Rivers: from Gulf of Maine Watershed Map, Maine State Planning Office, 1991. Canoe routes: from David S. Cook, Above the Gravel Bar (3rd edition, 2007).



The planters heare aboutes, if they will have any beaver, must go 40 or 50 myles into the country, with their packes on their backes.


Seventy miles from the Atlantic, in the central lowlands of Maine, if you head west along Route 2 and cross the Sandy River you will see a line of mountains far away upon your right. Built of slate, they rise to more than three thousand feet. They reach their finest color on a winter’s day, when the air is sharp and cold and the sunlight turns their eastern slopes from gray to blue. Above the modern town of Farmington, they form the outlying ramparts of a dark massif.

Here the influence of the ocean ends, and the American interior begins. Behind the blue ridge, the high ground extends for sixty miles, as far as the frontier with Canada. Between hills black and shaggy with spruce but dusted white with snow, the road ascends an esker, a ribbon of gravel, dropped into place by a glacier fourteen thousand years ago.

The esker makes a platform for Highway 27. Along the road, you climb until you reach a narrow pass and a chain of lakes. Beyond them lies a gloomy wetland, called Hathan Bog, where in the dusk moose wander from the swamp across the asphalt. Then, a little farther on, the highway arrives at a plateau, and a liquor store, and a customs post, at a hidden place named Coburn Gore, where day and night the Frenchmen thump back over the border in their logging trucks. Like the valleys of West Virginia, the pass supplies an aperture, an entry into the land beyond the mountains, at the northern end of the Appalachian barrier.

At places such as this, the west begins: but where did America start for new settlers arriving from England in the 1620s or the 1630s? Maybe they saw it first from ten miles out on the ocean, with a glimpse of sandy cliffs along the eastern rim of Cape Cod, or at forty miles, if their first sighting was Cadillac Mountain, above Bar Harbor, visible to any ship bound in from Newfoundland. Or did the New World really begin later? Did its strangeness dawn upon them when they saw ice jamming a river mouth as late as April, or a belt of white wampum beads, or a field of maize, or a man in deerskin breeches, with a shaved head and a torso painted purple? The point at which the alien was glimpsed for what it was, alarming, uncanny, or sublime, might occur at any of these moments, or at none of them. Half of the early migrants simply faded and died.

There was another point when America began. The moment took place when new settlers crossed a different kind of boundary, when for the first time they could be certain that their colony was going to endure. So far as the Mayflower Pilgrims were concerned, this moment occurred in the territory in Maine that lay below Coburn Gore, in the year 1628. Eight years earlier, they had landed at Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the extremity of Cape Cod. Soon afterward they founded their settlement across the bay at New Plymouth. That was another beginning, but it was tenuous and frail. It took far longer for the Plymouth enterprise to make itself permanent, and to open the way for the foundation of Boston to the north, by colonists in far larger numbers.

Fraught with risk, the Mayflower project endured a long period of trial, experiment, and error. Deeply in debt to their backers in London, and chronically short of supplies to keep their feet shod, their muskets loaded, and their small boats afloat, they needed a commodity to send back to England to be swapped for silver coins or used to redeem their IOUs. They eventually found it, in the quantities they needed, up here in Maine. They bought it from the people who lived in the country below the watershed between what we now call Quebec and the United States. This was where the moment of maturity occurred: the place where they passed across an emotional frontier, the line that separates insecure ambition from likely success.

There was only one way in which the Pilgrims could find the money to pay their debts and finance new supplies from home. They needed the fur of Castor canadensis, the North American beaver. No other colonial product fetched so high a price, in Paris, in London, or in Holland. What made the skins so precious? That will be the subject of a later chapter. All we need know for the time being is that during the 1620s the price of a beaver pelt increased fourfold, to reach a peak of nearly forty shillings. That was enough to rent nine acres of English farmland for a year.

Until they had pelts, the colony at New Plymouth remained a fragile outpost, a tiny corn-growing settlement wedged between the forest and the sea. For it to become something more, the seed or nucleus for a much larger inflow of the English, they had to find beaver skins, and in Maine the valleys and the high ground supplied a vast habitat for the mammal.2

As many as fifty beavers may have lived in each square mile, or even more densely in places such as Hathan Bog. Alongside the esker, on every stream beavers built their dams and lodges. Today the animals have left a chain of beaver meadows, dried-up ponds, strung out along the side of Highway 27. Take the surface area of Franklin County, Maine, around and beneath the bog and the highway, and multiply it by fifty. You come to an estimate of ninety thousand of the creatures in that one county alone.

Why did the beavers of Maine become the target of exploitation, and not those of another region? The Pilgrims might have gone elsewhere, and sometimes did. Beavers will live in any setting with the trees they like to gnaw, the quaking aspen or the willow, and streams that flow down gradients a few degrees above the level. As for the date, why did it take so long for the Pilgrims to begin to penetrate the deep interior? Because it was only in 1628, and in Maine, that chance and circumstance combined to make it feasible. Access, demand for the skins, the legal right to settle, the technology of transport, the command of language, a supply of trading goods, and the presence of people able and willing to hunt: these were essential too.

As we shall see, the very early history of New England contains many hidden, forgotten corners, niches quite as remote as Coburn Gore. Most often, these spots of vagueness or omission arise because, in the British Isles, the evidence lies neglected, scattered in odd places in dozens of archive collections.

They contain a wealth of overlooked material about the origins of the Mayflower project and its place in the wider history of England under King James and his son the future Charles I. For the most part, British scholars have either left these very early sources untouched or failed to see their significance. They have done what the Pilgrims did not do, and left America to the Americans. This is why so much of the Pilgrim narrative remains in shadowy monochrome, like a photograph in sepia or a silent film, deprived of color, light, and sound.

Among the gaps in the story, one of the most serious concerns the trade in beaver pelts, shipped back in their thousands by way of the ports of Barnstaple, Bristol, and Plymouth in the west of England. That is why we start in Franklin County. We might begin by imagining its character, not by way of fantasy, but with the aid of available resources, scientific and archaeological, and verbal too. To help us, we might imitate the native people of the region. We might invoke the spirit of a bird to function as an airborne guide.3

Today more than four hundred pairs of bald eagles breed in the state of Maine. When Charles I sat on the throne, doubtless their numbers were far greater. What might she have seen, an eagle, if in the spring of 1628she swung her head around through three-quarters of a circle and scanned the country below Coburn Gore? She saw the land of Mawooshen. That was the name given then to the region: mountain, river, valley, plain, and coast, and among them the Eastern Abenaki, who lived between the blue ridge and the ocean.


From her zenith, at four thousand feet, she sees the Sandy River bending back and forth. Fed by streams cascading down off the massif, the river swings around and doubles back but never ceases to drop toward the sea. Beyond its broad, flat valley, to the south the ground rolls out to form a plain covered by birch woods and pine, with strewn on the earth beneath them hundreds of pale gray boulders. They were abandoned, like elliptical cannonballs, by the same retreating glaciers that formed the esker.

As the ice melted and the Atlantic rose, the sea reached this far inland, laying down thick beds of silt and sand. Even now, the ocean is far closer than it seems. In the seventeenth century, long before men dammed the rivers of Maine, salmon swam all the way up from the sea to Farmington to spawn.

If our eagle of 1628 leaves her nest at the top of a tall white pine, and goes looking for game along the valley, she comes to a spot where the Sandy meets another river, deeper and wider. Before it begins its own final descent toward the sea, it flows in a sequence of long, quiet reaches between sets of falls and rapids. Each one marks a geological division, ten or fifteen miles apart, where the river suddenly alters course. For this reason, the river bears the name Kennebec. In the native language of the country the word gwena means “long,” while the syllable bague refers to a placid stretch of water.4

Hovering above the Kennebec, the eagle probes with her eyes for a leaping fish or a squirrel breaking cover. When she finds one, she swoops down at the spot where the Sandy River meanders in from the west, near the site of the modern town of Madison. Beneath a bluff, the water forms a calm, deep pool, tinted in spring by a drifting haze of pollen from the pines. As she skims the amber surface and then swings back up into the sky with a fish in her talons, she flies over a place where the woods have been cleared, to make a wide, flat open space on a terrace thirty feet above the river.

As she climbs, the eagle pays little heed to the village of Naragooc, or the human beings stooping down to collect Maine fiddleheads, edible wild ferns gathered at this season. She ignores the circular huts along the bluff, the wooden longhouse, or the people moving to and fro between cooking fires, storage pits, and the fields of maize that loosely encircle the settlement. Instead, she rises steeply again. From her highest altitude, she can see as far as eighty miles. With the dense packing of nerve cells in her retina, she can pick out objects three or four times smaller than those detected by a human eye.

Far to the north, she sees the mountain escarpment and the dark smudge marking the site of Hathan Bog. Bare summits and icy mountain streams offer little by way of food, and so she turns toward the south. On the way to the sea, the landscape becomes a mottled rug, made up of ridges of gravel between elongated lakes. They point toward the site of the modern city of Augusta, forty miles away, with the Atlantic visible far beyond it as a distant rim of silver.

This was Mawooshen. Even the English called the country by that name. They did so in a document compiled in about 1607, most likely as a briefing paper for a failed attempt to found a colony at the mouth of the Kennebec, at Fort St. George. The word apparently referred to a confederacy of some thirteen towns and villages of the Eastern Abenaki, scattered across the zone between the Sandy River and Cadillac Mountain.5

Among them, the deepest inland was Naragooc, located at the junction of the Sandy and the Kennebec. Today its name survives on a modern map in the altered form of Norridgewock. When the English manuscript was written, Naragooc provided a home to as many as four or five hundred people, led by a Zegeme, or sachem, a chief by the name of Cocockohamas. His clan occupied a spot where the earth was unusually good. A fine olive brown tilth called Hadley loam, it formed a narrow carpet along both banks of the river, like the rich soil of exactly the same kind along the Connecticut valley, coveted by later English settlers.

At Naragooc, the Abenaki lived at the northernmost point where at the time the climate permitted the cultivation of maize. They also sat on the perimeter between the northern hardwoods, spruce, and fir and the softer oaks and pines of southern New England. Accessible by water, Naragooc was poised between corn country and the hunting spaces of the north.6 And so in spring, when our imaginary eagle saw the village, the people who lived there would be skinning hundreds of dead beavers. Late winter was the time to catch them, with a spear driven through the melting ice, when the animals were most hungry and least cautious and their pelts were thickest.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the trade in beaver fur had come to lie at the heart of the life of the Abenaki. At Naragooc the evidence is plain, and it takes two forms, material and linguistic. In the 1990s, when archaeologists explored the village sites beside the Kennebec, they found scores of beaver bones, from the animal’s jawbone, skull, and legs. But the beaver left a still deeper mark on the language that the people spoke.7

It survives in the form of a lexicon compiled more than three hundred years ago by a French Catholic missionary, Father Sebastian Râle. He listed more than thirty nouns, verbs, and phrases used by the people of Naragooc to describe the animal, its skin, its behavior, and the manner in which they pursued it. They called the beaver temakwe, meaning “tree cutter.” They gave different names to male and female adults, and they called a young beaver a temakwesis. They had separate words for beavers as they appeared in winter and as they were in warmer weather when their pelts had thinned. Then they were known as nepenemeskwe, from nipen, meaning “summer.”

The people of Naragooc called the skin of a beaver matarreh, and they added extra syllables to grade the pelts into categories of size and quality. The beaver’s kidneys, rognons de castor, had their own Abenaki word—awisenank—and this suggests that once skinned, the beaver was cooked and eaten: an English visitor to Maine in the 1620s compared the taste to roast lamb. Father Râle recorded phrases referring to the beaver’s motion, as its tail beats the surface of a pond, as it lifts its head from the water, or as it dives back to hide. At home, the English hunted otters with packs of web-footed hounds. Râle tells us that the Abenaki did something similar: they pursued the beaver with a chien à castor, a “beaver dog,” or in their language a temakwekkwe.8

They inhabited a place ideal for the purpose. From the highland plateau, three river systems descend to the north, south, and east: the Kennebec, the St. John, and the Chaudière, the Canadian river that drains away from the far side of Coburn Gore and down into the St. Lawrence. If the sheer quantity of mammals was the first great attraction of the region, the second lay in the ease of entry and exit along these great waterways. To the Eastern Abenaki, the chain of ponds and lakes around Hathan Bog were the high road that led from Mawooshen to Quebec and back.

After the British seized control of Canada in 1759, they sent a military engineer called John Montresor to find the path, as a means to move men and guns from Quebec to Boston and back. He found the bog and the beaver dams, but Colonel Montresor remembered how reluctant the people of Mawooshen were to disclose the secret of the forest highway.

The Abenaki, he said, were “the natural proprietors of the country … No nation having been more jealous of their country than the Abenaquis, they have made it a constant rule to leave the fewest vestiges of their route.” In the early days of New England, long before Montresor, no European had trod the path at all. The first were Râle’s forerunners, French Jesuits, in the 1640s, coming over the watershed southward. This was a journey a skilled Abenaki could accomplish in a week or so, if the weather were benign.

With a birch-bark canoe, eighteen feet long, fit to carry two men and one thousand pounds of cargo, the Abenaki could pole and paddle along streams as little as five inches deep. But to make canoes like these, they needed sheets of bark from birch trees at least four feet in circumference. In the seventeenth century, paper birch of such a size grew rarely in southern New England, but the trees existed in plenty in Maine. For this reason, the birch-bark canoe was chiefly a tool of the people of Mawooshen and the country that lay behind it.9

With their canoes, they could travel for hundreds of miles, from the headwaters of the Connecticut River in the west to Nova Scotia in the east. Up on the plateau, the belt of land around Coburn Gore could be crossed on foot. Down in the lowlands, the pattern of lakes and low ridges left behind by the ice sheets created natural canoe trails, by way of short overland carries between the waterways. By this means, the Abenaki could make detours around obstacles in the Kennebec, cross from it to another river, the Androscoggin, and reach the mountains of northern New Hampshire. In the other direction, going east from Naragooc by way of the Sebasticook, they could enter the vast basin of the Penobscot and the St. John. In turn, those rivers led them across the modern border into what is now the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

If there were boundaries to movement, they arose only from hostile opponents. In 1626, on the Hudson River, the Mohawk killed and ate seven Dutch fur traders, and two years later they ejected from the same region their foes the Mohican. So, for the people of Naragooc, the Mohawk and their fellow Iroquois fixed the limit of commerce to the west.

To the east, the St. John marked a frontier with the Micmac, known then as the Tarrentines, long the enemies of the Abenaki. They were seagoing raiders and middlemen, passing up and down the coast between the French in Canada and the people of Massachusetts to the south. Even so, between these limits there remained forty thousand square miles of uncontested country. And that was why, in the spring of 1628, our bald eagle saw the English coming up the Kennebec.


If she flew south and gazed out over the ocean, she would notice white specks rising and falling on the swell. A convoy of sailing ships, thirty or forty in number, they were trawling for cod or calling at the fishing post on Damariscove Island. Behind them lay a voyage of fourteen days from Newfoundland, or eight or nine weeks if their track across the ocean had brought them without a stop from the harbors of southwestern England.

Somewhere out on the Gulf of Maine were two ships in particular. One was small, a fishing boat called the Pleasure, with a capacity of thirty-five tons. The other had a volume five times larger, and she was the White Angel, an armed merchant ship with a privateering license to take any French or Spanish vessel she met.

Both ships had come from Barnstaple, in the English county of Devon. On January 23 and 24, duly recorded by customs officers, they left their home port loaded with supplies for the Pilgrims at New Plymouth. The White Angel and the Pleasure crossed the Atlantic, handed over their freight, and began to look for a cargo to bring back. Most of all they wanted beaver skins.10

So did the crew of another English vessel in the region. If the eagle remained inland and wheeled over the site of the modern city of Augusta, she would pass over a smaller craft, coming upstream along the Kennebec toward the rocks that marked the end of the river’s tidal reach.

The boat was bound for a small cove where a path wound up a bluff toward another flat riverside terrace. On board were guns, ammunition, and trading goods: knives, hoes, hatchets, and perhaps a few shining copper kettles. By way of rations, she would have brought casks of cider and beer and red ceramic jars, each one filled with pickled fish or olives.

The boat also carried men from New Plymouth. They were led most likely by Edward Winslow, aged thirty-two, but possibly also by William Bradford, the colony’s governor, a man of thirty-eight. Probably Winslow had with him John Howland, in his late twenties, since Howland later became the manager of the Pilgrim fur business in Maine. They were English Separatists, or radical Puritans. All three had first traveled to America on board the Mayflower, after leaving their place of exile in the Dutch city of Leiden in the summer of 1620.

With a patent from the authorities in London, they were on their way to build a trading post to dominate the traffic in fur from the interior. Known as Cushnoc, the place can easily be found today, above the bluff, in the center of modern Augusta. In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered on the site the remains of a wooden house, a ring of timber postholes, and pieces of English red pots, dating from roughly this period. They came from Barnstaple, where shipowners gave their crews cider to drink, because it kept well on long voyages.11

At Cushnoc, the Pilgrims at last corrected the mistake they made when they landed inside the hook of Cape Cod. Decades earlier, an Elizabethan writer had urged new settlers to plant themselves “upon the mouthes of the greate navigable rivers,” as a means of finding trading partners or a route to the Pacific.12 This was common sense. It was what the settlers at Jamestown did when they chose a home in Virginia close to the entrance of Chesapeake Bay.

But because the Mayflower wandered off course, failing to reach the Hudson, her planned destination, she deposited her passengers on one of the longest stretches of shoreline on the Atlantic seaboard without a waterway reaching far inland. Eight years later, the Kennebec provided a solution. It came by way of contact with the hunting bands of the Eastern Abenaki and their network of communication. For this reason, even in later decades, when the fur trade began to slacken as competition increased and profits fell, the Pilgrims remained determined to maintain their grip on Cushnoc and its river.

They established what colonial officials in Victorian Africa would later call a protectorate. Like Uganda or Swaziland, the Kennebec valley became a region whose defense and security the British tried to control. When a French Jesuit visited Naragooc in 1650, he found that its inhabitants lived under what he called “la protection de cette colonie de Plymouth.” He wished to enlist the support of the Puritan English, on behalf of the Abenaki on both sides of the mountains, in a war against the Iroquois. The Pilgrims readily agreed to help him, Catholic though he was, for the sake of the furs that came down the river.13

By building their post at Augusta, Winslow and Bradford began to transform forever the lands that they entered. They drew the Abenaki ever more tightly into the circuits of commerce that led back across the sea like submarine cables. The consequences were profound, and ambiguous too. Besides the bones of beavers, archaeologists found armaments at Naragooc, lumps of lead and flints used to fire a musket. The Pilgrims did not sell guns, since King Charles had strictly forbidden it, but they were not the only English traders on the coast. In the early 1630s the asking price for a beaver skin in Maine was a third of a bar of lead, or five beakers of gunpowder and two pounds of shot.14

Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the ocean, the results of their activities were equally far-reaching. Before Cushnoc, the French and the Dutch easily surpassed the English in the quantities of fur they acquired in North America. As many as six thousand beaver skins reached Amsterdam each year from Dutchmen on the Hudson. In Quebec, Samuel de Champlain and his French colony dealt in quantities that were still larger. Until very late in the day, the English were dabblers, barely clinging to their footholds along the coast. This first began to change in 1625, when the Pilgrims started dealing at the mouth of the Kennebec, buying pelts from the Abenaki with surplus corn. But it was the trading season of 1628 that marked the great turning point for English enterprise.

That summer, the White Angel and the Pleasure sailed home with beaver skins in quantities far larger than any their home ports had seen before. And they arrived at a decisive moment when, for other reasons, men and women suddenly began to take a far closer interest in emigration westward. That same year, because of defeat in war, events were converging in London toward a political crisis.

Puritans, mariners, and businessmen lost patience with the king’s bungling of hostilities with France. They complained about squandered taxation, about dwindling civil liberties, about losses of ships and men, and about a failing economy. Most of all they feared that King Charles was conniving to bring back the Roman Catholic faith.

The following spring, in 1629, an embittered session of Parliament ended in failure from everyone’s point of view. At that moment, New England ceased to be merely a zealous eccentricity. Instead, it became a Puritan demand. This was because it offered a place where alternatives might be found; but it could only do so if it paid its way.

In 1630, a much larger fleet of migrant ships sailed to Massachusetts Bay under the leadership of John Winthrop. Its organizers had closely monitored the slow progress of the settlers at New Plymouth. They began to make plans for the Winthrop colony only after they saw proof, by way of beaver skins, that New England made financial sense.

For more than five decades, the idea of a mission to America had excited energetic Protestants in England. Although little had been achieved, they had expected from the outset that religion would go hand in hand with profit. Who was the first man to think of such a project? There are several candidates, and they were French as well as English. Among them, as we shall see, perhaps the most relevant to the Pilgrims was a poet, Sir Philip Sidney.

He was a soldier as well as a writer, and he was also an eager Calvinist. In the 1580s, Sidney dreamed of a colony that would combine Christianity, economics, and patriotic adventure. His friend and biographer, Fulke Greville, spoke of Sidney’s “hazardous enterprize of planting upon the main of America.” Sir Philip wished to create, said Greville, “an Emporium for the confluence of all nations that love or profess any kind of virtue, or commerce.” In 1586, Sidney died of a war wound, inflicted by a Spanish musketeer. He never crossed the western ocean, and so it was left to the Mayflower Pilgrims to build the plantation he had wished to see.

It would be godly, but lucrative too. Both Christian and commercial, it would be an instrument of empire, as well as a manifestation of faith.15 In due course, New England became the emporium of virtue that Sidney had envisaged; but it was a complicated kind of virtue, and one that not everybody wished to share.

In this book you will find a new account of the Mayflower Pilgrims, their origins, and their first decade in North America. It is new in two respects. First, it draws on the multitude of neglected primary sources on the old side of the ocean. And, second, it replaces the Pilgrims within their true setting, in all its Jacobean density, in Europe as well as in Massachusetts and Maine.

This is not a simple story. Like the project imagined by Sir Philip Sidney, it has many layers, overlapping strata of piety, politics, and business. Molded by the random processes of chance, events also took the shape they did because exceptional people were involved. This, the role of character, and morale, adds yet another element of complication. Fortunately, however, we have a set of charts that can guide us through the labyrinth. The maps exist, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the tangible form of terrain.

Within the landscape lay the harsh imperatives of economic stress in an age when survival could never be taken for granted. This was true in England and in America alike. By exploring the space in which events took place, in the Old World and the New, we can begin to explain why they happened at all. We can also hope to escape from sentimentality and fiction. There is no need to indulge in mythology about the Pilgrims, when we can interrogate the land and the documents that remain. In the earth, and in the archives, we find the hard traces of motivation: assuming, of course, that we know where to look.

Perhaps Puritan New England would have happened anyway, without Cushnoc or the Mayflower. But, as things were, the Plymouth Colony became a permanent settlement because of the land, the animals, and the people that our eagle saw. For this reason, we start and finish on the Kennebec, among the mountains. We end and begin with the river, and the trees, with the Eastern Abenaki, the People of the Dawn, and with the temakwe, the slaughtered beaver of Mawooshen.



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