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Mayflower, Day by Day - Friday, 18 December 1620

18 Dec 2020 3:28 AM | Soule (Administrator)

First Encounter; first death of a head of a family (fifth death on the journey)

A strong south-east gale with heavy rain, turning to snow and growing cold toward night, as it cleared.  This day James Chilton died aboard the ship; he was the third passenger, and the first head of a family; to die in this harbour.  James was born about 1556 in Canterbury, Kent, and was therefore about sixty-four years old at the time of his death -- easily the oldest passenger on the Mayflower.  He was referred to in English records as a tailor, and married about 1586 -- the name of his wife has not yet been discovered.  She was excommunicated in June 1609, along with Thomas Bartlett and Moses Fletcher, for “privately burying a child … which some of them seem now to dissent by calling into question the lawfulness of the king’s constitutions in this and other behalfs, affirming these things [viz., burial rites] to be popish ceremonies and of no other force.”  James’ own brush with fame, or at least with the public records, came in April 1619, when he made a statement in court about being pelted with stones by a gang of about twenty boys, who shouted anti-Arminian slurs.  (Caleb Johnson notes that since the Pilgrims themselves, being good Calvinists, were staunchly opposed to the teaching of Jacob Arminius, “in a sense James was hit by ‘friendly fire’”: Mayflower Passengers, p. 116).  James’ wife and thirteen year old daughter Mary accompanied him on the Mayflower; daughters Isabella and Ingle were left behind in Leiden.

Meanwhile, on shore …

After midnight, the encamped discovery party heard strange noises; although they grabbed their weapons, nothing happened, and one of the party said that he had heard similar noises from wolves in Newfoundland.  At about 5:00 AM, the group stirred and joined in morning prayer.  As part of the group were taking some of their armament down to the boat, they heard another strange call, followed by flying arrows.  “Captain Miles Standish, having a snaphance [an early version of the flintlock] ready, made a shot, and after him another.  After they two had shot, other two of us were ready, but he wished us not to shoot till we could take aim [the equivalent of ‘Don’t fire until you can see the whites of their eyes’], for we knew not what need we should have, and there were four only of us which had their arms there ready, and stood before the open side of our barricade, which was first assaulted. They thought it best to defend it, lest the enemy should take it and our stuff, and so have the more vantage against us.”  Standish did not know how many Indians were in the woods, and they might need every shot they could take.  The group was divided, with some at the barricade, and others at the shallop -- but those at the shallop, although they had weapons, had no fire to light them.  “Our care was no less for the shallop, but we hoped all the rest would defend it; we called unto them to know how it was with them, and they answered, ‘Well! Well!’ every one and, ‘Be of good courage!’  We heard three of their pieces go off, and the rest called for a firebrand to light their matches. One took a log out of the fire on his shoulder and went and carried it unto them,” an act of bravery or foolhardiness which “was thought did not a little discourage our enemies. The cry of our enemies was dreadful, especially when our men ran out to recover their arms; their note was after this manner, ‘Woach woach ha ha hach woach.’”  The Pilgrims estimated that their attackers were at least thirty or forty, and perhaps more; the discovery party were backlit by their campfires, and thus made very easy targets.  “There was a lusty man and no whit less valiant, who was thought to be their captain, stood behind a tree within half a musket shot of us, and there let his arrows fly at us. He was seen to shoot three arrows, which were all avoided, for he at whom the first arrow was aimed, saw it, and stooped down and it flew over him; the rest were avoided also. He stood three shots of a musket. At length one took, as he said, full aim at him, and after which he gave extraordinary cry and away they all went. We followed them about a quarter of a mile, but we left six to keep our shallop, for we were careful about our business. Then we shouted all together two several times, and shot off a couple of muskets and so returned; this we did that they might see we were not afraid of them nor discouraged.  Thus it pleased God to vanquish our enemies and give us deliverance.”  The clothes that the group left hanging on the barricade were riddled with arrows, but none of the men suffered even a scratch.  They collected eighteen arrows, which they sent back to England with Captain Jones; most were over a yard long, “some whereof were headed with brass, others with harts' horn, and others with eagles' claws.”  They named site of this battle First Encounter Beach, as it is still called in modern Eastham.  This put an end to any lingering idea of having a permanent settlement on this part of Cape Cod.

The party loaded up the shallop and headed along the southern edge of Cape Cod Bay.  The wind picked up, and with the temperature just at about freezing, horizontal sleet along with salt spray hit them full in the face.  They were somewhere near Manomet Bluff when a wave dislocated the rudder.  “The seas were grown so great that we were much troubled and in great danger, and night grew on. Anon Master Coppin bade us be of good cheer; he saw the harbour. As we drew near, the gale being stiff and we bearing great sail to get in, split our mast in three pieces, and were like to have cast away our shallop.”  They gathered up the pieces of the broken mast, took up their oars and started to row for their lives.  Coppin then realised that this was not Thievish Harbour, but a dangerous beach on which they were about to be flung.  Rowing hard, they passed Saquish Head, and found themselves on the lee of what they later discovered to be an island.  It was a windy night, and deepening darkness, and they discussed what to do.  Some suggested staying on board the shallop in case of another Indian attack, but more were afraid of freezing to death, and went ashore and built a large fire.  “Yet still the Lord kept us, … it pleased the Divine Providence that we fell upon a place of sandy ground, where our shallop did ride safe and secure all that night, and coming upon a strange island kept our watch all night in the rain upon that island.”

Quite a day, all around …

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