Myles Standish-Military Leader of the Pilgrims


There is very little known of the early years of Myles Standish's life. His place of birth continues to be debated but evidence seems to point strongly toward Lancashire, England around 1584. He joined Queen Elizabeth's army at a relatively young age. He ended up serving as an officer in the Netherlands (or the "low countries"), including Holland which was primarily Protestant. The Queen had sent troops to fight the Spanish Catholics trying to invade there during the Eighty Year War between Spain and the Dutch Republic. It was during this time that Standish acquired the title of Captain.

His will drafted in 1656 in Plymouth Colony, contains his own words:

"I give unto my son & heire apparent Alexander Standish all my lands as heire apparent by lawfull decent in Ormskirke Borscouge Wrightington Maudsley Newburrow Crowston and in the Isla of man and given to mee as Right heire by lawfull decent but Surruptuously dtained from mee My great Grandfather being a 2cond or younger brother from the house Standish of Standish."

Nathaniel Morton wrote about Standish in his New England Memorial, published in 1669, and may be the most conclusive evidence of his birthplace:

".was a gentleman, born in Lancashire, and was heir apparent unto a great estate of lands and livings, surreptitiously detained from him; his great grandfather being a second or younger brother from the house of Standish. In his younger time he went over into the low countries and was a soldier there, and came acquainted with the church at Leyden, and came over into New England, with such of them as at the first set out for the planting of the plantation of New Plimouth, and bare a deep share of their first difficulties, and was always very faithful to their interest."

Myles Standish first appears in written records in 1620 while living in Leyden, Holland. He had met John Robinson, the pastor of the Separatists during or shortly after his time in military service in Holland. The two became very close friends that shared many sentiments and beliefs. Robinson came to trust him greatly and eventually was the one to suggest that the Pilgrims hire him as their military advisor. Initially when the group at Leyden were considering men for the position, they asked Captain John Smith because of his previous experience in New England. He was one of the founders of the Jamestown Colony and had mapped much of the North American Coast. He expressed interest at their request however after much consideration, the Separatists decided against him. They thought the price he required was too expensive and they also considered that because of his boldness and fame, he might become a dictator.

When the hostilities in Holland were ended, Standish joined with the English refugees in Leyden, Holland shortly before their voyage to New England. Though not a member of the church in Leyden, he was a welcome member of the party that set sail on the Mayflower on September 16, 1620. After arriving in New England however he indeed was a welcome member of the church. Though not as religious as the rest, he was a very loyal friend.

Standish led or participated in all the exploratory missions sent out to explore Cape Cod where they had landed and was influential in where they chose to settle. After a few months in Plymouth, Standish was named military captain of the colony. He organized the deployment of the colony's cannons and the construction of the fort at Plymouth. He led both trading expeditions and military expeditions to the various Indian groups in the region. He led the revenge attacks on the Indians in the Massachusetts Bay after they were caught in a conspiracy planning to attack and destroy the Plymouth and Wessagussett colonies; several Indians were killed or executed, for which Standish received some criticism, even from his friends, for being too heavy-handed. However, it had the desired effect giving all the tribes a healthy respect for the Englishmen, if not a certain amount of fear. The "little" Captain was a force to be reckoned with and they learned he was not afraid to take the battle to them.

It may have been said by those like John Robinson that Standish would be quicker to kill than to convert. Robinson wrote a letter to the Pilgrims lamenting the few incidents of loss of life that had arisen between the Indians and the Pilgrims, and expressed his desire that the natives be converted first as to avert bloodshed. All questions of justification of violence aside, Standish certainly fulfilled his role as the colony's military advisor and protector. Regardless of these incidents, Myles Standish was one of the closest friends of the natives among the Pilgrims. Because of his travels, Standish knew several different languages, and this apparently helped him to function as a linguist and interpreter between the natives and the Pilgrims.

One of the historians compared the order and discipline maintained within Plymouth Colony that had been lacking in Jamestown. William Bradford as Governor and Myles Standish as military leader had the colonists best interests at heart and they had the wisdom and experience to make the hard decisions necessary for survival. It seems evident that their experiences in England and Holland prepared them for the tasks they were given in the New World. All of the colonists were "commoners" and familiar with manual labor and their experiences in Holland, learning new trades, prepared them for their new life in America.

Standish is described as having a very warm and tender heart, and this was apparent in his care for the sick, both native and Pilgrim. He was one of the few during the first winter that was able to tend to the sick Bradford recalls:

".in the time of most distress, there was but 6 or 7 sound persons, who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beads, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered; two of these were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom my self, and many others, were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons, as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness, or lameness. And what I have said of these, I may say of many others who dyed in this general visitation, and others yet living, that whilst they had health, yea, or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not but their recompense is with the Lord."

Despite the heavy criticism by his enemies, Standish was well respected within the Plymouth Colony, and held a number of positions of authority. He made several trips to England to bring trading goods back and to negotiate a settlement with the Merchant Adventurers who had financially sponsored the joint-stock company that funded the Pilgrims' voyage. Standish's attempt to negotiate with the Merchant Adventurers and come to an agreement was unsuccessful, but Isaac Allerton later went to England and returned with an agreement. Myles Standish along with William Bradford and other leaders of the colony bought out the Merchant Adventurers. Free from the Adventurers' authority, the colony organized a land division in 1627 among the colony and large farm plots were allotted to each family. Myles Standish received 120 acres and he settled at what is now known as Duxbury, which many historians believe is named after his ancestral home.

Myles' first wife Rose came with him to New England on the Mayflower and died the first winter. His second wife came to New England in 1623 on the Anne and they were married that year. They had seven children and David Kaspareit traces his lineage to Myles Standish through Myles' son Josiah.

It appears that by 1640, Standish began to take on a more administrative role. He relinquished his military position to the younger generation. When the Pequot War was looming, Standish was appointed to a committee to raise a company of 30 men, but it was his subordinate, Lieutenant Holmes who led the command. He served as surveyor of highways and as Treasurer to the Colony from 1643 to 1649 and on various committees to lay out boundaries of new towns and inspect waterways.

Standish died on October 3, 1656 of what is believed to be kidney stones or bladder cancer. He is buried in the Myles Standish Cemetery. Though he was small in stature, Standish was courageous and strong in heart and the reader may be reminded of the Davidson men, who had those same characteristics. When it came to confrontations with the natives, Myles never went looking for a fight, but he never ran away from one. It is evident that Myles Standish was an integral part of the colony and God raised him up for the work. God not only upheld Myles to nurse the sick that first winter as Bradford wrote, but throughout his entire life, in whatever he was called to do.



Sources: Wikipedia; Captain Myles Standish by Tudor Jenks; History of Plymouth by William Bradford.


Contributed by Kathryn Currier and David Kaspareit

Posted June 21, 2010





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