Peter F. Rothermel The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock (1854)

On 20 December 1620, Miles Standish, a professional soldier in the employ of the people we have come to call the Pilgrims, found a place to mount the ‘ordinance’ that had crossed the Atlantic with him. This hill, which stood some 400 meters inland from the shore, rose above the site of the sea-side settlement that the clients of Captain Standish proposed to build.

The high ground offered three great advantages. Firstly, it offered a splendid view of the entrance to Cape Cod Bay, thereby permitting a lookout to see any ship that came within a day’s sailing of their colony. Secondly, it dominated the inlet that, several years earlier, another English military man had named after the harbor at Plymouth. Thirdly, the hill enabled cannon placed upon it to fire upon any vessel coming into the harbor or any group of men attempting to cross the belt of abandoned cornfields that surrounded the place where the Pilgrims planned to build their new homes.

Map of Cape Cod Bay, showing the village (and harbor) of Plymouth (hat), the site of the first anchorage of the Mayflower (anchor), and the location of the first skirmish with Indians (arrows)

Eight days later, Standish prevailed upon the Pilgrims to interrupt the building of houses in order to construct proper platforms for the ‘great ordinances’. Thus, in the course of the morning of 28 December 1620, they laid planks upon the ground, thereby making it easier for the gunners to aim the guns and move them back ‘into battery’ after firing had caused them to recoil. (Such foundations also prevented ordnance from sinking into soft soil, and the wheels of the guns from churning wet earth into mud.)

In the eight weeks that followed, a disease that afflicted most of the Pilgrims, and would end up killing half of their number, prevented Standish from organizing a working party big enough to bring his guns ashore. (At any given time that winter, the few colonists able to work kept themselves busy with such tasks as standing guard, caring for the sick, burying the dead, and patrolling the forests that surrounded the settlement.)

On 16 February 1620, a Pilgrim hunting for birds saw a dozen Indians, and ‘heard the noise of many more’, walking through the woods in the direction of the settlement.1 In a meeting held the following day, the men of the colony voted to give Standish, for whom the title of ‘captain’ had previously been little more than a relic of his service in the Dutch War of Independence, the right to issue orders in all matters related to defense.

Soon thereafter, sailors from the Mayflower helped the Pilgrims bring their guns ashore, drag them up the hill, and mount them on the platforms they had built some two months before. (All three of the witnesses who made a record of this event give the captain of the Mayflower credit for supervising this effort. None, however, make any mention of the role that Standish may have played.)

The authors of the first account of the ‘plantation’ at Plymouth to find its way into print, provided the oldest tally of these weapons to survive to the present day. They described two of these pieces as bases, one as a saker, one as a minion, and one (with a frustrating lack of specificity) as ‘another piece’.

Weighing in at 400 pounds or so, a base could fire a small (less than two-pound) cannonball out to a range of 500 paces (300 meters) or so. Thus, each could cover a portion of the narrow (but already growing) belt of cleared land that separated the little village that the Pilgrims were building from the forest that surrounded it.2

If, however, they were suitably placed, both the minion and the saker could drop cannonballs into the middle of Plymouth Harbor. Sent forth by members of the ‘hum a few bars and I’ll fake it’ school of gunnery, such shots would only do damage to especially unfortunate ships. Nonetheless, the sight (and, especially, the sound) of such ordnance being fired, might deter a seagoing foe from sending men ashore, conducting a bombardment of his own, or attempting a close blockade.

Sources:

William Bradford and Edward Winslow (presumed) A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England (London: John Bellamie, 1622) pages 23, 24, 30 and 31

The characteristics of various pieces come from Oliver F. G. Hogg Artillery: It’s Origin, Heyday, and Decline (London: C. Hurst, 1970) pages 53 and 54. For somewhat different figures, see Harold L. Peterson Arms and Armor of the Pilgrims (Plymouth: Plimouth Plantation, 1957) pages 25-28

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1

Like other English people of the seventeenth century, the Pilgrims began the new year on 25 March. Thus, the last day of 1620 would have been 24 March 1620.

2

The figures presented in the table were found on page 54 of Artillery: Its Origin, Heyday, and Decline. However, as Brigadier Hogg limited his description of the base to its 400-pound weight, the figures for that piece given in this paragraph are products of estimation.