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Myles Standish Speaks Out on NH's First Settler

Plimoth role player Scott AtwoodAt Plimoth Plantation it is always 1627.  The tourists come and go, grow old and die, but the hardy members of the Mayflower Colony are untouched by time. If a role player depicting Elder William Bradford or Captain Myles Standish moves on, then another role player takes his place at the living museum. (Continued below)

  

I’ve met people, and not just children, who think the outdoor museum in Plymouth, MA is the real deal. It is a marvelous re-creation, but the English Village was built in the 1950s, the brainchild of a stockbroker. It is a scholarly guess as to what the actual, larger settlement two miles away might have looked like. Its trained costumed inhabitants have been re-living the calendar from 1627 ever since. If you ask one of them if she owns a computer, she will say, “Pewter? Yes, I have a little of it.”  They know nothing of states or Pilgrims or Separatists. They are “planters” come from England or thereabouts, and they are intolerant of just about everyone outside their little circle.  

NH’s first settler  

But they all know David Thompson (also spelled “Thomson”), the first settler of New Hampshire, only there was no New Hampshire back then. Thompson, who set up a fishing post at what is now Odiorne’s Point in Rye in the spring of 1623, was from “Pascataway” or “Pannaway.” The name Strawberry Bank had not even been applied to this region by then. Thompson, his wife Amais and their young son John, arrived with 10 fishermen. The Rye settlement lasted only a few years and was largely abandoned by the time the Strawberry Bank settlers arrived in 1630.  

MORE ON David Thompson and family click here

We don’t know what happened to David Thompson. He disappeared in 1626 or 1627, presumably on a trip to what became Boston Harbor where he laid claim to an island there. Local historians sometimes suggest that Thompson met with foul play. Portsmouth historians, a highly provincial bunch, have always had what I call “Pilgrim envy.” Massachusetts gets all the glory. New Hampshire history is always a day late and a dollar short. So in revenge, when things go wrong up here, we often blame the Pilgrims and the Puritans who soon followed them in droves.   

CONTINUE MYLES STANDISH


 

The most dangerous man in New England  

So who to blame? The most dangerous man in New England in 1627 was likely Myles Standish, the military officer hired by the Mayflower Pilgrims to protect their colony. Standish (c. 1584 -1656) was a tough, some say haughty, ex-soldier with a fiery temper. He was likely born on the Isle of Mann on the coast of England and, some say, had a chip on his shoulder having been cut out of the Standish family fortune. Thee is only one known image of Standish, and it may not be accurate. 

Myles StandishHe is often depicted as short and stocky with reddish hair. He never made a “profession of faith” as a member of the Pilgrim church, but was likely a Protestant and a Christian. His fame comes largely from a romantic 19th century poem entitled “The Courtship of Miles Standish” written 200 years later by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Standish left no journal and still has no major biography, but is a key figure in the diaries of Pilgrim elders Edward Winslow and William Bradford. When Bradford wanted a threat eliminated, he called Myles.  

Despite our idyllic Thanksgiving view of white settlers and Native Americans feasting happily together, their relationship was fractious and their connection more political than social. The Pilgrims set up their town in the heart of a Wampanoag village, aligned with Native leader Massasoit. In 1622, fearing an Indian raid, Standish made a pre-emptive attack on a group of Native warriors. In the Wessagusset massacre Standish personally killed a Native leader, stabbing him in the heart after inviting him to dinner, and carrying his head back to Plymouth. Native villagers on Cape Cod were so fearful of the white warrior, that they were afraid to plant crops and died of starvation.   

Standish was tough on anyone who threatened the Pilgrims or showed disrespect for his military might. When the Plymouth colonists wanted to get rid of Thomas Morton of Merrymount – whose drunken followers danced around a maypole and sold guns to the Indians – it was Standish who drove him out of the region. Morton, who later called Standish “Captain Shrimp,” was banished to the barren Isles of Shoals. He survived long enough to hop a ship back to England. Settler John Oldham, who once unwisely pulled a knife on the captain of the militia, was later banished for plotting to take over the colony. Nobody messed with Myles.  

Myles_Standish-by_NC_Wyeth

Thompson & the Pilgrims  

And it was Myles Standish who met David Thompson in 1623. By the third year in the New World, the Pilgrims were starving. Standish sailed a small shallop to Pascataway to purchase fish, probably salted cod, from Thompson’s new settlement. The two men traveled back to Plymouth and it was on their way that Thompson pointed out the island near Boston that he soon planned to inhabit. Thompson had reportedly claimed it during an earlier visit in 1619. But it was known to Standish and the Pilgrims as Trevore’s Island, claimed in 1621 by William Trevore.  

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I’ve written often about the “second Thanksgiving” that the Pilgrim fathers declared following Thompson’s fish delivery in 1623. He may have returned on other occasions. In 1626, according to William Bradford’s diary, Thompson accompanied the Pilgrim leaders by boat to Monhegan Island in Maine. The fishing colony there was going out of business and the two parties bought up all the supplies. Thompson, Bradford says in his journal, spent more than he could afford.  

That’s the last we hear of David Thompson. His wife Amais ended up marrying another man from Massachusetts. His son John appears to eventually inherit Thompson’s Island in Boston Harbor.  

CONTINUE MYLES STANDISH Interview


 

Role player Scott Atwood as Myles Standish at Plimoth Plantation

Myles speaks out  

So who better to ask about the missing founder of New Hampshire than Myles Standish himself? Scott Attwood has been a role player at Plimoth Plantation for 22 years and currently inhabits the role of Captain Standish. Atwood is a few years older than his role model who was aged 44 in 1627. Besides appearing in countless thousands of tourist photos and films, Atwood plays his part in TV documentaries, travel brochures and lectures. In schools, he is Standish when wearing his hat. Removing his hat transforms him back to Scott Atwood in the 21st century. I interviewed both men who sometimes seemed at odds.  

Atwood has played other Pilgrim characters including Mayflower captain Francis Cooke, He tries to “humanize” the legendary Myles Standish in his public portrayal. Atwood defends the Indian massacre, noting that the pre-emptive attack was a way for the Pilgrims to firm up their alliance with Massasoit, who also wanted the famous Indian Squanto executed as untrustworthy, although Bradford refused to do so. Standish was a man of “high standing” elected to his office, Atwood says and these were dangerous times. Atwood compares the skirmishes among both white and Native groups in terms of “gangland” battles over waterways, game, taxes, land, and power.  

So what about the land dispute between David Thompson and William Trevore, a laborer hired by the Pilgrims? Standish apparently named the land in Boston HarborIsle Trevore” during a visit in 1621. Two years later Standish was on board the Pilgrim shallop with David Thompson when the first NH settler said he had previous claim to the same island dating to 1619. Three or four years later Thompson disappears. Is Standish involved?  

“I don’t think we want to get into that,” Atwood says. 

“Show me the body!” Myles Standish suddenly shouts. Roused out of 1627, Standish is annoyed by my suggestion that, as the Plymouth enforcer, he may have been involved in Thompson’s demise. No body was ever found.  

Atwood the role player cautions me. He says that it is against the law to slander a military captain. In 1627, even suggesting aloud that Standish was party to murder, Atwood says, could lead to my arrest, to a nasty trial in Pilgrim court, and to my banishment – or much worse.  

Standish interrupts. He insists that he was back in England in 1626 raising money for supplies for Plymouth Colony. Standish reels off a list of other more likely suspects who might have had a grudge against Thompson -- Roger Conant at Cape Ann, William Blaxton at what became Boston, Samuel Maverick on the Mystic River – all of whom had more means, motive and opportunity to dispatch Thompson than the Pilgrims.   

Atwood, always the mediator, politely refers me to a lengthy letter written by Thompson to the Earl of Arundel in 1625. In it Thompson complained of many dangers from an increasing number of Native “Salvages.” Thompson, who legend says kept an enslaved Indian as a servant, wrote that traders were driving up the cost of Indian goods, freelance fishermen were moving into disputed areas. Like the Wild West of later days, the New England coast was filled with drunken and dangerous white men in 1625. Some were trading weapons to the Indians. Thompson’s letter to England indicates a variety of hazards that might have gotten him killed on the frontier, not to mention disease, wild animals, or shipwreck.   

I make a final attempt to ask Myles Standish, point-blank, whether heknows more about Thompson’s death than he is telling.  

“Denying what?” Standish says with his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Who’s suggesting it, and what sort of slander is that?”  

Atwood indicates that I back off. This is a guy who never forgets a grudge and is capable of anything.  

If I continue this impertinent line of questioning, Standish says, he will be forced to take action.  

“And then it will out,” Standish says, brandishing his sword. 

I bow politely, and quickly exit the year 1627, leaving David Thompson’s disappearance as mysterious as before. 

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson, who may be a Mayflower descendant, writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online

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