The Pilgrims were hungry and weak from scurvy after two months at sea by the time the Mayflower anchored in the icy waters on the bay side of Cape Cod in the winter of 1620. Miles Standish led a small group of explorers on desperate scouting missions that predate the landing at Plymouth Rock.

“Indians! Indians!” of the he came running in from the woods toward a tidal beach on the lee side of Cape Cod. His warning arrived only moments before a flurry of arrows flew through the barricaded Mayflower’s shore party screamed as one of the members camp the explorers had built, though none found its target. It was dawn of December 8, 1620. There were 16 men in camp, half of whom were “saints,” members of the religious separatist group that formed the nucleus of the Mayflower enterprise. The others were sailors and pilots from the ship’s crew, along with a few “strangers,” the servants, hired men and families who were unaffiliated with the congregation and for reasons of their own had joined the Atlantic crossing. Among these was Miles Standish, hired by the separatists to serve as military adviser in the colony they hoped to establish far from the repressive reach of King James and his corrupted Church of England. Together, the saints and strangers would come to be known as Pilgrims.

Most of the men carried matchlock muskets, which were slow to load and prime and were fired by a burning match cord held in a clamp that ignited powder in a flash pan. Only four members of the shore party had their arms ready. The rest had set theirs near an open boat, a shallop, that was tied up on the beach. As the men ran down to the shallop to retrieve their muskets and armor, Standish—who carried a more efficient flintlock firearm— got off several shots. By then, three other men in the barricade had their matchlocks ready to fire.

According to a narrative known as Mourt’s Relation that was probably written by William Bradford and Edward Winslow, two of the participants in the fight, the Englishmen were alert and dexterous enough to duck the arrows that came flying out of the trees. As they fought, the Indians let out a spine-chilling war cry. “Their note was after this manner,” the account informs us: ‘Woath! Woath! Ha! Ha! Hach! Woach!’”

In the end, no one was hurt, though one of the assailants gave an “extraordinary cry” after a musket was discharged in his direction and before he disappeared with the rest of the natives into the brambly forest that covered the dunes. The relieved Pilgrims christened the spot where the skirmish took place “The First Encounter.”

The resonant story of the Pilgrims—shocking hardship, flinty endurance, alliances and wars and accommodations with native tribes—has always centered around the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving. But the First Encounter on Cape Cod, Mass., and the events leading up to it provide a historical snapshot of arresting clarity, in which English outcasts searching for a home and an indigenous population struggling to hold on to one found themselves in conflict before a single word could be exchanged.

The place is still called First Encounter Beach. Heading north on Highway 6 through Cape Cod, you take a left in the town of Eastham onto Samoset Road and drive past retail businesses and  marshes and salt ponds toward a parking lot carved into the dunes along the bay side of the Cape. If you arrive on a July day, as I did recently, you’ll need to autocorrect for the bright blue summer sky, the calm, flat sea receding so far into the distance at low tide that it shimmers like a heat mirage. The Pilgrims arrived here in a hard dark winter. Mourt’s Relation tells us water froze on the Pilgrims’ clothes “like coats of iron,” and at least one member of the party “like to have swooned with cold.”

A small monument on the beach, erected in 1920, 300 years after the Pilgrims arrived, features an oxidized bronze plaque set into a rock. It tells visitors: “On this spot hostile Indians had their first encounter December 8, 1620 with…” and lists the individual members of the Mayflower’s shore party. But this is not the only monument. Nearby is another bronze plaque, set down onto the beach in 2001, telling the story through a 21st-century lens. “Near this site,” the plaque reads, “the Nauset tribe of the Wampanoag Nation, seeking to protect themselves and their culture, had their first encounter…”

By the time the Pilgrims got to Cape Cod, the Nausets, along with the rest of the original residents of this part of New England, had plenty of reason to fear European explorers and cod fishermen. There had been contact and trading for almost a century, and in the decades leading up to the arrival of the Mayflower, relations between visitors and inhabitants had grown increasingly tense. Sometimes the discord flared into violence, and several times English seafarers kidnapped Indians to sell into slavery or to exhibit to the curious back home.

It was the Nausets’ Pokanoket cousins on the mainland who suffered the most. An epidemic of European origin had, in only three years, almost destroyed a thriving native nation. The disease also destabilized the balance of power in the region, stirring up intertribal wars in which the weakened Pokanokets were suddenly subservient to old rivals like the Narragansetts.

On Cape Cod, the Nausets seem to have been largely unaffected by the epidemic that ravaged the Pokanokets. But they were certainly aware of it. They and their northern neighbors on the Cape, the Pamet, must have tracked the arrival of the Mayflower with foreboding.

The Pilgrims had never intended to settle here. The patent they secured for their colony was 200 miles south, near present-day New York City. But after 65 hard days at sea, the 102 seasick passengers who had been squeezed into the ship’s foul and lightless lower deck showed signs of scurvy and other diseases. Two of them died. They were out of firewood, nearly out of water and low on beer, which at the time was considered an all-purpose restorative, vital to the health of adults and children.

Christopher Jones, the master of the Mayflower, attempted to sail south to disembark his passengers at the sanctioned site, but unfavorable winds and dangerous shoals made him give up and sail back to the Cape, to the deep protected harbor that would later be Provincetown. Before the ship was safe in its anchorage, however, there was a mutinous stir among the passengers. They were hungry, thirsty, scared and homesick, and they had just been informed that they had no choice but to plant their colony in a part of North America to which they had no official claim. They were divided philosophically between saints and strangers, between the poles of piety and pragmatism. Remarkably, they managed to set their fears and differences aside and sign their names (though only the men signed their names) to a document known as the Mayflower Compact, in which they pledged to bind each other “into a civil body politic,” in effect bringing government to the alien sandbar onto which they were about to set foot.

When some of the men waded ashore for the first time, on November 15, their compact did not extend to the native people they were expecting to encounter. They believed this land was peopled but “devoid of all civil inhabitants.” They had heard about the “savage and brutish men” that lived in North America and knew lurid tales of Indian torture, including—as William Bradford later wrote in Of Plymouth Plantation—“cutting off the members and joints of [men] by piecemeal, and broiling on the coals, eat the collops of their flesh in their sight whilst they live.” Yet the Pilgrims clearly had to make the acquaintance of these demonic people and somehow earn their trust if they were going to survive.

In their first “discoverie” on Cape Cod, one of three excursions Standish led from the Mayflower, the Pilgrims were walking along the beach when they saw in the distance a small group of five or six men with a dog. The figures quickly ran into the forest, whistling for their dog to follow. Standish and his party marched off in pursuit. It is unclear from the account in Mourt’s Relation whether the Pilgrims planned to cut the Indians off and attack them or to parley with them. In any case they could not catch up to them. They followed the Indians’ trail along the beach and up and down the dunes, and finally made camp and built a fire.

In the morning they continued the search, following the trail inland into dense thickets. By now they were “sore athirst.” They had brought nothing to drink except a bottle of some sort of liquor they called aqua vitae to share among 16 men. At midmorning they entered a broad valley that cut through the narrow neck of Cape Cod and finally came across a spring where they drank “our first New England water with as much delight as ever we drank drink in all our lives.”

The valley the thirsty men followed is visible today from the Pilgrim Heights parking lot in Cape Cod National Seashore, just across the highway from North Truro. From this elevation, in the summer, it’s a lush green mat of thorny trees and shrubs, with bare dunes on the far side and beyond them the Atlantic surf. From the shelter in the parking lot, the Pilgrim Spring trail leads down through a forest of oak and pitch pine to another ancient plaque, this one commemorating the “First Spring” discovered “by an exploring party sent by the first civil body politic.” The spring itself, or what is thought to be the spring (historians have long squabbled over the exact site), is a few yards away from the plaque, an almost unnoticeable depression in the thick grass. On this hot summer day there was no water pouring from it, and it did not look like a life-saving spring, or even a seep. It looked like a badger hole.

Pilgrim Pond, where the party spent their next night ashore, is a more fixable historic location, and more beguiling. It’s a willow-fringed freshwater pond, 50 or 60 yards wide, on Highland Road in North Truro, about three miles southwest of Pilgrim Spring. When night came after that first day ashore, Standish and his men made a big fire at the pond and built a barricade. They kept three men on guard all through a rainy night, their match cords lighted and sheltered from the rain and ready to fire. The explorers had every reason to be vigilant, since during the course of the day they had come across some Indian graves and impulsively dug one of them up, finding a rotted bow and arrows. They quickly had second thoughts, replaced the items and covered the grave, wisely thinking, “It would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchers.”

They had also come across a few cultivated fields and, near what appeared to be an abandoned house site, a large iron kettle. On a prominent dune still known as Corn Hill, later the subject of an evocative painting by Edward Hopper, they found a buried cache of more than four bushels of corn. The Pilgrims needed the corn: The native seed might keep their new colony from starving, and they “knew not how to come by any.”

After considerable debate, they decided to take as much corn as they could carry, filling the kettle and even their pockets, with the idea that they would repay the natives when they encountered them again and give them back the kettle. But they ditched the heavy kettle in the pond the next morning, and then marched back to a point where they could signal the Mayflower to send its small boat to pick them up.

That was the end of the first reconnaissance mission the Pilgrims sent forth while the Mayflower putting together the larger of the ship’s two boats, lay at anchor. They spent a few days  the 35-foot shallop, which had been dismantled and stored for the ocean crossing, and on November 27 the second expedition went out, this time with 34 armed men. They returned to the same tidal inlet they had explored last time, still searching for a place to establish their colony. The weather had turned worse.

When the men returned to Corn Hill to look for more buried corn, they had to hack at the frozen snow with their cutlasses. But the effort paid off. They found 10 more bushels, and sent them off in the shallop back to the Mayflower, along with six of the men who were so weakened and sick with cold they could not continue.

Corn Hill today is an unassuming landmark, and—as the site of the Pilgrims’ first act of plunder—it commemorates a rather awkward historical moment. In the flat summer sun it doesn’t rise with quite the brooding autumnal sweep of Hopper’s iconic painting. It’s just a grassy dune with a few houses on it, above a parking lot and a row of tourist cottages. At the edge of the parking lot, next to an American flag surrounded by a wooden corral fence, there is another weathered plaque of 1920 vintage celebrating the Pilgrims’ landing, this one proclaiming that Corn Hill was the place where Miles Standish, William Bradford and the rest of the company “found the precious Indian corn.”

“Found and stole” the plaque would no doubt have to read if it were erected today. But it’s one thing to correct the historical record and another to try to imagine your way into history itself, to try to perceive without any chastening 21st-century wisdom what it might really have been like to be there on Corn Hill, desperately hungry and afraid, worried for your family back on the ship, beginning to suspect this frozen sandbar would not sustain your congregation’s dream of a free new life in a new land, despairing of any welcome from the natives, your teeth loose with scurvy, your chest heaving with a cough that grows more violent every day.

Leaving Corn Hill, the men marched cautiously on, their matches lighted. They came across another grave and dug this one up as well, finding what seemed like the remains of a blond-haired man wearing “a sailor’s canvas cassock” and next to them the bones of a child, buried with a little bow. They argued among themselves who this blond sailor might have been, how he had died, why he was buried with an Indian child, but no answers emerged. They covered the bodies but took some of the grave goods with them, and when later that day they came across several empty Indian lodges they again helped themselves to whatever they thought useful and could carry away. Hungry as they were, they wouldn’t touch the venison they found stored away in a hollow tree. They thought it fit only for dogs.

They intended to leave behind beads and other goods in exchange for what they had taken, and to send the elusive natives a signal that they wanted to trade with them, but by that time it was growing dark and the tide was going out. In their hurry to get back to the shallop and to the safety of the Mayflower, the gesture was forgotten.

The ship and its passengers and crew had now spent almost three weeks anchored in the waters of Cape Cod or meandering miserably along sand dunes or through frozen thickets of bayberry and cat briar. Time was running out. A savage winter was coming on and they could not live on the Mayflower much longer, especially since Master Jones and his crew were in a hurry to get rid of their passengers and sail the ship back to England. The Pilgrims had to make a decision: Should they try to settle here, along this tidal inlet near present-day Truro? There was a case to be made. They were worn out from sailing and exploring, and almost all of them were sick. The harbor was deep enough for boats if not for ships. They had found out that the soil could grow corn, and that there was fresh water nearby.

In the end they decided there had to be a more secure place for them than this windblown cape, and so after another week they set out in the shallop again for their third reconnaissance, sailing south. On the shore of Wellfleet Bay, they encountered a dozen natives “busy about a black thing.” As soon as they saw the boat, the Indians fled. The black thing was probably a beached pilot whale. When the Pilgrims pulled into shore and started exploring the next day, they found three more, in addition to the one the Indians had been butchering.

They liked what they saw around Wellfleet: a decent harbor, streams of fresh water, a shoreline whose tidal dynamics suggested that it might regularly deliver up dying whales to be used for meat and oil.

No doubt the Nausets were watching the Pilgrims as they once again walked uninvited through their villages and their graveyards. After weeks of avoiding these intruders, of witnessing the defilement and theft of their property, they had seen enough. In the darkness of the next morning they attacked.

“It pleased God to vanquish our enemies and give us deliverance,” the authors of Mourt’s Relation declared about the skirmish at First Encounter Beach. After the fight, they gathered up the arrows that had been shot at them so that they could be sent back to England with Christopher Jones on the Mayflower. Some of the arrows’ points were fashioned from brass, some from deer antlers, some from eagle claws. The Pilgrims had never spoken to the inhabitants of Cape Cod, they had never traded with them, but the killing points of these arrows had sent a clear enough message: Get out! And so the saints and the strangers got back into their shallop and sailed south and west along the Cape, until they arrived at “a most hopeful place,” where fresh water was abundant, the soil was rich and where European diseases had already ravaged the inhabitants, making them less disposed to war. This was Plymouth, where the First Encounter could fade into memory, and the Pilgrims could have a chance to start anew.


Stephen Harrigan’s latest book is Remember Ben Clayton, a World War I–era novel.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.