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December In Massachusetts-1620

(picture from "The Landing of the Pilgrims"  by Charles Lucey,1858)

If you think December in Virginia is cold, what do you think its like in the rest of those Atlantic coast states?  Brrrr.  It makes me shiver just to think about the icy winds and snow-bound earth where the Pilgrims landed in 1620-Massachusetts.  We are reminded once again of that cruel winter in Virginia about which we read in our last article.  This story is from Governor Bradfordís own account of the Pilgrims.  Because of reading about the Pilgrims exploration of this frigid area Iím sure weíll all appreciate our Founders even more.  The following from Bradfordís history is, as Mr. Morison tells us, "the only contemporary authority for the 'Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock' on Monday, 11/21 Dec. (sic) 1620."1  From Bradfordís history, Of Plymouth Plantation, we read:

The month of November being spent... and much foul weather falling in, the 6th of December they sent out their shallop again with ten of their principal men2 and some seamen, upon further discovery, intending to circulate that deep bay of Cape Cod.  The weather was very cold and it froze so hard as the spray of the sea lighting on their coats, they were as if they had been glazed.

Yet that night betimes they got down into the bottom of the bay, and as they drew near the shore they saw some ten or twelve Indians very busy about something.  They landed about a league or two from them,...and had much ado to put ashore anywhere it lay so full of flats.  Being landed, it grew late and they made themselves a barricado with logs and boughs as well as they could in the time, and set out their sentinel and betook them to rest, and saw the smoke of the fire the savages made that night.

When morning was come they divided their company, some to coast along the shore in the boat, and the rest marched through the woods to see the land, if any fit place might be for their dwelling.  They came also to the place where they saw the Indians the night before, and found they had been cutting up a great fish like a grampus, being some two inches thick of fat like a hog, some pieces whereof they had left by the way.

And the shallop found two more of these fishes dead on the sands, a thing usual after storms in that place, by reason of the great flats of sand that lie off. So they ranged up and down all that day, but found no people, nor any place they liked.  When the sun grew low, they hasted out of the woods to meet with their shallop, to whom they made signs to come to them into a creek hard by,3 the which they did at high water; of which they were very glad, for they had not seen each other all that day since the morning.  So they made them a barricado as usually they did every night, with logs, stakes and thick pine boughs, the height of a man, leaving it open to leeward, partly to shelter them from the cold and wind (making their fire in the middle and lying round about it) and partly to defend them from any sudden assaults of the savages, if they should surround them; so being very weary, they betook them to rest.  But about midnight they heard a hideous and great cry, and their sentinel called "Arm! arm!"  So they bestirred them and stood to their arms and shot off a couple of muskets, and then the noise ceased.  They concluded it was a company of wolves or such like wild beasts, for one of the seamen told them, he had often heard such a noise in Newfoundland.

So they rested till about five of the clock in the morning; for the tide, and their purpose to go from thence, made them be stirring betimes.  So after prayer they prepared for breakfast, and it being day dawning it was thought best to be carrying things down to the boat.  But some said it was not best to carry the arms down, others said they would be the readier, for they had lapped them up in their coats from the dew; but some three or four would not carry theirs till they went themselves.  Yet as it fell out, the water being not high enough, they laid them down on the bank side and came up to breakfast.

But presently, all on the sudden, they heard a great and strange cry, which they knew to be the same voices they heard in the night, though they varied their notes; and one of their company being abroad came running in and cried, "Men, Indians! Indians!"  And withal, their arrows came flying amongst them.  Their men ran with all speed to recover their arms, as by the good providence of God they did.

In the meantime, of those that were there ready, two muskets were discharged at them, and two more stood ready in the entrance of their rendezvous but were commanded not to shoot till they could take full aim at them.  And the other two charged again with all speed, for there were only four had arms there, and defended the barricado, which was first assaulted.  The cry of the Indians was dreadful, especially when they saw their men run out of the rendezvous toward the shallop to recover their arms, the Indians wheeling about upon them.  But some4 running out with coats of mail on, and cutlasses in their hands, they soon got their arms and let fly amongst them and quickly stopped their violence.  Yet there was a lusty man, and no less valiant, stood behind a tree within half a musket shot, and let his arrows fly at them; he was seen [to] shoot three arrows, which were all avoided.  He stood three shots of a musket, till one taking full aim at him and made the bark or splinters of the tree fly about his ears, after which he gave an extraordinary shriek and away they went, all of them.  They5 left some to keep the shallop and followed them about a quarter of a mile and shouted once or twice, and shot off two or three pieces, and so returned.  This they did that they might conceive that they were not afraid of them or any way discouraged.  Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance; and by His special providence so to dispose that not anyone of them were either hurt or hit, though their arrows came close by them and on every side [of] them; and sundry of their coats, which hung up in the barricado, were shot through and through.  Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of their arrows and sent them into England afterward by the master of the ship, and called that place the First Encounter.

From hence they departed and coasted all along but discerned no place likely for harbor; and therefore hasted to a place that their pilot (one Mr. Coppin who had been in the country before) did assure them was a good harbor, which he had been in, and they might fetch it before night; of which they were glad for it began to be foul weather.

After some hours sailing it began to snow and rain, and about the middle of the afternoon the wind increased and the sea became very rough, and they broke their rudder, and it was as much as two men could do to steer her with a couple of oars.  But their pilot bade them be of good cheer for he saw the harbor; but the storm increasing, and night drawing on, they bore what sail they could to get in, while they could see.

But herewith they broke their mast in three pieces and their sail fell overboard in a very grown sea, so as they had like to have been cast away.  Yet by God's mercy they recovered themselves, and having the flood with them, struck into the harbor.  But when it came to, the pilot was deceived in the place, and said the Lord be merciful unto them for his eyes never saw that place before; and he and the master's mate would have run her ashore in a cove full of breakers before the wind.  But a lusty seaman which steered bade those which rowed, if they were men, about with her or else they were all cast away; which they did with speed.  So he bid them be of good cheer and row lustily, for there was a fair sound before them, and he doubted not but they should find one place or other where they might ride in safety.  And though it was very dark and rained sore, yet in the end they got under the lee of a small island and remained there all that night in safety.  But they knew not this to be an island till morning, but were divided in their minds; some would keep the boat for fear they might be amongst the Indians, others were so wet and cold they could not endure but got ashore, and with much ado got fire (all things being so wet); and the rest were glad to come to them, for after midnight the wind shifted to the northwest and it froze hard.

But though this had been a day and night of much trouble and danger unto them, yet God gave them a morning of comfort and refreshing (as usually He doth to His children) for the next day was a fair, sunshining day, and 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 gave God thanks for His mercies in their manifold deliverances.  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 into the land and found divers cornfields and little running brooks, a place (as they supposed) fit for situation.

At least it was the best they could find, and the season and their present necessity made them glad to accept of it.  So they returned to their ship again with this news to the rest of their people, which did much comfort their hearts.

On the 15th of December they weighed anchor to go to the place they had discovered, and came within two leagues of it, but were fain to bear up again; but the 16th day, the wind came fair, and they arrived safe in this harbor.  And afterwards took better view of the place, and resolved where to pitch their dwelling; and the 25th day began to erect the first house for common use to receive them and their goods.6

End of Bradfordís account being the beginning of these "United States of America" in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the very next report Bradford gives is of the writing and ratification of "The Mayflower Compact".


1. Quoted from Morison, Samuel Eliot, Of Plymouth Plantation, A New Edition, Knopf, 1952, P. 72.  Morisonís edited edition is, as he describes it himself, "a text which the ordinary intelligent reader can peruse with ease and pleasure" without losing the original meaning and charm of Bradfordís writings.   Having read Bradfordís original I can vouch for this!  (There will be no indications for quotations as this is taken directly from Morisonís edition.)  (Back to article)

2. Some of Morisonís footnotes, though interesting are very lengthy.  We have, therefore, deleted most of them.  They can be seen in his edition of Of Plymouth Plantation noted in footnote #1.  (Back to article)

3. The mouth of Herring River, in the present Eastham.  The beach north of  the river mouth, where the action about to be described took place, is still called First Encounter Beach.  (Morisonís footnote [M. F].)  (Back to article)

4. I.e., the English. [M.F.]  (Back to article)

5. I.e., the English. [M.F.]  (Back to article)

6. Mourt's Relation p. 23 says that they...decided on (Plymouth) because much of the land was already cleared and a fort on the hill now Burial Hill could command the surrounding country; and because "a very sweet brook" the Town Brook "runs under the hillside."  [M.F.]  (Back to article)

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