As we head into Valentine’s Day, I want to share an old love story from our Pilgrim ancestors. Have you ever read The Courtship of Miles Standish? It’s a retelling of an actual Puritan love story; actually, it’s a love triangle.
This is Chapter 13 of Miles Standish, The Puritan Captain, which you can purchase here at Knowlede Keepers Bookstore:
Notwithstanding the removal of Captain Standish across the bay, to his beautiful and fertile farm there, he still took a very lively interest in everything relating to the welfare of the colony, and of the little village which he had been so instrumental in founding. Mr. Bradford had for twelve successive years been chosen Governor. He was anxious to be released from the cares of office. In the annual election of 1633, he importuned for release so earnestly that the people yielded to his request, and chose Edward Winslow as his successor. At the same time seven assistants were chosen, of whom Captain Miles Standish was the first.
The Dutch, from the mouth of the Hudson, had explored the Connecticut river. The natives were anxious to have a trading post established on that beautiful stream, which was lined with Indian tribes. They sent a delegation to Plymouth with this request. The Pilgrims were not prepared to commence a settlement there, but they sent a small vessel up the river, and had great success in their traffic. The Indians then applied to the Governor of the Massachusetts colony. But he was not inclined to embark in an enterprise so difficult, where the post could only be reached by a long and perilous voyage around Cape Cod, or by a journey of many days through a pathless forest.
Some however of the private members of both of these colonies foreseeing the danger that the Dutch might anticipate them there, held a conference at Boston with some of the prominent men of Plymouth, and tried to form a partnership to engage in the undertaking. They were however discouraged by the representations which were made to them. It was urged that the Indians were very numerous, that they could bring many thousand warriors into the field, that many of them were hostile, that the river was difficult of access in consequence of a bar, and that during seven months in the year it was closed by ice. Thus influenced, they abandoned the enterprise.
In the mean time, the Earl of Warwick had obtained a patent of all the land, extending west, one hundred and twenty miles from Narraganset Bay, to the Dutch settlements at the mouth of the Hudson. This included the whole of the present State of Connecticut. The Dutch heard of this, and prepared to anticipate the English, by making an immediate settlement on the Connecticut River. This roused Governor Winslow and ex-Governor Bradford, and they determined immediately to commence a settlement in that region. At the same time, they sent a courteous message to Governor Winthrop, expressing the hope that their brethren of Massachusetts would not be displeased with their adventure, since the Massachusetts colony had declined embarking in the enterprise.
In the mean time, the Dutch had dispatched an expedition, accompanied by quite an armed force, which ascended the river and, disembarking where Hartford now stands, erected a fort and commenced a settlement. Two pieces of ordnance were placed in position to sweep the river; and they loudly proclaimed that they should not allow any of the English to pass by.
The Plymouth colonists took a small vessel, which could easily cross the bar at the mouth of the river, and placed on board of it the frame of a house, with all the materials for putting it together. The expedition was commanded by Lieutenant Holmes. When they arrived opposite Hartford, the Dutch, standing by their guns with lighted matches, ordered them to stop, threatening to shoot if they did not immediately comply with the demand. But Holmes pushed boldly by, and the Dutch commander did not venture to proceed to those measures of violence, which would surely have brought down upon the Dutch colonies the vengeance of the British navy.
Lieutenant Holmes proceeded a short distance farther up the river, to a place called Nattawanute, now Windsor, where, near the mouth of a little stream, he put up his house, which was both fort and dwelling, surrounded it with palisades, and, unfurling the British flag, was ready to bid defiance to all foes, whether Dutch or Indians.
The Dutch commander at Hartford sent word to the authorities at the mouth of the Hudson of what had been done. Governor Van Twiller dispatched an armed band of seventy men, with orders to tear down the house at Windsor and drive away the occupants. He supposed that this could easily be done without any bloodshed, and thus without necessarily introducing war. But the intrepid Holmes was ready for battle against any odds. The leader of the Dutch party saw that a fierce conflict must take place, and one uncertain in its results. He therefore came to a parley and finally retired. An immense quantity of furs, beaver and otter skins, was this year sent to England, which enabled the company to meet all its obligations.
It would be hardly warrantable, in a Life of Captain Miles Standish, to omit reference to a remarkable legend with which his name has ever been associated, though some have expressed the opinion that it was not very clearly verified by authentic documents. A literary gentleman who has investigated the subject more thoroughly probably than any other person, writes in reference to these doubts: “The anecdote is in all the histories. Why should it not be true? I am inclined to think it is; and am willing to back it against most historic facts that are two hundred years old.” The story, as it has drifted down to our times, is in brief as follows. We give it as presented by Mr. Longfellow, in his exquisite poem entitled “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” It is very evident that Mr. Longfellow had minutely studied our early colonial history, as the reader will perceive that he is very accurate in his historical allusions. The poem opens with a description of Captain Standish, in his lonely and humble log hut. His beautiful wife, Rose, was one of the first who had died, and the place of her burial, like that of others, was carefully concealed, that the Indians might not perceive how the colony had become weakened:
“In the old colonial days, in Plymouth, the land of the Pilgrims, To and fro in a room of his simple and primitive dwelling, Clad in doublet and hose and boots of Cordovan leather, Strode with a martial air Miles Standish, the Puritan Captain. Buried in thought he seemed, with his hands behind him, and pausing Ever and anon to behold his glittering weapons of warfare, Cutlass and corslet of steel, and his trusty sword of Damascus, Curved at the point and inscribed with its mystical Arabic sentence, While underneath in a corner were fowling piece, musket and matchlock.
Short of stature he was, but strongly built and athletic, Broad in the shoulders, deep chested, with muscles and sinews of iron, Brown as a nut was his face, but his russet beard was already Flaked with patches of snow, as hedges sometimes in November.”
A very handsome young man, by the name of John Alden, shared with Captain Standish the comforts and discomforts of the widower’s home. He had fair hair, azure eyes and a Saxon complexion, and was sufficiently unlike the Captain for them to be very warm friends. There could be no rivalry between the gentle young man of books and romance, and the stern veteran of facts and the sword. John Alden was deeply in love with Priscilla, the most beautiful maiden in Plymouth. Death had robbed her of both father and mother, and she was equally in love with John. But the bashful student had not yet summoned courage to declare his love. But it so happened that Captain Standish, without any knowledge of his friend’s state of mind, had also turned his eyes to Priscilla, as the successor of Rose. Conscious of his own imperfections as a lady’s man, and fearful that he could not woo the beautiful maiden in fitting phrase, he applied to his scholarly friend to speak in his behalf. In the following melodious strains the poet gives utterance to the Captain’s speech:
“’Tis not good for man to be alone, say the scriptures, This I have said before, and again and again I repeat it, Every hour in the day I think it, and feel it, and say it. Since Rose Standish died, my life has been weary and dreary, Sick at heart have I been, beyond the healing of friendship. Oft, in my lonely hours, have I thought of the maiden Priscilla; She is alone in the world; her father and mother and brother Died in the winter together.
I saw her going and coming, Now to the grave of the dead, now to the bed of the dying, Patient, courageous and strong, and said to myself, that if ever There were angels on earth, as there are angels in heaven, Two have I seen and known; and the angel, whose name is Priscilla, Holds in my desolate life the place which the other abandoned.
Long have I cherished the thought, but never have dared to reveal it, Being a coward in this, but valiant enough for the most part. Go to the damsel Priscilla, the loveliest maiden of Plymouth, Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of actions. Offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier; Not in these words, you know, but this in short is my meaning.
I am a maker of war, and not a maker of phrases; You, who are bred as a scholar, can say it in elegant language, Such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, Such as you think best adapted to win the heart of a maiden.”
Poor John Alden, the fair-haired, timid youth, was aghast, overwhelmed with anguish. He tried to smile, but the nerves of his face twitched with painful convulsions. He endeavored to excuse himself, but his impetuous friend, whose commanding mind overawed him, would listen to no excuse. To all John’s remonstrances he replied:
“I was never a maker of phrases. I can march up to a fortress, and summon the place to surrender; But march up to a woman, with such a proposal, I dare not. I am not afraid of bullets, nor shot from the mouth of a cannon, But of a thundering ‘no!’ point blank from the mouth of a woman, That I confess I’m afraid of, nor am I ashamed to confess it.”
John Alden, anguish-stricken as he was, could not refuse. The strong mind dominated over the weaker one. Agitated, almost convulsed with contending emotions, he entered the paths of the forest, crossed the brook which ran south of the village, and gathering a handful of wild flowers, almost in delirium, approached the lonely dwelling of Priscilla. As he drew near, he heard her sweet voice singing a hymn as she walked to and fro beside the spinning-wheel. Priscilla met him on the threshold, with a cordial greeting, hoping that he had come to declare his love. He was greatly embarrassed, and after a long parley, very awkwardly blurted out the words, that he had come with an offer of marriage from Captain Miles Standish. Priscilla was amazed, grieved, wounded. With eyes dilated with sadness and wonder, she looked into John’s face and said, after a few moments of ominous silence:
“If the great Captain of Plymouth is so eager to wed me, Why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me? If I am not worth the wooing, I surely am not worth the winning.”
John, exceedingly embarrassed, said, in unfortutunate phrase, that the captain was very busy, and had no time for such things. The offended maiden replied:
“Has he no time for such things, as you call it, before he is married; Would he be likely to find it, or make it, after the wedding?”
Quite forgetting himself, John launched forth eloquently in the praise of his military friend,
“Spoke of his courage and skill, and all his battles in Flanders, How with the people of God he had chosen to suffer affliction, How, in return for his zeal, they had made him Captain of Plymouth. He was a gentleman born, could trace his pedigree plainly Back to Hugh Standish, of Duxbury Hall, in Lancashire, England, Who was the son of Ralph, and the grandson of Thurston de Standish; Heir unto vast estates, of which he was basely defrauded, Still bore the family arms, and had for his crest a cock argent Combed and wattled gules, and all the rest of the blazon.
He was a man of honor, of noble and generous nature; Though he was rough, he was kindly; she knew how, during the winter, He had attended the sick, with a hand as gentle as woman’s. Somewhat hasty and hot, he could not deny it, and headstrong, Stern as a soldier might be, but hearty and placable always; Not to be laughed at and scorned, because he was little of stature, For he was great of heart, magnanimous, courtly, courageous; Any woman in Plymouth, nay, any woman in England, Might be happy and proud to be called the wife of Miles Standish.”
As Priscilla listened to this glowing and eloquent eulogy, it only increased her admiration for the young and beautiful John Alden. She had long loved him. Maidenly instinct taught her that she also was beloved by him. Though this love had never been communicated to her in words, it had again and again been expressed in loud-speaking glances of the eye and in actions. With tremulous voice she ventured to reply, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
The tone, the look which accompanied the words, revealed at once, to the bashful youth, the love of Priscilla. A tempest of conflicting emotions rushed into his soul. How could the magnanimous youth plead his own cause, and thus apparently betray his friend. Perplexed, bewildered, he burst from the house, like an insane man; hurried to the sea shore, wandered along the sands, where the surf was breaking with loud roar; bared his head to the ocean breeze, and endeavored in vain to cool the fever, which seemed to burn in both body and soul. His tender conscience condemned him as being unfaithful to his friend.
He could not, without a sense of guilt, supplant his friend; and he could not live in Plymouth and refuse the hand of Priscilla, so delicately and yet so decidedly proffered. Heroically he resolved to return to England.
There was a vessel in the harbor which was to sail on the morrow. The poet speaks of it as the returning Mayflower. Chronology will hardly permit us to accept that representation. Rose Standish died on the 8th of February, N. S. The Mayflower sailed, on her return voyage, the 5th of April, but two months after the death of the wife Captain Standish so tenderly loved. As the frenzied youth gazed upon the vessel riding at anchor, and rising and falling upon the ocean swell, he exclaimed:
“Back will I go o’er the ocean, this dreary land will abandon, Her whom I may not love, and him whom my heart has offended. Better to be in my grave, in the green old churchyard in England, Close by my mother’s side, and among the dust of my kindred; Better be dead and forgotten, than living in shame and dishonor Sacred and safe and unseen, in the dark of the narrow chamber With me my secret shall lie, like a buried jewel that glimmers Bright on the hand that is dust, in the chambers of silence and darkness, Yes, as the marriage ring of the great espousal hereafter.”
Thus resolving he hurried, in the gathering twilight, through the glooms of the forest to the “seven houses” of Plymouth. He entered the door of his home and found the Captain anxiously awaiting his return. He had been gone long and was rather severely reproached for his tardiness. He then gave a minute account of the interview. But when he came to her declaration, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” the Captain rose from his seat in a towering passion. As he was vehemently uttering his reproaches a messenger came, with the information that hostile Indians were approaching. Instantly the bold warrior forgot Priscilla, and all his displeasure at John Alden, in contemplation of his immense responsibilities as military protector of the colony. Hastily he girded on his armor and left the house. He found the leading men already assembled in the council room. Upon the table lay the skin of the rattlesnake, to which we have before alluded, filled with arrows, with the Indian who brought it, by its side. Captain Standish at once understood the significance of the mysterious gift. He said,
“‘Leave this matter to me, for to me by right it pertaineth. War is a terrible trade; but in the cause that is righteous Sweet is the smell of powder; and thus I answer the challenge. ’Then, from the rattlesnake’s skin, with a sudden contemptuous gesture, Jerking the Indian arrows, he filled it with powder and bullets, Full to the very jaws and handed it back to the savage, Saying in thundering tones, ‘Here, take it! this is your answer. ’Silently out of the room then glided the glistening savage, Bearing the serpent’s skin, and seeming himself like a serpent, Winding his sinuous way in the dark to the depths of the forest.”
Early the next morning Captain Standish took eight men, well armed, and marched, under the guidance of Hobomak, to the point where he supposed the hostile Indians were gathering. The vessel was about to sail. The signal gun was fired. All the inhabitants of the little village flocked to the beach. The ship’s boat was at Plymouth rock, waiting to convey the captain of the vessel, who was on shore, to the ship. He was bidding his friends adieu and cramming the capacious pockets of his storm coat with letters and packages. John Alden, with others, was seen hurrying down to the sea shore. The captain stood with one foot on the rock and the other on the gunwale of the boat, speaking his last words and just ready to push off. Alden, in his despair, was about to enter the boat, without any words of adieu to his friends, thinking in absence and distance to find relief to his tortured feelings, when he saw Priscilla looking sadly upon him.
“But as he gazed on the crowd, he beheld the form of Priscilla Standing dejected among them, unconscious of all that passing. Fixed were her eyes upon his, as if she divined his intention, Fixed with a look so sad, so reproachful, imploring and patient, That, with a sudden revulsion, his heart recoiled from its purpose As from the verge of a crag, where one step more is destruction.”
Thus influenced, he abandoned his intention of returning to England more suddenly than he had formed it. As he stepped back he said, with a true lover’s fervor,
“There is no land so sacred, no air so pure and so wholesome As is the air she breathes, and the soil that is pressed by her footsteps. Here for her sake will I stay, and like an invisible presence Hover around her forever, protecting, supporting her weakness. Yes! as my foot was the first that stepped on this rock at the landing, So, with the blessing of God, shall it be the last at the leaving.”
The captain of the ship sprang into the boat, waved an adieu to the lonely band of exiles, numbering but about fifty men, women and children, who were gathered upon the shore, and the boat, driven by the sturdy arms of the rowers, soon reached the ship. The anchor was raised, the sails unfurled, and the only link which seemed to connect them with the home of their fathers was sundered. Long the saddened Pilgrims stood gazing upon the vessel as it receded from their view, and then returned to their lowly cabins, their homely fare, and to the toils and perils of their life of exile.
“So they returned to their homes; but Alden lingered a little, Musing alone on the shore and watching the wash of the billows.”
As he thus stood, lost in painful thought and almost distracted by the perplexities in which he found himself involved, he perceived Priscilla standing beside him. They had a long conversation together, which the poet manages with admirable skill. The artless, frank, affectionate Priscilla was unwittingly every moment exciting deeper emotions of tenderness and admiration in the heart of her lover. And yet, in the most painful embarrassment from respect to his friend Miles Standish, he refrained from offering her, as he longed to do, his hand and heart.
In the mean time Captain Standish, at the head of his brave little band, was tramping through the trails of the forest, through thickets and morasses, over hills and across streamlets,
“All day long, with hardly a halt, the fire of his anger, Burning and crackling within, and the sulphurous odor of powder, Seeming more sweet to his nostrils than all the scents of the forest. Silent and moody he went, and much he revolved his discomfort.”
After a march of three days, he is represented as coming to an Indian encampment. The little cluster of huts was upon a meadow, with the gloomy forest on one side, and the ocean surf breaking upon the other. A few women were scattered around among the wigwams. A formidable band of warriors, evidently on the war path, plumed and painted, and thoroughly armed, were gathered around their council fires. As soon as they saw the bright armor of the Pilgrims, as the brave little band emerged from the forest, two of the chiefs, men of gigantic stature, came forward to meet them. With much historic accuracy of detail the poet describes the scene which ensued—a scene which has been presented to the reader in the preceding narrative.
One of these was Pecksuot, the other Wattawamat. These burly savages, huge as Goliath of Gath, met Captain Standish, at first with deceitful words, hoping to disarm his suspicions. Through Hobbomak, the interpreter, who had accompanied the Captain, they proposed to barter their furs for blankets and muskets. But they soon saw, in the flashing eyes of Captain Standish, that he was not to be thus beguiled. The poet, giving utterance to authentic history in glowing verse, and making use of almost the very expressions uttered by the savages, writes:
“Suddenly changing their tone, they began to boast and to bluster. Then Wattawamat advanced with a stride in front of the other, And with a lofty demeanor, thus vauntingly spake to the Captain:
‘Now Wattawamat can see, by the fiery eyes of the Captain, Angry is he in his heart; but the heart of the brave Wattawamat Is not afraid at the sight. He was not born of a woman, But on the mountain, at night, from an oak tree riven by lightning.
’Forth he sprang at a bound, with all his weapons about him, Shouting, ‘Who is there here to fight with the brave Wattawamat? ’Then he unsheathed his knife, and, whetting the blade on his left hand, Held it aloft and displayed a woman’s face on the handle, Saying, with bitter expression and look of sinister meaning,‘I have another at home, with the face of a man on the handle; By and by they shall marry; and there will be plenty of children.’”
Pecksuot also indulged in similar language and gesture of insult and menace, brandishing his gleaming knife, boasting that it could eat, though it could not speak, and telling the Captain that he was so small in stature that he ought to go and live with the women. Meanwhile many Indians were seen stealthily creeping around, from bush to bush in the forest, with the evident design of making a simultaneous attack upon the little band of white men. Some of these Indians were armed with muskets, others with arrows set on their bow strings. Nearer and nearer they were approaching, to enclose him in the net of an ambush from which there could be no escape. As Captain Standish watched with his eagle eye these proofs of treachery, and listened to the insults and threats of the herculean chiefs, who, he knew, were only waiting for the fit moment to leap upon him,
“All the hot blood of his race, of Sir Hugh and of Thurston de Standish, Boiled and beat in his heart, and swelled in the veins of his temples. Headlong he leaped on the boaster, and snatching his knife from its scabbard, Plunged it into his heart; and, reeling backward, the savage Fell with his face to the sky, and a fiend-like fierceness upon it. Straight there arose from the forest the awful sound of the war-whoop, And, like a flurry of snow, on the whistling wind of December, Swift and sudden and keen came a flight of feathery arrows.”
This was followed by a discharge of musketry from the Pilgrims. A bullet pierced the brain of Pecksuot, and he fell dead. The savages, having lost both of their chiefs, fled like deer. As the head of Wattawamat, the gory trophy of war, was sent to Plymouth, and was exposed on the roof of the fort, Priscilla averted her face with terror and, shuddering, thanked God she had not married such a man of war as Captain Standish.
Month after month passed away, while the captain is represented as scouring the land with his forces, watching the movements of the hostile Indians, and thwarting their intrigues. Though Priscilla had refused his hand, the bashful John Alden did not feel that he could, in honor, take advantage of the absence of his friend, the Captain, and seek her for his bride. So assuming simply the attitude of friendship, the two lovers lived, with some degree of tranquility and in constant intimacy, side by side.
“Meanwhile, Alden at home had built him a new habitation, Solid, substantial, of timber, rough-hewn from the firs of the forest. Wooden-barred was the door, and the roof was covered with rushes, Latticed the windows were, and the window-panes were of paper, Oiled to admit the light, while wind and rain were excluded.”
The description which the poet gives of the intercourse between these simple children of the wilderness, whose hearts glowed with purity and love, is beautiful in its pastoral simplicity. At length the tidings, very appalling to the Pilgrims, reached the little settlement, that their redoubtable Captain had been slain in a battle with the Indians—shot down by a poisoned arrow. It was said that he had been led into an ambush, and, with his whole band, had perished. John and Priscilla were together when an Indian brought this intelligence to Plymouth. Both joy and grief flashed through the soul of John Alden. His friend was dead. The bonds which had held John captive were forever sundered. Scarcely knowing what he did, he threw his arms around Priscilla, pressed her to his bosom, and devoutly exclaimed, “Those whom the Lord hath united, let no man put them asunder.”
The wedding day soon came. The simple ceremony was performed by Elder Brewster. All the Pilgrims were present.
“Lo! when the service was ended, a form appeared on the threshold, Clad in armor of steel, a sombre and sorrowful figure. Why does the bridegroom start and stare at the strange apparition? Why does the bride turn pale and hide her face on his shoulder? Is it a phantom of air, —a bodiless, spectral illusion?”
It was Captain Miles. The report of his death was unfounded. He had arrived unexpectedly in the village (for there were no mails in those days), just in time to be present at the close of the wedding. With characteristic magnanimity he advanced to the bridegroom, cordially shook his hand and wished him joy.
“‘Forgive me,’ he said,‘I have been angry and hurt—too long have I cherished the feeling; I have been cruel and hard, but now, thank God, it is ended. Mine is the same hot blood that leaped in the veins of Hugh Standish: Sensitive, swift to resent, but as swift in atoning for error. Never so much as now was Miles Standish the friend of John Alden.’”
In a similar strain he addressed the bride. The Pilgrims were amazed and overjoyed to see their heroic Captain returned to them. Tumultuously they gathered around him. Bride and bridegroom were forgotten in the greeting which was extended to the Captain.
Some cattle had, by this time, been brought to the colony, and a snow-white bull had fallen to the lot of John Alden. The animal was covered with a crimson cloth upon which was bound a cushion. Priscilla mounted this strange palfrey, which her husband led by a cord tied to an iron ring in its nostrils. Her friends followed, and thus she was led to her home.
“Onward the bridal procession now moved to their new habitation,Happy husband and wife and friends conversing together. Pleasantly murmured the brook, as they crossed the ford in the forest, Pleased with the image, that passed like a dream of love through its bosom, Tremulous, floating in air, o’er the depth of the azure abysses; Down through the golden leaves the sun was pouring his splendors, Gleaming on purple grapes that, from branches above them suspended, Mingled their odorous breath with the balm of the pine and the fir-tree, Wild and sweet as the clusters that grew in the valley of Eschol; Like a picture it seemed of the primitive pastoral ages, Fresh with the youth of the world, and recalling Rebecca and Isaac, Old, and yet ever new, and simple and beautiful always, Love immortal and young in the endless succession of lovers, So, through the Plymouth woods, passed onward the bridal procession.”
Such is the poetic version of the legend of the Courtship of Miles Standish. Nearly every event which the poet has woven into his harmonious lines, is accurate even in its most minute details. We have given but a meagre view of the beauties of this Idyl, and commend the same, in full, to the perusal of the reader.
Get your copy of Miles Standish, Puritan Captian right here at Knowledge Keepers Bookstore. It’s a fascinating account of the Plymouth Colony that began in 1620, heavily comprised of the writings of the men who founded and lived in the colony. It’s a very important American book, and should be a part of every home library.