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Keynote Address at Dedication of
the Wessagusset / Weymouth Colony Site
Sunday, July 11, 2004
Jodi Purdy-Quinlan, Vice Chairman of the Weymouth Historical Commission, noted on its website that "On Sunday, July 11, descendants of the 2nd Governor of Wessagussett (Weymouth), John Saunders, gathered to dedicate a memorial stone in honor of their ancestor. The event was sponsored by the Weymouth Historical Commission, and took place at the Wessagussett Memorial Garden, located near the foot of Sea Street near Fore River Avenue in North Weymouth."
Purdy-Quinlan added that, "In my opinion, Jack Dempsey is the foremost authority of the history of the relations between the American Indians of the Northeast and the European fishermen, traders and settlers. Ironically, all the while that I was researching the history of Wessagusett and working to save the only open space in the area of the first settlement, Jack was working on his book Good News from New England and Other Writings on the Killings at Weymouth Colony. It was by chance that we were introduced and have been able to work together to preserve and promote understanding of this very important history."
Good afternoon to everybody---Ah-Ho, and Welcome. Thank you for the privilege of this opportunity to speak with you. This October will mark 3 years since the ceremonies that opened this memorial park in honor of all the peoples at this “little salt water cove” that is Weechagaskas, Wessaguscus, Wessagussett or, in English, Weymouth Colony. This entire project is a badge of honor and leadership for this community. Wherever you hail from, you know there is still a nation-sized spirit coming out of this place.
That day three years ago brought about the first ceremonial “laying down of arms” between representatives of the two main parties to Weymouth’s early story: the American Indians whose family homes stood for generations near this freshwater spring; and the earliest English settlers of this place, through the merchant-adventuring of Mr. Thomas Weston, of London. His men began to arrive aboard the Fortune in November 1621, and numbered about 100 people by the arrival of the Charity and Swan the following spring. All of them, English and Native alike, were flesh and blood, as real as each of us here.
Those ceremonies three years ago were born of new understandings of what happened in and around this place. We heard speeches of goodwill from both sides. We saw people sing and dance together, talking and meditating a common past. We saw our young citizens begin to understand the value of the past to the present, and to their future. We are imperfect beings, but I think the smiles and tears I saw that day came from, yes, a new light; not from the darkness that, we know, once was here.
That day was courage, and hope, and now these invaluable stones speak it every day. The memory in them is why our future is going to be not one of ignorance, fear and misunderstanding. These complexities give us authentic strength---to rise toward the practical dreams we share for this country.
Believe it---Down our American generations there was something important at stake in the story of Wessagussett. For a long time, it taught the expanding English colonies a story of what to expect, and how to respond, that was almost a parable. The earliest histories of this place begin a language of great hope, but a fact-sheet of frontier tragedy. Both compel us still to meditate on this place. And surely, its significance is changing: through days like this, a period in America¹s self-understanding is evolving toward another.
We have come back to the spring for fresh water. We are looking afresh at all the facts we have. We seek to understand where beings as real and as humanly-imperfect as ourselves made their mistakes. And we declare, with our love for this place, and in common interest with all human beings, that those mistakes will bring us no more needless sorrow. Our mothers and fathers give us life, our veterans shed their blood that we may boldly exercise American freedom: the freedom to banish the nightmare of history by confronting it with eyes wide-open, and by refusing to let it control us---not a single day more.
Look out there at the sea today, and imagine yourself back 400 years---what was this place like? As a place for American Indians and explorer-Europeans we have a good phrase: this was the Paradise of them parts coming to be called New England. This was a land shaped by glaciers and magnificent old-growth forest, filled with game and fish, good water, good planting-ground. The first humans to enjoy it were American Indian explorers who, for hundreds of generations, lived here as People of the Dawn; who still see in every sunrise the glory of The Creator’s first thought.
As their hunting-camps evolved into year-round villages with great planting fields, the peoples of New England laid up stores of corn and seed-corn to see them through from winter to next spring’s planting. A lot of that corn and produce, they traded in an economy of Barter: in a phrase, something for something. They had fights, yes, and feuds just like every other closely-interrelated collection of human beings. Binding them all together were language, and kinship, and common values: a code of reciprocal relationship, and many days together of festival and practical interactions. Not surprisingly, as in Europe, this brought about whole webs of intermarried, interrelated peoples. There was human trouble, and there were long-evolved means for dealing with those troubles; means for council, for listening, for avoiding bloodshed, and for getting on with the glory of being alive.
When the first Europeans began to show up on these shores, to dry their codfish and hunt for those highly-profitable pelts of the fur trade, it was natural to extend ways that worked to the strangers on these shores. Here on these beaches the same imperfect yet functionally cooperative ways began to evolve, in the midst of peoples mutually confounded and intrigued by each other. Over the decades, their seasonal meetings began to repeat and to operate on recognizable protocols or ways to do things; things like trade, or talk, and the givings of gifts to fix problems that inevitably come with frontier commerce.
That’s why these peoples acquired each other’s languages, to create the mixed one that so amazed the later Pilgrims. The first Europeans came here not as evangelists, but as traders guided by convenience, by the secular sailor¹s comforts and the voyage-master’s profit. It served nothing of their goals or business to impose their cultures, their views, or a one-sided justice. And what the fine-tooth comb of contemporary research tells us is this: For over 100 years of Northeastern contact, these two transatlantic worlds were imperfectly getting to know each other in a cautious coexistence---by face and by name and, no few times, even by children born between them.
Early-on, there were horrific crimes committed against the far north’s Beothuk and other peoples: in time, the northern Europeans realized the dead end they had created, and turned to a policy called “fair means.” With over 250 English voyages per year by the early 1600s, should their mutual learning surprise us? As yet, there simply was no programmatic agenda at work to bring about that too-familiar conflict of cultures. Our grandfathers blustered, quarreled, manipulated alliances, and even came to blows. And yet, season-by-season in this completely new relationship, their kinsmen and women worked it out. It was a hard, wild life; so what surprise that we see them repeatedly reveling together, that while we were merry, the rest of the day we spent in trading?
Those are the documented transatlantic contexts that bring us to the 1600s decades of this place, Wessagusset/Weymouth. Those years will always be watersheds. In Europe, all kinds of social unrest driven by the Protestant Reformation were on the rise, while economies especially in England dropped, almost to collapse. Here, by about 1616, an absolutely devastating epidemic, comparable to the effects of a nuclear weapon, took the lives of almost 90% of an estimated 135,000 American Indians up and down this coast. Adding even more stress, more European voyages were reaching these shores now and, ship-by-ship, more demand for profit. Record by record, the Native peoples took each visitor singly; and yet more and more often, here came Englishmen who did not take the time to understand the protocols of doing well here. Conflict and violence increased.
As I say the term 1620, you can see how strong the possibilities of hope and of tragedy that came to be played out on this ground. For no worthy history can overlook the profound spirituality that launched those Pilgrim families from English villages to Low Countries exile, to this place. At the same time, the very thing that made them Pilgrims was not what they most needed in order to function harmoniously here.
First, the Pilgrims of Plimoth were misinformed about Native American New England. They expected merciless hostile barbarity, and that is never what they found. It is not even what first-hand reports at that time could have told them. Second, the controlling Separatist families of Plimoth were fundamentally evangelical: their idea of success here did not end with healthy trade, but meant also a kind of cultural reform that simply was not going to happen. As one Sachem anticlimactically informed Edward Winslow, they already believed almost all the same things. Third, for the Pilgrims, there was no going back. In their minds, almost every day was a matter of their family’s life and death.
So the Pilgrims were in almost no way equipped for their Plimoth Adventure, nor were they predisposed to trust or acquire the transatlantic ways of doing things. In their words, the devastations of epidemic were their God’s blessing, not a catastrophe to be factored into understanding the peoples who let them shelter here. They could tell us they well knew of Native worries and tensions, born of a prophecy of mass “dispossession” from their lands. It was a nightmare all but lived out in the massive epidemics. But again, in Plimoth¹s words, it was their intentions here, their own agenda that mattered. In response, Native New England’s leading men and women strove to protect their peoples with the older transatlantic combination: hospitality and bluster, presents and demands, displays of power and sophisticated diplomatic efforts.
That¹s why the first Thanksgiving in the Fall of 1621 is such a day of hope in our memory. Both sides were suffering, struggling to find their feet in each other’s presence. They did it: a full-blown formal treaty as wide as this region by Thanksgiving Day. It was a day of (here we go again) feasting and festive sharing, mingling, sports and speeches. They were going with what worked.
Mind you---This hope was born even after a small but mutually alarming episode in the village of a rival to their Treaty-friend, Massasoit. From the Pilgrims aide Tisquantum/Squanto, to Hobbamock and the Narragansetts also reaching out for Plimoth’s trade, there was a vast and very complicated world of Native politics to learn. When Massasoit’s rival kidnapped Squanto to teach him a lesson about meddling, Captain Myles Standish let loose with his sword, when he should have just brought some presents and a will to listen. So even while they all gave Thanksgiving for peace and its hopefulness, resentments were afoot, and they had to be answered.
Unfortunately they were not. The infamous bundle of arrows wrapped in a rattlesnake skin was, in fact, an invitation to trade from Narragansett: Squanto blurred this into a threat against them all. Squanto’s wife, who would know, insisted there was no talk of armed hostilities. Even so, Plimoth diverted most of its people, who might gather food, to the building of their stockade. Starving, they began to build a wall around themselves that only made things worse. And now, here came the ship Fortune that late Fall. It brought 35 of Thomas Weston¹s advance-men, no supply, and a letter from Plimoth’s backers scolding for profit.
Next Spring of 1622, Plimoth saved Squanto’s head once again. It was, of course, well-intended. But know it or not, they were giving offense to the workings of this country’s ancient ways. Before Plimoth knew it, trade faded, and they found a Native American frown all around them. Into the midst of these hopes---fading but not irretrievable---came the Charity and Swan that summer, with 50-60 more mostly-inexperienced men sent on by merchant adventurer Thomas Weston, with his own plans for a trading post.
They were a mixture of men-at-arms and young indentured men from English parishes. Profit, as in the old days, was their guiding principle. That could only mean contact and dealings with American Indians---but by all accounts, this company too came equipped with virtually nothing for their own support. Even so, their company of almost 100 men chose this place for obvious reasons, managed to secure permission for it, and Weymouth too still held at least the promise of good living and healthy trade. Its men knew nothing of the country: it was possible they could learn.
But, by that August 1622, few Englishmen here could be in a mood for flexibility. A winter of hunger was already bearing down on them all, and they heard that attacks on plantations in Virginia had killed over 300 English colonists in a day. We feel the chill that must have touched their blood; but in actual fact, here that event had “reality” only in the mind.
We have the voices and the words of Native leaders---Chikatawbak, Wituwamat, Pecksuot and others---who reported to their Treaty-friends in English the almost-immediate offenses that came from these complicated tensions. As Weymouth men raided their stores of corn and its seed for next year, they threatened the winter- and longterm survival of Native families. These people were family to the very villages where the Pilgrims leaders now made incredibly daring journeys all that winter, to ask for corn and other help. With each visit, in their own words, the Pilgrims fears and desperation overwhelmed their ability to listen with compassion, and to right the wrongs being done.
That is why, as the winter of 1622 became Spring of 1623, the Plimothers were discovering a frosty chill in their Native relations everywhere. They heard angry speeches, quarreled over petty things, refused the approaches of articulate Native leaders who made ingenious efforts to open the channels of communication and redress. Pecksuot himself offered his son, Nahamit, as a hostage---anything to kick open doors of discussion. The more beleaguered Plimoth refused to see and hear, the more anger they heard. That very winter a seagoing captain of a ship tried to kidnap a whole group of Nauset people: they escaped, and yet their complaints reach us not from Plimoth, but from the far-off records of the Council for New England. Native people in conspiracy do not file public complaints.
The Pilgrims, starving behind their walls, the walls preventing discussion that could have prevented disaster, were forced to rely upon extremely dubious intelligence of an Indian Conspiracy. The Massachusett leader Wituwamat let Captain Standish catch a sample of his power to intimidate. Some of it came from the already-unreliable Squanto, who simply repeated the list of Native allies on that bright Thanksgiving treaty. And some came from Weymouth-man Phinehas Pratt, who derived his intelligence from a Native woman he had just, in his own words, physically assaulted.
And so that March 23rd, Plimoth resolved to preemptively return the malicious purposes of the tribes all around them. Within days, Captain Myles Standish and 8-12 men came to this place, where the Weymouth men too had by now walled themselves in. They feigned a feast and parley with Wituwamat, Pecksuot, and at least two other Native men---and here, they ³set upon² those leaders trapped in a cabin, and killed every person they could reach. Edward Winslow counted four: William Bradford said the violence killed seven all-told, until several more died of what he called related causes. The violence radiated outward, and killed in retaliation three Englishmen we are not surprised to find living in Chikatawbak¹s village; one of them with a wife and child already. We do not know if that woman and child were the Native pair whose remains archaeology found in this very area, both with their heads bashed in. We do not know who did that, when, or why.
But it speaks directly to the change---the reform---that was coming to this transatlantic place. The violence here in March 1623 drew new lines among the peoples that English law, in time, would sanctify. The violence almost destroyed Plimoth Colony¹s trade. Captain Standish set the head of Wituwamat atop the combined fort and church at Plimoth; and he added up there a sheet dipped in their victims blood, to be the first-mentioned flag in the colony’s records. We know that not from the Pilgrims writings, but from an outside observer that summer. We know that not from what we see today at Plimoth Plantation, but from the scholars dismissed by our educational mainstream. It is time to ask who was and is served by this. It is time to ask why Plimoth could not understand why Natives refused them trade for years after: why our educational models such as Plimoth’s today think we cannot look this in the eye.
We see the world that grew from that one, and recall the words of Massachusetts Historical Society’s former president, Thomas Boylston Adams in reference to the Vietnam War: “The world cannot afford to bungle its diplomacy.” Our children need us to revitalize the way we educate and prepare ourselves for this frontier encounter still before us. What other force in our society can give us a chance to recognize, and so refuse, the errors and blind alleys of the past? You can trust historian Charles Francis Adams Jr. that indeed “in our New England histories the real facts are good enough.”
Surely in a country of our optimism, it is time to recognize broader contexts too of the Wessagusset story. Merchant-adventurer Thomas Weston himself did very well when he later found in the southern colony a place for his intentions of secular trade. The glory of the Maypole of Merrymount up this very coast in 1627---achieved, remember, among the same people injured here at Weymouth---tells us more. If we believe that life must go on for human beings, forgiveness is the price. However uncharted, however difficult that may be, we also know that America, like no place else, rewards and blesses cooperation with prosperity.
We are doing it. Create days like this one, and the story of this place becomes a story of limitations recognized, of limitations refused: that is the exhilaration of freedom and the excitement of human potential that makes excellence in our schools. Multiculture is the scientific social fact, and there is nothing inevitable about the conflict of cultures. Whether you see the rewards in terms of property values built from educational excellence, or in the more unmeasurable things that we say make life worth living, they are to be had, for the courage to think, and talk, and listen. The goal is not judgment, but communication. And here we are, to celebrate the victory that only all of us can reach. I wonder if there could be an ancestor of any people here today who would not wish that many-fold on their descendants.
The early records will continue to teach us. Once they taught a minority of people then considered Americans how to imagine themselves alone and worthy of significance. Now, the facts and the voices that speak to us begin to help us understand. History worthy of free, sophisticated citizens cannot be written to the interest of any one side alone, because it will not prosper peace.
When all of us are gone and the stones remain, the rigor of our knowledge of this place, and the hardnosed story we tell of it, become the value of what can be built upon it. We do not hide from responsibility by writing all this off to vague misunderstanding, to human imperfection, or blind fate. There were too many evident means of redress for these troubles; too many invitations and opportunities plain to see in the records, too many chances to prevent the worst possibilities inherent in a world of choice.
We can teach and trust our children to understand the misinformed, willful and needlessly fearful choices made---choices created by shortsighted refusals of understanding, refusals to recognize one’s own part in the escalation of hostilities. Only that hands-on exercise can endow them with the humane sophistication, the seeing many sides at once, that the world-wide frontier will demand. Let us be the ones who walked tall and showed them the way. Let us be the generation who chose to remember; who dared to see it all and to generate new seeing. We begin to remember not hope and tragedy, but tragedy and hope.
The frontier is still all around us, big as the world and every bit connected with this earth beneath our feet. We need the extraordinary water of this spring. And, to add our voices to the story. To say, We have learned that we prosper only together. In Walt Whitman¹s words, “we will have not one single person left away from the feast.” And to that challenge and opportunity we say: We are all of us equal. To Wessagussett and Weymouth, to hard-won understanding, and to hope, we rise.
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