Native Intelligence

The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school. But that wasn't enough to save them

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The Pilgrims had refused to hire the experienced John Smith as a guide, on the theory that they could simply use the maps in his book. In consequence, as Smith later crowed, the hapless Mayflower spent several frigid weeks scouting Cape Cod for a good place to land, during which time many colonists became sick and died. Landfall at Patuxet did not end their problems. The colonists had intended to produce their own food, but had neglected to bring any cows, sheep, mules or horses. (They may have had pigs.) To be sure, the Pilgrims had intended to make most of their livelihood not by farming but by catching fish for export to Britain. But the only fishing gear the Pilgrims brought was useless in New England. Only half of the 102 people on the Mayflower made it through the first winter.

How did even that many survive? In his history of Plymouth Colony, Governor William Bradford himself provides one answer: robbing Indian houses and graves. The Mayflower hove to first at Cape Cod. An armed company of Pilgrims staggered out. Eventually they found a deserted Indian habitation. The newcomers—hungry, cold, sick—dug open burial sites and ransacked homes, looking for underground stashes of food. After two days of nervous work, the company hauled ten bushels of maize back to the Mayflower, carrying much of the booty in a big metal kettle the men had also stolen. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn,” Winslow wrote, “for else we know not how we should have done.”

The Pilgrims’ lack of preparation was typical. Expeditions from France and Spain were usually backed by the state, and generally staffed by soldiers accustomed to hard living. English voyages, by contrast, were almost always funded by venture capitalists who hoped for a quick cash-out. Decades after first touching the Americas, London’s venture capitalists still had not figured out that New England is colder than Britain despite being farther south. Even when they focused on a warmer place like Virginia, they persistently selected as colonists people ignorant of farming; the hope of fleeing religious persecution uppermost in their minds, the Pilgrims, alas, were an example. Multiplying the difficulties, the would-be colonizers were arriving in the middle of a severe, multiyear drought. Jamestown and the other Virginia forays survived on Indian charity—they were “utterly dependent and therefore controllable,” Karen Ordahl Kuppermann, a New York University historian, has written. The same held true for the adventurers in Plymouth.

Inexperienced in agriculture, the Pilgrims were also not woodspeople. Huddled in their half-built village that first terrible winter, the colonists rarely saw the area’s inhabitants, except for the occasional shower of brass- or claw-tipped arrows. After February, glimpses and sightings became more frequent. Scared, the Pilgrims hauled five small cannons from the Mayflower and emplaced them in a defensive fortification. But after all the anxiety, their first contact with Indians went surprisingly well. Within days Tisquantum came to settle among them. And then they heard his stories.

No record survives of Tisquantum’s journey across the Atlantic, but Hunt—John Smith’s renegade subordinate, who had kidnapped Tisquantum and more than a score of his fellows— would have tied or chained and jammed the Indians into whatever dark corner of the hull was available. Presumably they were fed from the ship’s cargo of dried fish. Smith took six weeks to cross the Atlantic to England. There is no reason to think Hunt went any faster. The only difference was that he took his ship to Málaga, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. There he intended to sell all of his cargo, including the human beings.

In fact, Hunt managed to sell only a few of his captives before local Roman Catholic priests seized the rest—the Spanish Church vehemently opposed brutality toward Indians. (In 1537 Pope Paul III had proclaimed that “Indians themselves indeed are true men” and should not be “deprived of their liberty” and “reduced to our service like brute animals.”) The priests intended to save both Tisquantum’s body, by preventing his enslavement, and his soul, by converting him to Christianity, though it is unlikely they succeeded in the latter endeavor. In any case, this resourceful man convinced them to let him return home—or, rather, to try to return. He got to London, where he stayed with John Slany, a shipbuilder with investments in Newfoundland. Slany apparently taught Tisquantum English while maintaining him as a curiosity in his town house. Meanwhile, Tisquantum persuaded him to arrange for passage to North America on a fishing vessel. He ended up in a tiny British fishing camp on the southern edge of Newfoundland. It was on the same continent as Patuxet, but between them were a thousand miles of rocky coastline and the Micmac and Abenaki alliances, which were at war with one another.

Because traversing this unfriendly territory would be difficult, Tisquantum began looking for a ship to take him to Patuxet. He praised New England bounty to Thomas Dermer, one of Smith’s subordinates, who was then staying in the same camp. Dermer contacted Ferdinando Gorges, who despite his previous failures retained his interest in the Americas, and  with Tisquantum sailed back to England and met with Gorges. Gorges provided Dermer with a fresh ship, and after touching land in Maine, they set out in May 1619 for Massachusetts.

The Europeans’ Secret Weapon

What Tisquantum saw on his return stunned him. From southern Maine to Narragansett Bay, the coast was empty—“utterly void,” Dermer reported. What had once been a line of busy communities was now a mass of tumbledown homes and untended fields overrun by blackberries. Scattered among the houses and fields were skeletons bleached by the sun. Gradually Dermer’s crew realized they were sailing along the border of a cemetery 200 miles long and 40 miles deep. Patuxet had been hit with special force. Not a single person remained.

Looking for his kinsfolk, Tisquantum led Dermer on a melancholy march inland. The settlements they passed lay empty to the sky but full of untended dead. Finally, Tisquantum’s party encountered some survivors, a handful of families in a shattered village. These people sent for Massasoit, who appeared, Dermer wrote, “with a guard of fiftie armed men”—and a captive French sailor, a survivor of the Cape Cod shipwreck. Massasoit told Tisquantum what had happened.


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