Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

3.5 The Man with the Knife: Myles Standish

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that while traditionally the role of cooking the turkey on Thanksgiving falls to the woman, the ceremonial role of carving the turkey falls to the man.  Of course, I’m sure in our day and age there are many exceptions to this tradition—for instance, my pescatarian husband will never carve a turkey unless it is made of tofu, or unless we replace it with a giant tuna.  But despite these changes in the times, the perception of gender roles (at least in terms of who carries the knife) definitely remains. 

Myles Standish

Myles Standish

There’s no doubt in my mind that back in 1621, Myles Standish would have been the one to carve the turkey. No, he was not the leader of the colony—that privilege fell to William Bradford, who became governor after the death of John Carver in the spring of 1621.  But in some ways, Standish was the symbolic leader—he was the alpha male, the top soldier, the one Native Americans would soon learn to fear.

Standish came from a distinctly military background.  He had served in the Elizabethan army on the European continent; in fact, it was there where he met and fell in with the English Separatist enclave in Leiden, Holland (the group that eventually formed the Pilgrims.) These Separatists had first moved to Holland in 1608, avoiding the discrimination they suffered under James I in England.  So they had been in Holland a full twelve years before they departed for the Americas.

While he was purportedly hired as a military liaison for “defense” (against the French, Dutch, Spanish and Native Americans) in the New World, Standish’s presence with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower should leave no doubt that the purpose of their journey was not the religious freedom many now suppose it to be.  No, the Pilgrims had a much grander intent:  they wanted land.  They wanted prosperity.  They wanted to preserve their language and culture.  They wanted to raise their children in a place that was free from the corruption they had found in urban Holland. They wanted to colonize in the grandest sense of the word—to capture, to proselytize, to profit.  And they wanted to accomplish this in their own name, not necessarily that of England.

Standish set about to help them meet those ends, accompanying trade missions throughout what is now New England, going on scouting expeditions, representing the Plymouth colony in talks with English investors, as well as defending colonial interests from raids by Native Americans.  A small man with a very large temper, Standish became well-known for his policy of pre-emptive attack when, early in the colony’s existence, he acted on a tip from the Wampanoag tribe that the English colony in Wessagussett (now Weymouth, MA) was under threat from the nearby Massachuset tribe.  Standish took a handful of men to a meeting with the tribe’s chief, Witawumet.  During the meeting, Standish was openly mocked about his height by one of the warriors of the tribe, Pecksuot, who was quoted to have said “though you are a great Captain, you are but a little man.”  (Oh, how many leaders this comment could be applied to today.)  When the conference was moved to the chief’s hut the next day, Standish ordered an ambush which killed most of the Native Americans present; he himself was said to have murdered Pecksuot by killing the Indian with his own knife.  Chief Witawumet’s head was then hewn from his body and brought to display on the front gate of the Plymouth plantation.

Standish’s actions had a long-term impact on the area, as his violence inspired many local tribes to flee in fear of his wrath.  This, in turn, impacted the fur trade that the Plymouth colonists had engaged in with the Native Americans, seriously damaging their profits for some years.  Yet this is never the story we hear about Myles Standish.  Instead, we have a romantic vision of the “hero,” the would-be suitor of Priscilla Alden (made famous by Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Myles Standish” written in the mid-19th century.)  While there is some speculation as to the truth behind the poem, it is known there was definitely a longstanding bond between the Aldens and Standish, as they moved to what is now Duxbury together later in life.

With all we know about him, then, the image of Myles Standish standing over the Thanksgiving turkey becomes more interesting.  He’s not just the man with the knife.  He’s the short guy with the fearsome reputation, deftly slicing off the drumstick, staring longingly at Priscilla Alden across the table.  And all the while, around him, ninety Native Americans protectively rub their necks.


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