Builders of our Country Vol. I - G. Southworth

Miles Standish and the Pilgrims

I. Why the Pilgrims Left England

Three hundred years ago the kings of England had almost absolute power. The people had very few rights; either in church or government.

When James I came to the English throne he held the same views as the rulers before him. He said, "I am the King and therefore can do no wrong." He said also that everybody must attend his church and worship in just the way he did.

Now, there were a great many good people in England at this time who did not agree with the King's religious views. Neither the king nor the bishop should be the head of the church,, they argued. They thought that the churches were built too grandly for a house of God and that too much stress was laid upon the outward forms of religion.

Having these views, it was impossible for them to conform to the rules of the Established Church. So they separated from the Church of England and held services according to their own ideas in their own churches and in private homes. In consequence they were called Separatists.

King James became greatly indignant with the Separatists and finally made a law forcing everybody to attend his church and no other.

The Separatists, however, firm in their own belief, said that they would not and could not obey this law. Instead of giving up their religion, they loved it still more and resolved to suffer and, if need be, die for it. Yet they were cautious. They no longer held public meetings, but gathered together privately to worship God. Often times numbers of them journeyed from place to place, that they might carry on their services unmolested; and for this reason these wanderers became known as Pilgrims as well as Separatists. Still, in spite of all their precautions, the King's watchful officials, whenever possible, would imprison them, fine them heavily, and often lead them to the gallows.

Miles Standish


At last, in 1608, a company of Pilgrims from the town of Scrooby decided to flee to Holland, where religious freedom was granted to all. But just as they were about to embark, the King's officers rushed up and seized them. Their clothes were taken away, and they were thrust into prison, where they were kept for several months.

The following year these Pilgrims again decided to leave England. This time they arrived safely in Holland. At last they had perfect religious freedom. They no longer lived in fear of spying officials or dark prisons.

From time to time other bands of Pilgrims came from England, until in a few years several hundreds of English were living on Dutch soil. They lived there very happily for almost twelve years. The Dutch liked them because they were good and diligent citizens, and they in turn liked the thrifty Dutch.

But as the years passed, these Pilgrims were not so well satisfied as at first. They saw that their children were acquiring the Dutch language, Dutch ways and customs, and were forgetting all about England. It must be remembered that although the Pilgrims wanted religious liberty, they dearly loved England and always had been true English at heart. It hurt them to see their children gradually becoming Dutch. Then, too, they thought, the Dutch were not so religious as themselves and were setting their children a bad example.

Owing to all this, the Pilgrims at length decided to seek another country. They thought of several places, but none seemed so desirable as America. Surely here, if anywhere, they could found a little colony of their own and live unmolested the life that pleased them best.

II. The Pilgrims in America

There were about a thousand Pilgrims in Holland at the time the new colony was decided on. It was of course impossible for all to go, as money was not plentiful and the trip was expensive. So they selected the young and strong members of the church as best fitted to withstand the hardships which lay ahead.

In due time all arrangements were complete, and the hour for starting arrived. It was a sad farewell that separated these brave and fearless people. Kneeling down together for the last time, they prayed that God would keep from danger those that stayed and those that went.

In July, 1620, this band of brave Pilgrims left the port of Delft Haven on the vessel Speedwell. Another vessel, the Mayflower, with friends from England was waiting for them at Plymouth. When they arrived in England they found that the Speedwell  was too shaky to undertake the voyage, so all went on board the Mayflower  and sailed for the New World.

There were just one hundred and two men, women, and children in this company. Among them were many brave men, such as John Carver, William Brewster, William Bradford, and a soldier by the name of Miles Standish. This soldier was not a Pilgrim. Like John Smith, he loved adventure; and so sincerely did he admire the pluck and perseverance of the Pilgrims that he volunteered to go with them and help them.

The trip across the ocean was long and wearisome. Storms came up, and the poor people had to remain below deck most of the time. The frail vessel was so tossed by the winds and waves that it seemed as if they would never see land again.

Cabin of Mayflower


At last after many weary weeks they saw the American coast stretched out before them; and on a bleak, wintry day, they rounded the end of Cape Cod and sailed into what is now palled Provincetown Harbor. You can hardly imagine with what hope and yet with what fear they gazed at the snow-laden trees, the bare coasts, and the dark skies above.

It was while the Mayflower  was lying at anchor in this bay that the Pilgrims drew up a written agreement in the cabin of the ship. In this agreement it was stated that all were to have equal rights; that they would live in peace and help and defend one another in time of need. They elected John Carver governor and agreed to obey such laws as should seem necessary later on.

For a month they sailed along the coast of Massachusetts Bay, endeavoring to find a suitable place to land. Oftentimes parties explored the shore in a shallop or small boat which they had brought in the Mayflower. But Miles Standish; who usually had charge of these expeditions, preferred traveling inland to see what kind of land this bleak country was.

On more than one occasion he and his men saw Indians. One day they found several mounds, which proved to be Indian graves. A short distance away they discovered a mound freshly covered over with sand. They removed the sand and found several baskets of corn with yellow, blue, and red kernels. They were overjoyed and took the corn back with them to the ship. Later, when the Pilgrims found to whom this corn belonged, they paid the Indians for it.

During these days Miles Standish proved a very useful friend to the Pilgrims, and it was he who finally chose the spot for the colonists to land upon.

It was on the 21st of December, when the ground was knee-deep with snow and the weather biting cold, that the Pilgrims left the vessel to make their new home in this place, which John Smith had already called Plymouth.

The water was so shallow at this point that even the shallop could not quite reach the shore. Near the water's edge a large boulder was lying, and this rock the Pilgrims used as a stepping-stone from their small boat to the dry land. To-day if you should go to Plymouth, you would see among many curious relics of the Pilgrims this interesting rock.

A large log house was hastily constructed, in which they all could live until they were able to build separate homes for each family. A platform also was put up, and on it were placed the cannon which the colonists had brought with them. It was necessary to be well armed in this strange land of savage Indians; and the colonists had come with guns, powder, and bullets for each man, and cannon for the common protection.

As the winter advanced, the Pilgrims suffered great hardships. Food was getting scarce. They had used up most of the provisions brought from England. The men were nearly worn out by the heavy work they were doing. Great trees had to be hewn down and dragged to the spot where they were to be used in building. Then came the work of cutting them into the proper size and shape, and all this in bitter cold weather.

No wonder that with all these hardships so many became ill and died. Those who remained well and strong—and there were only a few of them nursed the sick. The large log house was turned into a hospital. When spring came, only fifty were left of the one hundred and two who had sailed from England.

In order that the Indians might not know to what a small number they had been reduced, the settlers buried their dead at night and leveled the graves so that they would not be noticed.

Yet, despite the hard winter, when the Mayflower  returned to England in the spring, not one person cared to go back. Liberty with all its hardships was sweeter than life in their old home.

One day an Indian came into the village of Plymouth and called to the people in English, "Welcome Englishmen!" His name was Samoset, and he had learned a little English from fishermen on the Maine coast. He stayed over night and left the next morning.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor


Shortly afterwards Samoset returned with another Indian called Squanto. Years before, Squanto had been stolen by some Englishmen and had been taken to England where he had learned to like the comforts and ways of his captors. He told the Pilgrims that the chief of his tribe, Massasoit, was coming to visit them. In an hour's time Massasoit came with sixty followers. The Pilgrims received him with all possible show. They marched to meet him, carrying their guns and beating all the drums they could muster. The chief seemed much pleased, and a peace compact was drawn up. This peace was kept for over fifty years between these Indians and the English.

Squanto afterwards came and lived in Plymouth and proved a valuable friend. He taught the English the way to plant corn, peas, and barley, and acted as interpreter between them and the neighboring tribes in their fur trading.

When spring came, the Pilgrims grew more hopeful. They had twenty acres of corn and six of barley and peas planted, and this promised a splendid harvest. With the autumn the promise was fulfilled. When they had gathered their first harvest, the Pilgrims found themselves well supplied with grain for the coming winter.

Unlike many people, they did not forget who the Giver of all this bounty was. They set aside one day for a thanksgiving for the harvest; and then, thinking the best way to show their gratitude was to give pleasure to others, they invited Massasoit and ninety of his Indians to join them in a celebration. Massasoit brought five deer for the feast. The Pilgrims themselves had sent men out to shoot wild turkey. For three days these friendly neighbors passed the time in feasting and outdoor games. From this happy beginning has grown our national custom of observing a Thanksgiving Day in the fall of each year.

Not all the Indians, however, were as friendly to the whites as were Massasoit and his tribe.

One day Canonicus, the chief of a tribe hostile to Massasoit, sent a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snake skin to Miles Standish. This was a sign of war. Standish was a brave man and did not fear the threat. He kept the arrows and, filling the snake skin with powder, returned it to Canonicus. This was enough. Canonicus thought it best to leave the English alone.

Again, Massasoit told the Pilgrims of a plot the Massachuseuks tribe was forming to kill all the English in Plymouth. Grateful for the news, Miles Standish decided to hunt up his enemies before they attacked his people. Taking a company of men with him, he fell upon the Massachuseuks and killed their leader, Pecksuot, and many others. Pecksuot had boasted the night before that he did not fear Standish because he was a little man, and he, Pecksuot, a man of great strength and courage.

Standish and Colonists fight Massachusetts


As the months passed, the Pilgrims were becoming more and more settled. Starting with only the large log cabin which they had built when they first landed, they had now quite a village of separate houses for the different families.

These log houses were not like our houses of to-day. The tiny windows were covered with oiled paper instead of glass, which was too expensive. Instead of dividing the house into dining room, kitchen, and parlor, the Pilgrims had one big room. The cooking was done over the fire under the large chimney. They had scarcely any furniture. Instead of comfortable chairs and beds, they had blocks of wood covered with the furs of wild animals. In one corner stood the large spinning wheel on which the mother and daughters spun yarn for the family use.

The church which these people attended was simple and crude like their homes. Never safe from the Indians, the Pilgrims, even on Sunday, would march to church with their guns over their shoulders.

The life of the Pilgrim children was a busy and yet a happy one. Both boys and girls had to help their parents in the daily toil. Then they had their schools to attend. The schoolhouses were built of clumsy logs with a roof of dried grass and sea-weeds. Inside, the walls were bare. There were no pictures and maps to help the children understand their lessons. The teachers were exceedingly strict and thought it wrong for children ever to waste time in play.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - I  by G. Southworth


On Sunday the children had to walk very quietly to church, and to sit perfectly still through the reading of a sermon which was sure to last one hour, and often lasted two.

At night they sat around the fire while their father read the Bible to all his family; and then they went to bed. If by chance they should lie awake, they were pretty sure to hear the howling of the hungry wolves which prowled about outside. It was a dreary sound.

Pilgrim Meeting House


And so passed the days and nights of the Pilgrim children, until they grew to be God-fearing men and women, honored to this day for the part they took in the first New England colony.