In March 1623, leaders of the struggling Plymouth Plantation dispatched their paid military leader Myles Standish to a coastal settlement 25 miles north. They gave him a savage mandate: return with the head of a troublesome warrior named Wituwamat.
Wituwamat was the perceived leader of a rumored multi-tribal strike against a failed English trading post and possibly Plymouth itself.
With a handful of men and a Native ally named Hobbamock, Myles Standish ambushed Wituwamat, a powerful brave named Pecksuot and two other Natives in a locked room. He then engaged in a running battle with another group of warriors in present-day Weymouth, Mass. A few others joined them–members of the trading colony established a year earlier by London investor Thomas Weston. Weston and his Merchant Adventurer partners wanted to capitalize on the profitable beaver trade with the Massachusetts tribe.
A few days later, Standish proudly impaled Wituwamat’s head on the stockade at the entrance to Plymouth Plantation—a stark warning to the local Native populations.
It was an important moment in American history–although largely forgotten. The attack clearly established the primacy of the Pilgrims. Today, the event—and the actual physical reminders of it—are being examined and reinterpreted by historians, archaeologists and descendants of the original actors.
Myles Standish, Condemned
The local tribes that had quarreled with the new English settlers quickly dissipated, clearing the way for a massive Puritan migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony anchored at Boston. The Natives feared the Pilgrims’ guns, their ruthlessness, and their rumored ability to unleash a deadly plague on command. Yet the violent preemptive strike was condemned even by the Pilgrims’ own spiritual leader, John Robinson, who had remained at their safe haven in Holland.
The necessity of the strike is still debated. America prefers to remember the banquet between the Pilgrims and the local Natives, formally proclaimed as Thanksgiving by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. There was indeed a feast, albeit a strained affair, between the Pilgrims and a group of Natives, called the Pokanoket Wampanoags, who had sought a military alliance to stave off possible annihilation by the rival Narragansett tribe.
How It All Started
The story of how tensions escalated to the murder and decapitation of Wituwamat begins with the arrival of the first Europeans in present-day Massachusetts. Capt. John Smith of Jamestown fame explored the region in 1614 with several vessels. One of his commanders, Thomas Hunt, captured several Natives to sell as slaves. That action negatively impacted English and Native relations for years to come, in Smith’s view.
One of the captured natives, a brave named Squanto, later returned. The first Europeans spread infectious diseases that obliterated some coastal populations. Disease wiped out a village called Patuxet, once Squanto’s home.
In 1615, the Natives took revenge on a wrecked French ship, killing most of the sailors and keeping a few as slaves. One of the Natives participating in the butchery was Pecksuot. He later taunted Weston colonists and Standish with his gruesome account. Later, sailors of an English ship reportedly murdered several members of the Wampanoags. They then responded by attacking a party led by an explorer and gold prospector named Thomas Dermer.
In his best-selling book titled Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick wrote: “When the Mayflower arrived at Provincetown Harbor in November, it was generally assumed by the Indians that the ship had been sent to avenge the attack on Dermer. In the weeks ahead, the Pilgrims did little to change that assumption.”
A Pilgrim landing party raided a buried supply of corn seed, ripped through a gravesite and fled from the beach under a hail of arrows. The scouting party, sailing up the coast, found a spot with a harbor, fresh water and a hill for a fort. They then started to build homes.
The settlement at Plymouth had inadequate provisions, and 52 of the 102 who arrived on Cape Cod died by spring. Squanto, who had learned to speak English, befriended the Pilgrims. He then helped establish a treaty with Massasoit Ousamequin of the Pokanoket Wampanoags.
But Corbitant, sachem of the Pocasset tribe of the Wampanoag, challenged Massasoit’s treaty with the Pilgrims. The treaty seemed like a straightforward military alliance. However, it actually undercut long-standing tribal legal tradition, according to Paula Peters, a present-day activist for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.
The Pilgrims dispatched Myles Standish to a village called Nemasket with less than a dozen men. His mission: to kill and behead Corbitant, who escaped. Later, the Narragansetts, also unhappy with the Pilgrims, sent Plymouth Plantation a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin, a threat. Standish ordered construction of a palisade fence surrounding their homes, and beefed up other fortifications.
Meanwhile, the Pilgrims were struggling to feed themselves, let alone return a profit to the London investment group that paid their way. The initial plan to farm communally failed completely. Only 26 acres were planted in 1621. In 1623, each family received permission to plant privately, with the amount of land determined by family size.
“The Pilgrims, in their quest to be stepping-stones for freedom, had almost everything go wrong as they attempted to plant a colony in the new world. By the time they reached the shores of New England, they were poor, had barely enough provisions for the first winter and began to die at an alarming rate,” wrote Dr. Paul Jehle, executive director of the Plymouth Rock Foundation.
The Mayflower returned to London in 1621 empty of cargo. Weston was not happy. A return ship carried this message to Plymouth Gov. William Bradford: “The life of the business depends upon the lading of this ship, which if you do to any good purpose, that I may be freed from the great sums I have disbursed for the former and must do for the latter (the Fortune), I promise you I will never quit the business.”
Despite his commitment, Weston bailed on the Plymouth investment. Instead, he created another venture: a trading colony of some 60 men. No religious separatists this time. No women. And no children. Just men, albeit a rough group, who would engage in profitable beaver trade with the Massachusetts tribe.
His traders arrived at Plymouth in the fall of 1622 poorly provisioned and not prepared to establish a settlement. They left for an area on the coast that the Natives called Wessaguscus, and they called Wessagusset.
They were greeted by the local sachem Aberdikes, who welcomed the idea of trade. But the situation soon deteriorated. The alert of an emerging crisis came from a man named Phineas Pratt, a member of the Weston Colony at Wessagusset. He chronicled his story in 1664, when he petitioned the colonial government for the financial benefits accorded “First Comers.”
He was the only first-person witness to make a written record. But he was not present for the battle. That account comes from Edward Winslow of Plymouth Plantation in a detailed report to London titled Good Newes From New England. Details were also provided in accounts from Bradford (Of Plymouth Plantation) and Thomas Morton (New English Canaan). Winslow was the de facto agent with Massasoit as well as with the investors who had funded the Pilgrims trip.
Phineas Pratt’s Account
The account of Phineas Pratt went like this: When the Weston party of 60 men arrived at Wessagusset in 1622 “there was a great plague among the savages &, as themselves told us, half their people died thereof…The savages seemed to be good friends with us while they feared us, but when they saw famine prevail, they began to insult.”
Pecksuot sought to intimidate the newcomers with boasts of how the tribe had subdued the shipwrecked French crew. “We made them our servants. They wept much…We took away their clothes. They lived but a little while.”
Aberdikes, the local sachem, later approached the colony with several armed braves and accused one of the men of stealing corn. They retreated when they saw men armed with muskets behind a fence palisade surrounding the fort and houses.
According to legend, the Weston colonists hanged a proxy for the crime, an older man who was deathly ill.
The colonists then buttoned up the palisade and consumed what food they had left while braves watched.
‘Tomorrow I will go’
Pratt continued: “When we understood that their plot was to kill all English people in one day when the snow was gone, I would have sent a man to Plymouth, but none were willing to go. Then I said if Plymouth men know not of this treacherous plot, they & we are all dead men; therefore, if God willing, tomorrow I will go.”
Pratt made a successful escape to Plymouth, where he found preparations already under way for a military expedition to Wessagusset.
Edward Winslow had just arrived after a healing mission to Massasoit, who told of a multi-tribal plan to attack Plymouth and the Weston Colony. Spurred by the warning of Massasoit and later confirmed by Pratt, the Pilgrims sent Myles Standish to ambush the tribal leaders.
Myles Standish Battles the Natives
Standish and his men took a small vessel called a shallop and arrived at Wessagusset where the colonist ship, the Swan, lay anchored. No one was on board, and Standish fired a musket. Several men suddenly appeared.
Surprised to find Myles Standish, they said there was no imminent threat from the tribe. In fact, many of the colonists were cohabitating with them.
Standish collected colonists in a hilltop stockade and told them of his plan to lure Natives inside and then kill them. The Natives perceived the threat and only Wituwamat, Pecksuot and two other men ventured into the fort.
Myles Standish promised them a feast and invited them into a house. He then locked the door, grabbed Pecksuot’s knife and killed him. Then his other soldiers killed and decapitated Wituwamat. They hanged a third brave.
Aberdikes approached with warriors, and the conflict debouched into a running battle in the surrounding area. The Natives, outgunned, disappeared into the tall cattails of a marsh. At the end of the day, seven Natives were killed. No English died in combat.
The settlement was evacuated, with most colonists sailing the Swan to a fishing outpost in Maine. Most of the local tribes pulled up stakes and fled the area, fearing another attack.
Bradford lamented the lost ability to profit from further beaver fur trade— at least for a while. The events were later mythologized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1858 narrative poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”
Samuel Butler recalled the proxy hanging in his satirical poem titled “Hudibras” published in the mid-17th century.
The peace that prevailed in the area was short lived. Massasoit’s son Metacom planned to continue friendly relations with the English and took the name of Philip. But tensions over land use and diminished game erupted in the 1670s, leading to an armed conflict called King Philip’s War. Colonial militia overwhelmed the tribal coalition, and there was slaughter on both sides. Metacom was killed by militia in 1676.
The tribes have a modest presence in Massachusetts today. The Wampanoags, led in part by Paula Peters, made a (so far) failed bid for a federal casino license.
The Massachusetts tribe is greatly diminished, but one group still holds tribal meetings at Ponkapoag near their ancestral home in the Blue Hills area south of Boston. Many were segregated in areas such as “Indian Row” in Brockton, Mass. In the 2010 census, just 85 people identified as Ponkapoag Massachusetts.
Tensions between the tribal groups continue to this day. Ren Green, one of the sachems, or leaders, of the Ponkapoag Massachusetts, confronted Paula Peters of the Wampanoags in a standing room only meeting at the Weymouth Public Library in 2017. There, Peters claimed the Wampanoags’ territory had included the Blue Hills area of Boston. Green called it an attempt to claim the Boston area site for a casino. Peters called it a misunderstanding.
Today, on some days, you can talk to an historical actor portraying Phineas Pratt at Plimoth Patuxet, the name of the well-done tourist site recreating the Plymouth Colony and a nearby Wampanoag site.
The Reincarnation of Phineas Pratt
On a sunny spring day, I found a youthful Pratt working a field at the bottom of a hill. He was surprised and excited that someone wanted to speak with him. He was particularly surprised that I lived in Wessagusset, which is still dealing with its odd place in history.
Yes, he told me, he had arrived at Plymouth from Wessagusset. Yes, Standish had spiked Wituwamat’s head and stank in the sun. And yes, he had escaped the troubles and alerted the colonists.
The Plymouth settlement is commemorated at Plymouth Patuxet and at historical sites in the town of Plymouth. A recent high-tech archaeological dig by faculty at the University of Massachusetts-Boston campus identified the site of a palisade wall near the fort that protected the settlement.
Finding the Lost Weston Colony
The Weston Colony site is another matter. It had rapidly disintegrated after Myles Standish and his soldiers departed on their shallop. Per local tradition in the mid-19th century, the site was located near a freshwater creek feeding into a cove on what today is called the Fore River.
In 1884, a map created in 1633 or 1634 by Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony came to light in the British Museum. It showed three structures next to a cove where the Fore River opens to a large bay today called Hingham Bay.
Historian Charles Francis Adams did a deep dive into the subject in the 1880s. He armed himself with the Winthrop map, a few descriptions of the topography in the Phineas Pratt account and a dollop of common sense.
Adams figured the Weston fort was best located on a hill that offered views of the bay and the mouth of the river. It also needed a freshwater source. There was a hill on a hook of land jutting into a cove next to the houses on the Winthrop map. And there was a spring and a swamp nearby that could have been the one mentioned by Pratt.
Adams was convinced this site, called Hunt’s Hill, was the location of the Weston Colony. His logic remains to this day the generally accepted wisdom.
In the early 1890s, a salvage company needed fill for a large marine park under construction in South Boston. The hill on the cove was for sale. Adams strenuously objected, but the hill was sold with no effort at archaeological excavation.
Today a group called the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project is having second thoughts about the Hunt’s Hill site. Its director, an archaeologist named Craig Chartier, says the Winthrop map could have identified buildings put up after the Weston Colony was abandoned. He identifies four other sites in the immediate area that are possibilities. One is particularly interesting. Two sets of bodies were dug up in graves either in or adjacent to that site. It meets the key criteria: hilltop, ocean frontage, freshwater access and a nearby swamp, as described by Phineas Pratt.
A Weymouth historian named G. Stinson Lord reported in a commemorative book in 1972 on the discovery of seven bodies at one gravesite and two decapitated bodies in another.
Stories That Need To Be Told or Retold
Today, there is a strong feeling that the stories of Native Americans in the area need to be better represented. For example, the living history exhibit at Plymouth dropped the word “Plantation” in 2020 and replaced it with the word “Patuxet.” And it made plans to improve the adjacent Wampanoag site.
The Massachusetts state seal incorporates an image of Myles Standish’s arm brandishing a sword. It hovers above a Native American with arrows pointed downward. In January an appointed commission set about developing a new state seal. In 1999, Weymouth Town Meeting voted to purchase a tract of land in Wessagusset for conservation and historical purposes. A memorial garden built with private funds raised by local resident Jodi Purdy, a descendent of Myles Standish, commemorates Massachusetts Natives killed or displaced by the colonists.
Descendants of John Saunders, the second governor of the Weston Colony, then installed another memorial.
I started an effort two years ago to place a town historical marker at the park. The town approved the proposal, but then shelved it due to the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the Native American memorials in the park reads: “On Oct. 21, 2001, these puddingstone memorials were dedicated as symbols of hope that the souls of the first inhabitants of Wessagusset, the Massachusett Indians, and the first settlers of Weymouth, the Weston colonists, have reconciled their differences and found peace.”
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The author of this story, Doug Smock, is a retired newspaper reporter and magazine editor who has always loved history, particularly forgotten yet important events. His next project is “Young George Washington and the Battle of Braddock”. He is the coauthor of two business books, including “Straight to the Bottom Line”. Smock has lived in the Wessagusset neighborhood of Weymouth for the past eight years. He will present his Myles Standish story to a class at UMass Boston’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Images: Wampanoag wigwam and guide By Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002766; Edward Soule house By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002664. Phineas Pratt gravestone By Darcyjae – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74569178. Wessagusset map: Lauren Chen, reference librarian, Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library. Images of park, Hunt’s Hill, Saunders memorial and state seal courtesy Doug Smock.
This story updated in 2023.