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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Landing of the Pilgrims
by Bancroft, Hubert H.

[The discovery and settlement of New England was a slow process. It possibly began with the voyages of the Northmen, though the locality of Vinland can never be definitely known. The English claim to the territory was based on the voyages of the Cabots, in which the coast was visited from the far north to the thirty- eighth (or perhaps to the thirty-sixth) degree of north latitude. The New England coast was afterwards visited by Cortereal, by Verrazano, and by several later voyagers. Yet during the sixteenth century no part of it was explored, and no effort made at colonization. Gosnold, in 1602, made an unsuccessful attempt to plant a colony on Martha's Vineyard. Martin Pring made a trading-voyage to the coast in 1603. In 1605 George Weymouth entered the Kennebec or the Penobscot River. About the same time the French essayed to plant a colony on Cape Cod, but were driven off by the Indians. In 1606 the Plymouth and London Companies, for the purpose of planting colonies in America, were formed in London, the patent of the first-named covering the coast of New England, to which a colony was sent in 1607. It landed at the mouth of the Kennebec River, but the colonists became discouraged, and returned on the ships, with the exception of forty-five, who spent a long and severe winter on the coast and returned to England in the following spring. A party of French established themselves on Mount Desert Island in 1613, but were driven off after a few weeks' stay by Captain Argall, of Virginia. The next effort to colonize this region was made by Captain John Smith, who had already given permanence to the Virginia colony by his shrewdness and energy. He explored the coast in 1614, and made a map of it, giving its present name to the country. But his earnest efforts to found a colony failed, through discouraging circumstances, and despite his persistent endeavors. Other voyages were made, and a trading-party remained on the coast during the winter of 1616-17, but all such efforts to establish trading-colonies ended in failure, and it was not until the arrival of the Puritan agriculturists in 1620 that a permanent colony was formed.

No detailed explanation as to who the Puritans were is here demanded. It will suffice to say that long before the establishment of the English Episcopal Church by Henry VIII. there had been in England a large body of religious reformers, and that after that period these continued to exist, under the titles of Non-Conformists, Separatists, Brownists, etc., despite the persecutions to which they were subjected. Among the congregations of Separatists are two with which we are particularly concerned. One was gathered at Gainsborough, in Lincolnshire, the other at the village of Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire. They were composed of simple agriculturists, yet they found the repression of religious liberty to which they were subjected so intolerable that they determined to emigrate to Holland, where they had heard that freedom of thought was permitted. After great difficulty, the Scrooby congregation succeeded in reaching Amsterdam, where they found the Gainsborough people, and a London congregation that had emigrated some twelve or fifteen years before. In 1616 they removed to Leyden. But the political agitation which arose in Holland made that country a disagreeable place of residence, and they finally determined to emigrate to America, where they might be free to worship God in their own way without hindrance.

They well knew the perils and difficulties they would have to encounter, and even magnified them, but were prepared to endure them all for the blessing of religious liberty. Some thought of joining the colony in Virginia; others, of going to Guiana, where Sir Walter Raleigh then was, on a second visit. Negotiations were entered into with the Dutch, with a view to emigrate to the Hudson. But they finally concluded to establish a new colony on the northern American coast, where they would be free from any interference with their fixed purposes. In July, 1620, they embarked for England in the ship Speedwell. Here, in the port of Southampton, they found the Mayflower, a vessel of one hundred and eighty tons' burden, which had been engaged for the voyage. Two starts were made, but in each case they were obliged to return, the Speedwell proving unseaworthy. Finally, on September 6, the Mayflower sailed alone, and "put to sea with a prosperous wind." Among the leading spirits of the expedition may be named Bradford and Brewster, members of the original Scrooby congregation, Winslow, a personage of superior condition to his companions, who had joined them in Holland, and Miles Standish, who was not a member of the church, but who loved adventure, and whose military knowledge was of great value to the emigrants. The story of the voyage and landing we extract from Palfrey's admirable "History of New England."]

The colonists,-- men, women, and children,-- who were now embarked on board the Mayflower, were a hundred and two in number. Concerning very few of them is it known to this day from what English homes they came.. Little is recorded of the incidents of the voyage. The first part was favorably made. As the wanderers approached the American continent, they encountered storms which their overburdened vessel was scarcely able to sustain. Their destination was to a point near the Hudson River, yet within the territory of the London Company, by which their patent had been granted. This description corresponds to no other country than the sea-coast of the State of New Jersey. At early dawn of the sixty-first day of their voyage (November 9, 1620) they came in sight of the white sand-banks of Cape Cod. In pursuance of their original purpose, they veered to the south, but by the middle of the day they found themselves "among perilous shoals and breakers," which caused them to retrace their course. An opinion afterwards prevailed, on questionable grounds, that they had been purposely led astray by the master of the vessel, induced by a bribe from the Dutch, who were averse to having them near the mouth of the Hudson, which Dutch vessels had begun to visit for trade.

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 (November 11).

[Here was drawn up and signed an instrument constituting a brief governmental compact, and John Carver, who had been instrumental in obtaining from the king permission for their enterprise, was chosen governor of the colony.]

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 labors 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. Farther 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, as soon as they could meet with any of the inhabitants of that place, to make them large satisfaction."

[The succeeding week was passed in necessary labors, and in exploration of the coast in the shallop. Landing, they found some more corn and a bag of beans, and several miles inland a grave containing "bowls, trays, dishes," "a knife, a pack-needle," "a little bow," and some "strings and bracelets of fine white beads." Two wigwams were seen. On December 6 another exploration was made. The cold was extreme. Coasting for six or seven leagues, they saw a party of Indians, who ran away. They continued to explore during the next day, but found 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 whereof were headed with brass, others with hart's horn, and others with eagles' 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 harbor. 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 neighbors, 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 harbor, 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 their ship again with this news to the rest of their people, which did much to comfort their hearts." Such is the record of that event which has made the twenty-second of December a memorable day in the calendar. (A trustworthy tradition has preserved a knowledge of the landing place, naturally an object of interest both to the inhabitants and to strangers. It was PLYMOUTH ROCK. Part of it is now embedded in a wharf.. In 1775 the rock was broken into two pieces in an attempt to remove it to the town square. The large fragment which was separated was in 1834 placed before Pilgrim Hall and enclosed within an iron railing. The tradition does not appear to have unequivocally determined who it was that landed upon the rock, whether the exploring party of ten men who went ashore at Plymouth, December 11 (Old Style), or the whole company who came into Plymouth harbor in the Mayflower on Saturday, December 16, and who, or a part of whom, "went a land" two days after. The received opinion, that the same landing-place, as being the most convenient within sight, was used on both occasions, appears altogether probable.)

No time was now lost. By the end of the week the Mayflower had brought her company to keep their Sabbath by their future home. Further examination confirmed the agreeable impressions which had been received. There was found a convenient harbor, "compassed with a goodly land." The country was well wooded. It had clay, sand, and shells, for bricks, mortar, and pottery, and stone for wells and chimneys; the sea and beach promised abundance of fish and fowl, and "four or five small running brooks" brought a supply of "very sweet fresh water." After prayer for further divine guidance, they fixed upon a spot for the erection of their dwellings, in the neighborhood of a brook "and many delicate springs," and of a hill suitable for a lookout and a defence. A storm interrupted their proceeding. When it was past, "so many of them as could went on shore, felled and carried timber, to provide themselves stuff for building." Then came Sunday, when "the people on shore heard a cry of some savages, as they thought, which caused an alarm and to stand on their guard, expecting an assault; but all was quiet." They were still without the shelter of a roof. At the sharp winter solstice of New England, there was but

"A screen of leafless branches
Between them and the blast."

But it was the Lord's hallowed time, and the work of building must wait. Next followed the day solemnized, in the ancient fanes of the continent they had left, with the most pompous ritual of what they esteemed a vain will-worship. And the reader pauses to ponder and analyze the feeling of stern exultation with which its record was made: "Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry; so no man rested all that day."

The first operations were the beginning of a platform for the ordnance, and of a building, twenty feet square, for a storehouse and for common occupation. Nineteen plots for dwellings were laid out, on the opposite sides of a way running along the north side of the brook. The number of plots corresponded to that of the families into which the company was now divided; the appropriation was made by lot; and the size of each plot was such as to allow half a rod in breadth, and three rods in depth, for each person included in the family. It "was agreed that each man should build his own house." "The frost and foul weather hindered them much." "Seldom could they work half the week." Time was lost in going to and from the vessel, to which in the severe cold they were obliged often to repair for lodging. They were delayed in unloading for want of boats; and stone, mortar, and thatch were slowly provided.

These were discouraging circumstances; but far worse troubles were to come. The labor of providing habitations had scarcely begun, when sickness set in, the consequence of exposure and bad food. Within four months it carried off nearly half their number. Six died in December, eight in January, seventeen in February, and thirteen in March. At one time during the winter only six or seven had strength enough left to nurse the dying and bury the dead. Destitute of every provision which the weakness and the daintiness of the invalid require, the sick lay crowded in the unwholesome vessel, or in half-built cabins heaped around with snow-drifts. The rude sailors refused them even a share of those coarse sea-stores which would have given a little variety to their diet, till disease spread among the crew, and the kind ministrations of those whom they had neglected and affronted brought them to a better temper. The dead were interred in a bluff by the waterside, the marks of burial being carefully effaced, lest the natives should discover how the colony had been weakened. The imagination vainly tasks itself to comprehend the horrors of that fearful winter. The only mitigations were that the cold was of less severity than is usual in the place, and that there was not an entire want of food and shelter.

Meantime, courage and fidelity never gave out. The well carried out the dead through the cold and snow, and then hastened back from the burial to wait on the sick; and as the sick began to recover, they took the places of those whose strength had been exhausted. There was no time and there was no inclination to despond. The lesson rehearsed at Leyden was not forgotten, "that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages." The dead had died in a good service, and the fit way for survivors to honor and lament them was to be true to one another, and to work together bravely for the cause to which dead and living had alike been consecrated. The devastation increased the necessity of preparations for defence; and it was at the time when the company was diminishing at the rate of one on every second day, that a military organization was formed, with Standish for the captain, and the humble fortification on the hill overlooking the dwellings was mounted with five guns.

"Warm and fair weather" came at length, and "the birds sang in the woods most pleasantly." Never was spring more welcome than when it opened on this afflicted company.

[Their fears of trouble with the Indians proved not unfounded. The friendliness at first displayed by the savages soon gave way to threats of hostilities. In 1622 the Narragansetts sent to the colony a bundle of arrows tied with a snake- skin, as a declaration of war. Bradford, the governor, with grim humor, filled the snake-skin with powder and ball, and returned it. The frightened savages refused to keep it. It passed from hand to hand, and at length came back to Plymouth. A conspiracy to murder the settlers was discovered in 1623, and repressed by Standish, who killed the ringleaders of the plot. This settled all Indian troubles for years. The colony of Plymouth prospered from that time forward. It never attained great dimensions, the Boston colony proving more attractive to settlers, but "the virtue displayed in its institution and management, and the great consequences to which it led," will always claim for it the attention of mankind. After several efforts to found other colonies, one was established at Salem in 1628. This "Colony of Massachusetts Bay" made rapid progress, and by 1634 "between three and four thousand Englishmen were distributed among twenty hamlets along and near the sea-shore." The work of establishing an English agricultural settlement in New England had been accomplished.]

John Gorham Palfrey


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