From Long Hill to Corn Hill — October 26, 2022

Urgent explorations for a place to settle

“At last in a ‘good harbor and brought safe to land,’ said Bradford, the Pilgrims ‘fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.’

The longboat was put over the side of the Mayflower and a landing party of 15 or 16 armed men headed for shore. But the boat could not get to the beach and the men, weighted down with their armor and carrying axes to use in replenishing the ship’s exhausted wood supply, were forced ‘to wade a bowshot or two on going aland’ — at least knee-deep in cold November seawater.

They were pleased with the large size of the harbor and with the wooded shore. ‘There was the greatest store of fowl that ever we saw’ and whales were ‘playing hard by us.’

The group climbed the highland where now the Pilgrim Monument towers, and saw the other, ocean side of the Cape, which reminded them of the dunes in Holland. Before returning that night to the Mayflower they ‘laded their boat with juniper,’ a chore that must have involved a lot of wading, for the sweet-smelling supply lasted the whole time the Mayflower was moored in this harbor.

They were deeply anxious to meet any inhabitants — potential future neighbors — but saw neither Indians nor any sign of Indian habitation.

The next day, a Sunday, was the Lord’s Day to the Pilgrims and they observed it in their customarily devout fashion despite the time pressures upon them.

Ever since they had dropped anchor, Master Jones and the crew had been urging that ‘with speed they should look out a place.’ Jones did not want to leave until his passengers were out of danger, but he had to keep a share of the dininishing food supply for his return trip.

The following day, the Pilgrims went ashore ‘to refresh themselves and our women to wash, as they had great need.’ Thus did Monday as washday become a longtime New England tradition. While the women scrubbed, the men fetched ashore the sections of the shallop, which was ‘bruised and battered… much opened with the people’s lying in her.’

The carpenters went to work to reassemble the craft on the beach. As with the Mayflower, no plan of the shallop exists. From its use in exploration and the number of passengers that would sail in the craft, it appears that the shallop — with a single mast, mainsail and jib — was between 20 and 30 feet long, with a beam of 7 to 9 feet.

When it seemed that repair might take five or six days — actually, it would take much longer — some of the Pilgrims, ‘impatient of delay,’ desired to explore the shore despite the fact that without the shallop they would have to carry provisions on their backs.

Under solicitous instruction ‘to be out but two days,’ 16 volunteers — ‘with every man his musket, sword and corslet (armor for the upper body)’ — were put ashore on Nov. 15 and set off under their military leader, short, stout-hearted Myles Standish.

This was to be the first of three exploratory expeditions undertaken by the Pilgrims before, more than a month later — after many hardships, deadly exposure to the elements, Indian attack, tragic deaths and the near wreck of the shallop in a storm — the Mayflower would sail west across Cape Cod Bay and anchor in the harbor of the final choice for their plantation.

Standish and his men had gone about a mile along the beach when they spotted five or six men and a dog. At first they thought these might be Jones and some of his crew, who were also ashore. When they realized that they were seeing Indians, they sought eagerly to meet with them. But the Indians, far fleeter than the armor-clad Pilgrims, ran away.

After more miles of following footprints on sand and trails in woods, to no avail, the group prepared a lodging for the night — gathering wood, making a fire and posting three sentinels. Next day, still within the future town of Truro, they resumed their trailing. They had brought only biscuits, Holland cheese and a little bottle of squa vitae (liquor), and soon, having no water or beer, they were ‘sore athirst.’ Presently, in midmorning, they spotted a deer and came upon springs of fresh water. Here, they ‘drunk our first New England water with as much delight as ever we drunk drink in all our lives.’

Thinking then of the folks on the Mayflower, they headed for the beach and made a fire to signal back that all was well.

On first coming into harbor, Jones had spotted to the southeastward what appeared to be a river opening in the mainland. The Pilgrims struck out southward to find it. En route, they came upon none of the inhabitants they were hoping to meet but found evidence aplenty that this was Indian terrain. Near present Pond Village, they saw acres where the Indians had formerly planted corn and found Indian graves. They also discovered planks where a house had been, and a large metal kettle.

Most providentially, they later spotted recently heaped mounds of sand and, after digging, uncovered a chase vital to their future: baskets of Indian corn, and a few dozen ears of different colors. It was, said Bradford, ‘a very goodly sight, having never seen any such before.’ After agreeing that they would recompense the owners — which indeed they would one day do — they filled their pockets with the precious seed corn and also took the kettle, which two men carried away on a staff. The rest of the corn they reburied.

On nearing the river, now called after the local Pamet tribe, they saw the remainder of an old palisade, or fort — the handiwork of Europeans, as seemed true as well of the planked house and the kettle. As for the Pamet River, they felt that they had insufficient time to explore it and decided to leave that until after restoration of the shallop. They made note of two canoes, one on either bank, and then headed back.

That night, a very rainy one, they spent by the pond after raising a barricade, making a fire and posting three sentinels.

To save time in the morning, the explorers sank the kettle in the pond and took off through the woods — where they got lost and had to puzzle their way out.

On nearing the Mayflower the group shot off muskets and the longboat shoved off to fetch them. Carver and Jones and many others came ashore to greet them with relief and delight; for, said Bradford, the Pilgrims ‘were marvelously glad and their hearts encouraged’ by what Standish and his volunteers called ‘Our First Discovery.’

There was, though, an ominous aspect to their explorations.

Bradford observed that they could neither go to nor come from the shore except at high water. ‘Oftentimes they waded to the middle of the thigh,’ he said. Some made the trip of necessity, some for the pleasure of getting to stand on firm land. ‘But,’ said Bradford, ‘it brought to the most, if not to all, coughs and colds, the weather proving suddenly cold and stormy, which afterwards turned to the scurvy, whereof many died.’

Although the carpenters estimated it would take two additional days to completely repair the shallop, the Pilgrims decided to shove off Nov. 27 for further exploration of the Pamet River area.

‘Our Second Discovery,’ as the Pilgrims called it, would cover four difficult days. Twenty-four men were picked to go — a number increased to thirty-four when Jones expressed a wish to go, too, and brought nine of his crew. In gratitude for his kindness, Jones was chosen leader.

They used both the shallop and the longboat. Confronted with ‘rough weather and cross winds,’ they were soon forced to seek the nearest shore, and then to wade above the knees to get to it.

Some of the men, worried about the loss of time, marched an additional six or seven miles. ‘It blowed and did snow all that day and night, and froze withal.’ Thinking back days later on their frigid experience, they noted: ‘Some of our people that are dead took the original of their death here.’

Next day the group sailed to the mouth of the Pamet River. Understandably, they called it ‘Cold Harbour.’ They decided it was navigable only by boats, not ships. After they had plodded up steep hills and down into deep valleys through six inches of snow, their wearied captain felt that they should rest. Some wanted to explore farther, but they made camp for the night ‘under a few pine trees.’

They had eaten little that day, and dined ‘with soldiers’ stomachs’ when they bagged three fat geese and six ducks.

By morning the explorers decided the land was too hilly and the harbor too shallow for a settlement, and they went looking for the place where they had cached the rest of the corn. This was on a hill near the shore overlooking Cold Harbour. They named it ‘Corn Hill,’ still its name. They had to dig with cutlasses and short swords a foot in the frozen ground; and they thanked God that they had made the first exploratory trip, for the ground was now hidden by snow and hard-frozen.

Bradford, in his history, emphasized what ‘a special Providence of God’ that first corn discovery had been:

‘They got seed to plant them corn the next year, or else they might have starved, for they had none nor any likelihood to get any till the season had been past, as the sequel did manifest.’

They dug in other places and, in all, got about ten bushels of corn, two or three baskets of wheat and a bag of beans. Then weather-wise Master Jones saw that the sky portended foul weather and wished to go back aboard ship. So they sent back all the corn and ‘our weakest people and some that were sick.’ This left 18 who hoped to find Indians, with whom they were eager to trade — or, as they expressed it, to truck.”

-Excerpt courtesy of, The Boston Globe, “Saga of the Pilgrims: New England Takes Root,” by John Harris, October 23, 1983

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