Letter of Edward Winslow, 11 December 1621 ... We set the last spring some 20 acres of Indian corn, & sowed some 6 acres of barley & peas, & according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, & take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, & God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, & our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, & blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom; our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent 4 men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, & among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for 3 days we entertained & feasted, & they went out & killed 5 deer, which they brought to the plantation & bestowed on our governor, & upon the captain, & others...We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving & ready to pleasure us: we often go to them, & they come to us; some of us have been 50 miles by land in the country with them; the occasions & relations whereof you shall understand by our general & more full declaration of such things as are worth the noting, yea, it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, & love unto us, that not only the greatest king amongst them called Massasoit, but also all the princes & peoples round about us, have either made suit unto us, or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us, so that 7 of them at once have sent their messengers to us to that end, yea, an Fle at sea, which we never saw hath also together with the former yielded willingly to be under the protection, & subjects to our sovereign Lord King James, so that there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly, neither would have been but for us; & we for our parts walk as peaceably & safely in the wood, as in the highways in England, we entertain them familiarly in our houses, & they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are a people without any religion, or knowledge of any God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just, the men & women go naked, only a skin about their middles...all the winter we have mussels & othus at our doors: oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will...Your loving Friend E.W.
Almost everything we know about the Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621 is based on a letter by Edward Winslow. But more interesting than the letter’s content is its author, a figure largely missing from the Thanksgiving story.
Edward Winslow—diplomat, printer, author, trader & politician (some might even call him a social scientist & a public relations practitioner)—was one of the most important, & today, perhaps least remembered, leaders of the group of separatists called Pilgrims. Without Winslow, Plymouth—and indeed, the New England colonies—might not have survived.
“He was hugely significant,” says Rebecca Fraser, a British historian whose book about the Winslow family will be published next year. “He was one of those people who have so much energy. He needed to be striding around doing lots of things."
The prominent Boston theologian & writer Cotton Mather, writing in 1702, referred to Winslow as a “Hercules” for his strength & fortitude in dealing with multiple challenges facing the Plymouth settlement & later, New England as a whole. Winslow faced down Native American tribes hostile to the colonists & their allies & confronted warring political & economic factions on the other side of the Atlantic. In those latter battles, the ones fought in the corridors of power & the court of public opinion back in England, Winslow was the equivalent of a modern-day lobbyist.
"Winslow was the designated defender of New England's reputation," says Donna Curtin, executive director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. "It wasn't in the political interest of Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay to be viewed as fractious or repressive by authorities back in England,.”
Winslow's unique background more than qualified him for the job. Most of the Pilgrims were yeoman farmers, with little formal education. Not Winslow. Born in 1595, he was educated in an Anglican cathedral school where the students spoke Greek & Latin, & he may have attended university in Cambridge. He then became an apprentice printer in London, although he left before he had completed his training. “I suppose he was inspired by the last book he worked on,” says Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands. That book, he says, was what we might now call a travel memoir by an Englishman who had spent time in Europe.
Possibly influenced by Puritan literature, Winslow ended up in Holland, a refuge for many English separatist groups, including the congregation that formed a new community in the Dutch university town of Leiden. “As far as we know, he wasn’t involved with a separatist church until he got to Leiden,” says Bangs, who also authored a biography of Winslow.
In Leiden, young Winslow worked with William Brewster, a printer & prominent member of the group. He immersed himself in the theology & goals of the Pilgrims who decided, after a decade in Holland, that their best hope for creating the kind of religious community they aspired to could be found in the New World. Winslow was one of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower. Later, he wrote a stirring account of the ship's arrival on distant shores after a fearful Atlantic passage: Falling in with Cape Cod, which is in New England, & standing to the southward for the place we intended, we met with many dangers & mariners put back into the harbor of the Cape, which was the 11th of November, 1620: Where considering winter was come, the seas dangerous, the season cold, the winds high & being well-furnished for a plantation, we entered upon discovery & settled at Plymouth: Where God please to preserve & enable us.
That preservation was made possible by the local Wampanoag people, whom the Pilgrims befriended. Here, Winslow played a critical role. He was a natural diplomat, a keen observer & inherently curious. “He really is interested in learning more about the Wampanoag people & their beliefs & customs,” says Curtin “Not only does he observe their life ways, but he records them.”
“You’ll find out more about the Indians from Winslow than almost anyone else,” agrees Bangs. Notably, he was also willing to re-assess his attitudes based on what he learned from the indigenous people he met. “In the first year, he thought they had no concept of religion at all,” says Bangs. “In the next year or two, though, he had a more elaborate idea of what they thought in philosophic & religious terms & he corrected what he said.”
In his best-selling 2006 book Mayflower, historian Nathaniel Philbrick praises a detailed, first-person description of wigwams co-written by Winslow & William Bradford; “a modern anthropologist would have a hard time outdoing the report,” he writes.
When the Wampanoag sachem, or leader, Massasoit—himself a skilled diplomat—first visited the hardscrabble Plymouth settlement, Winslow was chosen from among the English settlers to walk out & greet him personally. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship; one that would prove critical to the stability of the colony. “[Winslow] had a terrific relationship with Massasoit,” says Fraser. The friendship was forged in a dramatic way. When the chief was seriously ill, Winslow—who had no medical training—walked to his village & reportedly nursed him back to health using a time-honored remedy: chicken soup. “There’s a wonderful relation by Winslow about going to Massasoit’s home & making chicken broth for him,” Fraser says. “It’s very tender.”
Like most Pilgrims, Winslow suffered personal loss in the early years of the settlement. His first wife Elizabeth died in March, 1621. Barely six weeks later, Winslow married Susanna White, whose husband had died as well. It was the first marriage in the new colony & produced five children.
In terms of his career, Winslow went further & higher than anyone else from the Plymouth settlement. He was the man selected first by Plymouth, & later by the emerging new Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, to be the colonists’ liaison with London. In 1624, he returned to England to represent the interests of his fellow Pilgrims.
Though the Pilgrims were far from their native shores, the Plymouth colony was still affected by the mother country. Fish & furs needed to be sent back to help pay off their debts to those who had helped underwrite the cost of the journey. Many fellow separatists had remained in England & Holland—what would become of them? Would they join the new religious community founded by their friends in the new world? If so, how…and who would pay for it?
The colonists had other far-off struggles, too. There were conflicts with a rival colony in Maine, formed soon after the founding of Plymouth. There were denominational issues about church membership that needed to be addressed by Puritan authorities back home. And most important of all was the looming tussle between Parliament & the sovereignty, held by James I, whose attitudes towards the Pilgrims & their ilk had inspired them to leave England in the first place. The dispute between the Pilgrims & the crown finally exploded into the English Civil War two decades after the Pilgrims first landed.
Edward Winslow found himself in the midst of this roiling, complex political drama. His first mission was to sort out a boundary dispute in the wilds of Maine. "A settler named John Hocking had been killed by the Plymouth settlers because he went onto a part of the Kennebec River which belonged to the colony." Fraser explains. "Winslow had to apologize to Lord Saye, who was one of the founders of the Piscataqua settlement."
He had other business, too. Winslow published a number of pamphlets defending & promoting the New England colonies. After the English Civil War, when at first Parliament & later, in 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protectorate, Winslow’s entreaties on behalf of the colonists were more warmly received than before. Cromwell recognized Winslow’s talents & appointed him to number of important committees, including one overseeing the confiscation of property from royalty. Soon, Winslow found himself doing everything from inventorying palaces to hearing the grievances of aristocrats who felt they had been unfairly treated.
Winslow’s 17th-century equivalent of jet-setting diplomacy didn’t always sit well with his friends back in Plymouth. In 1646 as Winslow headed for England yet again, William Bradford, Plymouth's governor & Winslow's close friend, grumbled that he had done so without permission. And Winslow's open-mindedness had limits. In 1645, Curtin notes, "he opposed a remarkable proposal to establish full religious freedom for all faiths in Plymouth despite his own experience of religious toleration as an exile in Holland."
Winslow’s star appeared to be reaching its zenith when, in 1655, he was sent by Cromwell to the West Indies as part of a military expedition aimed at establishing English settlements there. He had been designated by Cromwell to be the new governor of Jamaica. “That was an enormously powerful position,” Bangs says.
But he never made it to the new colony. During the voyage, Winslow took ill & died at sea.
While Edward Winslow did indeed travel more widely & in higher circles than the rest of his original group of settlers from Plymouth, he seems to have remained at heart, a god-fearing Pilgrim, & never lost his pride in what he & his fellow dissenters had accomplished with their small settlement on the edge of a vast new continent. Plymouth was a community, he wrote, “not laid upon schism, division or separation, but upon love, peace & holiness; yea, such love & mutual care of the Church of Leyden for the spreading of the Gospel, the welfare of each other & their posterities to succeeding generations, is seldom found on earth.”