We often hear the claim that the Pilgrims stole land, resources, and crops from the Indians. Plenty of scholars promote this view who see all European settlers as robbers and all North American natives as victims. However, there are plenty of scholars who vigorously deny all wrongdoing on the part of the Pilgrims and paint all Indians as bloodthirsty savages who killed and plundered, and needed to be placed in subjugation. Before any hasty or emotional judgment on the question of relations between European settlers, known commonly as “Pilgrims,” and native inhabitants of Cape Cod, known commonly as “Indians,” it is important to view the settlement question in the light of a broader, historical view.
The various tribes who lived along the neck of land known as Cape Cod were as hostile to each other as they were to the Pilgrims. Just as European nations, such as England and France, fought and plundered each other long before they ever came in contact with Indians, so also tribes, such as the Narragansets and the Wampanoags, went to war with one another long before the coming of any European colonists. Killing, kidnapping, and stealing are common to all sinners, regardless of time period, language, heritage, or skin color.
When the Pilgrims, after crossing the North Atlantic, first reached land in the winter of 1620, they were providentially driven off course northward by storms at sea. Their intention had been to land in Virginia or at least near the mouth of the Hudson River. But finding that it was too late in the year and too dangerous to undertake the rocky shoals that lurked to the south of Cape Cod, they resolved to find a place to land and build a settlement in the area we now call Massachusetts.
The Pilgrims had journeyed from the Netherlands—and originally from England—not for the purpose of exploitation or plunder. Rather, they desired to build a society where they and their children would be free from the religious tyranny of the King of England as well as the moral laxity of Dutch society.
By the time that the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod, the passengers of the Mayflower were hungry, cold, and starting to succumb to scurvy and fever. When a party of Pilgrim men landed on the tip of the Cape, they found evidence of native settlement: corn stubble, burial mounds, fresh footprints, and wigwams. They caught a fleeting glimpse of five or six natives accompanied by a dog, but the Indians vanished into the forest before contact could be made. The explorers also found evidence of previous Europeans: some sawed planks of wood and an iron kettle. Most significantly, the Pilgrim explorers found an area where sand had been carefully smoothed over and patted down. Digging in the sand, they found a number of woven baskets full of dried corn.
This dried corn was a significant find! Pilgrim leader William Bradford noted that the corn was “of various colours, which was a very goodly sight they having never seen any like it before.” Unable to pay for this find immediately, the Pilgrims took some of the corn, “intending to give them [the Indians] full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them.” Bradford went on to say of this supply of corn, “And it is to be noted as a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that they thus got seed to plant corn the next year, or they might have starved.” The Pilgrims looked upon the inhabitants of the land as God’s “instruments of preservation.”
As the Pilgrims later became acquainted with the Indians of the region, principally Samoset and Squanto, they learned that the Indians also had very real concerns and needs. The Pilgrims paid for the corn with trade goods and supplied the natives with hoes and other important agricultural tools. As time progressed, the two different groups of people developed a mutually beneficial relationship. Squanto taught the new settlers how to catch fish in the streams and how to plant native corn and beans. The Pilgrims gave the Indians knives and hoes and also provided them with needed medical services.
The man who became the chief Pilgrim negotiator with the Indians was Edward Winslow. Winslow was of the lower gentry from Worcestershire in England. He was well-educated and had a gentle, approachable manner that appealed to the Indians. He helped to arrange the formal treaty with the Wampanoag tribe—this treaty lasted half a century! Winslow became a sincere, personal friend of the great chief Massasoit. In one particularly dire emergency, the Pilgrims marched to the defense of their friends when the Indians were threatened with war by a neighboring tribe.
On another occasion, Edward Winslow was called to the village where Massasoit lived. Winslow found the great chief very near the gates of eternity, and the death wail had already begun. Massasoit’s tongue was swollen, he had taken no food, and his digestive system was shutting down. Winslow prayed for the man, then he scraped the great chief’s tongue with his knife and “got abundance of corruption out of the same.” Winslow next astonished the natives by going out with his matchlock and shooting a goose. He prepared and boiled the bird and made a nourishing dish from the rendered fat and broth. Massasoit was able to take the “comfortable conserves,” as Winslow called the dish, and soon had opened his eyes and begun talking!
Winslow went on to serve as governor of Plymouth for three separate terms and became a trusted leader of both Pilgrims and Indians alike. He had lost his wife during the first difficult winter in the New World. Winslow married a young widow, Susannah White, that very first spring. He and Susanna were blessed with children whose descendants are now numerous in North America. Winslow became one of Plymouth’s historians, writing some of the early narratives and corresponding with friends back in England. He later returned to England to further the Pilgrim cause at home, and eventually accepted an appointed position in the government of Oliver Cromwell.
In 1651, Winslow had his portrait done. He is the only one of the Pilgrim fathers who had an authentic portrait painted during his lifetime. The portrait of Edward Winslow is very significant among historians of this period because it provides an authentic glimpse into how the Pilgrims might have dressed and worn their hair.
Four years later, in 1655, Cromwell appointed Winslow to be governor of Jamaica. He accepted the diplomat position, having proven worthy in diplomatic relations both in the New World and in England. However, while on the sea voyage there, Edward Winslow became ill and died.
Rather than a singular focus on what Pilgrims like Edward Winslow took from the Indians, it is worthwhile to consider what those newcomers gave! The Pilgrims gave an understanding of medicine, tools of agriculture, the benefits of trade, weapons of lawful defense, and most importantly, the life and liberty-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Corinthians 3:17).
The crimes of theft and murder have always been around since the time of Adam, but Godly societies learn to regulate these by the truths and principles found in the Holy Bible. Men of diverse cultures, such as Edward Winslow and Squanto, were able to see and enjoy the benefits that could come when they were willing to heed the advice of the Apostle Paul: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Ephesians 4:28).