EASTHAM — Plymouth may still hold center stage when it comes to most tellings of the Mayflower story, but Eastham knows it was the place where a band of men from the ship, searching the coast for a safe harbor and place to settle, first came in contact with the indigenous people of the region.
The town has been re-examining the narrative about what happened on that bit of Eastham coast in December 1620. The Eastham 400 Commemoration Committee commissioned a rewrite by historian Ian Saxine, The Story of the First Encounter at Nauset, published in collaboration with the Eastham Public Library in 2020.
Now town officials are conferring with the Wampanoag about how to update the plaque at town hall that conveys what Tom Ryan, vice chair of the 400 Committee, calls “a hostile Indians” storyline.
That European-centric tale of the so-called first encounter was shaped by accounts penned by William Bradford and other Mayflower passengers who subsequently colonized Plymouth and Cape Cod. That version was “pretty bare bones and also colored by what’s been called the ‘colonizer mindset,’ you know, ‘thanking God for vanquishing the savages,’ ” said Ryan. “Pretty harsh language was used to describe who they were meeting and what happened.”
Native people were either absent from the accounts or portrayed superficially as primitive savages.
“There’s a misconception we were living an uncultured life,” said Steven Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag who developed with his mother, Paula Peters, an exhibit called “Our Story” that opened at the Provincetown Museum in 2020. The two, under their company name SmokeSygnals, create exhibits that challenge historical myths.
The Peterses point out that the work to be done on history must also deliver the message that “We’re still here.”
Not a First
When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, there was a network of 69 Native villages across southeastern New England. Each had its own sachem, or chief, under the leadership of Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit. The Nauset people inhabited the area east of the Bass River and were allied with the Wampanoag nation.
They hunted, fished, and farmed. “There was a nice balance of nature and our existence,” said Steven Peters. “We understood the habitat around us. We didn’t deplete anything to the point of wipeout.”
Before the Mayflower went to Plymouth, the ship anchored off Provincetown in November 1620. Exhausted passengers came ashore to wash their clothes and recuperate.
Sixteen armed men led by Myles Standish set out in a shallop to explore the coast. The group also needed food. The party stole a supply of corn they found in Truro, grown and stored by the Nauset to provide food for the winter and seed for the next season.
They came ashore in Eastham in mid-December, where they raided more stores, took items from two wetus (domed Native houses), and dug up graves. In his account, Bradford, who was among the explorers, describes finding woven baskets, mats, wooden bowls and dishes, other household items, and pieces of fish in the houses. “Some of the best things we took away with us, and left the houses standing still as they were,” he wrote.
While the men had spotted some Nauset people during their exploration, they had yet to make contact. Steven Peters said the Nauset would have been aware of the presence of the Mayflower in Provincetown harbor and closely monitored the raids of the explorers, who wore armor and carried muskets.
Bradford’s group camped for the night in Eastham and were attacked by a band of Nauset the next morning as they were loading the goods they had amassed onto the shallop. Bradford wrote that they heard “a great and strange cry,” similar to sounds that had awakened them during the night, and then “arrows came flying” from the shelter of trees. Standish and his men fired their muskets, but it appears no one on either side was injured.
The Nauset withdrew. The English followed for a short way, then shouted and shot their muskets so “they might see we were not afraid of them nor discouraged,” Bradford wrote. “Thus it pleased God to vanquish our enemies and give us deliverance.”
The group called the place the “First Encounter.”
That incident may have been the first encounter with indigenous people for the Mayflower passengers, but for the Native people of the region it was not a first encounter with Europeans.
For more than 100 years, Europeans had come here to trade or to learn about the people and, at times, to capture them.
In 1614, Thomas Hunt, who had been exploring the region with Capt. John Smith and had stayed behind with his ship to trade at Patuxet (Plymouth), captured 20 men from the Patuxet village, including Tisquantum (Squanto) and seven Nauset men. They were brought to Spain to be sold as slaves.
Two years before the Mayflower’s arrival, disease brought by Europeans wiped out a large percentage of the Wampanoag. After that, said Paula Peters, they knew “to be wary of any ships that came, and that’s understandable.”
The version of events surrounding the Mayflower’s voyage and arrival evolved. The one developed in the 1800s “became canonical in the school systems and conversations around the U.S.A.,” said Ryan. “That version was not quite as violent. It didn’t thank God for killing them all off.”
It did, however, continue to promote a vision of the colonizers as heroic and the indigenous people as primitive and brutal.
A plaque installed above First Encounter Beach in 1920 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the encounter reflects that lingering attitude. It reads “On this spot, hostile Indians had their first encounter — December 8, 1620.”
A second plaque, erected in 2001 off the First Encounter Beach parking lot, revises the description of the Native people, though not the mistaken view that their history did not already include encounters with Europeans. The plaque reads: “Near this site the Nauset Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation, seeking to protect themselves and their culture, had their first encounter on December 8, 1620.”
The 1920 plaque on the hill is now almost hidden by shrubs. The path to it is riddled with poison ivy. “Nobody is pushing to improve access,” Ryan said.
As for the plaque that now stands in front of town hall, “That one is very much like the ‘hostile Indians’ stone,” Ryan said.
What’s missing from too many attempts to correct the record, said Steven Peters, is a fuller story of indigenous people’s experience.
“We didn’t just disappear when the Europeans arrived; we went through a lot at different points in history,” Peters said. “We went through sickness, we went through war; we went through slavery. We went through the attempted forced dispossession of our land, our language, and our culture.”
Contemplating that darker side of American history is part of the point of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which although recognized for the first time this year by an American president (Joe Biden issued a proclamation about its celebration last year) is still neither a federal holiday nor a state holiday in Massachusetts.
Provincetown, Falmouth, and Mashpee are the three Cape Cod towns among 20 listed on the Mass. Center for Native American Awareness as having officially replaced the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“It’s definitely something to be celebrated,” said Steven Peters of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “We need people to acknowledge what happened and that, through all of that, somehow we were able to remain as a people and hold on to some of the language and traditions.”