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Reflections

Native Americans helped assure the Pilgrims' survival : Reflections : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Native Americans helped assure the Pilgrims' survival
by Roger Matile

11/24/2011

They knew immediately they were in the wrong place, and unfortunately it was the wrong time, too.

In December of 1620, the Mayflower, a well-founded though small ship, arrived off the coast of North America with a load of prospective colonists on their way to settle near Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. Unfortunately, the Mayflower arrived several hundred miles north of the Virginia coast and put the would-be colonists ashore on the rocky coast of present-day Massachusetts. Historians have been arguing ever since whether the ship sailed off course by accident or on purpose (most favor the accident hypothesis). But we'll leave that argument for another time in favor of considering what the Pilgrims found when they reached the New World.

It's cold in Massachusetts in the winter, much colder weather than the colonists had been prepared for, but they went ashore on Dec. 21 anyway and began building a colony. A year later, those who were still alive-and there weren't many-prepared a fall feast of thanksgiving for their survival in the New World, a festival we still celebrate each November.

It wasn't that the Pilgrims were unique in being totally unprepared for what they found in the New World. English colonists, no matter where they landed on the coast of North America in the 1600s, were unprepared for what they found. Englishmen in Jamestown died in Virginia's sweltering humidity in their heavy clothing, confining armor, and dark and dank wattle and daub homes. Full plate armor was not designed to be worn in hot and humid Virginia, nor were the fashionable and frilly clothes the dandified Virginians insisted on wearing-the Savile Row suits of the era.

In the northern colonies, with their thin, rocky soil, traditional English farming methods were not successful. They were lucky to find cleared fields waiting for them since an epidemic of European disease brought by fishermen had exterminated whole, once-thriving villages. But most of the Puritan colonists were well-off businessmen who knew little of farming to begin with. Simple lack of food and proper sanitation did in many a Pilgrim.

Lack of their traditional foodstuffs soon sent colonists to the woods hunting for game. Game in New England was abundant in the 1600s, but few of the colonists were familiar with hunting. Fortunately, friendly Indians helped the Pilgrims learn how to farm and how to hunt, although it wasn't many years before the Indians no doubt regretted their decision to help.

Those early colonists who trudged off into the woods to hunt for deer, turkey, and other wild game didn't have much going for them. The firearms of the day were notoriously unreliable, easily broken and hard to repair. The blunderbusses, complete with bell-shaped muzzles, often shown in paintings of the Pilgrim era were not used by the 1620 arrivals. The blunderbuss was actually a late 17th century version of the sawed-off shotgun, a weapon favored by stagecoach guards and highwaymen, not by wilderness hunters.

In the early 1600s, matchlock arquebusses, so huge they had to be held steady on a special monopod rest, were still in use, along with a collection of other interesting and short-lived weapons such as wheellock firearms.

Matchlock weapons were loaded from the muzzle, first by pouring a measure of gunpowder in and then dropping a lead ball on top, finishing with some wadding to keep everything from pouring out the end of the weapon was tipped muzzle-down. A small hollowed-out pan at the breech of the weapon was filled with fine gunpowder, and its cover closed. Then a slow match (a length of slow burning braided fabric) held in the jaws of the hammer was lit. To fire, the trigger was pulled. It's mechanism lifted the cover off of the priming pan and plunged the glowing match into the fine gunpowder. If all went well, the flash in the pan ignited the main charge in the gun barrel through the touch hole, and the gun went off. If it was raining, windy, the match went out, the touch hole was plugged, the gunpowder was of poor quality, or any of a number of other things interfered, nothing happened. Or the gunner might just blow himself up if his lit slow match came into contact with his gunpowder flasks.

If a matchlock-armed Pilgrim was hunting deer, misfiring didn't matter much, except that everyone might go hungry for a while. If it was an angry Indian who was being fired at, however, the unlucky Pilgrim could easily find himself punctured by a number of arrows while he frantically persuaded his weapon to fire.

Wheellocks were a bit more modern, in that they ignited the main charge with a spring driven wind-up mechanism that produced sparks by whirling flint against steel like a modern cigarette lighter. Since they were more complicated, each a handcrafted masterpiece, naturally they broke more often. This was compensated for because fewer musketeers were blown up by their own gunpowder flasks while they were trying to light their slow matches.

The firearms of the day were so unreliable, however, that crossbows were still commonly used weapons in 1620. What the resident Indians thought of Pilgrim hunters clanking through the underbrush in armored breastplates and burgonet helmets while dragging along 20 pound matchlock muskets that might or might not go off when their triggers were pulled was, unfortunately, not recorded-it might have made good reading. We do know, however, that the Indians felt so sorry for those first largely clueless Massachusetts settlers that they helped them survive during the first very difficult years they spent in the new colony, even if they were squatting on former Indian towns.

Too often at Thanksgiving time, we are reminded of the Pilgrims' survival while the friendly, unselfish contributions of Native Americans to those Englishmen who were badly in need is forgotten, which is a shame. But no good historical deed, it seems, goes unpunished, and Native Americans were to pay a steep price for their's, something we might contemplate this Thanksgiving Day.




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