The “dissolute persons” sailed in their ships up the James river. Landing there, they proceeded to construct a little town, which they named Jamestown, in honour of the King. This was the first colony which struck its roots in American soil. The colonists were charmed with the climate and with the luxuriant beauty of the wilderness on whose confines they had settled. But as yet it was only a wilderness. The forest had to be cleared that food might be grown. The exiled gentlemen laboured manfully, but under grievous discouragements. “The axes so oft blistered their tender fingers, that many times every third blow had a loud oath to drown the echo.” Smith was a man upon whose soul there lay a becoming reverence for sacred things. He devised how to have every man’s oaths numbered; “and at night, for every oath, to have a can of water poured down his sleeve.” Under this treatment the evil assuaged.
The emigrants had landed in early spring. Summer came with its burning heat; supplies of food ran low. “Had we been as free from all sins as from gluttony and drunkenness,” Smith wrote, “we might have been canonized as saints.” The colonists sickened and died. From those poor blistered fingers dropped for ever the unaccustomed axe. Before autumn every second man had died. But the hot Virginian sun, which proved so deadly to the settlers, ripened the wheat they had sowed in the spring, and freed the survivors from the pressure of want. Winter brought them a healthier temperature and abundant supplies of wild-fowl and game.
When the welfare of the colony was in some measure secured, Smith set forth with a few companions to explore the interior of the country. He and his followers were captured by the Indians, and the followers were summarily butchered. Smith’s composure did not fail him in the worst extremity. He produced his pocket-compass, and interested the savages by explaining its properties. He wrote a letter in their sight – to their infinite wonder. They spared him, and made a show of him in all the settlements round about. He was to them an unfathomable mystery. He was plainly superhuman. Whether his power would bring to them good or evil, they were not able to determine. After much hesitation they chose the course which prudence seem to counsel. They resolved to extinguish powers so formidable, regarding whose use they could obtain no guarantee. Smith was bound and stretched upon the earth, his head resting upon a great stone. The mighty club was uplifted to dash out his brains. But Smith was a man who won golden opinions of all. The Indian chief had a daughter, Pocahontas, a child of ten or twelve years. She could not bear to see the pleasing Englishman destroyed. As Smith lay waiting the fatal stroke, she caught him in her arms and interposed herself between him and the club. Her intercession prevailed, and Smith was set free.
Five years later, “an honest and discreet” young Englishman called John Rolfe loved this young Indian girl.
When Smith returned from captivity the colony was on the verge of extinction. Only thirty-eight persons were left, and they were preparing to depart. With Smith, hope returned to the despairing settlers. They resumed their work, confident in the resources of their chief. Fresh arrivals from England cheered them. The character of these reinforcements had not as yet improved. “Vagabond gentlemen” formed still a large majority of the settlers – many of them, we are told, “packed off to escape worse destinies at home.” The colony, thus composed, had already gained a very bad reputation: so bad that some, rather than be sent there, “chose to be hanged, and were.” Over these most undesirable subjects Smith ruled with an authority which no man dared or desired to question. But he was severely injured by an accidental explosion of gunpowder. Surgical aid was not in the colony. Smith required to go to England, and once more hungry ruin settled down upon Virginia. 1610 A.D. In six months the five hundred men whom Smith had left dwindled to sixty. These were already embarked and departing, when they were met by Lord Delaware, the new governor. Once more the colony was saved.
Years of quiet growth succeeded. Emigrants – not wholly now of the dissolute sort – flowed steadily in. Bad people bore rule in England during most of the seventeenth century, and they sold the good people to be slaves in Virginia. The victims of the brutal Judge Jeffreys – the Scotch Covenanters taken at Bothwell Bridge – were shipped off to this profitable market. In 1688 the population of Virginia had increased to 50,000. The little wooden capital swelled out. Other little wooden towns established themselves. Deep in the unfathomed wilderness rose the huts of adventurous settlers, in secluded nooks, by the banks of nameless Virginian streams. A semblance of roads connected the youthful communities. The Indians were relentlessly suppressed. The Virginians bought no land; they took what they required – slaying or expelling the former occupants. Perhaps there were faults on both sides. Once the Indians planned a massacre so cunningly that over three hundred Englishmen perished before the bloody hand of the savages could be stayed.
The early explorers of Virginia found tobacco in extensive use among the Indians. It was the chief medicine of the savages. Its virtues – otherwise unaccountable – were supposed to proceed from a spiritual presence whose home was in the plant. Tobacco was quickly introduced into England, where it rose rapidly into favour. Men who had heretofore smoked only hemp knew how to prize tobacco. King James wrote vehemently against it. He issued a proclamation against trading in an article which was corrupting to mind and body. He taxed it heavily when he could not exclude it. The Pope excommunicated all who smoked in churches. But, in defiance of law and reason, the demand for tobacco continued to increase.
The Virginians found their most profitable occupation in supplying this demand. So eager were they, that tobacco was grown in the squares and streets of Jamestown. In the absence of money tobacco became the Virginian currency. Accounts were kept in tobacco. The salaries of members of Assembly, the stipends of clergymen, were paid in tobacco; offences were punished by fines expressed in tobacco. Absence from church cost the delinquent fifty pounds; refusing to have his child baptized, two thousand pounds; entertaining a Quaker, five thousand pounds. When the stock of tobacco was unduly large, the currency was debased, and much inconvenience resulted. The Virginians corrected this evil in their monetary system by compelling every planter to burn a certain proportion of his stock.
Within a few years of the settlement the Virginians had a written Constitution, according to which they were ruled. They had a Parliament chosen by the burghs, and a Governor sent them from England. The Episcopal Church was established among them, and the colony divided into parishes. A college was erected for the use not only of the English, but also of the most promising young Indians. But they never became an educated people. The population was widely scattered, so that schools were almost impossible. In respect of education, Virginia fell far behind her sisters in the North.
A little more than two centuries ago New England was one vast forest. Here and there a little space was cleared, a little corn was raised; a few Indian families made their temporary abode. The savage occupants of the land spent their profitless lives to no better purpose than in hunting and fighting. The rivers which now give life to so much cheerful industry flowed uselessly to the sea. Providence had prepared a home which a great people might fitly inhabit. Let us see whence and how the men were brought who were the destined possessors of its opulence.
The Reformation had taught that every man is entitled to read his Bible for himself, and guide his life by the light he obtains from it. But the lesson was too high to be soon learned. Protestant princes no more than Popish could permit their subjects to think for themselves. James I. had just ascended the English throne. His were the head of a fool and the heart of a tyrant. He would allow no man to separate himself from the Established Church. He would “harry out of the land” all who attempted such a thing; and he was as good as his word. Men would separate from the Church, and the King stretched out his pitiless hand to crush them.
On the northern border of Nottinghamshire stands the little town of Scrooby. Here there were some grave and well-reputed persons, to whom the idle ceremonies of the Established Church were an offence. They met in secret at the house of one of their number, a gentleman named Brewster. They were ministered to in all scriptural simplicity by the pastor of their choice – Mr. Robinson, a wise and good man. But their secret meetings were betrayed to the authorities, and their lives were made bitter by the persecutions that fell upon them. They resolved to leave their own land and seek among strangers that freedom which was denied them at home.
They embarked with all their goods for Holland. But when the ship was about to sail, soldiers came upon them, plundered them, and drove them on shore. They were marched to the public square of Boston, and there the Fathers of New England endured such indignities as an unbelieving rabble could inflict. After some weeks in prison they were suffered to return home.
Next spring they tried again to escape. This time a good many were on board, and the others were waiting for the return of the boat which would carry them to the ship. Suddenly dragoons were seen spurring across the sands. The shipmaster pulled up his anchor and pushed out to sea with those of his passengers whom he had. The rest were conducted to prison. After a time they were set at liberty, and in little groups they made their way to Holland. Mr. Robinson and his congregation were reunited, and the first stage of the weary pilgrimage from the Old England to the New was at length accomplished.
Eleven quiet and not unprosperous years were spent in Holland. The Pilgrims worked with patient industry at their various handicrafts. 1609 A.D. They quickly gained the reputation of doing honestly and effectively whatever they professed to do, and thus they found abundant employment. Mr. Brewster established a printing-press, and printed books about liberty, which, as he had the satisfaction of knowing, greatly enraged the foolish King James. The little colony received additions from time to time as oppression in England became more intolerable.
The instinct of separation was strong within the Pilgrim heart. They could not bear the thought that their little colony was to mingle with the Dutchmen and lose its independent existence. But already their sons and daughters were forming alliances which threatened this result. The Fathers considered long and anxiously how the danger was to be averted. They determined again to go on pilgrimage. They would seek a home beyond the Atlantic, where they could dwell apart and found a State in which they should be free to think.
1620 A.D. On a sunny morning in July the Pilgrims kneel upon the sea-shore at Delfthaven, while the pastor prays for the success of their journey. Out upon the gleaming sea a little ship lies waiting. Money has not been found to transplant the whole colony, and only a hundred have been sent. The remainder will follow when they can. These hundred depart amid tears and prayers and fond farewells. Mr. Robinson dismissed them with counsels which breathed a pure and high-toned wisdom. He urged them to keep their minds ever open for the reception of new truths. “The Lord,” he said, “has more truth to break forth out of his holy Word. I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the Reformed Churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go at present no further than the instruments of their reformation. Luther and Calvin were great and shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God, but, were they now living, would be as willing to embrace further light as that which they first received. I beseech you, remember that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you from the written Word of God.”
Sixty-eight years later, another famous departure from the coast of Holland took place. It was that of William, Prince of Orange, coming to deliver England from tyranny, and give a new course to English history. A powerful fleet and army sailed with the prince. The chief men of the country accompanied him to his ships. Public prayers for his safety were offered up in all the churches. Insignificant beside this seems at first sight the unregarded departure of a hundred working-men and women. It was in truth, however, not less, but even more memorable. For these poor people went forth to found a great empire, destined to leave as deep and as enduring a mark upon the world’s history as Rome or even as England has done.
The Mayflower, in which the Pilgrims made their voyage, was a ship of one hundred and sixty tons. The weather proved stormy and cold; the voyage unexpectedly long. It was early in September when they sailed; it was not till the 11th November that the Mayflower dropped her anchor in the waters of Cape Cod Bay.
It was a bleak-looking and discouraging coast which lay before them. Nothing met the eye but low sand-hills, covered with ill-grown wood down to the margin of the sea. The Pilgrims had now to choose a place for their settlement. About this they hesitated so long that the captain threatened to put them all on shore and leave them. Little expeditions were sent to explore. At first no suitable locality could be found. The men had great hardships to endure. The cold was so excessive that the spray froze upon their clothes, and they resembled men cased in armour. At length a spot was fixed upon. The soil appeared to be good, and abounded in “delicate springs” of water. On the 23rd December the Pilgrims landed, stepping ashore upon a huge boulder of granite, which is still reverently preserved by their descendants. Here they resolved to found their settlement, which they agreed to call New Plymouth.
The winter was severe, and the infant colony was brought very near to extinction. They had been badly fed on board the Mayflower, and for some time after going on shore there was very imperfect shelter from the weather. Sickness fell heavily on the worn-out Pilgrims. Every second day a grave had to be dug in the frozen ground. By the time spring came in there were only fifty survivors, and these sadly enfeebled and dispirited.
But all through this dismal winter the Pilgrims laboured at their heavy task. The care of the sick, the burying of the dead, sadly hindered their work; but the building of their little town went on. They found that nineteen houses would contain their diminished numbers. These they built. Then they surrounded them with a palisade. Upon an eminence beside their town they erected a structure which served a double purpose. Above, it was a fort, on which they mounted six cannon; below, it was their church. Hitherto the Indians had been a cause of anxiety, but had done them no harm. Now they felt safe. Indeed there had never been much risk. A recent epidemic had swept off nine-tenths of the Indians who inhabited that region, and the discouraged survivors could ill afford to incur the hostility of their formidable visitors.
The Pilgrims had been careful to provide for themselves a government. They had drawn up and signed, in the cabin of the Mayflower, a document forming themselves into a body politic, and promising obedience to all laws framed for the general good. Under this constitution they appointed John Carver to be their governor. They dutifully acknowledged King James, but they left no very large place for his authority. They were essentially a self-governing people. They knew what despotism was, and they were very sure that democracy could by no possibility be so bad.
The welcome spring came at length, and “the birds sang in the woods most pleasantly.” The health of the colony began somewhat to improve, but there was still much suffering to endure. The summer passed not unprosperously. They had taken possession of the deserted clearings of the Indians, and had no difficulty in providing themselves with food. But in the autumn came a ship with a new company of Pilgrims. This was very encouraging; but unhappily the ship brought no provisions, and the supplies of the colonists were not sufficient for this unexpected addition. For six months there was only half allowance to each. Such straits recurred frequently during the first two or three years. Often the colonists knew not at night “where to have a bit in the morning.” Once or twice the opportune arrival of a ship saved them from famishing. They suffered much, but their cheerful trust in Providence and in their own final triumph never wavered. They faced the difficulties of their position with undaunted hearts. Slowly but surely the little colony struck its roots and began to grow.
The years which followed the coming of the Pilgrims were years through which good men in England found it bitter to live. Charles I. was upon the throne; Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury. Bigotry as blind and almost as cruel as England had ever seen thus sat in her high places. Dissent from the Popish usages, which prevailed more and more in the Church, was at the peril of life. A change was near. John Hampden was farming his lands in Buckinghamshire. A greater than he – his cousin, Oliver Cromwell – was leading his quiet rural life at Huntingdon, not without many anxious and indignant thoughts about the evils of his time. John Milton was peacefully writing his minor poems, and filling his mind with the learning of the ancients. The Men had come, and the Hour was at hand. But as yet King Charles and Archbishop Laud had it all their own way. They fined and imprisoned every man who ventured to think otherwise than they wished him to think: they slit his nose, they cut off his ears, they gave him weary hours in the pillory. They ordered that men should not leave the kingdom without the King’s permission. Eight ships lay in the Thames, with their passengers on board, when that order was given forth. The soldiers cleared the ships, and the poor emigrants were driven back, in poverty and despair, to endure the misery from which they were so eager to escape.
New England was the refuge to which the wearied victims of this senseless tyranny looked. The Pilgrims wrote to their friends at home, and every letter was regarded with the interest due to a “sacred script.” They had hardships to tell of at first; then they had prosperity and comfort; always they had liberty. New England seemed a paradise to men who were denied permission to worship God according to the manner which they deemed right. Every summer a few ships were freighted for the settlements. Many of the silenced ministers came. Many of their congregations came, glad to be free, at whatever sacrifice, from the tyranny which disgraced their native land. The region around New Plymouth became too narrow for the population. From time to time a little party would go forth, with a minister at its head. With wives and children and baggage they crept slowly through the swampy forest. By a week or two of tedious journeying they reached some point which pleased their fancy, or to which they judged that Providence had sent them. There they built their little town, with its wooden huts, its palisade, its fort, on which one or two guns were ultimately mounted. Thus were founded many of the cities of New England.
For some years the difficulties which the colonists encountered were almost overwhelming. There seemed at times even to be danger that death by starvation would end the whole enterprise. But they were a stout-hearted, patient, industrious people, and labour gradually brought comfort. The virgin soil began to yield them abundant harvests. They fished with such success that they manured their fields with the harvest of the sea. They spun and they weaved. They felled the timber of their boundless forests. They built ships, and sent away to foreign countries the timber, the fish, the furs which were not required at home. 1643 A.D. Ere many years a ship built in Massachusetts sailed for London, followed by “many prayers of the churches.” Their infant commerce was not without its troubles. They had little or no coin, and Indian corn was made a legal tender. Bullets were legalized in room of the farthings which, with their other coins, had vanished to pay for foreign goods. But no difficulty could long resist their steady, undismayed labour.