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The Wessagussett Plantation

Plymouth and Wessagussett Fortifications
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Fortifications
Gorges' Servants
1635 Settlers List
1642 Native Deed to Weymouth
Soils
Wessagussett Locations
Timeline of Wessagussett
Edward Winslow's Account
Translation of the name Wessagussett
Phineas Pratt's Narrative
Pratt Facts about Wessagussett
Thomas Morton's Account
Wessagussett Cast of Characters

Weston's settlers first arrived at Plymouth in 1622, right at the moment when the colony was completing thier palisade and beginning their fort. The Wessagussett colonists must have been influenced by the fortifications erected by the Plymouth colonists, they may have even helped to build them. By studying Plymouth fortifications and comparing them to what little is known about Wessagussett's, a fuller understanding of the latter's defenses can be gleaned.  The information on Plymouth's fortifications (placement, layout, techniques, extent) can be used to help predict where the Wessagussett colonists would have most likley erected their own.

Plymouth's fortification consisted of thre elements: an initial gun platform erected soon after their arrival in 1620; a palisade erected after the Narragansett war challenge and news of the attacks in Virginia; a fort, which replaced the gun platform and was also a response to the Narragansett's and news from Virginia.
 
Gun Platform

The defenses of Plymouth were begun on December 28, 1620 when Edward Winslow reported that “as many as could went to work on the hill where we purposed to build our platform for our ordnance, and which doth command all the plain and the bay, and from whence we may see far into the sea, and might be easier impaled, having two rows of houses and a fair street.” (Heath 1963: 42). It appears that the colonists had a plan for the colony, possibly based on a template for colonies in Northern Ireland. It is not known when the platform was completed and the ordinance was actually in place, because on January 17, 1621, Winslow related that after they had heard the "noise of a great many more [savages] behind the hill [over against our plantation], This caused us to plant our great ordnance in places most convenient.” (Heath 1963: 42). It is likely that the ordinance was still on the Mayflower at this point because on February 21, 1621 Winslow reported that “. . . the master came on shore with many of his sailors, and brought with him one of the great pieces, called a minion [a cannon with 33 inch bore, firing 2 lb shot], and helped us to draw it up the hill, with another piece that lay on shore, and mounted them, and a saller [a misprint for saker, a cannon with 4 inch bore, firing a six pound shot], and two bases [small cannons with 13 inch bore, firing 2lb shot].” ( Heath 1963: 50).

Palisade

In March of 1622, after a challenge by the Narragansetts, the colonists decided that they should enclose the town within a palsade. This was likely part of their original plan for the town but it is interesting to note that they ha inhabited their town for over a year at this point without a fear of attack or possibly a need to build a palisade. By this point there were as many as 53 men (26 of the original Mayflower pasengers, six young men, and 26 men who arrived in November 1621 aboard the Fortune)who could have worked on building the palisade. In 1634, there is a description in the Plymouth Colony records of a palisade that was built in Plymouth. It was described as being “made of sharpened pales 10 feet long, buried 2 feet in the ground, and backed two against a third, and set against a post and a Raile" ( Plymouth Town Records, MSS., vol. I, p. 146). In light of the fact that we have no other descriptions of the first palisade, this one can serve as a working model for a strong possibility of how th town was originally impaled.

Bradford relates the following “But this (the Narragansett challenge) made them the more carefully to look to themselves, so as they agreed to enclose their dwellings with a good strong pale, and make flankers in convenient places with gates to shut, which were every night locked, and a watch kept; and when need required, there was also warding in the daytime. And the company was by the Captain's and the Governor's advice divided into four squadrons, and everyone had their quarter appointed them unto which they were to repair upon any sudden alarm. And if there should be any cry of fire, a company were appointed for a guard, with muskets, whilst others quenched the same, to prevent Indian treachery. This was accomplished very cheerfully, and the town impaled round by the beginning of March, in which every family had a pretty garden plot secured.” (Morrison 1952: 97).

While Winslow states “ In the mean time, knowing our own weakness, notwithstanding our high words and lofty looks towards them, and still lying open to all casualty, having as yet (under God) no other defence than our arms, we thought it most needful to impale our town; which with all expedition we accomplished in the month of February, and some few days, taking in the top of the hill under which our town is seated; making four bulwarks or jetties without the ordinary circuit of the pale, from whence we could defend the whole town; in three whereof are gates, and the fourth in time to be. “ (Young 1841: 284)

The palisade appears to have been completed by March of the same year. Winslow relates that by early March “By this time our town is impaled; enclosing a garden for every family.” (Young 1841: 286) and that “[We] came to this conclusion; that as hitherto, upon all occasions between them and us, we had ever manifested undaunted courage and resolution, so it would not now stand with our safety to mew up ourselves in our new-enclosed town . . .” (Young 1841: 286).

Fort

Following news from Virginia of the attacks by the Natives upon the English settlements there on March 22, 1622, the Plymouth colonist decided it was time to build their fort to complement the palisade. Bradford states “This summer they built a fort with good timber, both strong and comely, which was of good defense, made with a flat roof and battlements, on which their ordnance were mounted, and where they kept constant watch, especially in time of danger. It served them also for a meeting house and was fitted accordingly for that use. It was a great work for them in this weakness and time of wants, but the danger of the time required it; and both the continual rumors of the fears from the Indians here, especially the Narragansetts, and also the hearing of that great massacre in Virginia, made all hands willing to dispatch the same.” (Morrison 1952:111).

Edward Winslow places the construction of the fort in June 1622, which coorelates well with Bradford's more general “this summer”. Phineas Pratt and the six others who were with him arrived on May 31, 1622, placing him in the town 1) a few moths after the pallisade was built and 2) right at the start of construction of the fort/ meetinghouse. Pratt and the other remained in the town with the 60 other “lusty” men sent by Weston (who arrived in late July or early August), until the end of sumemr when the moved to Wessagussett. These 67 men may have helped construct the fort/ meetinghouse in Plymouth, as they were extra manual labor who were being fed out of the colony's stores. Winslow states “ In the time of these straits, indeed before my going to Munhiggen [Monhegan], the Indians began again to cast forth many insulting speeches, glorying in our weakness, and giving out how easy it would be ere long to cut us off. Now also Massassowat {Massasoit] seemed to frown on us, and neither came or sent to us as formerly. These things occasioned further thoughts of fortification. And whereas we have a hill called the Mount, enclosed within our pale, under which our town is seated, we resolved to erect a fort thereon; from whence a few might easily secure the town from any assault the Indians can make, whilst the rest might be employed as occasion served. This work was begun with great eagerness, and with the approbation of all men, hoping that this being once finished, and a continual guard there kept, it would utterly discourage the savages from having any hopes or thoughts of rising against us. And though it took the greatest part of our strength from dressing our corn, yet, life being continued, we hoped God would raise some means in stead thereof for our further preservation” (Young 1841:295)

In August of 1622, the ship Discovery made port at Plymout with John Pory, the just retired Secretary to the Governor and Council of Virginia aboard. Pory states that in August “Now concerning the quality of the people . . . their industry as well appeareth by their building, as by a substantial palisado about their [town] of 2700 foot in compass, stronger than I have seen any in Virginia, and lastly by a blockhouse which they have erected in the highest place of the town to mount their ordnance upon, from whence they may command all the harbour.” (James 1997:11). Pory's description of the fort as a blockhouse, indicates that the structure may not have had a roof upon it, as he goes on to say that it was built to mount their ordinance upon, not within, as would be the case if it was roofed. On the other hand, the fort was not complete when Pory saw it in August, perhaps they had not put the roof on yet.

The colonists apparently were fairly single-minded in their construction of the fort, putting other needs such as planting and trade, second to the endeavor. In October 1622, Winslow states “ By reason whereof (our own wants being like to be now greater than formerly, partly because we were enforced to neglect our corn and spend much time in fortification, but especially because such havoc was made of that little we had, through the unjust and dishonest carriage of those people before mentioned [Weston's colonists], at our first entertainment of them,)..” (Young 1841: 300). In total it took 10 months to finish the fort. Winslow, in March 1623, stated that “ Now was our fort made fit for service, and some ordnance mounted; and though it may seem long work, it being ten months since it begun . . . amongst us divers seeing the work prove tedious, would have dissuaded from proceeding, flattering themselves with peace and security, and accounting it rather a work of superfluity and vainglory, than simple necessity.” (Young 1841:335).

In September 1623, Emmanuel Altham, Captain of the Little James and one of the Merchant Adevtureres who had financed the settlement at Plymouth, visited and reported ” It is well situated upon a high hill close unto the seaside, and very commodious for shipping to come unto them. In this plantation is about twenty houses, for or five of which are very fair and pleasant, and the rest (as time will serve) shall be made better. And this town is in such manner that it makes a great street between the houses, and at the upper end of the town there is a strong fort, both by nature and art, with six pieces of reasonable good artillery mounted thereon; in which fort is continual watch, so that no Indian can come near thereabouts but he is presently seen. This town is paled about with pale of eight foot long, or thereabouts, and in the pale are three great gates.” (James 1997: 24). Altham also states that the ordinace was mounted thereon, not therein, another indication that the fort had an unroofed gundeck.

Captain John Smith, who almost was the Plymouth colony's military leader, never visited the Plantation, but that did not stop him from describing it (most likley through the intelligence from someoneelse). Smith states in 1624 that “ At New-Plimoth there is about 180 persons, some cattle and goats, but many swine and poultry, 32 dwelling houses, whereof 7 were burnt the last winter, and the value of five hundred pounds in other goods. The town is impaled about half a mile in compass. In the town upon a high mount they have a fort well built with wood, loam and stone, where is planted their ordnance; also a fair watchtower, partly framed, for the sentinel..” (Barbour 1986: 472). Smith is the only description that states that the fort was of wood, loam and stone (possibly referring to earthworks around the fort itself as well as the fort) and mentions a watchtower.

The final description of the fortifications and layout of Plymouth comes from the visting Dutchman Isaac de Rasiere, chief Trading Agent for the Dutch West India Company and Secretary to the Director-General of New Netherland who visited in 1627 and wrote a letter to Samuel Blommaert in 1628. De Rasiere states “ New Plymouth lies on the slope of a hill stretching east towards the sea-coast, with a broad street about a cannon shot of 800 feet long, leading down the hill; with a [street] crossing in the middle, northwards to the rivulet and southwards to the land. The houses are constructed of clapboards, with gardens also enclosed behind and at the sides with clapboards, so that their houses and courtyards are arranged in very good order, with a stockade against sudden attack; and at the ends of the streets there are three wooden gates. In the center, on the cross street, stands the Governor's house, before which is a square stockade upon which four patereros are mounted, so as to enfilade the streets. Upon the hill they have a large square house with a flat roof, built of thick sawn planks stayed with oak beams, upon the top of which they have six cannon, which shoot iron balls of four and five pounds, and command the surrounding country. The lower part they use for their church, where they preach on Sundays and the usual holidays. . . . “ (James 1997: 75-76). It should be rememberd that this description was originally written in Dutch and translated to English and it is unknown what may have been lost in translation.

From these descriptions, a chronology and inventory of the construction and extent of the fortifications at plymouth can be drawn up:

November 1620                            Mayflower Lands

December 28, 1620                       Platform for ordinance begun

February 21, 1621                         Ordinance unloaded from Mayflower and

                                                          set up

February-March 1622                    Palisade constructed

May 31, 1622                                Phineas Pratt and six others arrive

June 1622                                      Fort begun

Late July/ early August 1622          60 of Weston's lusty men arrive

August 1622                                 John Pory visits colony

March 1623                                  Fort finished

September 1623                           Emmanuel Altham visits colony

1624                                            John Smith writes of Plymouth

1627                                            De Rasiere visits colony

1634                                            Fort torn down and replaced


Plymouth fortification facts:

-Plymouth had a palisade 2700 feet in compass (about mile in compass)

-palisade stronger than Pory had seen in Virginia

-pale are 8 feet long or thereabouts

-palisade around 32 houses

-lay on the slope of a hill

-had a broad street 800' long

-another street crossing in the middle

-at the ends of the streets are three wooden gates

-four bulwarks or jetties outside of pale, in three whereof are gates, and the fourth in time to be.

-at the cross street was a square stockade upon which four patereros

-at the top of the hill they have large square house with a flat roof, built of thick sawn planks stayed

with oak beams, upon the top of which they have six cannon

-on a high mount they have a fort well built with wood, loam and stone, where is planted their ordnance -a fair watchtower, partly framed, for the sentinel

-fort also called a blockhouse

Wessagussett

It is not known exactly what the layout of the plantation at Wessagussett was, but we do have a few tantilizing clues. We know from Phineas Pratt's narrative that the plantation had a palisade, a fort and a court of guard (which may have been located within or near the fort. We also know that the entire Plantation was located nar a swamp “Then they (the natives), having intent to make war, removed some of their houses to the edge of a great swamp near to the pale (palisade) of our plantation”, so the palisade was near the “great swamp”. Knowing that Pratt and the settlers had arrived a Plymouth when they had just completed their palisade and were in the process of building their fort, it should be safe to assume that they would have observed Plymouth's defenses and the situating of the town and may have attempted to emulate it. The hypothesis that the settlers at Wessagussett tried to copy Plymouth defensive strategies at least gives us a basis for speculating on possible locations for the settlement.

Based on Pratt's narrative and Plymouth's defenses, the fort and pallisade should be located in a location with the following charecteristics:

-a relatively high location, the higher the better to give the high ground advantage like Plymouth had

-located adjacent to a swamp, possibly to use the swamp as a natural earthwork making attack on the plantation more difficult at least from one side

-possibly a location with a good view of the harbor, to look out for approaching ships (friendly or not)

-a location near reliable fresh water (possibly associated with the swamp)

As Wessagusset's fort and palisade appear to have been complete when Plymouth arrived to rescue the settlers, it was likely smaller than Plymouth's. Since no one remarked that it was in a ruinous or poor state, it was likely fairly well constructed. Winslow states that the settlers feared that the Natives would attack, and that the English at Wessagussett were ready to take food from the Natives by force, and to that end the spiked up every entrance to their town (being well impaled) (Winslow Good News Chapter 5). This means that 1) the town was “well-impaled” and that 2) they had more than one entrance into their town (like Plymouth).

References

 Barbour, Philip L.

1986 The Generall History of Virginia, the Somer Iles, and New England. In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631). Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press for The Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, vol. 2.


Heath, Dwight, B.

1963 A Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England," In Mourt's Relation (London 1622).


James, Sydney V.

1997 Three Visitors to Early Plymouth: Letters about the Pilgrim Settlement in New England during its First Seven Years, by John Pory, Emmanuel Altham, and Isaack de Rasieres. Bedford, Mass.: Applewood.


Morrison, Samuel Eliot

1952 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Knopf.

 

Young, Alexander

1841 Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England (London 1624). In Alexander Young, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625. Boston:Little and Brown.

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