Corn Hill, Truro, MA — October 28, 2022

The Pilgrims afloat / The Mayflower at anchor

“On Thursday morning, November 19, land was seen from the deck of the Mayflower. It proved to be Cape Cod, then well covered with a variety of trees, extending nearly to the water’s edge, and presenting to the eyes of the voyagers, so long wearied with the monotonous ocean, a cheerful aspect. The prow of the ship was turned in a south-easterly direction, as they purposed to make the mouth of Hudson’s River. ‘But after they had sailed that course about half the day they fell among dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and they were so far entangled therewith that they conceived themselves in great danger; and the wind shrieking upon them withal, they resolved to bear up again for the Cape, and thought themselves happy to get out of those dangers before night overtook them, as by God’s providence they did.’

Having thus escaped the shoals (since washed away) off what is now Eastham and Orleans, and rounded the head of the Cape, they came to anchor on Saturday, November 21, 1620, in Provincetown harbor. We say Provincetown harbor, because it is easier to designate the places as they are now named, reminding the reader that, of course, they were unnamed then.

True to their habit of seeing God in all their escapes from danger, they, first of all, ‘fell on their knees and blessed the God of heaven,’ and implored the continuance of his favor in their future course. Sixty-five days they had been in their crowded little craft, in storms and rough seas; no wonder, then, that the sight of land, though it was to them yet a strange and homeless land, made them truly joyful.

It was now Saturday morning. They were not where they expected to be, nor within that region in which King James had given them, by his charter, the right to exercise the authority of a colony in making and enforcing laws. Already some of their company — belonging not to the pilgrims from Leyden, but to the strangers from London — were boasting that they would take advantage of this fact when they were settled on shore, and have a general good time in doing as they pleased. But their chief men were too wise for them. They wrote a solemn agreement by which a government among themselves might be formed. It answered pretty well to a modern state constitution. By this they were to agree that ‘all the laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices’ which should be made from time to time by the majority should be binding upon the whole, and that to them they would yield ‘due submission and obedience.’ This covenant, drawn up ‘in the name of God,’ was signed ‘in the presence of God and one another’ by forty-one men. The heads of families represented those under them, generally including even the men-servants. So these forty-one embraced the governing power of the whole pilgrim company; and a power well able to govern they proved to the great good of the whole, and the grief of the lawless. This little band of leading minds in the cabin of the Mayflower thus set in operation the elements of those peculiar forms of government under which we now live, and by which we are ‘a free and independent people.’

John Carver — then Deacon Carver — was chosen their first governor. We should have guessed that William Brewster would have had this honor, being the most experienced in state affairs, and probably the most learned of the whole company. But, though only an elder, he served there as a Gospel minister, and so could not be spared for such worldly business. We may now follow this little State in its search after a resting-place, from which it shall extend and become mighty, until nations shall sit quietly under its shadow.

The same day in which their Constitution was signed, sixteen men, under the leadership of Captain Standish, went ashore. They landed in a sheltered part of the harbor, and looked about them very cautiously. They were armed, and ready for friend or foe. They were the first of their company who set foot on American soil. Eighteen years before, Gosnold, the discoverer of Cape Cod, had made the same shores a hurried visit. They spent most of the day upon the land, and probably traveled across the west end of Provincetown until they saw the Atlantic upon the other shore. They found no inhabitants, nor signs of human habitations. They returned at night, weary no doubt, but with no evil report of the country. Thev saw various kinds of trees, among which was the fragrant red cedar, which still lingers along the New England sea-coast. They discovered sand-hills somewhat like those they had seen in Holland; and they declared that the crust of the soil was formed of an excellent black earth of a spade’s depth. The Cape Cod people do not find much of such soil now. The explorers carried to the ship’s company a boat load of the cedar for fuel, of which they were much in want. This kind of wood they used while staying there, and they were delighted with its ‘strong and very sweet smell.’

The next day was the Sabbath. During its sacred hours no oar dipped the water nor foot pressed the shore. It was their first Sabbath in America, and it is not unlikely that it was the first time that this holy day had been kept upon its coast, or the sound of Sabbath worship wafted over its waters. Had the ‘poor Indian’ been near enough to listen, even he could not have mistaken it for the voice of an enemy sending a challenge for a deadly conflict. When the sun went down on that holy eve the Mayflower band spoke of the future with quickened faith and hope.

Monday morning came, and with it a more studied view of their situation, and a closer examination of the work to be done. The shore of the bay in which they are anchored bends round them in a sickle shape, the sharp end of which is now called Long Point. They all gladly escape from their two months’ imprisonment to the solid land, to reach which they have to wade three fourths of a mile through the shallow water over the sand flats. This sad experience in landing brought to them colds and coughs, the tokens of more serious complaints. The women immediately engage in washing, ‘of which they have much need.’ There seems to be good evidence that they found a large fresh water pond near the shore; a pond which in the changes of two hundred and fifty years has entirely disappeared. It was not sweet and pure water for drinking, but answered for the much-needed washings. But what unpleasant out-door washing days they must have been, late in November, on the New England coast! Their only relief, we may imagine, was a rousing fire of the sweet-scented sassafras and cedar, of which they found an abundance.

While the women were thus engaged a number of the men got out their ‘shallop,’ the large sailing boat which had been taken to pieces and stowed away between decks. It had met with hard usage on the voyage. Besides being bruised by the pitching of the Mayflower, it had been occupied by some of the passengers as a lodging-place. It was carried ashore, where, in a clean place upon the sand, or under the shelter of some trees growing down to the water’s edge, the carpenters worked upon it for sixteen days. While this was being done the chief pilgrims were studying their situation, and providing for the future. One of them has left a record of the appearance of their surroundings. He says of the bay: ‘It is a good harbor and pleasant bay, circled round, except in the entrance, which is about four miles over from land to land.’

From the lighthouse now on Long Point, in a straight line to a point on the Truro shore, a little north of the mouth of the Pamet River, would be just about four miles. It was such a line of observation that the writer took. He says further of the bay thus formed: ‘It is compassed about to the very sea with oaks, pines, juniper, (cedar,) sassafras, and other sweet woods; it is a harbor wherein a thousand sail of ships may safely ride.’

This was a good judgment for a stranger of the situation; for a later historian says of the same bay: ‘The harbor is sufficiently capacious for three thousand vessels, and is a haven of the greatest importance to navigation, whether as respects vessels doing business in the neighboring waters, or ships from foreign voyages arriving on the coast in thick and stormy weather.’

But there were sights from the deck of the Mayflower not greeting the eyes of those seeking a shelter at the present time in Provincetown Bay. Every day they saw whales playing hard by them, one of which lingered at his ease near the vessel, seeming to desire an acquaintance with the strangers. It was a great grief to them that they were not furnished with the means of taking them. Captain Jones and his mate, and some others, were experienced in whaling; and they declared that, with the proper outfit, they could have taken from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand dollars’ worth of oil. No wonder these sailors resolved on the spot to come back the next winter and fish for whales, a resolution which we think they did not carry out.

Perhaps a pleasanter fact to the pilgrims than the presence of the whales was ‘the greatest store of fowl that ever they saw.’ These could be made available for their future subsistence in case of necessity, or even as a luxury upon their tables.

They threw out their lines for cod, but caught none. They fished too near the shore, and it was rather early in the season for that kind of fish. They caught smaller fish during their stay, which must have been a great luxury after the hard salt fare of their long voyage. They found various kinds of shellfish, among which were ‘great mussels, very fat and full of sea pearls;’ but they did not find any of them agreeable nor wholesome as food.

While the Mayflower was thus waiting for the shallop, some of the more enterprising of the company became impatient of delay. They desired to make immediate explorations of the surrounding country, and to find, if possible, a suitable place of settlement. A council was held in reference to their proposal, and it was thought dangerous, not having a boat, nor means to carry their provisions, except on their backs; yet the seal of these few was approved. Finally a reluctant consent was given for the experiment to be tried. With many ‘cautions, directions, and instructions,’ sixteen men were sent forth under the guidance of Captain Standish. Each man had his musket, sword, and corslet. The corslet was a piece of defensive armor covering the breast from the neck to the girdle. It must have been very uncomfortable in walking, especially through a pathless and partly wooded country. Their swords were great clumsy weapons, and we must not think of their guns in connection with the ‘Sharp’ and ‘Spencer’ rifles of the present day. The guns of this exploring party were matchlocks, except, as we shall see, that of Captain Standish, who had one of the newly-invented flint locks. Think of a soldier waiting, after he gets sight of the enemy, to touch his gun off with a match! But the methods of killing men have improved since the pilgrim days.

Captain Standish and his company were set ashore on Wednesday morning, November 25, having assigned to him, as a kind of staff ‘for counsel and advice,’ William Bradford, Stephen Hopkins, and Edward Tilley. They marched in single file near the sea for about a mile, when they saw five or six Indians coming toward them with a dog. As soon as the savages saw the explorers they plunged into the woods, whistling their dog after them. The white men followed, and the Indians became frightened, and ran off with ‘might and main’ in the direction their pursuers intended to go. The light-footed men of the forest were soon out of sight; but the pilgrims, in their cumbersome armor, and with their heavy guns, followed their foot-tracks, noticing that they went the way they had come, and that they had run up a hill, around which their path lay, to see if they were pursued. This hill seems to have been ‘Negro Head,’ near the Atlantic shore of Provincetown. The pilgrims kept on the Indian trail until night set in, and thought they had traveled in pursuit about ten miles. Measured by the depth of the sand, the obstructions of the underbrush in many places, the weight of their armor, and their consequent weariness, it might have seemed ten miles, when in fact they had not gone much over half of that distance. At any rate they were glad to encamp, on finding an inviting place near the head of East Harbor Creek. Here, setting three sentinels and building a fire, they passed the night, probably their first on the American land.

In the morning, as soon as they could see, they took the trail again, which led them round the head of the creek, nearly to the beach on the east side of the Cape, on the margin of which it ran a short distance, and then turned southwest into the woods among the bushes and drooping boughs, which made sad work with their clothes and armor. But they found no Indians, nor signs of their habitations. At a later period they would have been ‘ambushed’ and killed in following the Indians into such a thicket. Nothing worse now happened to them than great hunger and thirst and excessive weariness. They had brought no food, only biscuit, probably hard and dry, and Holland cheese. They had no water, and could find none. They had a small bottle of ‘aqua vitae,’ a drink then made ‘of brewed beer strongly hopped;’ a vile compound, no doubt. We are not surprised, therefore, that one of them said. ‘We were sore athirst!’ About then the trail led them through a valley among bushes of various kinds, when they espied a deer, and soon after found springs of pure water, of which they said: ‘We were heartily glad, and sat us down and drank our first New England water with as much delight as we ever drank drink in our lives.’

Having refreshed themselves they went south awhile, and reached the shore of the bay at a point from which they could see the Mayflower as she lay east of them at her anchorage near Long Point, about four miles distant. They built a fire, which was the signal by which their friends understood that all was well. From this place they walked a little inward from the shore, toward the mouth of the river which had attracted the attention of all on board the Mayflower on their first coming into the bay. It is now known as Pamet River, in Truro. On their way they came to a pond of beautifnl appearance, its shores lined with vines, about which were deer and numerous waterfowls — the little lake which gives name at this time to ‘Pond Yillage.’

Being tired of the grass and bushes of the upland, they tried for awhile the sand of the beach. Those who have endeavored to walk in the Cape Cod sand will not be surprised to hear the pilgrims say: ‘By this means some of our men were tired and lagged behind, so we stayed and gathered them up, and struck into the land again.’

As they proceeded they found small heaps of sand. On one were mats, a kind of mortar of wood, and an earthen pot. Digging a little they found a bow and arrows. Ascertaining that they were graves, they put every thing that they had touched carefully back into its place, and left the rest untouched, because they thought it would be ‘odious unto the Indians to ransack their sepulchers.’

Their path now became deeply interesting to them. They began to find open fields which had been recently planted. Strawberry and grape vines were plenty, and the walnut-trees were still laden with fruit. While thus narrowly observing every thing, and expecting to see Indian wigwams, they were surprised at finding the remains of a rude European hut. A few planks were piled together, and a great kettle lay near them. A few years before a French ship had been cast away near this place, the sailors escaping and living for a time here. Our explorers next found what was of much more consequence to them. They discovered, under a heap of sand, baskets of corn, ‘a very goodly sight.’ One of the baskets ‘was very beautifully and cunningly made,’ round, and small at the top. It held four bushels, and was as much as two men could lift from the ground. Some of the corn which was found in the ears was yellow, some red, and some mixed with blue. While two or three were digging up the corn the rest stood guard in every direction. Having uncovered enough, they were in much suspense to know what to do with it.’ After a long consultation they concluded to take the kettle and as much of the corn as they could carry; and, when the shallop was repaired, come here and, if possible, find the owner’s, and satisfy them for it. So they ‘put a good deal of the loose corn in the kettle, for two men to bring away on a staff.’ All who had pockets unoccupied filled them, and the rest was buried again.

This Indian corn was peculiar to the New World, but found from Canada to Patagonia. The Haytians called it maize which became quite a general name; but the Massachusetts Indians had a name which was not likely to become common; it was eachimmineash! Think of an Indian child calling for more ‘eachimmineash!’ We think that after the English came they soon learned to say corn.

Having found an old fort, the work no doubt of the shipwrecked sailors, and having examined the mouth of Pamet Piver, where they saw two canoes, the party began to return; ‘for,’ they say, ‘we had commandment to be out but two days.’

Their second night was spent near the beautifal lake of ‘Pond Yillage.’ Before they lay down they built a kind of fort of logs both for shelter and defense, kindled a fire, and set their watch. Bradford, one of their leaders afterward in all that was good, was there, and, we doubt not, he now led in their evening devotions.

It was a very rainy night, and they must have risen, poorly fitted for the renewal of their tramp. They relieved themselves in a measure by sinking their kettle in the pond. Their gun-locks were wet, so that they had to be ‘trimmed’ before starting. To add to their labor they lost their way, and wandered about for awhile in the woods and among the bushes much at random. While thus bewildered they came upon an Indian deer-trap. It was, they said, ‘a very pretty device,’ made with a strong rope and a cunning noose, both of which surprised them by their evidence of skill. Stephen Hopkins warned the first who approached it by telling them it was to catch deer, and might catch them; but Bradford, coming up from the rear with a hasty curiosity, put his foot into it, and it gave a sudden jerk and caught him by the leg. ‘No harm was done, and Bradford no doubt took in good part the laugh of the company.

Soon after they saw three deer, and dryly remarked, ‘We should rather have had one, than to have seen three.” So these sober men could enjoy an innocent joke as well as indulge in wholesome laughter. They were not the sour men some people think they were. Real good men are never sour. Nothing of further note occurred on their return. They came to the shore nearest to the ship, ‘shot off their pieces,’ and the long-boat came and took them on board. Thus on Friday evening they came back ‘both weary and welcome home.’

The explorers found that their companions had not been idle during their absence. While the carpenters had wrought on the shallop some were sawing out timber for a new boat, and others busied themselves by sharpening their tools or putting new handles to them. Saturday was spent in these continued labors, all of which were much hindered by the loss of time arising from the long and cold wadings through the shallow water in going from the long-boat to the shore.

The next day, December 6, was the second Sabbath in these waters. They all returned, no doubt, to the Mayflower, to seek in its dreary hold and cabin new strength from songs and prayer, and from the discourse of Elder Brewster.

Such was their urgent need to find some place of settlement that the shallop was launched on Monday of the week following, although, as it proved, she was not quite repaired. Twenty-four of the pilgrim company were chosen to make the first voyage of discovery in her. Captain Jones offered his services, with ten of his sailors. Wishing to show their appreciation of his forwardness, they chose him leader of the expedition. This company of thirty-four started in the long-boat and shallop for Pamet River, which had been reached by the land explorers. They hoped it would prove a fine fresh water stream, affording a good place for settlement. But every movement of these determined men was beset with difficulties. The wind increased to a sailor’s ‘stiff breeze,’ accompanied with snow. They could only make the nearest land across Provincetown Harbor, and rounding Beach Point entered East Harbor. Here they landed, wading as usual to the shore, and walked about five miles that day in their frozen clothes. They made a fire and encamped at night; but a dreary, uncomfortable night it must have been. In the morning the shallop, which had gone back to the ship, returned for them, taking them in and landing them at the mouth of Pamet Piver, which they named Cold Harbor, a name very naturally suggested by their recent experience. The land party took the shore between the two branches, the shallop following up the larger one. Up and down the sand hills and through the valleys, wading in crusted snow for five miles, they pressed forward, until they sunk down in sheer exhaustion. Captain Jones was, however, the first to complain, and insist upon encamping. His heart was evidently but little engaged in this excursion. They built their camp fires under a few pine-trees; and, ‘as it fell out,’ they obtained three fat geese and six ducks for their supper, which they ate ‘with soldier’s relish,’ as they had eaten but little all that day. In the morning they held a consultation concerning the best course to take. Some were for pressing further up stream, which would soon have brought them to the Atlantic side of the Cape. Others, not liking the sand hills and general appearance of the region, were for leaving that branch of the river, which they finally decided to do. Crossing over the north branch they came upon the deposit of corn made in their former expedition, and named the place Cornhill. By turning up the crusted snow with their cutlasses and short swords they found other deposits, including beans, one of the products of Indian farming. They took about ten bushels of the shelled corn, besides some good specimens, upon the ears, of the various colors, and a quantity of beans, in all enough, with that obtained before, for the spring planting. They rejoiced greatly at this timely supply, and at the divine guiding which had directed the land party here before the snow had fallen, which now hid every mark of the deposits. In view of this hand of God they devoutly exclaimed, ‘The Lord is never wanting unto his in their greatest needs; let his holy name have all the praise.’

Night coming on, the irresolute Captain Jones again clamored to return. They had made a poor exchange of leaders in getting the seaman Jones for the soldier Standish! But they made the best of it by letting him return with the sick and over-exhausted ones, sixteen in number, while eighteen remained to push forward further observations.

Going first toward what is now Highland Light, they returned to the bay side and lighted upon the place of graves of their earlier visit. They were impressed with the appearance of one of the mounds, which, on opening, proved to be the burial place, as they thought, of some of the shipwrecked sailors. They found upon it a board painted and carved with seamen’s devices; also bowls, trays, dishes, old canvass, parts of sailors’ clothes, and a fine red powder, which they supposed to be the Indians’ embalming powder. There were also the remains of human bodies. All was replaced, and pains taken to impress the Indians that the new comers were not robbers of graves.

While these investigations were being made the shallop returned, and the sailors ranging the vicinity found two Indian huts. They very cautiously entered them, but found no one. They then informed others of the explorers, eight of whom searched the vicinity with guns and lighted matches, thinking to find an Indian village, but without success. These huts, with their surroundings and contents, they thus describe:

‘The bouses were made of long, young sapling trees bended, and both ends stuck into the ground. They were made round, like unto an arbor, and covered down to the ground with thick and well-wrought mats. The door was not over a yard high, made of a mat to open. The chimney was a wide open hole in the top, for which they had a mat to cover it close when they pleased. One might stand and go upright in them. In the midst were four little stakes knocked into the ground, and small sticks laid over on which they hung their pots and what they had to boil. Round about the fire they lay on mats, which are their beds. The houses were double matted, for as they were matted without so were they within, wdth newer and fairer mats. In the houses we found wooden bowls, trays, and dishes, earthen pots, hand-baskets made of crab shells wrought together; also an English pail without a handle; baskets of sundry sorts, bigger and some lesser, finer and some coarser, and some wrought with black and white in pretty works. There were sundry other of their household stuff; also some two or three deers’ heads, one whereof had been newly killed. There was also a company of deers’ feet stuck up in the houses, harts’ horns, and eagles’ claws. There were three baskets full of parched acorns, pieces of fish, and a piece of broiled herring. We found also a little silk grass, and a little tobacco seed, and some other seeds which we knew not. Without were sundry bundles of flags and sedge, bullrushes, and other stuff to make mats. There was thrust into a hollow tree two or three pieces of venison; but we thought it fitter for the dogs than for us.’

As the tide was getting low and the night was drawing near they all went on board their shallop, taking some of the best things with them, but leaving the houses uninjured. They reached the Mayflower that night, and thus ended their ‘second discovery.’ The seed corn and other things which they took from their unknown owners were taken because they believed their urgent necessities justified the act, feeling that their company would be saved from much suffering and perhaps from starvation by it. They declared that they purposed to return immediately to Cornhill, and leave beads and other things valuable to the Indians; but the haste with which they were obliged to sail from Provincetown Bay prevented. How sincere they were in this professed desire to fully pay for what they had taken we shall see as we follow their history.”

-Excerpt courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Library, Library of Congress, “Views from Plymouth rock; a sketch of the early history of the Plymouth colony,” by Zachariah Atwell Mudge, 1869

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