The Pilgrims landed on the shores of America on a cold November day in 1620. They set anchor at what is now Provincetown, in Cape Cod, across the bay from Plymouth Rock.
Their first act upon reaching the New World was to draft and ratify the Mayflower Compact. At sunrise, on November 11th, 1620, forty-one men signed the document that would set the course for democracy in America.
A small group of Pilgrims then stepped onto the beach to explore their new homeland. As the party entered the dark forest above the beach, they stumbled into the village of the Nauset Indians. The village was empty.
The Nausets were a powerful and populous tribe. They spent their winters far inland, where the hunting was better, and returned to the coast with warm weather to plant their summer gardens.
As the Pilgrims investigated the deserted village, they found a smooth place in the sand where something had been carefully buried. They dug down and discovered a secret cache of Indian flint corn with kernels of red, yellow, and blue. The Nausets had buried this corn in wicker baskets to preserve it through the winter. This was the seed stock for their summer gardens.
There were four bushels of corn in that stockpile. Two men could barely lift it from the ground. The Pilgrims carried the corn back to the Mayflower and returned a few days later looking for more. In all, the Pilgrims took fourteen bushels of buried corn from the Nauset Indians. Then they sailed across the bay to start their colony at Plymouth Rock.
The Pilgrims took the corn because they were desperate. They were now stranded in a desolate wilderness, winter was upon them, and they were nearly out of supplies. They didn’t know if the barley and pea seeds they brought from back home would grow in the rocky soil of New England. They believed the corn could make the difference between life and death in the New World.
The Pilgrims vowed on their honor to reimburse the Nausets as soon as possible. The place where they found the corn and made this promise is known to this day as Corn Hill.
It was lucky for the Pilgrims that the Nausets were away at their winter hunting ground, because the Nausets hated Englishmen. Six years before, in 1614, an Englishman named Thomas Hunt had abducted a large group of Indians from New England, including twenty Nausets, to sell into slavery. If the Nausets had been home when the Pilgrims walked into their village, the history of America may have taken a decidedly different course.
One of the Indians abducted in 1614 by Thomas Hunt was the legendary Squanto. Squanto had somehow escaped slavery and lived for a time in England before finding his way back to America on a merchant trading vessel.
Squanto became a great friend to the Pilgrims. He served as translator and helped broker an alliance with the powerful chief Massasoit. Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to plant the corn they had taken from the Nausets. In fact, the First Thanksgiving was celebrated with the successful harvest of the Nauset corn.
The Pilgrims soon fulfilled their promise to reimburse the Nausets. They sailed back across the bay and traded fairly with the Nauset chief, Aspinet, and formed a lasting friendship with the Nauset Indians.
Word spread among the tribes of New England that the Pilgrims had righted the wrong they committed in their first desperate days in America. The Pilgrims had demonstrated a remarkable toughness in their survival on the beach, and now they proved to be honorable and honest people. They paid for the corn because they believed was the right thing to do, but it also turned out to be good diplomacy.
The fair dealings of the Pilgrims led to fifty years of peace with the Native Americans of New England. This peace allowed the Pilgrims, and the pioneers who followed them, to establish a foothold of freedom in America, and begin to build the democracy that would one day reach across the continent.