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“God…would Destroy Them, And Give Their Country To Another People…”
The mysterious diseases that nearly wiped out the Indians of New England were the work of the Christian God-or so both Pilgrims and Indians believed
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
The Indians, apparently with the Massachusets tribe in the lead, began to plot to exterminate the Wessagusset settlement. They were less intolerant of the Plymouth than the Wessagusset people, but their plan was to destroy the Pilgrims, as well, for fear that the latter would take revenge for the murder of any English. The scheme never got beyond the talking stage. Why weren’t the Indians able to organize themselves and take the action they planned? Pilgrims collecting corn from the Massachusets in the latter part of 1622 learned of a “great sickness” among them “not unlike the plague, if not the same.” Soon after, Wampanoag women bringing corn to Plymouth were struck with a “great sickness,” and the English were obliged to carry much of the corn home on their own backs.
Disease or, at least, bodily malfunction most dramatically affected New England history in 1623 when Massasoit developed a massive case of constipation. In March the news arrived in Plymouth that Massasoit was close to death and that a Dutch vessel had grounded on the sands right in front of his current home. The English knew of the Indian custom that any and all friends must visit the ill, especially the very ill, and they also wanted to meet with the stranded Dutch; so a small party set out from Plymouth for the sachem’s sickbed. The Pilgrims found the Dutch afloat and gone, and Massasoit’s dwelling jammed to bursting with well-wishers and powwows “making such a hellish noise, as it distempered us that were well, and therefore unlike to ease him that was sick.”
Edward Winslow undertook the sachem’s case and managed to get between his teeth “a confection of many comfortable conserves, on the point of my knife. …” He then washed out his patient’s mouth, put him on a light diet, and soon his bowels were functioning again. The Englishman had, with the simplest of Hippocratic remedies, apparently saved the life of the most powerful man in the immediate environs of Plymouth. For the next day or so Winslow was kept busy going from one to another of the sachem’s sick or allegedly sick followers, doling out smidgens of his confection and receiving “many joyful thanks.” In an era which was, for the Indians, one of almost incomprehensible mortality, Winslow had succeeded where all the powwows had failed in thwarting the influences drawing Massasoit toward death. The English could not only persuade a profoundly malevolent god to kill, but also not to kill.
The most important immediate product of Massasoit’s recovery was his gratitude. He revealed the details of the Indian plot against Wessagusset and Plymouth, a plot involving most of the larger tribes within two or three days travel of Plymouth, and even the Indians of Capawack (Martha’s Vineyard). He said he had been asked to join when he was sick, but had refused for himself and his people. The Pilgrims probably had already heard rumors of the plot, and the sachem’s story was confirmed by Phineas Pratt, one of the ne’er-do-wells from Wessagusset, who made his way by fleetness of foot and luck through hostile Indians to Plymouth.
Captain Miles Standish sailed to Boston Bay with a small group of armed men, tiny in number but gigantic in the power the Indians thought they possessed. They killed five or so of the alleged leaders of the plot and returned home with the head of one of them. The remnants of the Wessagusset colony were swept together and brought to Plymouth, where in time most of them made the decision to go back to Europe as hands on the vessels fishing along the Maine coast. The Indian head was set up at Plymouth fort as a visual aid to Indian education.
The Indian plan to wipe out the white colonies fell to pieces. Members of the several tribes within striking distance of Plymouth “forsook their houses, running to and fro like men distracted, living in swamps and other desert places, and so brought manifold diseases amongst themselves, whereof very many are dead. …” Ianough, sachem of the Massachusets, said “the God of the English was offended with them, and would destroy them in his anger. …” The Pilgrims noted smugly that the mortality rate among their opponents was, indeed, high, and “neither is there any likelihood it will easily cease; because through fear they set little or no corn, which is the staff of life, and without which they cannot long preserve health and strength.”
By 1622 or so the very last cases of the plague had occurred in New England—if indeed these were examples of plague and not of misdiagnosis—and the only remains of the great pestilence were disarticulating bones lost in fallen walls of rotting bark that had once been homes. But it had done its work. In 1625 the Pilgrims, for the first time, raised enough corn to fill their own stomachs and trade with the Indians. The Pilgrims had survived and were getting stronger, thanks more to biology than religion, despite Pilgrim preconceptions, but Thomas Morton nevertheless was reminded of a line from Exodus: “By little and little (saith God of old to his people) will I drive them out from before thee; till thou be increased, and inherit the land.”