Wessagusset, The Other Colony
A true bloodcurdling tale of stupidity, greed, and murder
Here's a story about early America that you don't hear very often, In fact, you probably have never heard it at all. It involves a settlement contemporary with the much more famous Plimoth (Plymouth) Plantation. This settlement had houses, a fort, a blockhouse, a fur trade, and Englishmen with ambitions bigger than their skill sets. You don't hear much about this settlement because it was an utter failure in every sense of the word, financial, political, and moral. It also hasn't been historically convenient to portray any of the heroic colonists and their lot as the lying, thieving, murdering, racist, profiteers that many of them were. They may all have come here fearing God but after experiencing the horrors this place had to offer, God was the least of their worries.
About twenty miles north of Plymouth on what is now the South Shore of Boston are two estuaries ( the Fore and Back rivers), the mouths of which are separated by a half mile of hilly ground. The shore of this little stretch of land is covered in broken mussel shells and small pieces of flat, dark stone called shale. Good luck catching anything bigger than a flounder out there, but clams and mussels?There are piles of shells accumulated by natives over thousands of years. Between the abundant mollusks and the hapless mammals with nice pelts, you could make a living and maybe even a profit. This is what Thomas Weston thought when he ventured to start a colony in the New World. He was a businessman who got investors to buy into John Smith's cock and bull stories about Jamestown. He regarded the settlement at Plimoth a bust financially and wanted nothing to do with that group except to the extent that they could provide him with a base of operations.
He sent out a small ship, the Sparrow, first to a fishing colony on Monhegan island in Maine, then down the coast past the estuaries finally to Plimoth. The rest of the party followed in two ships, the Swan and the Charity which landed at Plimoth in June 1622. There disembarked the "rude fellows" of Weston's company. These were not the humble and hard working Pilgrims, pushed into exile in pursuit of a pious life. These were by all accounts a collection of lowlifes, petty criminals, and what would be referred to in today's England as oiks, tossers, chavs, and wankers. They were allegedly culled from brothels and taverns, so chosen by Weston because he thought they had a better chance at survival than a bunch of Bible wielding prudes. It's hard to imagine that anything could have gone wrong with that plan! It wasn't long before this pack of assholes wore out their already thin welcome. The ones that weren't sick were lazy and foul mouthed. They used up food and gave nothing back. They also stole corn, a practice that would eventually lead to their ruin. Finally, they were forced out and sixty men led by one of Weston's business partners, Richard Greene, headed north to the land between the two estuaries, a place called variously: Wichaguscussett, Wessaguscus, or Wessagusset.
Survival in those days required work, something Weston's gang were not about to engage in if they could get someone else to do it for them. When an ear of corn means the difference between starving to death and hanging on until the snow melts, it doesn't pay to be shiftless. So, when famine showed up for it's annual visit the men of the Wessagussett colony did what any starving sack of crap from the gutters of England would do, They stole from the natives, who were not exactly in a position to be generous. This didn't go over too well with a group of "salvages" already planning on a massacre just to get these parasites off their land. Back then, running out of food meant you were incompetent and worthy of contempt and ridicule. The English traded their clothes, their blankets and eventually themselves, entering into servitude to the natives ( "so base were they" ) in return for enough corn to survive. Oh, and they continued to steal. According to the records, there were public floggings to punish the thieves. Since flogging doesn't alleviate hunger, the theiving continued. One particular individual was caught in the act by the natives and they demanded justice, i.e. death. The English were obliged to hang the man themselves, of course with the natives as witnesses. It turns out that this guy was young and relatively healthy and apparently knew how to make shoes, much too valuable to sacrifice for a little peace. So they substituted an old, sick geezer who they dressed in the young cobbler's clothes. The natives were not fooled but accepted the sacrifice. Apparently in public hangings, like in gift giving, it's the thought that counts. This might have smoothed things over for a while but the decision had already been made to kill all of the white people, not just at Wessagusset but at Plimoth too. Through at least two channels involving loyal, "friendly Indians" like Massasoit, the word about a planned massacre got back to Plimoth.
The English had to act and it's right here that you are faced with seeing this as a heroic act of self preservation by shrewd and brave settlers or as an act of treachery and murder by invading racists.
Myles Standish was a hired killer. He is variously described as a mercenary, captain, or military leader. It's like calling American soldiers in Afghanistan "advisors". No matter how you color it, his job was killing Indians and he was good at it. By many accounts he was a sawed-off little prick with a bad temper who would kill men, women, and children not only with impunity but with flair.
He arrived on the Mayflower along with the Pilgrims and had a relatively cushy life with status close to that of the governor. He was called upon to settle this matter at Wessagusset before it got out of hand. They had heard about the massacre at Jamestown. He made a plan, gathered about ten men, and headed north in an open boat called a shallop.
The leaders of the natives at Wessagusset were a couple of bad-asses, more like gang leaders than chiefs although they are sometimes referred to as sachems. Their names were Wituwamet and Pecksuot. (various spellings and pronunciations). Wituwamet was a mean and clever bastard who openly threatened and insulted The English. It was said of him that he could not be killed with a gun. Pecksuot was called a giant which for those times probably meant that he was over five foot five. He also was not shy about making it clear what he would do to his enemies. He bragged about what he did to the Frenchmen who had pissed him off. (by showing up) Murder, enslavement, and general humiliation until death all figured in his repertoire. He famously described his knife thus: "This knife cannot hear, it cannot see, it cannot speak, but it can eat! (One of multiple translations the gist being "I'll kill you"). Standish meets with the natives and ends up listening to their complaints and threats while having to suffer their insults about his stature. The next day, he invites them into the block house for a meal, a discussion, and a murder. One version of this story has Standish drugging the food and killing them in their sleep. Others have him bravely engaging the much bigger Pecksuot in hand to hand combat and stabbing him with his own knife. The bottom line is that it was a trap in which the Indians were grossly outnumbered. Oh yeah, the English had guns. When they had finished with the leaders they burst out of the blockhouse and started killing any Indians unfortunate enough to be in sight. They chased them into the woods and attacked a couple of houses for good measure. Still, a real statement had to be made, the kind that Merrye Olde England was really good at . Wituwamet's eighteen year old nephew had been captured in the blockhouse. They hung him from a tree. Standish, used to dealing with rebels in England, relieved Wituwamet of his head. Yes, he cut his head off. As I first heard this story, he took Pecksuot's head too. Both of them were carried to Plimoth to be displayed on pikes on the walls of the fort. Again, as I heard it, the heads were displayed on the fort at Wessagusset then carried to Plimoth. where they remained on the walls for years.
Well the locals got the message. Wessagusset was done but Plimoth was saved. Just a year later, another group, this time of men and women, arrived at Wessagusset from Weymouth England. They occupied the old buildings and built new ones. Eventually, the town of Weymouth Massachusetts was incorporated.
Oh I almost forgot: the English and the Indians lived happily ever after and had thanksgiving feasts with turkey and cranberries and pemmican and there were hardly any more public hangings or beheadings. Alright, it didn't really go all that well. It took years to finally solve that Indian problem. I hear they're still working on it in some western states.
Here's how it actually ended in Weymouth.
In about 1800, a new foundation is being dug on a low, grassy hill overlooking the Weymouth Fore river.
The workers uncover two Indian skeletons. Their heads are missing. The story of Wessagusset is known locally and the remains are "identified" as those of Wituwamet and Pecksuot. The property owner has the skeletons moved to his family plot at the local cemetery. Much later, the plot is moved when a section of the cemetery is landscaped. The fate of the bones is a mystery ( ...to me. I think they were moved and reburied). This house becomes known to local history buffs as the "house of the headless Indians".
About a hundred years later, in a neighboring plot, another foundation is dug. This time, seven skulls are uncovered. For reasons only the builder and perhaps Stephen King can fathom, five of the skulls are incorporated into a basement wall as ornaments. (!) (What the Hell happened to the other two skulls?!) A later owner has the skulls smashed out of the mortar. (!) This house comes to be known as the "house of skulls".
Later, in the mid sixties, the family living in the "house of skulls" has encounters with the spirit of a tall Indian who appears to the mother and sometimes to the children. He is fearsome but benevolent and even tucks the kids in at night. The story has it that the family did not know any of the history of the area before seeing the spirit. Difficulty plagued and continues to plague the subsequent residents of that house. In the seventies it was figured out at last that the property on which the "house of the headless Indians" was built was the site of the Wessagusset blockhouse. By comparison to the "house of skulls", this house was free of apparitions but not without its problems. No one in my family was ever really 'sensitive" to otherworldly things. Oh yeah, that's the house I grew up in.
Sometimes ghosts can be apparitions and sometimes they are more like memories of things that you are not sure you really experienced. For me, they are the projections of my fear and anger onto these stories. Ever since hearing this as a child I have been haunted by its images. Wituwamet and Pecksuot were not nice people but I am glad to call them my personal ghosts.
References available on request...