ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Discrimination, disease, stealing Native American land. These are themes in Nathaniel Philbrick's recent book Mayflower, which chronicles the relationship between Pilgrims and Native Americans in 17th century America.
Today, in the first of two essays, Philbrick takes us back in time to 1620. He shares the story of how a beach on Cape Cod got its name.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: When we think of the Pilgrims, we think of Thanksgiving and Plymouth Rock. But in the town of Eastham on Cape Cod, not far from car clogged Route 6, there is a Pilgrim memorial of a different sort. First Encounter Beach.
It was here, where the multimillion dollar homes look out on a winding tidal creek, that the Pilgrims' hopes for a new life almost came to a violent end. It was a gloomy day in December. A small group of Pilgrims had spent the last few weeks exploring the bitterly cold New England coast in a small open boat. They were in search of a harbor with a large navigable river where they could begin trading with the Native Americans.
In Modern Truro on Cape Cod, they had come upon a large cash if Indian corn buried in the sand. They knew that taking the corn was not a good idea, but they had also feared that their European grains might not take to the soils of the new world. In the end they went with their fears and stole the corn.
Soon after, they came upon some native graves. Just as with the corn, they realized it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchers. This did not prevent them from digging up a large grave containing the bones of an Indian child and most ominously, those of a yellow haired European sailor.
Twelve days later they reached the sandy shores of Eastham. Before bedding down for the night, they built a circular barricade of tree trunks and brush. The next morning they began to prepare for breakfast when one of the men burst out of the trees crying Indians, Indians. Soon the air was filled with arrows. Every man reached for his matchlock and began to fire.
It was difficult to see in the predawn twilight, but they guessed there was at least 30 Indians out there in the woods. One of the Indians hid behind a nearby tree and shot at the barricade with arrows as the Pilgrims did their best to blast the Indian to bits. After dodging three different musket shots, the warrior wisely decided to retreat, but not before issuing an extraordinary shriek.
When they realized that all the Indians had fled, the Pilgrims chased after them for a bit, then stopped to shoot off their muskets. Thus it please God, they wrote, to vanquish our enemies. But as they knew all too well, this was no victory. They could not fight their way to a permanent settlement. What they needed much more than the corn they'd stolen from the Indians was the Indians' good will.
The next day the Pilgrims went on to discover Plymouth Harbor, where they ultimately founded the colony that so many Americans look to as the mythic beginning of the United States. But while thousands of tourists seek out the town of Plymouth each year, few even know that 37 miles to the east is a beach where the Pilgrims began to learn a valuable lesson.
The new world was not theirs alone. Others must be accommodated. Otherwise, the only alternative was war.
SIEGEL: Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of Mayflower. Tomorrow, what the first Thanksgiving was really like.