Before the beginning -- 11/20/10

Well, I was going to begin at the beginning -- that is, with the indigenous inhabitants -- the Wampanoag and Narragansett and Pequod and so on -- and the arrival of the settlers who became known as the Pilgrims -- but now that my fingers are on the keyboard, I realize that I really should start before the beginning.

The Pilgrims weren't actually the first English settlers in the area we now call New England; theirs was merely the first successful colony in that area. Not only that, but European fisherman had been visiting the waters off the New England coast for years.

Let's start with Giovanni Cabotto (if you learned about him in school, they probably called him John Cabot, but he was Italian, although his exploring was being done for England). His first voyage to the New World was in 1497, just five years after Columbus made his first trip. (Well, Cabot's actual first voyage was in 1496 but he ran into bad weather and had to turn back without reaching America.) In 1497 he was successful and found land (probably Newfoundland, although there are disagreements about this), the first Europeans to reach North American since the Vikings. He made a third voyage a year or so later, about which almost nothing is known, although some say he explored almost all of the Atlantic coast. There is also a story that a group of Augustinian monks may have sailed with him and settled somewhere in New England.

One thing that Cabot -- and the explorers who followed him -- found was that the fishing was fantastic. Cabot reported that there were so many cod in the waters off Newfoundland that you could catch them using wicker baskets, just scoop them up. The explorers were quickly followed by fishermen who reported catching six and seven foot long cod that weighed up to 200 pounds. Herring, sturgeon, salmon, shad, oysters, lobsters... an incredible wealth of food (most of it gone now, wiped out by overfishing).

It is believed that there were Basque fishermen working the waters off Newfoundland in the early 1500s. In 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert (half brother to Sir Walter Raleigh) formally claimed Newfoundland for England, he had found English, French, and Portuguese fishing vessels plying those waters. By the time the Pilgrims set sail for the New World in 1620, generations of fishermen had been fishing along the New England coast. The Pilgrims were to meet Indians who understood English, learned while trading with fisherman -- and Squanto, the Indian who taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and catch eels and who served as their main translator, not only spoke English, he had been to Europe and had lived and worked in England! (Can you imagine what adventures he had?)

The main Indian groups -- Indian tribal nations -- in New England prior to the coming of the English colonists were the Massachusetts and the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, especially in the eastern region where the first colonies were set up (and the Nipmuck and Pocumtunk further west), the Narragansett in Rhode Island, and the Pequot, Niantic, and Mohegan in Connecticut (and various Algonquin-related tribes north of Massachusetts and also to the west, running down the Hudson Valley). There were subdivisions in these tribes and there were other tribes and there were overlapping territories and there were shifting alliances and so on... Just think of any place in the world... oh, let's say England once upon a time with dozens of Celtic tribes (the Brigantes and the Belgae, the Ordovices, the Atrebates, etc.) and the Angles and Saxons and Jutes, clumps of Vikings, etc., all jostling for land and resources and trade and loot.

The Indian civilization had just been devastated by terrible plagues. Their contact with European fishermen had exposed them to diseases for which they had no immunity, especially to smallpox (but also measles, influenza, cholera, mumps, pertussis, etc.) -- and by the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Indian population in many areas had been reduced by percentages that exceeded the impact of the medieval Black Death on the European population.

I had alluded to settlement attempts prior to the Pilgrims. I believe the first one was an attempted settlement on Cuttyhunk Island in the Elizabeth Islands, a string of islands that, if the water level were to drop, might form a southwestern extension of Cape Cod. I have no idea why they would have passed by Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard to settle on one of these little islands. This was in 1602 and the leader was Bartholomew Gosnold, pretty much a forgotten name today, but he was one of the key people behind the idea of colonizing Virginia (and at this time the English frequently used the term "Northern Virginia" to describe what we call New England). He reached Maine in May of 1602, explored down the coast, and is credited with coining the name "Cape Cod." He discovered Martha's Vineyard (which he named after his daughter). He and his crew then built a fort on Cuttyhunk Island with plans to harvest sassafras (which was quite valuable in those days) but after only being there a month, they decided that they did not have sufficient supplies to be able to stay over the winter, so they packed up and returned to England. (Gosnold then got a patent from the king to establish Jamestown in Virginia, organized the expedition that settled Jamestown, and died there of dysentery and scurvy in 1607.)

The second English colony in New England was the Popham colony. The first attempt failed in 1606 when the Spanish intercepted and captured their ship. They tried again in 1607 with two ships and set up a colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine. They built a fort and 18 buildings. They had not arrived until August, not leaving any time to plant and grow crops; without enough supplies for winter, about half of the group returned to England. They made contact with the Abenaki Indians (an Algonquin tribe that lived in parts of Maine and New Hampshire) but couldn't seal a trade deal with them because earlier explorers had kidnapped members of the tribe. The colonists built what may have been the first sea-going boat constructed in English-occupied North America. They finally managed to do some trading with the Abenaki and were able to fill the ship with a cargo of furs and sassafras. (A few years later that ship that they had built was part of a relief expedition attempting to save Jamestown from starvation.) A year after its founding, one of the key colonists, Ralegh Gilbert (son of Sir Humphrey) learned that his elder brother had died and he was now heir to Compton Castle and all of the family fortune and he packed up and said he was heading for home. The rest of the colonists decided to abandon the colony and also go back to England.

Okay, enough for today... I have groceries to buy and leaves to rake and firewood to split and lots of other chores to tackle today and tomorrow. And, if I am going to do this topic justice, I should cover not just the Pilgrims (and the "first" Thanksgiving feast) but Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island (also known as "Rogues Island" even in early colonial days) -- and the adventures of Anne Hutchinson (now there's a brave and fascinating woman!) -- and also the Indian Wars in Connecticut -- and still try to tell the story of the Great Swamp Massacre in time to mark its 335th anniversary (December 19th).

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