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Three hundred years ago the house of Standish was a notable one in England. The family had numerous possessions; their Lancashire estate of Duxbury Hall, in the shadow of Rivington Pike and the Pennine Hills, was pleasant and extensive, and there they had lived for generations, as there they live to-day. Of this Lancashire home was that John Standish, "squire to the king," who killed Wat Tyler, the agitator, on that memorable June day of 1381 when the boy-king of England, Richard the Second, so pluckily faced his rebellious subjects on the plain of Smithfield; of it was that Sir John Standish who fought under the leopard-banner of King Edward at the stone mill of Crecy; and of it was that gallant soldier Miles Standish, the Puritan captain, the first commissioned military officer of New England, famous in American history, song, and story, as the stay and bulwark of the Pilgrims of Plymouth in their days of struggle and beginning.
Departure of the Mayflower.
It was after this unsuccessful struggle for his heritage that he crossed again to Holland and, from some cause not apparent-perhaps his disgust at English law, perhaps the attractions of one who, later, became Mistress Rose Standish, may supply the motive-settled among the self-exiled English folk in Leyden who, because of religious differences with the established Church, had left their English homes and, calling themselves Pilgrims because of their wanderings, had made a settlement in the Dutch city of Leyden, "fair and beautiful and of a sweet situation."
Although not of the religious faith and following of the Pilgrims of Leyden-indeed the story runs that the fiery little captain had been, at one time, a Romanist-he must have been settled among them for years, for, on the eve of their emigration to America, we find him as one of their leaders, accepted and commissioned as the military adviser of the colonists. The time of his life in Leyden was one of religious unrest in Europe; and in Holland, during that twelve years' truce with Spain, the theological disputes between Calvinists and Arminians ran so high as to bring John of Barneald to the scaffold, and to drive Grotius the scholar into exile. These days of stern dispute may have had their influence on the sturdy English soldier living in the midst of Dutch life and Dutch disputations, and made him lean to the side of Puritanism, even if never openly avowing it as his religious faith. It is, indeed, a singular fact that the mainstay and chief protector of the first Puritan colonists of America was neither of their communion nor of their connection, and is openly censured by Puritan writers as one who, so says Hubbard, "had been a soldier in the Low Countries and had never entered the school of our Saviour Christ or of John the Baptist." But his companions and associates seem not to have permitted the dissociation to have had special weight with them. They gladly welcomed Captain Standish and his wife, Rose, among the little company of exiles that set out from Delft Haven for Virginia, and gave their names place on that memorable passenger list of the little schooner Mayflower, which, leaving the harbor of old Plymouth, in England, in September, 1620, finally dropped anchor in the harbor of new Plymouth, in New England, in December following.
From the outset of this novel "adventure"-itself a turning-point in American history-this soldier of fortune was given place and prominence in the councils of a community which seems to have enlisted his support, not so much on its religious as on its adventurous side; and to this "dissenter from dissent" was intrusted the defence of a company of religious enthusiasts, sailing upon what they deemed a divine mission, only in the practical side of which did their military adviser find occupation or interest.
The up-bringing of Miles Standish had been such as to fit him for leadership, and this he assumed early in the history of the enterprise. Even on the deck of the Mayflower, he was recognized as one whose counsels were wise and whose actions were inspiring, and when in the cabin of the Mayflower, in the harbor of Provincetown, the famous compact was drawn up, said to be "the first written constitution in the world," the bold signature of "Myles Standish" was the clearest of the forty-one Pilgrim autographs that were affixed to that famous document. It was Captain Standish who, with his sixteen "well-armed men," made a thorough exploration of the Provincetown peninsula; he organized and headed the party of observation which, later, sailed the shallop and marched with watchful eyes along the shores of Cape Cod, seeking the best place for settlement; and, on December 6th following, he sailed with a picked party across Massachusetts Bay and, in much peril and with many adventures, spied out the land and determined upon the harbor of Plymouth as the best spot for permanent settlement. It was to Captain Standish's knowledge as to the best locations and to his skill as a surveyor, that the colonists were indebted for the selection of their town site and the laying-out of their town; as, later, the same skill came in play when were laid out the new towns that followed after the Plymouth beginnings. Through all that dreary and dreadful first winter, when half their number died, Captain Standish was their mainstay, as one whose word was ever reassuring and whose arm was as ready for protection as was his brain for planning methods of defence. Though his wife, Mistress Rose Standish, was one of the early victims of that bitter winter of death, his courage never faltered, his vigilance never slackened. And when, in the midst of all the peril and suffering, in February, 1621, Miles Standish was appointed military captain of the colony, confidence was restored and courage renewed in the bosoms of that suffering but heroic and indomitable band; so that when spring came and the Mayflower sailed for England, not one of the settlers returned in her, nor would desert the cause to which they had pledged themselves.
It is customary to credit the final success of the Pilgrims of Plymouth to the religious element that held sway over them, making them patient, persistent, uncompromising, faithful, and earnest. But the wisdom of Carver, the genius of Bradford, the fervor of Brewster, the zeal of Winslow, would have been of small avail had they not been backed by the decision, the resolution, the courage, the constancy, and the forethought of their brave captain, Miles Standish, "the John Smith of New England" as he has been called, the man of helpful measures and of iron nerves, who could "hew down forests and live on crumbs."
From first to last he was the loyal supporter and trusty defender of the Plymouth colony. No danger unnerved him, no duty staggered him. With but eight men he started out, in 1623, to overawe and subdue the Indians of Massachusetts-then an unknown and perplexing quantity; single-handed he checked the conspiracy at Weymouth and turned the tables upon the savage plotters, by himself assassinating the assassins-a deed that saved the colony from Indian massacre, but called forth the mild protest of the Pilgrim preacher at Leyden, Mr. Robinson, who wrote of it: "Concerning the killing of these poor Indians, oh! how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any.... Let me be bold to exhort you seriously to consider of the disposition of your captain, whom I love. There is cause to fear that by occasion, especially of provocation, there may be wanting (in him) that tenderness of the life of man which is meet." But the Pilgrims of Plymouth seem not to have questioned the decisive measures of the man who knew when and how to act in their defence. Alone he faced the roystering Morton at Merrymount, unarming that vaporing rebel and putting his riotous colony upon its good behavior. He led out the forty men of Plymouth enlisted for the Pequot War, headed the expedition that in 1635, sailed against the encroaching French in Penobscot Bay, and, as late as 1653, when "very auncient and full of dolorous paines," expressed himself as ready to take the command intrusted to him when the colony forces were about to enter upon a struggle for the right of occupation of the Connecticut country with the Dutch colonists of Manhattan.
He never refused any burden however heavy nor shirked any duty however onerous; he cheerfully yielded obedience to the civil power, never exceeding his orders, nor rashly assuming responsibilities, nor leading his men upon unwise ventures. While always the military commander of the colony, his counsel and help were counted as equally valuable in matters of administration. He served repeatedly as one of the governor's council; he was at one time assistant-governor or deputy, and, from 1644 to 1649, was treasurer of the Plymouth colony. He went to England as the envoy of the colonists in 1625, and in the midst of plague, of evil times and of bitter jealousies, withstood the tyranny of the London traders who owned the Pilgrims' labor; and braving both heavy debt and the possibility of censure, bought out the traders' rights in the name of his associates.
The personal descriptions of this remarkable man that have come down to us, show him as a man of small stature, quick-tempered, choleric, sturdy and bluff. "As a little chimney is soon fired," wrote the Puritan historian Hubbard, "so was the Plymouth captain, a man of very little stature, yet of a very hot and angry temper." And yet his relations with such men as the noble Bradford, the blameless Brewster, the politic Winslow, were so close and of so personal a character that one can hardly accept unquestioningly the story of his hot and unreasoning temper. He was a soldier and a fighter; but he loved peace and quiet, and his life was full of friendly offices and of kindly deeds. On Nantasket Beach he built the first "house of refuge" and life-saving station in America. He was a gentle nurse in the winter of sickness, a friend and adviser to those in trouble or distress, a loving father in the days when parents were not unfrequently tyrants, and a forgiving spirit, as the old story of his famous "courtship" (with sufficient foundation to warrant its acceptance) amply proves.
The communism of the early Pilgrim days gave place in time to personal possession and, as the colony grew, certain of those who had been leaders desired more extended holdings. Captain Standish was one of these, and despite his friend Bradford's protests, he moved across the bay and in 1632 occupied a large and fertile stretch north of Plymouth, to which, still clinging to his old claim of a stolen heritage, he gave the name of Duxbury. Here in the midst of peaceful pursuits, but ever ready to obey the colony's call for counsel or for leadership, he lived for over twenty years, dying October 3, 1656, at the age of seventy-two.
A notable figure in American history, Miles Standish is a type of that mingled spirit of adventure, liberty, and distrust that impelled emigration across the sea and, combined with the uncompromising stand for freedom of conscience, founded and up-built the Pilgrim Colony of Plymouth.
His existence among these Pilgrims is in itself an anomaly. But it is one of those strange associations and unfaltering friendships that have left their mark for good upon the world since the days when the Roman fighting-man stood stanchly by the side of the Christian proselyte even to the death.
Tradition says that Miles Standish was buried between two pointed stones in the graveyard of South Duxbury, but the question of his burial-place is still unsettled. The tall shaft, rising from the crest of Captain's Hill in Duxbury, and surmounted with a statue of the famous colonial captain, fitly commemorates a life that has won a place in the American heart that only grows stronger and more enduring as time goes on.
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