Note: I began work on this post last week aiming to have it up on October 3. This one got away from me the more I learned about the fascinating subject. But here it finally is, a glimpse at New England's first soldier.
Thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow he is one of the few original settlers of Plymouth Plantation who most people know by name. The Courtship of Miles Standish, Longfellow’s long poem, was among the most beloved verse of the 19th Century snatches of it were recited by school children who learned it by rote. While seldom read these days many still know the central story of how a shy, tongue-tied soldier asked his best friend John Alden to speak to the object of his affection, Pricilla Mullins, and how she told John to “Speak for yourself” if only because the story was lampooned in Looney-Tune cartoons and on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Of course the poem and story were largely romantic nonsense, but as P.T. Barnum allegedly once observed, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
The real Captain Myles Standish died peacefully in his bed on his farm on October 3, 1656 in Duxbury, age about 72. His story is much more interesting that Longfellow’s romance.
Maddeningly little is known for sure about Standish’s early life. No official records or mention of his name can be found before 1620 in Leiden, Holland shortly before he hired himself out to a sect of English Separatists for their New World colonizing project. By then he was about 36 years old.
Evidence—Standish’s will and later testimony of at least one of those who knew him in the Plymouth colony as well as what is inferred by the name Duxbury for the village he founded—strongly suggests that he was probably born in Lancaster where a wealthy Standish family had several estates including Duxbury Manor, which some conjecture might have been his childhood home. In his will Standish referred to estates in “Ormskirke (Ormskirk) Borscouge (Burscough) Wrightington Maudsley Newburrow (Newburgh) Crowston (Croston) and in the Isle of Man which allegedly were his rightful inheritance. He said these were “Surruptuously detained from mee My great Grandfather being a 2cond or younger brother from the house of Standish of Standish.”
But no parish records, which may have been destroyed during the English Civil War, can confirm his birth and lineage and no court records document disputes over these properties. Some historians have postulated that he actually came from a branch of the family on the Isle of Man, but not documents support that, either.
His friend Nathaniel Morton, Secretary of Plymouth Colony, who wrote in his New England’s Memorial, published in 1669, that Standish was:
...was a gentleman, born in Lancashire, and was heir apparent unto a great estate of lands and livings, surreptitiously detained from him; his great grandfather being a second or younger brother from the house of Standish. In his younger time he went over into the low countries, and was a soldier there, and came acquainted with the church at Leyden, and came over into New England, with such of them as at the first set out for the planting of the plantation of New Plymouth, and bare a deep share of their first difficulties, and was always very faithful to their interest.
This is pretty strong evidence, but does not meet the standards of rigorous documentary evidence that those sticklers, genealogists demand as proof.
Whatever the case the young man found himself cast upon the world to shift for himself. He chose the gentleman’s profession of arms but his family seems to have been too poor to afford to purchase a commission in the Army.
Standish apparently found himself in Holland where the Dutch Republic was embroiled in the Eighty Years War (1568–1648) against Spain. He likely, at least initially, sold his services to the Republic as a soldier of fortune. When English Queen Elizabeth authorized a force under Sir Horatio Vere to aid the Dutch and serve under the authority of the Estates General. Standish was almost surely in that force and engaged at least for the Siege of Sluis in 1604. Indirect evidence is that he may have be a Lieutenant under Vere.
The war was interrupted by the Twelve Years Truce from 1609 and 1621, which may have rendered Standish unemployed. Or he may have been retained in service to the Republic, probably at half pay in case of the resumption of hostilities. At any rate, he chose to remain in Holland and eventually settled in Leiden where he married an English woman, Rose Handley about 1618.
It is there when we first find reference to Standish. He is identified as Captain, but how or why he came by the rank is unknown. He was, however, locally well-known and respected as a soldier. He was acquainted with the English Separatists who settled there from about 1608. He may have found his wife, Rose, among them.
When the Separatists determined to leave Holland for the New World, Standish was a natural candidate for the important post as military advisor to the expedition. But he was not the only one. The Separatists’ financial backers favored the swashbuckling Captain John Smith, then in England, who was familiar with the New World and whose writings about the Colony of Jamestown and of Virginia in general had made him famous. Smith was interested in the job but his price was too high and Separatist leaders John Robertson and William Brewster were concerned that the domineering Smith might try to establish a dictatorship over their people in their new home. Standish got the job.
|A Dutch portrait of Myles Standish said to be taken from a lost life painting.|
On September 6, 1820 Myles and Rose Standish were among the 102 passengers and 30 crew who set sail from the port of Plymouth. Standish and a handful of other passengers were not Separatists, but hired help. The men of the religious community were largely gentlemen, heavy on ministers, deacons, lawyers, and merchants. They needed a few skilled tradesmen, and at least one soldier, to survive in the howling wilderness.
Standish was a short, but powerfully built man, standing probably about 5 foot 3 with the bushy beard favored by soldiers of the day to make them seem fiercer. His stature made him the subject of jests by others on board and latter his Native enemies mocked him for it. Despite his size, by the time the Mayflower completed it hazardous voyage Standish was recognized as one of the key leaders of the company.
The Mayflower was stalled not far from England by contrary winds delaying the crossing and driving it far north of the intended landfall in Virginia. Land was sited—Cape Cod—on November 9. Attempts to sail south were thwarted by seasonal winds, already in winter mode. With shipboard supplies nearly exhausted company leaders reluctantly decided that they would have to make landfall and establish a community before the full force of winter. But this would leave them beyond the authority of their charter.
On November 11 the company gathered on board to draft and sign what has become known as the Mayflower Compact, the first written charter for self-government in the world. Standish’s place among the leadership was demonstrated when he became the fourth person to sign the document, by far the highest standing of a Stranger among the Saints.
Standish took a leading role in trying to find a suitable place to establish themselves. On November 15 he led a party of 16 men from the ship exploring the norther hook of Cape Cod on foot and on December 11 he was with or leading another party that explored the shoreline by boat. During this investigation, the party would spend nights ashore behind makeshift barricades of driftwood and tree branches erected at Standish’s insistence.
One night near present day Eastham, the party was surprised and attacked by as many as 30 natives. Standish reportedly calmed a near panic and kept the men from wildly firing their arquebus matchlocks. With disciplined fire, the attackers were driven off. This incident became known as the First Contact and shaped the thinking of both Standish and the other settlers about their prospective neighbors.
In late December the final location on Plymouth Bay on the mainland was agreed upon. Standish laid out the small fort to be equipped with the ship’s cannon and the positioning of a cluster of houses for maximum defensibility against expected native attacks. Unfortunately only one house was completed by the time devastating illness struck the community—likely a combination of dysentery from drinking brackish water and pneumonia attacking those who were already weakened.
Many were forced to winter in crude huts. Loss of life from disease and exposure was devastating. The colony lost half of its members that winter, including Rose Standish who died in January. The sturdy Standish was one of the few who did not fall ill and spent much of the winter nursing the sick and trying to get the few semi-able-bodied men to continue what work on the settlement could be done during the harsh weather and stand watch against possible native attacks.
By late February the colonists began to note movements of natives in the woods around them—the tribes had mostly stayed in their villages over the winter subsisting on stored grain and jerked meat. Alarmed, the surviving colonists met formally to elect Standish Captain of the Militia and giving him full authority to raise and train a company. Standish put all able bodied men under arms and regularly drilled them with their arquebus muskets and halberd pikes, a weapon totally unsuited for wilderness combat. But the natives undoubtedly observed the preparations and may have been impressed.
In March Samoset, a Sagamore an Eastern Abenaki tribe who was on an extended visit to the local Wampanoag casually walked into the settlement, greeted the white men in English, and asked for beer. Samoset had learned English from fishermen along the shores of present day Maine where his tribe lived. A few days later he returned with Tisquantum—Squanto—a Patuxet who had been kidnapped and taken as a slave to England, only to find his way home years later and discover his people wiped out by an epidemic.
Samoset and Tisquantum arranged a meeting with Massasoit, the sachem of Pokanoket tribe of the Wampanoag Confederacy. The Pokanoket were constantly under threat by more powerful tribes including the Massachusett and the Narragansett. They were happy to conclude a treaty of friendship and mutual defense with Plymouth under the leadership of its first Governor John Carver. Standish concurred, in the belief that having native allies would be essential in defending his weakened colony.
He quickly became close to Tisquantum, the homeless native who spent more and more time in the settlement and famously introduced the colonist to native agricultural practices for the raising of corn and squash. The resulting harvest that fall, along with hunting saved the colony from a second winter of starvation.
Later in the summer of 1621 Governor Carver died and his deputy William Bradshaw succeeded him. Standish was even closer to Bradshaw, who he had known since Leiden and nursed through the illness, than he had been to Carver. They two men, vastly different in temperament, would become an unshakable team.
The first test of the Bradshaw-Standish partnership and of the alliance with the Pokanoket came in August. Settlers at Plymouth got rumors that a minor named Corbitant was plotting against Massasoit to turn the tribe against the town and perhaps join a new confederation led by the Massachusetts to drive them out. That rumor probably came from Tisquantum. Standish and Brewster dispatched Tiquantum and Hobbamock, a high ranking warrior and advisor to Massosolt to investigate with a visit to Corbitant’s village of Nemasket 14 miles west of Plymouth. Corbitant’s scouts probably were aware of their departure from Plymouth almost from the beginning.
Upon arriving at the town, Corbitant attacked two men and detained Tiquantum Hobbamock escaped and ran to Plymouth to share the news. Bradford was inclined to negotiate for their ally’s release. Standish believed it would be a sign of weakness that would cause theme Pokanoket to abandon the alliance. He advocated a swift raid to release the prisoner. Standish won out and on August 14 he led ten men with Hobbamock as their guide determined to free the hostage and kill Corbitant.
Standish planned a night attack on the wigwam where Corbitant was believed to be sleeping. Standish and Hobbamock burst into the wigwam shouting for Corbitant, the frightened inhabitants tried to flee. A man and a woman were shot and wounded. It was quickly determined that Corbitant had been warned and fled the village and that Tiquantum was unharmed. He joined the party on the return to Plymouth along with the two wounded who were treated and nursed back to health.
In many ways the raid on Nemasket was a botched operation. But it had the desired results. Within a few days Corbitant came in, re-pledged his loyalty to Massosolt, and approved a treaty for his band with Plymouth.
This was the first English offensive operation against native people in New England and set a pattern of aggressiveness for future confrontations. Many modern historians have cast Standish as the prototype for the reckless, headstrong, and violent settler military leaders, a type that would be seen over and over for almost the next 400 years. And there is a good deal of truth in that.
Another view is that at this time the Plymouth colonists were too weak to do anything but fit into to an already existing cultural pattern of alliances and confederations engaged in warfare over hunting grounds, fishing waters, and good land for their gardens. Plymouth was just another tribe, and a minor one at that, fitting into such and alliance and participating in the give-and-take raiding that characterized relatively chronic low grade warfare. This may have been the case until enough new settlers arrived from England to provoke an existential threat to the tribes.
Of course the alliance with the Pokanoket was strengthened. But their rivals were alarmed with the addition of new enemies. On November a Narragansett messenger arrived in Plymouth with a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin. Standish recognized it as a threat and replied with a snakeskin bundle of his own wrapping gunpowder. War with the powerful tribe to the South seemed inevitable.
By the way that harvest feast to which the Pokanoket invited themselves and which Bradford mentioned in passing in his journal of the early years, Of Plymouth Plantation, was held in the light of the evolving crisis. This was the dinner which became mythologized as the First Thanksgiving.
|A sketch of the probable appearance of the Plymouth settlement circa 1627 based on archaeological evidence. Standish laid out the house lots for maximum defensibility and designed oversaw the construction on the Palisade.|
Standish now knew that local tribes were unlikely to attack during the winter. This gave the colony time to prepare. The Captain recommended the construction of a palisade completely surrounding the settlement and taking in a good source of fresh water and including some pasturage for the small herd of goats and even some garden plots. The palisade would have walls totaling more than half a mile long and include a reinforced gate and elevated gun platforms.
With the arrival of more settlers on board the ship Fortune Standish had about 50 able bodied men to work on the project over the winter. Snow cover actually helped drag logs cut in the surrounding forest. Work was completed in just three month and the palisade was completed in March 1622.
Then Standish re-organized his militia into four companies—one assigned to each of the four walls. Narragansett scouts undoubtedly saw the preparations and were evidently impressed and intimidated. It they had ever actually planned spring raids, they called them off.
The next threat came from the Massachusetts to the north and was triggered by the establishment of another colony, Wessagusset near the site of modern Weymouth on the Fore River. This group, organized and sponsored by merchant Thomas Weston was a strictly commercial venture and the settlers adventurers like those who had settled Jamestown and other places in Virginia. When they stopped at Plymouth, Bradford found them coarse and undisciplined. Certainly the new group, which hoped to thrive on a fur trade with t. he tribes, lacked the cohesion, sense of community, and purpose Plymouth.
The settlers at Wessagusset soon alienated the Massachusetts by cheating them in trade with shoddy goods and stealing whatever they could lay their hands on. By March 1623 some Massachusetts sachems were planning to raid and wipe out Wessagusset and then attack Plymouth itself. At least that is what Massasoit reported to Bradshaw and Standish. He also urged them to strike first against the plotters.
Shortly after Phineas Pratt arrived in Wessagusset and confirmed that the town was being harassed and settlers were afraid to leave for hunting. They were threatened with starvation. After Bradford called a town meeting to discuss the crisis, Standish organized a small party including his friend Hobbamock and seven others to assassinate the Masssachusett war leaders including Wituwamat and Pecksuot.
When he arrived at Wessagusset some settlers had abandoned the settlement and were living among the Massachusett. Standish sent runners to nearby villages calling the deserters to return. Pecksuot and other leaders of the war party came to the village. Standish claimed his party was merely there for the fur trade. Pecksuot did not believe it for a moment. He told Hobbamock, “Let him begin when he dare...he shall not take us unawares.” Later he mocked Standish’s diminutives height to his face.
|Standish stabs Wituwamatt and his companions are killed after being invited to meet and dine with the Captain.|
Standish invited Pecksuot to eat with him the next day. He arrived with Wituwamat, a teen age warrior, and several women. When all were inside the one room house where a the meal was supposed to be shared, Standish’s men slammed and barred the door from the outside while the captain leaped at Pecksuot, taking his knife away from him and stabbing him multiple times. Others killed Wituwamat and the young warrior. Emerging from the scene of the carnage, Standish ordered to others seized and killed. He then led his men out of the settlement in pursuit of another sachem, Obtakiest. He soon found him and a group of warriors and there was another skirmish in which Obtakiest managed to escape.
Standish returned in triumph to Plymouth bringing with him Wituwamat’s head. The raid indeed intimidated the Massachusetts and other tribes, but it also infuriated them by violating customs of hospitality and curtesy to guests. The Massachusetts and other tribes boycotted trade with Plymouth, depriving the colony of its chief source of income from furs. It took years to recover.
Wessagusset was soon abandoned by its settlers. A handful joined Plymouth, but most opt to beat a retreat to the English fishing outpost on Mohegan Island.
When the Separatist spiritual leader Pastor John Robinson back in Leiden heard what had happened he was troubled by the treachery and brutality. Bradford may have shared some of the qualms, but he stoutly defended his captain.
In 1624 Standish took a second wife, Barbara, whose last name has been lost in the mists of time. She arrived in Plymouth with a wave of new settlers the year before. Some believe she may have been a sister or of Rose who he sent for. At any rate, the couple enjoyed a long relationship and had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood and two of whom game him 12 grandchildren. One of them, Alexander, married the daughter of John and Pricilla Alden. Thousands of Americans alive today can trace their ancestry to Myles Standish.
Standish’s next military adventure had him leading troops not against any of the tribes, but against other English colonists. In 1625 another group of adventurers established and outpost they called Mount Wollaston 27 miles north of Plymouth at what is now Quincy. If Bradford and the elders of the Saints had found the settlers at Wessagusset rambunctious and wanton, they were positively scandalized by the men under the leadership of Thomas Morton.
In England Morton had been a political radical, rather than a religious zealot. He also was something of a freethinker before that term had been invented and an unrepentant libertine. He was frequently in hot water at home for advocating for dispossessed countrymen. He had already been to Plymouth and disapproved of the Saints as much as thy disapproved of him. He had returned with a Captain Wollaston and 30 indentured servants to set up a fur trading post for the interests of a Crown-sponsored trading venture. He caught Wollaston selling some of the indentures into slavery in Virginia and expelled him.
Instead he and the remaining indentures set up something of a utopian community which they renamed Mount Ma-re or Merriemount. He declared the former indentures free men or consociates, and encouraged them to integrate into the Algonquian culture of the nearby tribes, including taking native wives or concubines. Morton also freely traded muskets, powder, and liquor to the tribes, many of which were still shunning trade with Plymouth. Indeed by 1628 Merriemount was the fastest growing and most economically successful colonial settlement in New England exporting not only furs but surplus agricultural production and timber. That was a powerful economic reason to hate the interlopers. But by adopting and celebrating the pagan ways natives, and casual sexual immorality Bradford had a religious excuse to attack.
The establishment of both Wessagusset and Merriemount was possible because Plymouth was bound by its private charter to the Company of Merchant Adventurers and limited to the original settlement and near environs. Its population had been swelling with the regular arrival of more colonists from both Holland and England. Bradford wanted to be free of the obligations to the Merchant Adventures and get a charter amended to include a wider area so as to be able to establish new communities and control unwanted interlopers.
In 1625 he sent Standish back to England to try and negotiate a termination or modification of the relationship with the investors. The Captain turned out to be a better soldier than diplomat and returned to Plymouth empty handed. The next year, however, another agent, Isaac Allerton secured an agreement to sever the relationship if the colony’s debt to the Adventurers were paid off. Standish was among the leaders who used their own private purses to pay the debt allowing Plymouth Colony to a lot land and establish new communities in an area east of Narraganset Bay and south of Massachusetts Bay including Cape Cod.
Armed with this new authority, Bradford turned his eyes on Merriemount in1628, although Morton still had legal authority there and powerful backers in England. The final excuse for action was a report that in the spring of that year the inhabitants there had erected a May Pole and had engaged in lewd, immoral, and Pagan celebrations. The May Pole was a common country custom in England even in that day. But it had obvious pre-Christian origins as part of a spring fertility festival which the Catholic Church and the Anglicans had tried to adopt by making it part of celebrations of the Month of Mary. Both the Pagan and Catholic connections made the May Pole and similar customs an anathema to the Separatists. Bradford had no trouble convincing the town to raise a force to arrest Morton and disburse the community. Standish still had not joined the Saints, and never would. Yet despite the aspect of a religious crusade he felt honor bound by his duty as Captain of the Militia and deep loyalty to the Colony to accept command.
|Standish and his men prepare to attack May Pole revelers at Merriemount based on Bradford's account.|
Standish led a party on a raid. By their account upon arrival the settlers retreated to a fortified house and prepared to defend themselves with arms but were “too drunk to handle their weapons.” Standish personally confronted Morton who leveled a musket at him with the Captain tore from his hands before he could shoot. The raiders righteously chopped down the Maypole and brought Morton back to Plymouth under arrest.
Morton, too influential in England to hang for blasphemy, was marooned on an uninhabited island until some English ship should find him and take him back. He nearly starved to death, which was the plan, but friends from the native tribes brought him vocational supplies until he found passage home. Morton returned once more to try and salvage Merriemount, but was re-arrested, the settlement burned, and its few remaining inhabitants scattered. Back in England once more he would file a long fought court case for damages in the affair and win considerable public sympathy.
Morton’s account in his book New English Canaan would paint a vastly different picture than the account Bradford made in his journal, which has been the accepted version in this country. In it he called Standish Captain Shrimp and wrote, “I have found the Massachusetts Indians more full of humanity than the Christians.”
Shortly after the Merriemount raid, Standish received his land allotment from the entitlement of each head of household—male, of course—under the new arrangement. As a high ranking civil official, he presumably had an early option on site selection. His pick was prime land on the shore north of Plymouth where he was allotted 120 acres. Other senior officials and influential men including Bradshaw, John Alden, and Minister John Brewster also settled there. Standish is often given credit as founder of the town on the strength of the name, which was a Standish clan estate in Lancaster. Yet no documentary evidence proves either assumption.
He built his house in 1628 and was living there in the summers and wintering in Plymouth for the first years. He began to spend more time on the farm, improving it and adding acreage and was spending most of his time there year round by 1630.
Also in the eventful year of 1628 Plymouth seized possession of the French fort and trading post of Fort Pentagouet at the mouth of the Penobscot River estuary in what is now Maine. This quickly became an important revenue source for Plymouth Colony, rich in both fur and in the increasingly important trade for timber, including all important long, straight logs for ship’s masts. In 1635, however the French re-took the fort. Plymouth was determined to regain the plum and Standish was ordered to mount an expedition.
This was a vastly larger enterprise than the local raiding that he had led in the colony’s early years. It required a larger force—at least 30 militia men—and the chartering of an armed merchantman whose crew could also supplement the attacking force. The plan was straight forward. The ship would sail into the bay and reduce the palisade and earthwork fort by cannon fire, then land troops and take the small garrison. There was no reason to doubt that this would work.
Standish engaged the Good Hope, under Captain Girling. But when they arrived Girling, fearing the Fort’s own guns, opened fire too far away to be effective and, ignoring Standish’s pleas, continued to stand off firing uselessly until all of his shot and powder were expended. Standish had no choice but to abort the mission and return to Plymouth. The failure of the Penobscot expedition was the biggest disappointment of the Captain’s military career. It also marked his last active combat campaign.
The English finally regained the post and the and the lucrative Penobscot trade 16 years later. It would change hands several times more between the French, English, and Dutch before settling in English hands along with French Canada after the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in North America). During the American Revolution Commodore Dudley Saltonstall and Colonel Paul Revere would be disgraced after another, much large Penobscot expedition ended in disaster.
The training at the next Militia muster was conducted by Standish’s second in command, Lieutenant William Holmes. Two years later, in 1637 as the largest military action the colony had yet mounted, the Pequot War against the Pequot, Narragansett, and Mohegans, and in an uneasy alliance with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Standish was ordered to raise and arm a company, which he dutifully did. But Lt. Holmes commanded the men in the field. At least in this way Standish avoided association of his name with some of the atrocities against the natives.
Although he continued to be annually elected Captain of Militia until the end of his life, he was now an administrative and supervising officer rather than an active one.
|Myles Standish grave site in the oldest maintained cemetery among the English Colonists.|
Standish, 51 years old at the time of his last campaign, turned his attention to his farm and large family. Hs oldest friend Hobbamock lived on the farm with him until he died and was buried in the family plot. Standish lived on, apparently a respected and happy man until he died of strangulation—probably kidney disease—on October 3, 1656. He was buried in a family plot in what is now known as the Myles Standish Burial Ground.
Despite his long association with them, he never joined a Saints—we call them the Pilgrims—congregation for reasons not very clear to historians. His wife and children dutifully enrolled at First Parish Duxbury.
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