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  • 12 Jun 2021 3:49 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Travel by Water

    Young Master Billington may have reached the Nausets by now, and word would have been sent to Massasoit about this new prize capture.

    Although the natives had not yet developed such “technology” as the wheel, the arch, the sail, the rudder, or the firearm, they were able to use the natural resources around them to great effect.  One example is the use of trees: in building houses, the bark supplied the shingles to place over a simple frame of bent green saplings.  Walnut bark was especially good.  A canoe could be built at the same time.  Mud would be packed around the tree, leaving the lower part exposed; a fire would be lit around the bottom, until the tree fell over.  It was much quicker, much less strenuous, and more efficient than using an axe.  The fire could then be applied to hollow out the interior of the tree, and stone tools would be used to finish.  The larger canoes were over forty feet long, and could hold more than forty men.

  • 11 Jun 2021 3:10 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Search parties

    John Billington had now been gone for about five days, and the Pilgrims had looked as far as they could without getting too far from home.  Today they sent Squanto out to see what he could find, but he, too, returned without any clue.

  • 10 Jun 2021 2:54 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Native Government

    The government of the various Indian tribes displayed a highly structured and rigid class structure.  A chief, known as a sachem, was usually the largest property owner and the supreme ruler.  The position of sachem (among the Pokanoket, this was Massasoit when the Mayflower arrived, and later his son, Metacom, who called himself King Philip) was inherited, usually passed on from father to son.  In the absence of a son, a daughter could inherit the position -- which was exactly the same provision for succession as in most European monarchies.  The sachem, once in place, had to prove himself: he could be replaced, or just ousted, for cowardice, poor judgement, ignorance, or a lack of leadership.  The sachem ruled with a council, not unlike a parliament.  The Manomet sachem Canacum had to show himself decisive, but also subordinate to his more powerful neighbours, and young John Billington was the perfect bargaining chip to show both of those things.  The sachem had both a civil and a religious role (no separation of church and state here, either): as Glenn Cheney rather breezily notes, “To remain worthy of his title, [the sachem] had to keep the tribe in harmony with the spirits of nature.  If the relationship between the tribe and nature went sour, it was his fault.  The consequences could be anything from hunger to invasion.  But as long as things went well, he was king” (Thanksgiving, p. 211).  The sachem exacted an annual tax in kind or in service from all members of the tribe, as well as any others dependant on his authority; this was a series of interconnections not unlike the feudal system in Europe in the Middle Ages.

  • 9 Jun 2021 3:11 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Tribal Politics

    Why did Canacum, the sachem of the Manomet Indians, send young John Billington to the Nauset Indians, several days’ journey away, rather than straight home (where he knew he had come from) or to Massasoit and the Pokanoket Indians (whom he knew had a treaty with the Pilgrims)? The plagues that had decimated the Pokanoket Indians had, apparently, not been as disastrous to other tribes in the area, and by turning the Billington boy over to the Nausets instead of to the Pokanokets, Canacum made a conscious effort to defer to a neighbour whose relative strength had increased dramatically since the plague.  It may also have been a way for Canacum to express his displeasure with Massasoit’s decision to ally with the Pilgrims.  The Nausets could pretty much do as they wanted in the area, while the Pokanoket, hemmed in by enemies on every side, had to be very, very careful.  It is significant that the Nausets, from a position of strength, had early on taken the offensive against the Pilgrims, while Massasoit’s Pokanokets, from a position of weakness, had tried to negotiate a deal.  Massasoit’s influence in the region was apparently not as dominant as he had led the Pilgrim leaders to believe -- this may also have been yet another reason why the settlers decided to send Winslow and Hopkins to meet with Massasoit on his home turf next month -- so they could see exactly how much of what he said was bluster, or a front, or a con job.  It became crystal clear that Massasoit could not protect the Pilgrims.  As Philbrick relates it, “With the boy in their possession, the Nausets were able to send an unmistakable message to the English: ‘You stole something of ours; well, now we have something of yours’” (Mayflower, p. 111).

    These rivalries continue: as I mentioned in a recent review in the Mayflower Quarterly, the descendants of the Pokanoket Indians have exaggerated their tribe (under the name of Wampanoag, a name that only comes into use about fifty years after these events), and on the map produced by Plymouth 400 to show the location of various tribes, several of the more powerful tribes, such as the Massachusetts, are erased completely -- the ultimate in cancel culture!  The small, weak Pokanoket Indians are elevated by the phrase “Four Nations” to the level of a nation state such as England and Holland -- which they manifestly were not -- and they can finally take revenge on their neighbours by grabbing their land and erasing their names, even if it is 400 years later. 

  • 8 Jun 2021 3:06 AM | Soule (Administrator)


    Just about now, or perhaps in a day or two, John Billington the younger strolled into the Indian village at Manomet.  What must have been going through his mind?  The only Indians he had thus far met were friendly ones: Samoset (“Welcome, Englishmen!”), Squanto, Massasoit, Quidequina, and the numerous others that were overrunning the Pilgrim settlement and testing the limits of Pilgrim hospitality.  He probably had every expectation that he would be taken care of, maybe fed well, and then sent back home, perhaps with an escort.

    If that was his expectation, he was rather quickly disabused of it.  The Manomet sachem, Canacum, could have had not even a slight doubt about where the boy had come from.  But instead of returning the boy to the English, he sent him off to the Nausets on Cape Cod (near the modern Eastham).  These were the very people who had attacked the Pilgrims on First Encounter beach back in December.  They were also the ones whose graves and corn storage the Pilgrims had rifled in the starvation-fuelled search.

    Why would Canacum do this?  More on that tomorrow, but ponder what this says about the relations among the natives until then.

  • 7 Jun 2021 3:25 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Wandering South

    John Billington the younger’s wanderings south would have taken him to the nearest native settlement to Plymouth, which is Manomet (about the location of the present Cape Cod Canal).  Most of the descriptions I have seen of his wanderings suggest that he walked about 20 miles, which would have put him well past modern Manomet (as well as the Coast Guard station or the now shut down nuclear power plant).  He probably had no idea of where he was going, of course, and thus his path would not have been in a straight line.  The modern narratives tend to concentrate on his diet, which was minimal, rather than his route, which at this point is unknowable.

    Emmanuel Altham, one of the Company of Adventurers for New Plymouth, in his "Letter to Sir Edward Altham" (1623) describes Manomet as the Indian settlement closest to Plymouth.  He identifies not the location but the distance: "And now I will speak somewhat of the savages in the country about -- I mean the native Indians. The nearest that any dwell unto [Plymouth] is fourteen miles, and their town is called Manomet." This placemark indicates only a guess of where Manomet might have been

    The Manomet location may have been a summer settlement: the natives are known to have moved closer to the coast, and their primary food sources, in the summer, and further inland in the winter.  Young John may have been in luck in this timing, because if this had been earlier in the year, there might not have been any inhabitants even that close.

  • 6 Jun 2021 2:55 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    The Billington family

    The Billington family was one of the few families not touched by death in the first winter.  John and Ellinor (whose maiden name is unknown) had two sons: Bradford’s 1651 list of increasings notes that John Billington (the father) was “executed for killing a man,” and we know that this took place in 1630.  Bradford indicates that the elder son (whom we know to be John Billington, the younger -- the boy who yesterday got lost in the woods) died before his father.  This John Billington was included in the division of cattle in 1627, so we know that he must have died between June 1627 and September 1630.  He was born about 1604, so this would mean that he was between 23 and 26 at the time of his death.  Bradford notes that Billington’s second son (Francis) married and had children; the fact that he did not mention this about John as well would lead to the conclusion that John Billington (the younger) died unmarried and without issue.

    Francis Billington did his best to make up for that.  He married Christian Penn, who arrived on the Anne in 1623; Christian had married Francis Eaton as her first husband and had three children by him.  My favourite quandary about the original manuscript of Bradford’s Of Plimmoth Plantation has to do with the number of children Francis and Christian Billington had.  There is smudge to the left of the number “8”, so that it appears that Bradford recorded that they had 18 children, which, when the 3 Eaton children are added, would mean there were 21 -- a veritable colony of their own.  Upon closer inspection, however, the smudge is, in fact, a smudge, and we can verify that there were only nine children of this union, one of whom was born after Bradford compiled his list.  11 children in this blended family is a big enough number.

  • 5 Jun 2021 3:11 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Babes in the woods

    We have already seen the trouble Billingtons could get into: Francis Billington almost blew up the Mayflower before it even got to Plymouth, and climbed a tree to discover a large body of water that is known as Billington’s Sea even now; John Billington, his father, was subject to the first criminal action in the colony (for insubordination against Myles Standish), and, as we have already discovered, came to no good end within a decade.

    His sixteen year old son, John Billington [junior], at just about this time, wandered off to the south of Plymouth and got horribly, horribly lost.  For five days he wandered aimlessly about, living on roots, berries, nuts and anything else that was even remotely edible.

    Although Bradford in his journal records that the party sent to retrieve John Billington left at the end of July, Mourt’s Relation states that they left on 11 June (o.s., or 21 June in the Gregorian calendar we use).  We learn from the earlier narrative that he had been held by the natives for some time before the Pilgrims were informed of his whereabouts, and that he had wandered around south of Plymouth for at least five days before he stumbled across the Indian settlement at Manomet.  It would thus appear that John’s disappearance happened just about now, and this fits into the timeline more easily at the beginning of June rather than the end of July, when Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins were going back and forth on their diplomatic trips to various local Indian tribes.  It seems unlikely that the Pilgrims would have attempted any contact with tribes (and certainly not out to the Nauset, the natives of the “first encounter”) while these two were away or otherwise occupied.

  • 4 Jun 2021 3:17 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Holland v. the Hapsburgs

    There was a brilliant presentation online yesterday from the New York State Archives on the 400th anniversary of the charter establishing the Dutch West India Company, about which I wrote yesterday morning. Related to this, however, is one of the reasons why the Pilgrims were so keen on leaving Holland when they did: the “Twelve Years’ Truce” between the Habsburg rulers of Spain and the Southern Netherlands and the Dutch Republic was due to expire in 1621.  There was continual contact between Stadtholder Prince Maurice of Orange and the government in Brussels during 1620 and 1621 regarding a possible renewal of the Truce. Archduke Albert of Austria, Governor General of the Habsburg (Catholic) Netherlands and husband of Isabella Clara Eugenia, the daughter of King Philip II, was in favour of a renewal, especially after Maurice (falsely!) gave him the impression that a peace would be possible on the basis of a token recognition by the Republic of the sovereignty of the king of Spain. Renewal of the Truce had become less likely, as both in Spain and in the Republic more hard-line factions had come to power. The Spaniards demanded Dutch evacuation of the West and East Indies; lifting of the restrictions on Antwerp's trade by way of the Scheldt (through Dutch territory); and toleration of the public practice of the Catholic religion in the Republic. These demands were unacceptable to Maurice and the Truce expired in April 1621.

    The war did not immediately resume, however. Maurice continued sending secret offers to Isabella after Albert died in July 1621, through the intermediary of the Flemish painter (!!) Peter Paul Rubens. Though the contents of these offers (which amounted to a version of the concessions demanded by Spain) were not known in the Republic, the fact of the secret negotiations became known. Proponents of restarting the war were disquieted, like the investors in the Dutch West India Company, which had just been founded with the main objective of bringing the war to the Spanish Americas. Opposition against the peace feelers therefore mounted, and nothing came of them.

    Another reason the war did not immediately resume was that King Philip III died shortly before the truce ended. He was succeeded by his 16-year-old son Philip IV and a new government under Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares. The view of the Spanish government was that the truce had been economically ruinous to Spain, and had enabled the Dutch to gain very unfair advantages in trade with the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean. The continued blockade of Antwerp had contributed to that city's steep decline in importance (hence the demand for the lifting of the closing of the Scheldt). The shift in trade between Spain and the Republic had resulted in a permanent trade deficit for Spain, because of a drain of Spanish silver to the Republic. The truce had also given further impetus to the Dutch penetration of the East Indies, and in 1615 a naval expedition under Joris van Spilbergen raided the West-Coast of Spanish South America. Spain felt threatened by these incursions and wanted to put a stop to them. Finally, the economic advantages had given the Republic the financial wherewithal to build a large navy during the truce and to enlarge its standing army to a size where it could rival Spanish military might. The three conditions Spain had set for a continuation of the truce had been intended to remedy these disadvantages (the demand for freedom of worship for Catholics being made as a matter of principle, but also to mobilise the still sizeable Catholic minority in the Republic and so destabilise it politically).

  • 3 Jun 2021 3:12 AM | Soule (Administrator)

    Meanwhile, back in Europe …

    Today marks the four hundredth anniversary of the charter of the Dutch West India Company, chartered on 3 June 1621 by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.  The company was given the exclusive right to operate in West Africa (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Cape of Good Hope) and the Americas. Willem Usselincx was one of the founders of the West India Company, and promoted the establishment of colonies in the New World as the company’s principal purpose. In 1620, Usselincx made a last appeal to the States General, which rejected this vision as a primary goal. The legislators preferred trading posts with small populations and a military presence to protect them, which was working in the East Indies, as opposed to encouraging mass immigration and establishing large colonies. The company did not shift to colonization in North America until 1654, when it was forced to surrender Dutch Brazil and forfeit the richest sugar-producing area in the world.

    Like the French in the north, the Dutch focused their interests on the fur trade. To that end, they cultivated relations with the Five Nations of the Iroquois to procure greater access to key central regions from which the skins came.  In 1617, Dutch colonists built a fort at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers where Albany now stands. The Dutch claimed all territory from the end of the Delmarva peninsula to Cape Cod -- this would make Plymouth, at best, right on the border, if not within Dutch territory.  In 1624, New Netherland became a province of the Dutch Republic, which had lowered the northern border of its North American dominion to 42 degrees latitude in acknowledgment of the claim by the English north of Cape Cod (Plymouth, for your information is at 41° 57 N).  The population, even at its height, was very small and extremely contentious, and the Company provided little military support.  In 1664, during a series of Anglo-Dutch conflicts, England moved to take over New Netherland; the Dutch colonists refused to fight, forcing Governor Stuyvesant's surrender.  Although the Dutch briefly regained control of the territory in 1674, the English quickly consolidated their gains as the colony of New York.

    Dutch continued to be spoken in the region for some time. President Martin Van Buren grew up in Kinderhook, New York, speaking only Dutch, becoming the only U. S. president not to have spoken English as a first language.

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