James Otis.

Ruth of Boston: A Story of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

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Save for the babies, and those who are abed with sickness, there are no idle ones in Boston, and well indeed it should be so, for it surely is true that "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do." If we were not busily engaged during all the waking hours, then would we have opportunity to grow homesick, for much as we are growing to like this New World, there will come now and then thoughts of the homes we left in England, and one's heart falls sad at realizing that, perhaps, never again will we see those whom we left behind when the Arabella sailed out of Southampton.


It is not well that I let my mind go back into the past. I should think only of the future, and of what we are doing here in Boston, the most important of which just now is the launching of our ship.

She is what sailors call "bark rigged," which is the same as saying that she has three masts; but yet not as much of rigging as a ship.

Her name, painted on the stern, is Blessing of the Bay, and there is hardly any need for me to say that every man, woman, and child in the town stood near at hand to see her as she slipped down the well greased ways into the river, where she rode as gracefully as a swan.

I have already said that when the Lyon came in, at the time of the famine, she appeared the most beautiful vessel I had ever seen, and next to her comes the Blessing of the Bay. As Governor Winthrop said in the short lecture he gave us before launching, she was Boston made, of Boston timber, and would be sailed by Boston sailors, so that when she goes out across the ocean, people shall know that there are Englishmen far overseas who are striving, with God's help, to make a country which shall one day stand equal with the England we have left forever.

It is while speaking of the launching that I am reminded of a very comical mishap to Master Winthrop, and I may set it down without disrespect to him, for he is pleased to join in the mirth whenever it is spoken of as something to cause laughter.


It seems that the wolves had been worrying some of the goats that Master Winthrop brought over to this country with him, and on a certain day, after supper, he went out with his gun in the hope of killing a few of the ravenous beasts.

He had not traveled more than half a mile from home when night came on, and, turning about to go back, as was prudent, for it is not safe that one man shall be alone in the forest after dark, because of the wild animals, he mistook his path, wandering directly away from the river, instead of toward it.

I myself have heard him say that he must have walked a full hour, and was growing exceeding uncomfortable in mind, when he came to an Indian hut that was built of branches of trees and of skins, so that it formed a fairly comfortable dwelling, and was of sufficient strength to resist the efforts of any one to enter, save through the door.

There was no person inside this hut or wigwam; the door was unfastened, and the Governor, understanding that he must have some shelter during the night, else was he in danger of being devoured by wild beasts, entered as if it were his own dwelling.

With his flint and steel he built a fire, and by its light, saw, piled up in one corner of the place, mats such as the savages use to sleep upon.

Having taken a mouthful of snakeweed, which is said to be of great benefit in quieting one's nerves, and prayed to God for safe keeping during the night, he lay down.

Before much time had passed, and certainly while his eyes were yet wide open, it began to rain, and some of the water finding its way through the carelessly thatched roof, disturbed his rest, so that it was impossible to sleep.

He spent the night singing psalms, gathering such wood as he could handily come at from the outside, to keep the fire going, and pacing to and fro in the narrow space, until near to daylight, when an Indian squaw came that way.

The Governor, hearing her voice as she cried out to whosoever owned the hut and was evidently a friend of hers, barred the door as best he might, while she stood on the outside beating it with her hands, and calling aloud in the Indian language, first in friendly terms, and then angrily; but yet he made no reply.

The door held firm against her efforts until day came, when the Governor walked out of the hut, not dreaming the woman would make an attack upon him, but straightway he was forced to take to his heels, or, as he laughingly declared, she would have clawed out his eyes.

Although we children knew nothing whatsoever concerning it, the chief men of the town had been greatly alarmed because of the Governor's disappearance, and during the whole of the night no less than twenty had walked to and fro in the forest hunting for him; but by an unkind chance never going in the direction of this hut. When Master Winthrop made his appearance, it had just been decided that a hue and cry should be raised, and all the men in Boston be called to aid in the search.


It was during this summer, when Captain Pierce brought the Lyon to us for the third time, that Mistress Winthrop, the Governor's wife came over.

John Eliot, the preacher, was also one of the passengers, and they had even a longer voyage than had we in the Arabella.

The Lyon left Southampton about the middle of August, and did not arrive here until the fourth of November, when she came to anchor off Nantasket.

Then indeed did we have a week of rejoicing, sharing in the Governor's gladness that his family was with him once more. All those who could get boats to convey them, went down off Nantasket, and when Mistress Winthrop stepped ashore at the foot of our cove, she was honored by volleys from all the firearms in the town.

During three days that followed, it was as if the people believed Master Winthrop and his loved ones were in danger of starvation, for, from the highest to the lowest in the town, each brought some gift of food, such as fat hogs, goats, deer meat, geese, partridges, – in fact, anything that could be eaten, save clams, fish, and lobsters, of which we had already more than plenty enough to dull one's appetite for such eating.

Those who read what I have here set down, may charge me with speaking overly much concerning what we had to eat, and yet I question whether any of our company who passed through the famine of the year of 1630, and the pinching times of 1631 and 1632, could do otherwise than dwell upon our store of food.


Now, if you please, I will set down at once that which is in my mind concerning it, so that I need not weary you by repeating. This first year of harvest was a fairly plentiful one, and would have sufficed for all our wants during the coming winter, had it not been that other people were joining us by every ship, nearly all of whom were poorly provided for, having left England in the belief that we were dwelling amid plenty.

Therefore it was, that to feed these new comers as well as ourselves, we were frequently hard pressed for what was actually needed to save ourselves the pangs of hunger.

It is true that during this summer of 1631 many cattle were sent from England; but so many died during the voyage, that those which lived seemed extremely precious, because from them were we counting on our future herds. People who had spent their money in England buying twenty cows, but succeeded in bringing to Boston only four, could not afford to kill them for the sake of meat, more especially since the very life of our colony depended upon their increase.

We had famine in the first year; we were cramped for food during the second year, yet consoled ourselves with the thought that when another season had come, there would be so much seed put into the ground that there could be no question of lack of whatever might be needed.

But the summer of our third year in Boston was cold and wet; the crop of corn failed almost entirely, and again were we forced to seek our food from the sea, or to dig for clams; but even this last was extremely difficult, owing to the exceedingly cold winter of that season.

The Charles river was frozen from shore to shore, and it was as if the snow fell almost every day, until the drifts were piled so high roundabout our town that, save in the very center of the village, we could not move about.

Another famine was staring us in the face when the winter came to an end, and we knew that unless help should reach us from the outside, we could not add to our stores until another harvest time.

Then it was that we realized the value of having neighbors, and truly these were neighbors indeed, who, at Jamestown in the New World, had such store of food, as would allow them to lade a ship wholly with corn, sending her, through God's direction, to that port where the supply was most needed.

Lest I weary you with too many words regarding our hunger, I will set it down thus briefly, that, except at rare intervals, we were pinched for food during the first five years we lived in Boston, and not until that time had passed were we free from further fear of famine.


And yet we did not spend all our time complaining one to another lest on the morrow we should be hungry, and in proof of this I am minded to set down here that which I have copied from the law made in our town four years after we came across from Charlestown:

"That no person, either man or woman, shall hereafter make or buy any apparel, either woolen, or silk, or linen with any lace on it, silver, gold, or thread, under the penalty of forfeiture of said cloths. Also that no person, either man or woman, shall make or buy any slashed cloths, other than one slash in each sleeve, and another in the back; also all cut-works, embroideries, or needle-work, capbands, and rails are forbidden hereafter to be made and worn under the aforesaid penalty; also all gold and silver girdles, hatbands, belts, ruffs, beaver hats are prohibited to be bought and worn hereafter."

Mother says it is because of our people having given themselves up to vanity that the Lord laid His hand heavily upon us by cutting off the harvest, and yet it seems to me, although I question not that which she has said, that the good God would never punish all our people for the sin which a few committed.

Yet, perhaps, there were more than a few who committed the sin, else why should it have been that our wise men felt it necessary to forbid fanciful dress, as they did in this law which I have set down?


Not until the second year after Boston was settled, did we have a building devoted entirely to the worship of God. Then was built of logs, neatly hewn and set together with much care, so that both the outside and the inside were smooth and fair to look upon, that which we called our church.

The sides did not stand as tall as some of our dwellings; but the roof was much higher and sharper, so that inside it looked to be very large. There were four windows in each side, and all of them contained glass, if you please.

The pulpit, with a well fashioned sounding-board of odorous cedar above it, stood at the end of the building farthest from the door, and there were near about it eight pews made much after the same shape as those in the church at home. In these sit the magistrates, the elders and the deacons, with the men on one side, the women and girls on the other, and the boys in one corner, where the tithing-men may keep them in order.

Back of these pews were benches sufficient in number to give seats to all our people, and if it could have been that Master Winthrop and those in authority believed we might worship God quite as well while comfortable in body, so that we had a fireplace, it would have delighted me much.

It seems almost a sin to complain because of being cold while one is praising God, and yet during this long, dreary winter when the earth was piled high with snow, and the river imprisoned in ice, it was well nigh impossible, after having remained in the same position two or three hours, to prevent one's teeth from chattering so sharply that the noise might disturb others.

It seems to me that one could enjoy a sermon much better if one were not wishing for the warmth of the fireplace at home.

Many of our people have what is called a foot-stove to take with them to meeting, and it seems to me a most comfortable arrangement; but mother says that if our love of God be not strong enough to prevent discomfort simply because of the frost, when such a man as Master Wilson, or either of the preachers, or Governor Winthrop, is pleased to deliver a sermon, then are we utterly lost.

Susan declares that she was lost the first winter we came here, when her cheeks were frost-bitten during one of Master Winthrop's lectures, which took no more than two hours in the speaking.

These foot-stoves, which I wish most fervently my father would believe we might be permitted to use, are square boxes made of iron, pierced with many tiny holes, and having a handle by which they can be carried. One of these, filled with live coals, will keep warm a very long time, especially if it be covered with skins, and I envy Mistress Winthrop and her daughter, even while knowing how great is the sin, when they sit in the Governor's pew so comfortably warm that there is no fear their teeth will, by chattering, cause unseemly disturbance.


There are certain matters concerning which I was minded not to speak, because of their causing both Susan and me very much of sadness at the time, and it has seemed as if I had set down little else except trouble and suffering, whereas there was very much of the time when we of Boston enjoyed our life in the New World.

That some will not live as God would have them, we know only too well, and we found one such among us during the second year after our village was built. Thomas Morton was the person who gave the officers of Boston no little trouble, and in order to tell understandingly the story of what he did, I must go back to that time, two years before we landed here, when the people of Plymouth had cause to complain against this same man.

From what I have heard father say, he had been a lawyer in the city of London, and came over to Plymouth hoping to better his fortunes; but because of not being a God-fearing man, the religious spirit of the colonies was little to his liking.


Within five or six miles of where stands our village, had been, a few years before, a settlement which one Captain Wollaston began, and, tiring of the enterprise, went back to England, leaving there some few of his followers, who were ungodly people.

This Thomas Morton, believing himself held in too close restraint at Plymouth, sought out these people at Wollaston, and became one of them, to the shame and reproach of all godly-minded people in this New World. He changed the name of the village to Merry Mount; was chosen leader of the company there, and made of the place a perfect Sodom.

It is said, so I have heard my father say, that they had no religious services, save now and then, when in a spirit of wickedness this Thomas Morton read from the prayer book. He increased the number of his following by enticing the servants away from the good folks of Plymouth.

It gave much offence to them that such a village should be in the land where they had come to set up the true worship of God, therefore Captain Miles Standish, a soldier of Plymouth, went with a force of men to Merry Mount, seized this Thomas Morton, and sent him to England that he might answer for his crimes to the London Company.


What happened there my father does not know; but certain it is that when the Lyon came on her second voyage, she brought among her passengers this same Thomas Morton, and from the moment he arrived our people had trouble with him.

He brought considerable property in the way of firearms, powder and shot, and, without asking permission from the chief men of our town, set about trading these goods with the Indians for furs, as he had done at Merry Mount, which was not only a menace to all the white people in this new country, because of furnishing the savages with arms that might be used to kill us, but directly against the law which forbade trafficking with the Indians.

He must have been a wicked man indeed, for, not content with doing that which our people had forbidden, he cheated the savages by selling them black sand for powder, and demanding more of furs than was fair and just for such goods as he gave them.

Of course one may think that his crime against us was lessened when he weighed out worthless sand, instead of powder that might be used to our harm; but the chief men of Boston claimed that the savages must be dealt with fairly, otherwise would they look upon us, who were willing to trade honestly, as rogues and thieves.

Therefore it was that our people seized this Thomas Morton, gave him fair trial before the court, and sentenced him to four and twenty hours in the bilboes, after which he was again to be sent as prisoner to England.

It may be that some do not know what bilboes are, and I can explain because of having seen them while they were on Thomas Morton.

A bilboe is a long bar of iron, on which are two heavy clamps, in shape not unlike bracelets which ladies of quality wear upon their arms, fastened by a ring to the bar in such manner that they may slide back and forth. These clamps, or clasps, are placed upon the prisoner's ankles, and pushed apart until his legs are stretched wide. His hands are tied behind his back, and he is forced to sit upon the ground, unable to give relief to his aching limbs, because of the bar's being too weighty for him to move it.

All of Thomas Morton's goods were seized to pay the charges of the trial, and also to make good to the Indians what they had lost through his knavishness. The house which he had built, and it was a fair one made of heavy logs, was burned in the presence of the prisoner and the court, as a sign that we of Boston would not countenance dishonest tricks, even when they were played upon the savages.


The punishment of Thomas Morton saddened Susan and myself sorely; but not so much as when one Philip Ratcliff was punished.

He was such a wicked man that he went around the town saying he believed the devil was at the head of our church, and in every way casting reproach upon religion, despite the fact of his having been warned again and again that unless he put a bridle to his tongue, punishment would speedily follow.

He did not give heed to the warning, however, and after a time, which was during the third summer of our being in this land, he was brought before the court as one who had cast reproach upon God. For this he was sentenced to be whipped, to have his ears cut off, to be fined forty shillings, and afterward to be banished to England.

Because of this man's being so very, very wicked, Susan and I believed we should go to see him whipped, and gathered with the people at the pillory, where he stood with his neck and arms clutched by the heavy bars of wood; but when Samuel Morgan made ready the heavy whip, just as the man's back was bared to receive the lashes, we turned away in horror, not daring to look.

Father said, when he came home in the evening, that Ratcliff bore the whipping and the ear-cutting without a cry; but when it was over, he threatened vengeance against us, after he should be set free in England, and later we came to know what he meant by such threats.

He went everywhere about in the old country, telling that the New World was a hideous wilderness in which roamed the wildest savages thirsting for the blood of white people; that the land was rocky and barren, and not fit for farms, for no crops could be raised upon it; that the weather was cold, and that the climate caused deathly sickness.

All this, father said, worked to our harm among those godly people who were inclined to join us, for they feared to come into such a place, not understanding that these things were lies which had been told out of a spirit of revenge.

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