Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Samoset Surprised the Pilgrims in More Ways Than One

Samoset appears at Plymouth.

It seemed like a warm day by comparison to the harsh winter that had killed 45 of the 102 of them. The settlers, by now a bedraggled bunch were out and about in their small compound on the sheltered side of a hook-shaped cape that jutted into the Atlantic Ocean.  They called the place, somewhat grandly, New Plymouth.  They were religious dissenters, and the sailors and tradesmen they employed.

We call them the Pilgrims.  They called themselves the Company.  That day they were paying particular attention to the professional soldier among them.  Native tribes were moving in the vicinity and at least some seemed hostile.  The soldier, Miles Standish, was trying to organize a militia force. 

Sometime that morning, March 16, 1621, a native man startled the settlers by casually strolling from the woods into the clearing of the village.  He wore only a loin cloth and was very lightly armed with a bow and arrow which he did not display threateningly.  The frightened, agitated settlers accosted him.  Then he spoke, astonishing them all.

He greeted them in broken, but clearly understandable English! “Welcome, Englishmen! My name is Samoset.”

He did not come from the local tribes, but was visiting among them.  He was a Sagamore—local chieftain of an Algonquian people from what is now Maine.  He had met and learned English from fishermen who plied waters of Monhegan Island twelve miles off the coast.  The fishermen traded with the natives on the island.  They took Samoset whether as a slave, hostage, or visitor, with them to England but allowed him to return to his people on the next voyage to the rich fishery.

Samoset was dwelling that season with the distantly related Wampanoag led by the Sachem—the local language variant of Sagamore—Massasoit.  His extended presence among these people was indicative of the web of social and trade relations that connected tribes and clans over great distances.

There is no known life portrait of William Bradford, Governor and historian of Plymouth, the drawing is a commonly used imaginary portrait based on scraps of physical descriptions in letters and journals.

In 1622, William Bradford described the meeting:

Friday the 16th a fair warm day towards; this morning we determined to conclude of the military orders, which we had begun to consider of before but were interrupted by the savages, as we mentioned formerly; and whilst we were busied hereabout, we were interrupted again, for there presented himself a savage, which caused an alarum. He very boldly came all alone and along the houses straight to the rendezvous, where we intercepted him, not suffering him to go in, as undoubtedly he would, out of his boldness. He saluted us in English, and bade us welcome, for he had learned some broken English among the Englishmen that came to fish at Monchiggon, and knew by name the most of the captains, nigers, and masters that usually came. He was a man free in speech, so far as he could express his mind, and of a seemly carriage. We questioned him of many things; he was the first savage we could meet withal. He said he was not of these parts, but of Morattiggon, and one of the sagamores or lords thereof, and had been eight months in these parts, it lying hence a day's sail with a great wind, and five days by land. He discoursed of the whole country, and of every province, and of their sagamores, and their number of men, and strength. The wind being to rise a little, we cast a horseman's coat about him, for he was stark naked, only a leather about his waist, with a fringe about a span long, or little more; he had a bow and two arrows, the one headed, and the other unheaded. He was a tall straight man, the hair of his head black, long behind, only short before, none on his face at all; he asked some beer, but we gave him strong water and biscuit, and butter, and cheese, and pudding, and a piece of mallard, all which he liked well, and had been acquainted with such amongst the English. He told us the place where we now live is called Patuxet, and that about four years ago all the inhabitants died of an extraordinary plague, and there is neither man, woman, nor child remaining, as indeed we have found none, so as there is none to hinder our possession, or to lay claim unto it. All the afternoon we spent in communication with him; we would gladly have been rid of him at night, but he was not willing to go this night. Then we thought to carry him on shipboard, wherewith he was well content, and went into the shallop, but the wind was high and the water scant, that it could not return back. We lodged him that night at Stephen Hopkins’ house, and watched him.

The next day he went away back to the Massasoits, from whence he said he came, who are our next bordering neighbors. They are sixty strong, as he saith. The Nausets are as near southeast of them, and are a hundred strong, and those were they of whom our people were encountered, as before related. They are much incensed and provoked against the English, and about eight months ago slew three Englishmen, and two more hardly escaped by flight to Monchiggon; they were Sir Ferdinando Gorges his men, as this savage told us, as he did likewise of the huggery, that is, fight, that our discoverers had with the Nausets, and of our tools that were taken out of the woods, which we willed him should be brought again, otherwise, we would right ourselves. These people are ill affected towards the English, by reason of one Hunt, a master of a ship, who deceived the people, and got them under color of trucking with them, twenty out of this very place where we inhabit, and seven men from Nauset, and carried them away, and sold them for slaves like a wretched man (for twenty pound a man) that cares not what mischief he doth for his profit.

Saturday, in the morning we dismissed the savage, and gave him a knife, a bracelet, and a ring; he promised within a night or two to come again, and to bring with him some of the Massasoits, our neighbors, with such beavers' skins as they had to truck with us.

Being immortalized on a cigar box was a marker of fame in 19th Century America.  Accuracy was not guaranteed.  

There you have it.  Although somewhat peevishly annoyed Samoset’s brief visit provided the settlers with a world of intelligence about the disposition, numbers, and mood of the tribes in their immediate area, information that they may only have gained at great cost of lives and peril, especially because it allowed them to differentiate between “friendly” and hostile natives.

Even better, true to his word, a few days later Samoset returned bringing with him a delegation including Squanto, who spoke even better English.  Squanto, a Pawtuxet had been kidnapped with others by a lieutenant of John Smith, and taken to Spain in 1614 to be sold as a slave in Spain.  Instead he was given refuge by Spanish Friars who instructed him in Christianity and allowed him to go to England in search of passage back to his home.  Squanto lived for some years in London and learned excellent English before securing passage back home in 1619.

Squanto discovered that his village, the very one occupying the site of New Plymouth, was virtually wiped out by a plague, possibly small pox.  He was now living with his kinsmen in Massasoit’s band.  Despite his bitter experience, he was not totally hostile to the English, although suspicious of them.  Perhaps, having seen London, he was keenly aware of how plentiful they were and how resistance to them might be futile.

At any rate Squanto and Samoset helped open up talks, mostly centered on trading for furs, with the settlers.  When he could ascertain that the talks were friendly, Massasoit himself finally entered the village.  The two sides concluded a treaty of peace and trade and pledged a military alliance against tribes hostile to one or both.

Samoset soon returned to his people in Maine.  In 1624 Captain Christopher Levett, a Yorkshire fisherman entertained Samoset and members of his band on his boat.  After that the man who made first contact with the strangers on the shore, faded into the mists of history.

Squanto helped save the colonists from starvation when he taught them native farming techniques like burying a small fish with a corn seed as fertilizer and growing corn and squash together.

Squanto, out of attachment to the place of his former village and at the behest of Massasoit, who did not fully trust the English, remained at the village and lived there, famously imparting his life saving advice on farming techniques suitable for the stony soil and sharing secret fishing spots and oyster shoals.  He also served as a guide and an envoy to surrounding tribes.

The next year he was taken captive by a Wampanoag band under the Sachem Corbitant and had to be rescued by an armed party led by Captain Standish.  In 1622 he fell ill of fever while on a mission from the settlers and died in a Nauset village near present-day Chatham.  In his dying words, he wished his English friends well, bequeathed them his few possessions, and expressed hope that their God would have mercy on them.  William Bradford reported, “His death was a great loss.”

In the early stages of King Philip's War, native warriors wiped out isolated farmsteads and burned villages sending the settlers reeling back on Plymouth and Boston.  But when the colonists regrouped and went on the offensive they wrought terrible destruction and punishment not distinguishing between hostile tribes, allies, and neutrals.  

The peace that the two English speaking natives helped secure lasted for 50 years until the bloody King Philip’s War in 1675 when Massasoit’s son rose up against the repeated land grabs of the burgeoning settler colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay.  Losses were heavy and atrocities were committed by all sides, but ultimately the friendly tribe that had saved the people we call the Pilgrims was virtually wiped out.

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