Plymouth Colonists Elect Myles Standish Commander of Militia
Today in Military History: February 17, 1621
The history of America's founding is full of colorful characters that, even 400 years later, are still the stuff of legends. Plymouth colony is no exception. Perhaps one of the more colorful – maybe even controversial – persons is Captain Miles Standish, the military advisor and leader of the Pilgrims. Today's history spotlight will try to illuminate him a bit more for my Gentle Readers.
[An advisory: much of Standish's early lifetime before 1620 is a bit murky. Modern historians have tried to weave a coherent tapestry of this man's life and actions, with only moderate success. I make no claims to bringing his life into the full light of day, only to reporting what has been speculated...]
Myles Standish is believed to have been born sometime around the year 1584, in Lancashire in the northwest of England. There is evidence that his family may have owned a large estate in that county, and that a branch of Standishes owned land on the nearby Isle of Man. Conclusive evidence of both Standish's birthplace and birth date are, unfortunately, lacking.
At some point around 1603, Standish apparently joined a force of English soldiers who were sent to the Netherlands (known then as the Low Countries or the Dutch Republic) to assist them in their long-running revolt against Spain, known to history as the "Eighty Years War." Conflicting evidence indicates that Myles Standish was either a hired mercenary or possibly a lieutenant of English troops under Sir Horatio Vere, who commanded these friendly forces during the siege of Ostend in 1603-1604. Standish probably served in the Low Countries until 1609, when Holland and Spain signed a 12-year truce.
At this point, the historical trail of Myles Standish goes cold for several years. Whether he remained in the Low Countries or returned to England is not known with certainty. It further appears that he married at some point during this period, as his wife Rose was one of the passengers on the "Mayflower" in 1620.
Standish reappears in about 1619 in Leiden, Holland where he was hired by the Separatist settlers from England (known to Americans as the "Pilgrims"). These Separatists, an offshoot of the Puritans, considered the Church of England to be beyond reform, so sought to form independent churches. This heresy was dangerous to their lives, so they left England and settled in the Low Countries for a number of years. However, they wished to raise their children as Englishmen, not as Hollanders. Therefore, the leadership of the Separatists petitioned King James I for a land grant in North America.
In planning their journey to the New World, the Separatists felt that they would need an experienced military advisor. Considering the troubles that the Jamestown settlers in Virginia had experienced, their forethought was commendable. Whether Myles Standish was an actual member of the Separatists or not is unknown. Perhaps he was an unemployed veteran, drifting in the Low Countries looking for action. The chance of going to the New World, to meet new challenges, may have been just the ticket he needed.
Consequently, he organized training sessions for the able-bodied men, teaching them in rudimentary small-unit tactics with swords and pikes, and probably firearm training as well. [Most of the Separatists came from an agricultural area of England, and a few probably had some military experience, being about 20 years removed from the threat of the Spanish Armada, but this is far from certain.] Even at this early date, he was being styled "Captain" Standish, which no doubt appealed to his vanity. Once the Separatists bought their supplies and hired ships, they left Holland in July of 1620, sailing to England to meet some of their fellow Separatists.
In the New World
After a perilous crossing, the Separatists arrived off the coast of Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. Their royal land grant specified an area near present-day New York City bordering on the Hudson River. However, unable to navigate the waters between the mainland and Nantucket Island, and their supplies – especially beer – running low, the settlers decided to stay in the area of Cape Cod.
On November 15, Captain Standish led a party of sixteen men on an exploratory mission, during which they disturbed a Native American grave and located a buried cache of Indian corn. [Both of these acts would come back to haunt the Separatists in their dealings with the locals.] A second expedition, sent out in late November. Thirty-four men went, but the expedition was beset by bad weather; the only positive result, was that they found a Native burial ground and disturbed it, stealing corn that had been intended for the dead. It appears that this second expedition was commanded by the sailing master of the "Mayflower," Christopher Jones.
On December 8, still unable to find a suitable settlement spot, a group of 18 settlers, commanded by Captain Standish, made an extended exploration of the shore of Cape Cod by boat. Spending their nights ashore surrounded by make-shift barricades of tree branches, the settlers were attacked one morning by a group of about 30 Native Americans. At first the Englishmen panicked but Standish calmed them, urging the settlers not to fire their matchlock muskets unnecessarily. Weathering a short barrage of arrows, the explorers fired several shots at the Natives, and finally drove them off. The incident, known as the "First Encounter," took place in present-day Eastham, Massachusetts.
Afterwards, the expedition found Plymouth Harbor, and returned to the "Mayflower," despite a damaged rudder and a broken mast. Once the Separatists landed, Captain Standish provided important advice on the placement of a small fort in which cannon were mounted, and on the layout of the first houses of the settlement for maximum defensibility. However, the severity of the winter weather resulted in the deaths of many of the colonists, including Rose Standish.
During that first winter, Standish led by example, providing mental strength to the colonists. He also nursed many of the ill settlers back to health (he himself never fell sick). As winter waned, the colonists were anxious to prepare themselves in the event of hostilities with the Natives. On February 17, 1621, the men of the colony met to form a militia consisting of all able-bodied men. One of their first acts was to elect Standish their commander. Although the leaders of Plymouth Colony had already hired him for that role, this vote ratified the decision by democratic process. As captain of the militia, Standish regularly drilled his men in the use of pikes and muskets. The men of Plymouth Colony continued to re-elect Standish to that position for the remainder of his life.
The colonists organized the militia using the English model that required all men between the ages of 16 and 60 to enroll in the militia, to acquire weapons and equipment, and to muster for training when required. During the early years of settlement, musters were held weekly and then monthly as threats waxed and waned. Militiamen carried their weapons to church on Sunday, served on guard duty at night, and kept a careful watch on out-lying farms.
In August of 1621, a local Indian sachem (tribal leader) named Corbitant was stirring up trouble, challenging the authority of Massasoit, who was a great friend and ally of the English colonists. To settle the matter, Captain Standish led a force of 10 men to the village of Nemasket, determined to kill the trouble-making Corbitant. Though they failed to kill the miscreant, it had the effect of scaring Corbitant into submission.
As the military leader of the colony, Myles Standish frequently urged the use of intimidation to keep the local Natives from threatening the colonists. Although his fellow colonists did not always appreciate his heavy-handed tactics, the English did recognize the necessity of keeping the Indians in a state of anticipation, if not outright fear, with what the colonists would do next. Standish also was responsible for the construction of a palisade to surround the Plymouth colony. This was accomplished with only 50 men, working nearly non-stop over three months, encompassing a half-mile perimeter. It also included a large blockhouse-type structure, complete with several cannon of various sizes.
[Certain statements by others seem to indicate that Standish was a rather short man, with fiery-red hair, and that he also possessed a fiery temper, described as like "a chimney soon fired." When his temper was provoked, his face also got very red. This tendency to ruddiness, as well as his height, provoked an enemy to dub him "Captain Shrimp." Despite this, he and Plymouth governor William Bradford made a good team; Standish had also saved Bradford's life, nursing the sick man back to health during the colony's dire first winter.]
In April of 1622, Standish led a group of Plymouth militiamen to another nearby English settlement that was threatened by hostile Indians. Through a ruse, Standish and his men met the Indian instigator in a hut for a meal. Standish and his men sprang their trap, killed the Indian leader, and generally scared the bejesus out of the hostile Natives. As a warning to other tribes which might have threatened the Plymouth colony, Standish brought back the head of the Indian and displayed it in public. Pastor John Robinson – the spiritual head of the Separatists who was still in Holland – heard of the incident and criticized Standish for his brutality. Governor Bradford was also uncomfortable with Standish's methods, but defended him in a letter, writing, "As for Capten [sic] Standish, we leave him to answer for him selfe [sic], but this we must say, he is as helpfull [sic] an instrument as any we have, and as careful of the general good."
In 1625 Standish was sent to England to renegotiate the terms of the colonists' grant. He was successful, and a few years later several of the leading men of Plymouth paid off their debts. In 1627, the leaders reapportioned some land. In the process, Captain Standish received 120 acres, where he built a home and raised his family. [He had remarried in 1623; his second wife Barbara may have been a sister of his first wife. She produced seven children for Standish.] He built his home in 1628, in what is today Duxbury, Massachusetts.
There are indications that, by 1635, Standish began to seek a quieter life, maintaining the livestock and fields of his Duxbury farm. About 51 years old at that time, Standish began to relinquish the responsibility of defending the colony to a younger generation. A note in the Plymouth colony records of 1635 indicates that Lieutenant William Holmes, Standish's immediate subordinate, was appointed to train the militia. When the Pequot War threatened in 1637, Standish was appointed to a committee to raise a company of 30 men, but it was Holmes who led the company in the field.
During the 1640s, Standish took on an increasingly administrative role. He served as a surveyor of highways, as treasurer of the colony from 1644 to 1649, and on various committees to lay out boundaries of new towns and inspect waterways. On October 3, 1656, Miles Standish died, possibly of bladder cancer or kidney stones. He was buried in Duxbury's Old Burying Ground, now known as the Myles Standish Cemetery.
Footnote #1: The towns of Standish, Maine and Standish, Michigan – as well as a neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota – are named for him.
Footnote #2: As the number of Massachusetts militia companies increased in the decades after the Plymouth colony's founding, colonial authorities realized that a larger military organization was needed to command and control the militia. On Dec. 13, 1636, the General Court ordered the organization of the North, South and East Regiments. The formerly independent companies were assigned to one of the geographically based regiments. These three regiments still serve today as the 181st Infantry Regiment and the 182nd Cavalry Regiment (both descended from the North Regiment), the 101st Field Artillery Regiment, the "Boston Light Artillery" (South Regiment), and the 101st Engineer Battalion (East Regiment). These are the oldest units in the U.S. Army.