Featured image: painting by George Henry Boughton
Nearly half of the original 102 passengers on the Mayflower did not survive the first winter after arriving in Plymouth in December 1622. Only four of the original thirteen women lived to celebrate the “First Thanksgiving” the following November. Two hundred of the Boston colonists succumbed in the winter of 1631 after which half of the survivors chose to return to England. Those settlers who survived made it through with the assistance and instruction from the natives.
The Agawam Indians who lived in the Ipswich area used tepees as their summer home along the river and ocean but retreated to forests in the winter where they lived in longhouses, a common building of the Iroquois Nation. Often up to 80 feet long and 20 feet wide, longhouses had openings at both ends covered with animal skins to keep out the cold. Poles were set in the ground and connected to horizontal poles on which large pieces of bark were sewn in place like shingles. Smoke from the central fire pit escaped through holes in the roof. Villages were made up of several longhouses housing multiple generations of each family.
By 1633, 1500 Puritans had arrived and settled in Boston and outlying areas. The band of a dozen men who John Winthrop Junior to establish a settlement at Agawam in 1633 (renamed Ipswich in 1634) were surely better prepared than those who arrived on the Mayflower twenty years before. Ninety percent of native Americans in our area had died from a plague transmitted by European explorers. Some of the men spent their first winter in abandoned Native American longhouses.
Taking lessons from animals, others are said to have survived that first winter by digging shelters in the great accumulation of snow blowing off the frozen river near the town wharf. A thin layer of life that Inuit people call the pukak exists beneath the snow. The winter’s first flakes solidify around grass and vegetation, leaving small voids where mice, moles and voles maintain pathways in a relatively balmy degree or two above freezing. Roaming in almost complete darkness they survive off vegetative matter and insects, but in a long winter the pukak dwellers run low on food and will venture out in great numbers on warm sunny days. Hawks can hear the sound of these subnivean dwellers munching on insects and have been observed to dive into the snow, emerging with a vole in their talons.
Joseph Felt in “The History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton” wrote that “The first settlers thought no more of burning twenty or thirty cords of wood annually than we do of burning five. All Europe is not able to make so great fires as at New England. Here is good living for those who love good fires. As the Indians resided on a spot till they had consumed the trees around them and then sought another place where were enough more, they thought that one reason why our ancestors emigrated to this country was that they had burnt out their fuel in England and came to America for a fresh supply.”
The houses built during that first year were simple one-room structures. The Alexander Knight house next to the Whipple House on South Green is a re-creation of an early timber frame house as described in Ipswich town records. There being no bricks or mortar, the chimneys were made of wood and parged with clay. Roofs were made from the abundant salt marsh straw, a dangerous combination that led to many house fires. Such was the fate of the home built by Jacob Perkins. Sixteen- year-old servant Mehitabel Babrooke was found guilty of “extreme carelessness if not willfully” setting the house on fire and was sentenced to be whipped and to pay £40 in damages to Perkins. Mehitabel testified that she had climbed on the roof for a better view of the corn field and accidentally dropped the ashes from her pipe on the straw roof. The court’s decision was swayed by the testimony of neighbors who described Mehitabel as a liar, a thief, and an “unchaste creature.”