eight gallons on him, and would not accept anything in lieu thereof, saying he was rich, and could afford to bestow such favors on his friends whom he loved.” Now a kettle was one of an Indian’s most precious possessions, and very likely the Pamet, when he heard the treachery afoot, offered it merely as an extravagant pledge of friendship; but when he demeaned himself to help the women whom Standish had bribed to load his cargo, the captain merely saw there another proof of perfidy. The Englishmen spent an anxious night in their bivouac on the beach; but when morning broke embarked safely, and with their corn made the return trip to Plymouth.

Whether or not incited thereto by intolerable wrongs, Indians of the mainland had begun to make trouble, and information now came to the Pilgrims, through their ally, Massasoit, of a plot against the whites in which not only Indians near Weymouth, but some of the Cape Indians, were said to be implicated. Weston’s colony of adventurers there had from the first been a thorn in the side of Plymouth; but when one of the Weymouth men, eluding the Indians, made his way across country to report the dangerous conditions there Standish waited not upon the order of his going. With eight whites and an Indian guide, he set sail for Weymouth, where he seems to have met with little resistance, and having slain a due number of the savages, returned to Plymouth with the head of their chief, Wittaumet, “a notable insulting villain,” as a trophy. Very likely thereby a serious rising of the natives was averted. To Wittaumet’s men a white was a white; it was all one to them whether he were blameless Pilgrim or Merrymount royster; and as for the Patuxets and Pamets and Nausets, we know they had old scores to settle. It is true, moreover, that any long contact of Indians and whites was fairly sure to end in a quarrel and blood-letting. And if the purpose of Standish’s expedition was to create terror, it was a success. Natives of the seacoast, whom the plague had spared, innocent and guilty, fled to the swamps and waste places, where disease attacked them more effectually than the English could have done, and many of them died; among them Canacum of Manomet, Aspinet of the Nausets, and even the “princely” lyanough, who seems to have been blameless in intention and act. More than two hundred and fifty years later, the bones of a chief were discovered near a swamp in East Barnstable, and, believed to be those of Iyanough, were encased suitably and placed in Pilgrim Hall near relics of Miles Standish w o had as surely done him to death as if slain by his hand. The name of Iyanough is preserved in that of the modern town of Hyannis.

How much fault in all this deplorable business may be charged to Miles Standish, one may not say. He was not a “Pilgrim,” nor of their faith, but from the first, on account of his experience and skill, had been chosen for their military leader. Hubbard writes of him: “A little chimney is soon fired; so was the Plymouth captain, a man of small stature, yet of a very hot and angry temper.” And when wise John Robinson, at Leyden, heard of Standish’s bloody reprisals, he wrote the brethren at Plymouth that he “trusted the Lord had sent him among them for good, but feared he was wanting in that tenderness of the life of man, made after God’s image, which was meet; and thought it would have been better if they had converted some before they killed any.”