The Enduring Shore
A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket
By Paul Schneider
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2000 Paul Schneider
All rights reserved.
It was too good to be true. But there he was, back among his friends and family on Chappaquiddick. Back on Edgartown Harbor. Back on the island of Martha's Vineyard in the indescribably exquisite month of July, with the rest of his life stretched out before him.
Giant schools of striped bass crashed nightly along the beaches during that month, gulping into flickering clouds of sand eels. Bluefish blitzed in broad daylight in the outer harbor, under flocks of screaming and diving terns and along the heaving rip out at Wasque Point. Up-island, all over the woods, the small green nuggets that hung where the blueberry blossoms had fallen off a month before were softening now, and darkening. The last of the strawberries were ripe. The corn was waist high. How many times had he thought about the last lobster he had eaten, the last clambake on the beach before a warm fire, the sloppy hands and cool air? How many times had he wondered when, or if ever, such perfect days would come again?
For three years, most of them spent in the miserable city of London, he had worked hard for various bosses who occasionally tried to be polite but always managed to say no when the right thing to say would have been yes. Never was he away so far or for so long before. But despite all that, it now felt as it always did whenever he got back on-island; he felt as if he had never left.
Or maybe he didn't feel that way at all. Maybe he felt as if things could never be the same again. Maybe it wasn't Edgartown Harbor, but up the Lagoon Pond in Vineyard Haven. There's no way, really, to know. All that is known is that the year was 1614 — twelve years since the first English attempt to establish a year-round presence in the neighborhood of Cape Cod and the Islands had failed, and six years before the Pilgrims would succeed. It was 1614, and Epenow, the prized Wampanoag slave of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, was back home. Back home, having swum with all his formidable might for shore with the sound of muskets firing over his head.
Out on the ship from which he had just escaped, the English tended to their injured. The captain, Nicholas Hobson, was struck by an arrow, as were "many of his company." They may additionally have been in a state of shock. Only the day before, the deck of their little vessel was crowded with friendly Wampanoag, many of them brothers and sisters of Epenow. "The principal inhabitants of the place came aboard," wrote Ferdinando Gorges (who wasn't actually there) in his memoir many years later. They "were kindly entertained by the Captain, [and] departed in their canoes promising the next morning to come aboard again and bring some trade with them."
When the roughly twenty dugout canoes arrived the next day at the appointed hour, the men who paddled them were standoffish, remaining "at a certain distance with their bows ready." They refused to come nearer no matter how much Captain Hobson talked and gestured. Hobson called Epenow up from the middle of the ship, where he was being held, to the forecastle, in order to have him speak some reason to his countrymen. He came forward immediately, leaving behind the two men who were supposed to guard him, and called out to his friends in the canoes. He spoke English, encouraging his old neighbors to come aboard in a language none of them understood. He also spoke in his native tongue, giving his relatives quite different instructions in a language that none of his captors understood. Then, according to Gorges, "in the interim [he] slips himself overboard, and although he was taken hold of by one of the company, yet being a strong, heavy man, could not be stayed." As soon as Epenow was in the water, his relatives let fly a "shower of arrows," under the cover of which he swam away from captivity. "Epenow privately (as it appeared) had contracted with his friends how he might make his escape without performing what he had undertaken," Gorges sulkily reported.
According to at least one informed source, Epenow had planned his dramatic return to the Vineyard long before the family reunion the day before on the deck of Captain Hobson's boat. Gorges's mention of Epenow not "performing what he had undertaken" is typically coy in regard to the purpose of the visit to the island. Even though he was writing thirty years after the event, Gorges wrote only obliquely about "my pretended designs," perhaps because he still harbored them. And he mentioned what Epenow "had contracted to do" without saying what that was particularly, and how Epenow was risking getting "his brains knocked out as soon as he came ashore" if his friends found out he had disclosed what Gorges called "the secrets of his country."
But Captain John Smith — of Virginia fame — had no motive to hold back what he knew. (Though he may have had his reasons for embarrassing Gorges, who had apparently decided that Smith was at least one of the causes of his spate of bad luck and had consequently stopped sending him on voyages to the New World.) According to Smith, Epenow laid the groundwork for his escape using the same strategy that another enslaved Native American used almost a century before on Coronado: he simply told the master what he wanted to hear. Hobson and his crew were "in search for a mine of Gold about an Isle called Capawick, Southwards of the shoals of Cape James (Cod), as they were informed by a savage called Epenow." Epenow, it turned out, had not been unobservant of the hopes and aspirations of Gorges and his colleagues during his years in London. He "deluded them," said Smith, "thus to get home."
In fairness to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, he was not a cold-blooded Pizarro. Nor was he, by historical standards, an abusive slave driver. He had no plantations, factories, or gold mines in which his human acquisitions toiled (though he was looking for the latter). In fact, it's not clear what work, if any, Epenow and the other Indians in Gorges's household actually performed; sources tend to describe them as "in his retinue," or even "in his family." Sir Ferdinando was, one might say, something of a collector of the New England natives who periodically showed up in Old England in the decades before the Pilgrims arrived at Provincetown.
A self-interested collector, to be sure. After Walter Raleigh's final fall from influence with the ascension of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603, Gorges and his partners in the Plymouth Company acquired the "rights" to develop a vast tract of real estate stretching from Delaware to Maine. For them, owning Native Americans was a kind of industrial espionage, a cheaper way to find out about their theoretical holdings than blindly funding voyages. In Gorges's case, such voyages had a discouraging tendency to turn up nothing in the way of profits.
"While I was laboring by what means I might best continue life in my languishing hopes," he wrote, "there comes one Captain Henry Harley unto me, bringing with him a native of the island of Capawick, a place seated to the southward of Cape Cod, whose name was Epenowe." Gorges was a little fuzzy on the details of Epenow's capture and previous life, other than that some earlier master had used the Vineyarder as a sideshow attraction in London. "It is true," Gorges wrote, "he was a goodly man, of a brave aspect, stout, and sober in his demeanor, and had learned so much English as to bid those that wondered at him 'Welcome! Welcome!'"
Gorges put Epenow up in London with Assacumet, one of five "sachems of Pemaquid" that had been taken from the shores of Maine in 1605. Like the vast majority of native New Englanders, both men spoke languages from the Eastern Algonquian linguistic family, and Assacumet plied Epenow for information about Cape Cod and the Islands. Whether it was his experience of the Spanish slave market or of the London street carnivals that inspired Epenow's story of gold back home on Martha's Vineyard is unknown. There's some possibility it was Assacumet's suggestion, or that Gorges himself helped put the idea in Epenow's head by asking a little too anxiously about the copper that many New England natives had been observed wearing. In his roundabout way, however, Gorges implied that Harley already had gold fever when he brought Epenow to him. Gorges's usual partner, the earl of Southampton, agreed to invest one hundred pounds and introduced Gorges to Hobson, whose own willingness to put up one hundred pounds no doubt went a long way toward ensuring him the job as commander of the expedition.
When the ship sailed in June of 1614, Epenow wasn't the only Native American expatriate on board. Assacumet and Wenape ("another native of those parts, sent me [Gorges] out of the Isle of Wight for my better information") were included in the crew as well. For the most part, the three Indians did as they were asked, and Gorges reported that Captain Hobson was "piloted from place to place by the natives as well as their hearts could desire." Until, that is, they got to the Vineyard.
Gorges apparently was not entirely without his suspicions about Epenow's story. His crew was specifically instructed to keep a good eye on the man: "I gave the Captain strict charge to endeavor by all means to prevent his escape," he wrote later, "and for the more surety, I gave order to have three gentlemen of my own kindred (two brothers of Sturton's and Master Matthews) to be ever at hand with him, clothing him with long garments fitly to be laid hold on if occasion should require." Captain Hobson and his crew had reason therefore to worry about what Sir Ferdinando would say if he found out that Epenow had escaped unharmed; Epenow was killed in the fracas, they agreed to tell him.
Near the guildhall in the city of London was a bar called the Mermaid. In the first decades of the 1600s it was the favorite gathering place for people interested in the New World. John Smith went there when he was in town, as did Captain Barlowe of Sir Walter Raleigh's 1584 expeditions to the coast of America. Many of the plans regarding the founding of the Virginia Colony were discussed at the bar, as were more than a few decisions regarding New England. Bartholomew Gosnold, Bartholomew Gilbert, and others from the 1602 voyage to Cape Cod and the Islands visited occasionally, as later did Miles Standish, John Winthrop, and, when he was in town, William Bradford. The earl of Southampton and his good friend William Shakespeare were known to drink occasionally at the Mermaid, as were Ben Jonson and the famous enslaved New England native Squanto.
In all likelihood Epenow spent some evenings there during his years as a professional curiosity. Bar owners loved the crowds that Indians inevitably brought. Trinculo complains in Shakespeare's The Tempest that in England, "when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." And if Epenow himself didn't actually get to the Mermaid, many who knew and remembered his cries of "Welcome! Welcome!" certainly did.
Some of the talk at the bar after Hobson's crew returned from Martha's Vineyard in 1614, with their battle scars and tales of volleys of arrows, was no doubt about how things were getting tougher in America, how it wasn't like in the old days when Bartholomew Gosnold returned from Cape Cod and the Islands with his market-crashing load of sassafras and his side-splitting stories about sitting around the campfire with Wampanoags, who screwed up their faces and howled at the taste of mustard and tried to buy the Englishmen's beards right off their faces.
By 1614, even good old Gosnold himself was dead and buried in Jamestown, along with nearly a thousand other unlucky colonists and Indians. With the news that Epenow, too, was dead, many probably agreed with Gorges's grim assessment of the situation in New England. Only a dozen years had passed since Gosnold's voyage, and yet there was, said Gorges, "a war now new begun between the inhabitants of those parts, and us."
Yet Epenow wasn't dead at all, as Thomas Dermer, another Englishman who crossed the Atlantic in the employ of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, would find out the hard way a few years later.
The first Europeans to arrive on the coast of New England with the intention of founding a year-round colony were greeted by a Native American wearing imported shoes. "About twelve of the clock the same day, we came to an anchor, where eight Indians in a Basque shallop with mast and sail, an iron grapple and a kettle of copper, came boldly aboard of us," wrote John Brereton, one of the thirty-one members of Bartholomew Gosnold's 1602 expedition. They were north of their ultimate destination of Cape Cod and the Islands, probably near the mouth of the Penobscot River in southern Maine. "One of [the Indians was] appareled with a waistcoat and breeches of black serge, made after our sea fashion, hose and shoes on his feet."
The rest of the natives were dressed more as we typically imagine precolonial Americans, in little but sealskins tied at their waists, which reminded Brereton of a look he'd seen before in Ireland. They were all "of tall stature, broad and grim visage, of a black swart complexion, their eyebrows painted white; their weapons bows and arrows." But one Indian in a waistcoat is enough to show that though they may have been the first Europeans with plans to stay year-round in the region, Gosnold and his crew were not the first visitors from across the ocean.
There had been a century of contact between the Old and New Worlds. The vast majority of these voyages were unrecorded, which makes definitive statements about North America before and after colonization impossible. In 1498, only six years after Columbus's first crossing, John and Sebastian Cabot sailed from Nova Scotia to Hatteras. Four years later, Miguel Cortereal may or may not have washed up in Narragansett Bay, shipwrecked while looking for his brother Gaspar, who had disappeared along the coast the year before. He may or may not have carved M. CORTEREAL 1511 V. DEI DUX IND — king of the Indians — onto a rock in Dighton, Massachusetts. Verrazano visited in 1526, and his subsequent reports to the French government stirred the Spanish into sending Estevan Gomez in 1525. Gomez named Cape Cod "Cape James," presumably after the saint, and called Nantucket "Cape Shoals" after its treacherous waters.
The most unlikely pre-Pilgrim Europeans of all didn't come to the region in a ship, but supposedly walked through New England on their way from Mexico to Canada. In 1568, David Ingram and two companions were among the crew of a caravan of six English slavers waiting out a storm in a harbor near Vera Cruz, Mexico, when an armada of thirteen Spanish warships pulled into the same port. Slave traders in good standing with the pope were welcome in New Spain, but heretical English slavers were most definitely not, and the armada opened fire. Four of the slave smugglers' vessels were quickly sunk. One of the two that escaped, overloaded with more than three hundred survivors, was the Judith, under the command of a twenty-three-year-old novice named Francis Drake. For two weeks the badly damaged ship slunk around the Mexican coast looking for provisions without success before a hundred men agreed to try their luck ashore. Of the five known survivors, two escaped to England after serving as slaves to the Spanish for decades. The other three came out of the woods near today's U.S. border with Canada and were picked up by French fur traders, having walked, David Ingram later reported, up the entire coast of North America. It was an outrageous undertaking, made even harder to believe by Ingram's reports of having run into elephants in the vicinity of North Carolina.
In all likelihood, however, it wasn't from any of these Europeans that the Indian gentleman Gosnold and his crew met off the coast of Maine got his waistcoat, pants, and shoes. Brereton's account mentions that the boat the Indians met them in was a Basque shallop, and "by some words and signs they made" it became clear that the Indians had been trading with Basque fishermen. Depending on how the price of fish in late medieval Bilbao and Bristol is interpreted, there's evidence of anywhere from several hundred voyages total to hundreds of trips per year by Basque, Portuguese, French, and English fishermen and fur traders to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine, beginning before Columbus's 1492 voyage. There were fifty European ships off Newfoundland in 1517 alone. In 1534 Jacques Cartier saw what he thought were a thousand Basque fishing vessels off the Gaspé Peninsula. One French mariner named Savalet claimed in 1607 to have already made forty-two voyages to the Cape Breton area. And John Smith, in his 1614 description of New England, noted "800 sayle of ships a year" from Portugal and Biscay off Newfoundland. (Continues...)
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