The Plymouth Colony existed from 1620 to 1692, when it merged with the greater Massachusetts Bay (Boston) Colony.
Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony reported regularly on the progress of the Pilgrim settlement. His reports are surprisingly engaging and immediate for documents approaching 400 years of age. One problem he had to deal with would be the plot of many a Western novel or film set 150 years after his time: unscrupulous merchants arming hostile Indians.
In the meantime [wampum] makes the tribes hereabouts rich and powerful and proud, and provides them with arms and powder and shot, through the depravity of some unworthy persons, both English, Dutch, and French, and likely to be the ruin of many. Hitherto the Indians round here had no guns or other arms but their bows and arrows, nor for many years after; they scarcely dared handle guns, they were so afraid of them; and the very sight of one, though out of kilter, was a terror to them.
But the Indians to the East who had dealings with the French got guns from them, and in time our English fishermen, with equal covetousness, followed their example. But upon complaint it pleased the King’s Majesty to prohibit it by a strict proclamation, commanding that no sort of arms or munition should be traded to the Indians by His subjects.
Some three or four years before this there came over one Captain Wollaston, a man of fine qualities, with three or four others of some distinction, who brought with them a great many servants, with provisions and other necessaries to found a settlement. NOTE 1
One of Wollaston’s men was named Morton, and Bradford has nothing good to say about Morton at all; he got involved in all kinds of willful mischief, and mocked the Puritans’ austere religion, but by far his greatest transgression was arming the Indians.
In order to maintain this riotous prodigality and excess, Morton, hearing what profit the French and the fishermen had made by trading guns, powder, and shot to the Indians, began to practise it hereabouts, teaching them how to use them. Having instructed them, he employed some of them to hunt and fowl for him, until they became far more able than the English, owing to their swiftness on foot and nimbleness of body, being quick-sighted, and knowing the haunts of all sorts of game. With the result that, when they saw what execution a gun would do and the advantage of it, they were mad for them and would pay any price for them, thinking their bows and arrows but baubles in comparison.
And here I must bewail the mischief that this wicked man began in this district, and which, continued by men that should know better, has now become prevalent, notwithstanding the laws to the contrary. The result is that the Indians are stocked with all kinds of arms, — fowling-pieces, muskets, pistols, etc. They even have moulds to make shots of all sorts, — musket bullets, pistol bullets, swan and geese shot and smaller sorts. It is well known that they often have powder and shot when the English lack it and cannot get it, it having been bought up and sold to those who trade it to the Indians at a shilling per pound — for they will buy it at any price. This goes on while their neighbours are being killed by the Indians every day, or are only living at their mercy. They have even been told how gun-powder is made, and all the materials that are in it, and that they are to be had in their own land; and I am confident that if they could only get saltpeter they would make gunpowder itself. Oh, the horror of this villainy! How many Dutch and English have lately been killed by Indians, thus furnished; and no remedy is provided, — nay, the evil has increased. The blood of their brothers has been sold for profit; and in what danger all these colonies are is too well-known. Oh! that princes and parliaments would take some timely steps to prevent this mischief and to suppress it, by exemplary punishment of some of those gain-thirsty murderers, — for they deserve no better title, — before their colonies in these parts are wiped out by the barbarous savages, armed with their own weapons by these traitors to their country.
But I have forgotten myself, and have been too long on this digression; now to return. Morton having taught them the use of guns, sold them all he could spare, and he and his associates determined to send for large supplies from England, having already sent for over a score by some of the ships. This being known, several members of the scattered settlements hereabouts agreed to solicit the settlers at New Plymouth, who then outnumbered them all, to join with them to prevent the further growth of this mischief, and to suppress Morton and his associates. Those who joined in this action, and afterwards contributed to the expense of sending him to England, were from Piscataqua, Naumkeag, Winnisimmett, Weesagascusett, Nantasket, and other places where the English had settled. The New Plymouth colonists thus addressed by their messengers and letters, and weighing their reasons and the common danger, were willing to help, though they themselves had least cause for fear. NOTE 2
Appeals to the British class hierarchy, the Crown, Morton’s previous pledges of allegiance, and so forth, were unavailing.
So they saw there was no way but to take him by force. They resolved to proceed, and unanimously requested the Governor of New Plymouth to send Captain Standish and sufficient men to seize Morton. This was accordingly done; but he defended himself stiffly, closed his doors, armed his associates, and had dishes of powder and bullets ready on the table; and if they had not been overarmed with drink, more harm might have been done. They summoned him to yield, but they got nothing but scoffs from him. At length fearing they would wreck the house, some of his crew came out, — intending not to yield, but to shoot; but they were so drunk that their guns were too heavy for them. He himself, with a carbine, overcharged and almost half filled with powder and shot, tried to shoot Captain Standish; but he stepped up to him and put aside his gun and took him. No harm was done on either side, except that one of his men was so drunk that he ran his nose upon the point of a sword that some one held in front of him on entering the house; but all he lost was a little of his hot blood. Morton they took to New Plymouth, where he was kept till a ship went from the Isle of Shoals to England. NOTE 3
They wrote and sent a case against him along with him, but it had no effect; he wriggled loose and was back in the New World in a couple of years, causing further mischief.
But Bradford remembered, at the last minute, that as furious as he may have been with the shifty Morton, that was not what he was supposed to be writing about.
But I have been too long about so unworthy a person and so bad a cause. NOTE 4
The sort of weapons these were is a matter of some disagreement to Early Colonial historians. Traditionally they were assumed to be matchlock muskets and arquebuses, but more recent scholarship suggests that as early as 1620, the date of the initial landing, matchlocks were on the way out.
Matchlocks were developed in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and were often referred to as arquebuses or harquebuses, which described a fairly light weapon with a curved stock (Peterson 2000:18). As the century progressed, matchlocks developed longer barrels for greater range, power and accuracy and as a result, became heavier, to the point that true matchlock muskets required a rest be used to support the weight of the barrel for the shooter. Matchlocks were used for approximately 150 years in America but their use as the primary weapon of choice only lasted about 75 years until about 1620 when was begun to be replaced with flintlocks (Peterson 2000:19). By 1675 they had virtually disappeared. NOTE 5
While the source calls them “flintlock,” they were a variety of emerging flint technologies, mostly dog-locks, often called the English lock to distinguish from slightly different Spanish and French locks, or Dutch snapphans (transliterated to English as snaphaunce) locks. These are all slightly different flavors of the emerging flintlock. By using a flint that scraped against a steel frizzen and showered sparks into a pan of priming powder, the flintlock provided a more positive ignition and shorter lock time than the matchlock, which lowered a burning fuse or match into an open priming pan. It would reign throughout the Colonial era and into the early 19th Century, before being replaced by the even more positive and practical percussion lock or caplock.
Appearing at the same time and just after the development of the snaphaunce there were five other types of flint locks in use in the colonies. These were the English lock, the English dog lock, the Scandinavian “snaplock”, the Spanish Miquelet lock, and the true flintlock developed in France in the later seventeenth century. It is believed that the English lock quickly superseded the snaphaunce and that most of the locks found in the New World up to approximately 1625 are of this variety. The dog lock appears to have succeeded the English lock from 1625 to approximately 1675 and the flintlock supplanted the dog lock after 1675 (Peterson 2000:32).
Seven general types of firearms have been identified as being used in Plymouth Colony through a comparison of the archaeological and historical records, these are the musket, harquebus, caliver or cavalier, fowler, carbine, pistol, and the blunderbus. The musket is described as by the 1630 English Martial Arms list as a piece with a barrel four feet long, an overall length of five feet two inches and a bore of .74 caliber. A musket can be further described as a heavy military gun of the 16th to early 17th century with a matchlock. Muskets weighed approximately 16 pounds and required a forked rest to support it. NOTE 6
A dog-lock pistol attributed to Plymouth Colony gunsmith and officer John Thompson has descended in his family and is among the early weapons documented in this PDF.
And what about the “classic” Pilgrim gun, the blunderbuss? As it happens, it was both less and more common that popular tradition, and pre-21st Century history, would have it!
The blunderbus is a weapon that has often been erroneously associated with the Pilgrims. The image of the black clad buckles on the hat and shoes wearing colonists carrying a turkey on one shoulder and a ridiculously wide mouth musket on the other has been a recurring misnomer for generations. The blunderbuss is a short arm of large caliber with a wide flaring muzzle. They were first introduced into England in the middle of the seventeenth century and were predominately equipped with flint locks. The blunderbus was used essentially in the same way as a modern shotgun by being loaded not with one large shot, but with a number of small bird or goose shot. When fired, these shot spread out in a wide spray wounding and incapacitating any enemies in front of it. This would have been a weapon well suited to the guerrilla warfare that occurred in New England during King Philips War in the 1670s. Previous researchers have stated that these arms were not used in this country before the 1700s, but they were identified in the Plymouth records. NOTE 7
Unfortunately, we don’t know what kind of arms Bradford’s bad apple, Morton, dealt to the Indians, nor what role these smuggled arms played in the many small fights and several large wars between the settlers and the Wampanoags and other native races.
It’s remarkable to find reports from what seems like the ancient past, almost 400 years ago, that speak to us in language we can clearly follow, and which make clear the very human passions and motivations of their long-dead writer; it’s even more remarkable to learn that new discoveries are being made by historians like Craig Chartier, even on matters that we thought were completely understood!
And, Chartier notes that most known early Colony Period sites have never been excavated. His own research depends primarily on period records, which have survived well. Who knows what discoveries await this century’s archaeologists?
- Chartier, p. 2.
- Chartier, pp. 3-4.
- Chartier, p. 4.
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Portcullis Books. Kindle Edition.
Chartier, Craig. Firearms in Plymouth Colony. Plymouth, MA, 2009: Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. Retrieved from: http://www.plymoutharch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/62869457-Firearms-in-Plymouth.pdf. An earlier (2002) version is online here: http://plymoutharch.tripod.com/id71.html
Goldstein, Karin. Arms & Armor of the Pilgrims. Plymouth, MA, 2002: Pilgrim Hall Museum. Retrieved from: http://www.pilgrimhall.org/pdf/Arms_Armor_of_Pilgrims.pdf