The scene before the Pilgrims sailed over

Samuel de Champlain drew this map of the site as he was exploring Plymouth Harbor between 1604 and 1606.

Following is the second in a series of excerpts from Ed Quill’s recently published book, “When Last The Glorious Light: Lay of the Massachuset.” Read the first installment here.

When you think of it, the first so-called Native Americans weren’t “native” at all, but came, most likely, from Eurasia via Siberia, crossing the Bering Strait to today’s Alaska by walking a 55-mile arctic land bridge, then becoming landlocked in the Americas when the ice melted. Anyone who has lived in North or South America is a visitor or an immigrant or a descendant of one.

“No consensus has emerged, but a growing number of researchers believe that the New World was occupied by a single small group that crossed the Bering Strait, got stuck on the Alaska side, and straggled to the rest of the Americas in two or three separate groups, with the ancestors of most modern Indians making up the second group,” wrote pre-Columbian historian Charles C. Mann in his book “1491.”

According to Mann, they made their journey just before the Neolithic Revolution – the invention of farming – which took place in the Middle East about 11,000 years ago. Or perhaps they came 20,000 years ago when the ice pack was smaller. Or 30,000 years ago. Or perhaps they crossed by boat across the Pacific Ocean, or arrived from Australia, passing by the South Pole. Or they were from Siberia or Mongolia or Japan.

Archaeologists, researchers and historians have yet to reach full consensus. But the first theory of crossing the frozen Bering Strait seems to have gained the most weight in recent years.


Ancient man perhaps began moving into New England about 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, as shown by the Bull Brook excavation site at Ipswich, Massachusetts, revealing fluted point and gravers of exotic flint and other artifacts. Some samples of charcoal showed a Carbon-14 date of about 7000 B.C. According to the archaeologist William S. Fowler, evidence indicated that the early arrivals to the Northeast may have come in dugout canoes, possibly nomadic hunters pursuing prehistoric game – mammoths and mastodons. They may have been forced back and forth by seasonal changes. Caribou hunters are believed to have arrived here about 6,500 years ago, as the tundra retreated and the forest appeared. The tidewater bays began forming where the ice-age streams had once flowed. Now a new people, more sedentary, arrived – known as the Stone Bowl Makers – becoming more dependent on fish for food to supplement the game they had once exclusively brought home from their hunting trips.

Wrote Mann: Ten thousand years ago when Indians in Mesoamerica and Peru were inventing Agriculture and coalescing into villages, New England was barely inhabited, for the excellent reason that it had been covered until relatively recently by an ice sheet a mile thick. . . . Because rising sea levels continually flooded the shore, marshy Cape Cod did not fully lock into its contemporary configuration until about 1000 B.C. By that time the Dawnland [the New England shore] had evolved into something more attractive: an ecological crazy quilt of wet maple forests, shellfish-studded tidal estuaries, thick highland woods, mossy bogs full of cranberries and orchids.” …

Along the East Coast in the centuries that followed, there evolved a slow “economic shift” from a hunting and gathering culture to one that specialized on exploiting local natural resources such as fish runs on the rivers and shellfish on the river mudflats at low tide. At first, this shift probably took place in the southern portions of the coastline, slowly working its way northward.


When the natives along the coastline – of what was later geographically called Massachusetts – saw their first ship on the ocean, they took it for a “walking island,” and thought its mast must be a tree and its sails white clouds. And when the ship discharged its guns, they took them, wrote William Wood in “New England’s Prospect” (initially published in 1634). “. . . for lightning and thunder, which did much trouble, but this thunder being over and this moving-island steadied with an anchor, they manned over their canoes to go and pick strawberries there.”

This tale was told to Wood by a Massachuset native. But when the natives approached the ship they were saluted with a broadside from the ship’s cannon, which forced them to turn back to shore, crying out: “What much hoggery, so big walk, and so big speak, and by and by kill . . . ” They turned back and didn’t approach the ship again until they were sent for. This was an early impression the local natives had of the newcomers.

Edward Johnson, in “Wonder-Working Providence 1628-1651,” first published in 1653, wrote that the people who saw this wonder were called the “Mattachusets.” They were “so affrighted with a Ship that arrived in their Bay, having never seene any before . . .” The book’s 1910 editor, J. Franklin James, wrote that the ship may have been Captain John Smith’s, sailing into Massachusetts Bay in 1614. This is questionable, since many ships had sailed around the area before 1614, including the expeditions of Bartholomew Gosnold (1602) and Samuel de Champlain (1604 and 1606). Moreover, before Smith sailed along the Bay, a French ship had been in the bay area for about six weeks, trading with the Massachuset, so that the natives had little left to trade with Smith’s crew. …

The trouble with a series of subsequent expeditions between 1602 and 1614 – to survey the economic and colonial opportunities at several sites – was that they remained for longer periods, “. . . sometimes camping on land, and increasingly alienating the natives.”
Among them:

• Coasting down from Maine and rounding Cape Cod in 1602, the crew of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold antagonized local natives on the island of Cuttyhunk, the westernmost of the Elizabeth Islands south of today’s New Bedford, by ceasing to trade with them, creating an incident in which two Englishmen were attacked, one receiving an arrow in his side. This small skirmish ended the expedition and the establishment of a possible colony.

• The French explorer Samuel de Champlain, investigating the New England coastline in 1604 and 1606, missed Boston Harbor but stopped at one point at Hingham Harbor where he traded with the “Wessagusset” band of the Massachuset. On this expedition, some of the sailors with his aide DeMonts, while trading with the Nauset on Cape Cod, started to argue with the natives over a stolen kettle, and a brief skirmish resulted in the death of one sailor.

• In 1611, the Pokanoket sachem Epinow (also spelled Epanow, Epenow) on Capawack (Martha’s Vineyard) was captured by English captains Edward Harlow and Nicholas Hobson, who brought him to England where he learned some of the language and customs. Three years later he was brought back as a guide and interpreter but escaped from the ship to tell his fellow natives the tale.

• Captain John Smith’s 1614 expedition, mentioned above, aroused anger among the natives. Because the Massachuset had few fur pelts to trade after the earlier French vessel had left, Smith’s crew, doubting the natives, raised tensions and caused a clash with 40 braves. When all the native arrows were spent, Smith ordered that their canoes be seized, forcing the natives to pay a ransom in beaver skins to get their canoes back. When the ship anchored in another spot in the bay, it was showered with arrows again and, in the ensuing skirmish, one native was killed and another wounded by gunfire.

• With Smith on this commercial voyage in 1614 was Englishman Thomas Hunt, who was ordered to fish off the coast of Cape Cod and barter with the natives for furs. Hunt seized some 24 unsuspecting natives, seven of them Nauset, and herded them on his ship bound for Malago where he intended to sell the captives as slaves. Although most of them were eventually rescued by Spanish friars, this action raised “an intense distrust” among the natives that lingered for several years. Among his captives, who escaped to England and learned the English language, was Tisquantum, or Squanto, of the Patuxet tribe, located in present-day Plymouth, who returned to the New World and became an excellent guide to the Pilgrims and introduced them to sachem Massasoit of the Pokanoket and to some Massachuset.

The natives had excellent intertribal communications, and were well aware of these incidents by the time the Pilgrims came ashore to explore their surroundings at Provincetown in 1620, eventually settling westward across the bay at Plymouth.

NEXT: The tribes and the “Old Comers”

Ed Quill is a former archivist at Boston City Hall and onetime chief librarian at The Boston Globe where he also served as a City Hall reporter and editor of its Ask the Globe column. His book will shortly be available for purchase through PayPal and the website