Plymouth Rock – Historic Landmarks

THE narrow peninsula, sixty miles long, which terminates in Cape Cod, projects eastwardly from the mainland of Massachusetts, in shape resembling the human arm bent rectangularly at the elbow and again at the wrist. In the basin enclosed landward by the extreme point of this projection, in the roadstead of what is now Provincetown, the Mayflower dropped her anchor at noon on a Saturday near the close of autumn. The exigencies of a position so singular demanded an organization adequate to the preservation of order and of common safety, and the following instrument was prepared and signed :

” In the name of God, amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c., having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together in a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony ; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names, at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini 1620.”

Such was the beginning of the Colony of Plymouth. To the end of its separate history, it continued to be an humble community in numbers and in wealth. When four years had passed, the village consisted of only thirty-two cabins, inhabited by a hundred and eighty persons.

The government of the company was proscribed by the majority of voices, and administered by one of its members, with another for his assistant. It was not so much a commonwealth as a factory, of which the head bore the title of Governor. Six years later, it had added two hundred more; and, at the end of its life of seventy years, its population, scattered through several towns, had probably not come to exceed eight thousand. It is on account of the virtue displayed in its institution and management, and of the great consequences to which it ultimately led, that the Colony of Plymouth claims the attention of mankind. In any other view, its records would be unattractive. The building of log hovels, the turning of sand-heaps into corn-fields, dealings with stupid Indians and with overreaching partners in trade, anxious struggles to get a living, and, at most, the sufferings of men, women, and children, wasting under cold, sickness, and famine, feebly supply, as the staple of a history, the place of those splendid exhibitions of power, and those critical conflicts of intrigue and war, which fill the annals of great empires.

At the time of the adoption of the compact for a government, Carver was chosen Governor of the company. In the afternoon, ” fifteen or sixteen men, well armed,” were sent on shore to reconnoitre and collect fuel. They returned at evening, reporting that they had seen neither person nor dwelling, but that the country was well wooded, and that the appearance as to soil was promising.

Having kept their Sabbath in due retirement, the men began the labours of the week by landing a shallop from the ship and hauling it up the beach for repairs, while the women went on shore to wash clothes. While the carpenter and his men were at work on the boat, sixteen others, armed and provisioned, with Standish for their commander, set off on foot to explore the country. The only incident of this day was the sight of five or six savages, who on their approach ran away too swiftly to be overtaken. At night, lighting a fire and setting a guard, the party bivouacked at the distance, as they supposed, of ten miles from their vessel. Proceeding southward next morning, they observed marks of cultivation, some heaps of earth, which they took for signs of graves, and the remains of a hut, with ” a great kettle, which had been some ship’s kettle.” In a heap which they opened, they found two baskets containing four or five bushels of Indian corn, of which they took as much as they could carry away in their pockets and in the kettle. Further on, they saw two canoes, and ” an old fort or palisado, made by some Christians,” as they thought. The second night, which was rainy, they encamped again, with more precautions than before. On Friday evening, having lost their way meanwhile, and been amused by an accident to Bradford, who was caught in an Indian deer-trap, they returned to their friends ” both weary and welcome,” and delivered in their corn into the store to be kept for seed, for they knew not how to come by any, and therefore were very glad, proposing, so soon as they could meet with any of the inhabitants of that place, to make them large satisfaction.

The succeeding week was spent in putting their tools in order and preparing timber for a new boat. During this time, which proved to be cold and stormy, much inconvenience was experienced from having to wade ” a bow-shot ” through the shallow water to the shore; and many took ” coughs and colds, which afterwards turned to the scurvy.” On Monday of the week next following, twenty-four of the colonists, in the shallop, which was now re-fitted, set out for an exploration along the coast, accompanied by Jones, the shipmaster, and ten of his people, in the long-boat. That day and the following night they suffered from a cold snowstorm, and were compelled to run in to the shore for security. The next day brought them into the harbour to which the preceding journey by land had been extended, now named by them Cold Harbour, and ascertained to have a depth of twelve feet of water at flood-tide. Having slept under a shelter of pine trees, they proceeded to, make an examination of the spot as to its fitness for their settlement; in doing which, under the snow-covered and frozen surface, they found another parcel of corn and a bag of beans. These spoils they sent back in the shallop with Jones and sixteen of the party, who were ill, or worn out with exposure and fatigue. Marching inland five or six miles, they found a grave with a deposit of personal articles, as ” bowls, trays, dishes,” ” a knife, a pack-needle,” ” a little bow,” and some ” strings and bracelets of fine white beads.” Two wigwams were seen, which appeared to have been recently inhabited. Re-turning to their boat in the evening, the party hastened to rejoin their friends.

The question was discussed whether they should make a further examination of the coast, or sit down at the harbour which had been visited. The land about it had been under cultivation. The site appeared healthy, and convenient for defence, as well as for taking whales, of which numbers were daily seen. The severity of the win-ter season was close at hand, and the delay, fatigue, and risk of further explorations were dreaded. But on the whole, the uncertainty as to an adequate supply of water, with the insufficiency of the harbour, which, though commodious for boats, was too shallow for larger vessels, was regarded as a conclusive objection, and it was resolved to make a further examination of the bay. The mate of the Mayflower had told them of Agawam, now Ipswich, as a good harbour, with fertile land, and facilities for fishing. But, as things stood, it was thought too distant for a visit.

As soon as the state of the weather permitted, a party of ten, including Carver, Bradford, and others of the principal men, set off with eight seamen in the shallop on what proved to be the final expedition of discovery. The severity of the cold was extreme. ” The water froze on their clothes, and made them many times like coats of iron.” Coasting along the cape in a southerly direction for six or seven leagues, they landed and slept at a place where ten or twelve Indians had appeared on the shore. The Indians ran away on being approached, and at night it was supposed that it was their fires which appeared at four or five miles’ distance. The next day, while part of the company in the shallop examined the shore, the rest, ranging about the country where are now the towns of Wellfleet and Eastham, found a burial-place, some old wigwams, and a small store of parched acorns, buried in the ground; but they met with no inhabitants. The following morning, at daylight, they had just ended their prayers, and were preparing breakfast at their camp on the beach, when they heard a yell, and a flight of arrows fell among them. The assailants turned out to be thirty or forty Indians, who, being fired upon, retired. Neither side had been harmed. A number of the arrows were picked up, ” some where of were headed with brass, others with hart’s horn, and others with eagle’s claws.”

Getting on board, they sailed all day along the shore in a storm of snow and sleet, making, by their estimate, a distance of forty or fifty miles, without discovering a harbour. In the afternoon, the gale having increased, their rudder was disabled, and they had to steer with oars. At length the mast was carried away, and they drifted in the dark with a flood tide. With difficulty they brought up under the lee of a ” small rise of land.” Here a part of the company, suffering from wet and cold, went on shore, though not without fear of hostile neighbours, and lighted a fire by which to pass the inclement night. In the morning, ” they found themselves to be on an island secure from the Indians, where they might dry their stuff, fix their pieces, and rest themselves; and, this being the last day of the week, they prepared there to keep the Sabbath.

” On Monday, they sounded the harbour, and found it fit for shipping, and marched also into the land, and found divers cornfields and little running brooks, a place, as they supposed, fit for situation ; . . . so they returned to the ship again with this news to the rest of their people, which did much comfort their hearts.” Such is the record of that event which has made the twenty-second of December a memorable day in the calendar.