Friday, April 16, 2010

French Witness at Cape Cod

In 1647, Thomas Shepard, John Eliot and John Wilson, were sent to Yarmouth on Cape Cod on ecclesiastical business. Eliot took the opportunity to visit Indian settlements in the area, and Shepard wrote about these missionary endeavors in his 1648 work The Clear Sunshine of the Gospel Breaking Forth Upon the Indians in New-England, making an interesting reference to an earlier European visitor, p. 9: aged Indian told us openly, "That these very things which Mr. Eliot had taught them as the Commandements of God, and concerning God, and the making of the world by one God, that they had heard some old men who were now dead, to say the same things, since whose death there hath been no remembrance or knowledge of them among the Indians untill now they heare of them againe. Which when I heard solemnly spoken, I could not tell how those old Indians should attaine to such knowledge, unlelesse perhaps by means of the French Preacher cast upon those coasts many years since, by whose ministry they might possibly reape and retaine some knowledge of those things; this also I hear by a godly and able Christian who hath much converse with them; that many of them have this apprehension now stirring among them, viz. "That their forefathers did know God, but that after this, they fell into a great sleep, and when they did awaken they quite forgot him, (for under such metaphoricall language they usually expresse what eminent things they meane:) so that it may seeme to be the day of the Lords gracious visitation of these poore Natives, which is just as it is with all other people, when they are most low, the wheele then turnes, and the Lord remembers to have mercy.

The French had sailed the waters of what would become Provincetown Harbour as early as 1605 under Samuel de la Champlain. Fishermen on their way to or from New France found the area to be a veritable fishing goldmine. A short-lived Jesuit mission was established on Mount Desert Island (Maine) in 1613. The "French Preacher," however, may have been one of the survivors of a 1616 French shipwreck on the shores of Cape Cod that is referred to by William Bradford in Of Plimoth Plantation, p. 119. In that instance, the local Patuxet Indians killed almost all survivors, excepting three or four, whom they tormented and enslaved (some think this was done in reprisal for the 1614 expedition from Virginia under Captain John Smith during which Thomas Hunt kidnapped a number of the Indians, including Squanto, who would later help the Pilgrims). After some time, the French were able to learn enough of the Indian dialect to communicate and the Indians took note of the French interest in a book, the Bible. They spoke about God, and one of the Frenchmen, who had acquired greater fluency than the rest, conveyed to them that God was angry with them for their cruelty, and would destroy them, and give their country to another people. They responded that they were too many for God to kill, but the Frenchman answered that God had many ways to kill them of which they were ignorant. It was soon after this that a plague struck the Indian community from 1617 to 1619, which some suppose to have been smallpox brought by the French. Two of the Frenchmen were ultimately rescued by Captain Thomas Dermer in 1619, who himself had met Squanto after he escaped from Dermer. Squanto, meanwhile, returned home after time in Europe to find his village wiped out by the disease. It was this plague which played such an important role in paying the way for the Pilgrim's arrival and survival, with Squanto's help. And the memory of the French witness to God lingered even after so many of the Indians died out. The prophecy of being removed by another people caused the Patuxet to be wary of the Pilgrims, and these events were brought to remembrance when John Eliot preached to them in 1647. God's providential hand was behind it all.

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