A Short and True
Description of New England
by the Rev. Francis Higginson, 1629
Introduced and redacted by John Beardsley.
Rev. Francis Higginson and Rev. Samuel Skelton were
the spiritual leaders of the fleet of five ships and about 300 settlers
sent to Nahumkeake (Salem) by the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629.
They established the first Puritan Church in the new colony. Higginson's
was written in the summer of 1629. He had not yet experienced a Massachusetts
winter. Like earlier glowing descriptions of the new land, this led
to fatal miscalculations on the part of the Company for provisioning
the next fleet. Despite the restoration of his health, as he describes
here, the Rev. Higginson passed away from a fever in the summer of 1630,
and was among the first of so many New English martyrs for their faith.
NEW ENGLANDS PLANTATION
A SHORT and TRUE DESCRIPTION of the COMMODITIES and DISCOMMODITIES
of that COUNTRY.
Written by a reverend Divine now there resident.
Printed for Michael Sparke,
Reader, do not disdain to read this Relation; and look not here to have
a large Gate and no building within; a full-stuffed Title with no matter
in the Book: But here read the truth, and that thou shalt find without
any frothy bumbasted words, or any quaint new-devised additions, only
as it was written (not intended for the Press) by a reverend Divine
now there living, who only sent it to some friends here, which were
desirous of his Relations; which is an Epitome of their proceedings
in the Plantation. And for thy Part, if thou meanest to be no Planter
nor Venturer, do but lend thy good Prayers for the furtherance of it.
And so I rest a well-wisher to all the good designs both of them which
are gone, and of them that are to go.
pass our voyage by sea, we will now begin our discourse on the shore
of New England. And because the life and welfare of every creature here
below, and the commodiousness of the country whereas such creatures
live, doth by the most wise ordering of Gods providence, depend
next unto himself, upon the temperature and disposition of the four
elements, earth, water, air and fire (for as of the mixture of all these,
all sublunary things are composed; so by the more or less enjoyment
of the wholesome temper and convenient use of these, consisteth the
only well-being both of man and beast in a more or less comfortable
measure in all countries under the heavens); therefore I will endeavor
to show you what New England is by the consideration of each of these
apart, and truly endeavor by Gods help to report nothing but the
naked truth, and that both to tell you of the discommodities as well
as of the commodities, though as the idle proverb is, travelers may
lie by authority, and so may take too much sinful liberty that way.
Yet I may say of myself as once Nehemiah did in another case: Shall
such a man as I lie? No verily; it becometh not a preacher of
truth to be a writer of falsehood in any degree. And therefore I have
been careful to report nothing of New England but what I have partly
seen with mine own eyes, and partly heard and inquired from the mouths
of very honest and religious persons, who by living in the country a
good space of time have had experience and knowledge of the state thereof,
and whose testimonies I do believe as myself.
First therefore of the earth of New England and all the appurtenances
thereof. It is a land of divers and sundry sorts all about Massachusetts
Bay, and at Charles River is as fat black earth as can be seen anywhere;
and in other places you have a clay soil; in others sandy, as it is
all about our plantation at Salem, for so our town is now named (Psalms
The form of the earth here in the superficies of it is neither too
flat in the plains nor too high in hills, but partakes of both in mediocrity,
and fit for pasture, or for plow or meadow ground, as men please to
employ it. For all the country be as it were a thick wood in general,
yet in divers places there is much ground cleared by the Indians, as
especially about the plantation. I am told that about three miles from
us a man may stand on a little hilly place and see divers thousands
of acres of ground as good as need to be, and not a tree in the same.
It is thought here is good clay to make bricks and tiles and earthen
pots as needs to be. At this instant we are setting up a brick-kiln
to make bricks and tiles for the building of our houses. For stone there
is plenty of slates at the Isle of Slate in the bay of Massachusetts,
and limestone, free-stone and smooth-stone and iron-stone and marble
stone also in such a store, that we have great rocks of it, and a harbor
hard by. Our plantation is from thence called Marble Harbor.
Of minerals there hath yet been but little trial made, yet we are not
without great hope of being furnished in that soil.
The fertility of the soil is to be admired at, as appeareth in the
abundance of grass that groweth everywhere, both very thick, very long,
and very high in divers places. But it groweth very wildly with a great
stalk and a broad and ranker blade, because it never had been eaten
by cattle, nor mowed with a scythe, and seldom trampled on by foot.
It is scarce to be believed how our kine and goats, horses and hogs
do thrive and prosper here and like well of this country.
In our plantation we have already a quart of milk for a penny, but
the abundant increase of corn proves this country to be a wonderment.
Thirty, forty, fifty, sixty are ordinary here. Yea, Josephs increase
in Egypt is here outstripped with us. Our planters hope to have more
than a hundred fold this year, and all this while I am within compass
what will you say of two-hundred fold and upward? It is almost
incredible what great gain some of our English planters have had by
our Indian corn. Credible persons have assured me, and the party of
it himself announced the truth of it to me, that from the setting of
13 gallons of corn, he hath had an increase of 52 hogsheads, every hogshead
holding seven bushels of London measure, and every bushel was by him
sold and trusted to the Indians for so much beaver as was worth 18 shillings,
and so of this 13 gallons of corn which was worth 6 shillings 8 pence,
he made about £ 327 of it the year following, as by reckoning
it will appear; wherefore you may see how God blesseth industry in this
land. There are not such beautiful and great ears of corn I suppose
anywhere else but in this country, being also of variety of colors as
red, blue and yellow, etc. And of one corn there springeth four or five
hundred. I have sent you many ears of divers colors that you may see
the truth of it. Little children here by planting of corn may earn much
more than their own maintenance.
They have tried our English corn at new Plymouth plantation, so that
all our several grains grow here very well, and have a fitting soil
for their nature.
Our governor hath store of green peas growing in his garden as good
as ever I ate in England. This country aboundeth naturally with store
of roots of great variety and good to eat. Our turnips, parsnips and
carrots are here bigger and sweeter than is ordinarily found in England.
Here are also store of pumpkins, cucumbers, and other things of that
nature which I know not. Also, divers excellent pot-herbs grow abundantly
among the grass, as strawberry leaves in all parts of the country and
plenty of strawberries in their time, and pennyroyal, wintersavory,
sorrel, brooklime, liverwort, carvel and watercresses, also leeks and
onions are ordinary, and divers medicinal herbs. Here are also abundance
of other sweet herbs delightful to the smell, whose names we know not,
etc., and plenty of single damask roses very sweet and two kinds of
herbs that bear two kinds of flowers very sweet, which they say, are
as good to make cordage or cloth as any hemp or flax we have.
Excellent vines are here up and down in the woods. Our governor hath
already planted a vineyard with great hope of increase. Also, mulberries,
plums, raspberries, corrance, chestnuts, filberts, walnuts, smalnuts,
hurtleberries and haws of whitethorn near as good as our cherries in
England, they grow in plenty here.
For wood there is no better in the world I think, here being four sorts
of oak differing both in the leaf, timber, and color, all excellent
good. There is also good ash, elm, willow, birch, beech, sassafras,
juniper cypress, cedar, spruce, pines and fir that will yield abundance
of turpentine, pitch, tar, masts and other materials for building both
of ships and houses. Also here are store of sumac trees, which are good
for dying and tanning of leather, likewise such trees yield a precious
gum called white beniamen, that they say is excellent for perfumes.
Also here be divers roots and berries wherewith the Indians dye excellent
holiday colors that no rain nor washing can alter. Also we have materials
to make soap-ashes and saltpeter in abundance.
For beasts there are some bears, and they say some lions also; for
they have been seen at Cape Anne. Also here are several sorts of deer,
some whereof bring three or four young ones at once, which is not ordinary
in England. Also wolves, foxes, beavers, otters, martins, great wild
cats, and a great beast called a molke (moose) as big as an ox. I have
seen the skins of all these beasts since I came to this plantation excepting
lions. Also here are great store of squirrels, some greater, and some
smaller and lesser. There are some of the lesser sort, they tell me,
that by a certain skin will fly from tree to tree though they stand
Of the waters of New England with the things belonging to the same.
New England hath water enough both salt and fresh, the greatest sea
in the world, the Atlantic sea, runs all along the coast thereof. There
are abundance of islands along the shore, some full of wood and mast
to feed swine; and others clear of wood, and fruitful to bear corn.
Also we have store of excellent harbors for ships, as at Cape Anne,
and at Massachusetts Bay, and at Salem, and at many other places; and
they are the better because for strangers there is a very difficult
and dangerous passage into them, but unto such as are well acquainted
with them, they are easy and safe enough. The abundance of sea-fish
is almost beyond believing, and sure I should scarce have believed it
except I had seen it with mine own eyes. I saw great store of whales,
and crampus, and such abundance of mackerels that it would astonish
one to behold, likewise codfish abundant on the coast, and in their
season are plentifully taken. There is a fish called a bass, a most
sweet and wholesome fish as ever I did eat. It is altogether as good
as our fresh salmon, and the season of their coming was begun when we
came first to New England in June, and so continued about three months
space. Of this fish our fishermen take many hundreds together, which
I have seen lying on the shore to my admiration. Yea, their nets ordinarily
take more then they are able to haul to land, and for want of boats
and men they are constrained to let many go after they have taken them,
and yet sometimes they fill two boats at a time with them. And besides
bass we take plenty of skate and thomback, and abundance of lobsters,
that the least boy in the plantation may both catch and eat what he
will of them. For my own part I was soon cloyed with them, they were
so great, and fat, and luscious. I have seen some myself that have weighed
16 pounds, but others have had divers times so great lobsters as have
weighed 25 pounds, as they assured me. Also here is abundance of herring,
turbot, sturgeon, cusks, haddocks, mullets, eels, crabs, mussels and
oysters. Besides, there is probability that the country is of an excellent
temper for the making of salt. For since our coming our fishermen have
brought home very good salt which they found candied by the standing
of the sea water and the heat of the sun, upon a rock by the sea shore.
And in divers salt marshes that some have gone through, they have found
some salt in some places crushing under their feet and clinging to their
And as for fresh water, the country is full of dainty springs, and
some great rivers, and some lesser brooks; and at Massachusetts Bay
they dug wells and found water at three foot deep in most places: and
near Salem they have as fine clear water as we can desire, and we may
dig wells and find water where we wish.
Thus we see both land and sea abound with store of blessings for the
comfortable sustenance of mans life in New England.
Of the air of New England with the temper and creatures in it. The
temper of the air of New England is one special thing that commends
this place. Experience doth manifest that there is hardly a more healthful
place to be found in the world that agreeth better with our English
bodies. Many that have been weak and sickly in old England, by coming
hither have been thoroughly healed and grown healthful and strong. For
here is an extraordinary clear and dry air that is of a most healing
nature to all such as are of a cold, melancholy, phlegmatic, rheumatic
temper of body. None can more truly speak hereof by their own experience
than myself. My friends that knew me can well tell how very sickly I
have been and continually in physic, being much troubled with a tormenting
pain through an extraordinary weakness of my stomach, and abundance
of melancholic humors; but since I came hither on this voyage, I thank
God I have had perfect health, and freed from pain and vomitings, having
a stomach to digest the hardest and coarsest fare who before could not
eat finest meat, and whereas my stomach could only digest and did require
such drink as was both strong and stale, now I can and do oftentimes
drink New England water very well, and I that have not gone without
a cap for many years together, neither durst leave off the same, have
now cast away my cap, and do wear none at all in the day time. And whereas
beforetimes I clothed myself with double clothes and thick waistcoats
to keep me warm even in the summer time, I do now go as thin clad as
any, only wearing a light stuff cassock upon my shirt and stuff breeches
of one thickness without linings. Besides I have one of my children
that was formerly most lamentably handled with sores breaking out of
both his hands and feet of the kings-evil, but since he came hither
he is very well ever he was, and there is hope of perfect recovery shortly,
even by the very wholesomeness of the air, altering, digesting and drying
up the cold and crude humors of the body. And therefore I think it is
a wise course for all cold complections to come to take physic in New
England: for a sip of New Englands air is better then a whole
draft of old Englands ale.
In the summer time in the midst of July and August, it is a good deal
hotter than in old England. And in winter, January and February are
much colder as they say. But the spring and autumn are of a middle temper.
Fowls of the air are plentiful here, and of all sorts as we have in
England as far as I can learn, and a great many of strange fowls which
we know not. Whilst I was writing these things, one of our men brought
home an eagle which he had killed in the wood. They say they are good
meat. Also here are many kinds of excellent hawks, both sea hawks and
land hawks. And myself walking in the woods with another in company,
sprung a partridge so big that through the heaviness of his body could
fly but a little way. They that have killed them say they are as big
as our hens. Here are likewise abundance of turkeys often killed in
the woods, far greater than our English turkeys, and exceeding fat,
sweet and fleshy, for here they have abundance of feeding all the year
long, such as strawberries: in summer all places are full of them, and
all manner of berries and fruits. In the winter time I have seen flocks
of pigeons, and have eaten of them. They do fly from tree to tree as
other birds do, which our pigeons will not do in England. They are of
all colors as ours are, but their wings and tails are far longer, and
therefore it is likely they fly swifter to escape the terrible hawks
in this country. In winter time this country doth abound with wild geese,
wild ducks, and other sea fowl, that a great part of winter the planters
have eaten nothing but roastmeat of divers fowls which they have killed.
Thus you have heard of the earth, water and air of New England.
Now it may be you expect something to be said of the fire proportionable
to the rest of the elements. Indeed I think New England may boast of
this element more then of all the rest: for though it be something cold
in the winter, yet here we have plenty of fire to warm us, and that
a great deal cheaper than they sell billets and faggots in London. Nay,
all Europe is not able to afford to make so great fires as New England.
A poor servant here is he that possesseth but 50 acres of land; he may
afford to give more wood for timber and fire as good as the world yields
than many noble men in England can afford to do. Here is good living
for those that love good fires. And although New England have no tallow
to make candles of, yet by the abundance of the fish thereof, it can
afford oil for lamps. Yea, our pine trees that are the most plentiful
of all wood, doth allow us plenty of candles, which are very useful
in a house; and they are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having
no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree cloven
in two little slices something thin, which are so full of the moisture
of turpentine and pitch that they burn as clear as a torch. I have sent
you some of them that you may see the experience of them.
Thus of New Englands commodities, now I will tell you of some
discommodities that are here to be found.
First: in the summer season for these three months June, July and August,
we are troubled with little flies called mosquitos, being the same they
are troubled with in Lincolnshire and the fens, and they are nothing
but gnats, which except they be smoked out of their houses are troublesome
in the night season.
Secondly: in the winter season for two months space the earth is commonly
covered with snow, which is accompanied with sharp biting frosts, something
more sharp than is in old England, and therefore we are forced to make
Thirdly: this country being very full of woods and wildernesses, doth
also much abound with snakes and serpents of strange colors and huge
greatness. Yea, there are some serpents called rattlesnakes, that have
rattles in their tails that will not fly from a man as others will,
but will fly upon him and sting him so mortally, that he will die within
a quarter of an hour after, except the party stung have about him some
of the root of an herb called snake weed to bite on, and then he shall
receive no harm. But yet seldom falls it out that any hurt is done by
these. About three years since an Indian was stung to death by one of
them, but we heard of none since that time.
Fourthly and lastly: here wants as yet the good company of honest Christians
to bring with them horses, kine and sheep to make use of the fruitful
land. Great pity it is to see so much good ground for corn and for grass
as any is under the heavens, to lie altogether unoccupied, when so many
honest men and their families in old England through the populousness
thereof, do make very hard shift to live one by the other. Thus you
know now what New England is, as also the commodities and discommodities
thereof. Now I will show you a little of the inhabitants thereof, and
For their governors they have kings, which they call saggamores, some
greater, and some lesser, according to the number or their subjects.
The greatest saggamores about us can not make above three hundred men,
and other lesser saggamores have not above fifteen subjects, and others
near about us but two.
Their subjects about twelve years since were swept away by a great
and grievous plague that was amongst them, so that there are very few
left to inhabit the country.
The Indians are not able to make use of the one fourth part of the
land, neither have they any settled places, as towns to dwell in, nor
any ground as they challenge for their own possession, but change their
habitation from place to place.
For their statures, they are a tall and strong limbed people, their
colors are tawny, they go naked, save only they are in part covered
with beasts skins on one of their shoulders, and wear something before
their privates. Their hair is generally black, and cut in front like
our gentlewomen, and one lock longer than the rest, much like to our
gentlemen, which fashion I think came from hence into England.
For their weapons, they have bows and arrows, some of them headed with
bone, and some with brass. I have sent you some of them for an example.
The men for the most part live idly, they do nothing hut hunt and fish.
Their wives set their corn and do all their other work. They have little
household stuff, as a kettle, and some other vessels like trays, spoons,
dishes and baskets.
Their houses are very little and homely, being made with small poles
pricked into the ground, and so bent and fastened at the top, and on
the sides they are matted with boughs, and covered on the roof with
sedge and old mats, and for their beds that they take their rest on,
they have a mat.
They do generally confess to like well of our coming and planting here;
partly because there is abundance of ground that they cannot possess
nor make use of, and partly because our being here will be a means both
of relief to them when they want, and also a defense from their enemies,
wherewith (I say) before this plantation began, they were often endangered.
For their religion, they do worship two gods: a good god and an evil
god. The good god they call Tantum, and their evil god, whom they fear
will do them hurt, they call Squantum.
For their dealing with us, we neither fear them nor trust them, for
forty of our musketeers will drive five hundred of them out of the field.
We use them kindly: they will come into our houses sometimes by half
a dozen or half a score at a time when we are at victuals, but will
ask or take nothing but what we give them.
We propose to learn their language as soon as we can, which will be
a means to do them good.
Of the present condition of the plantation, and what it is.
When we came first to Neihumkek, we found about half a score houses,
and a fair house newly built for the Governor (Capt. John Endecott)..
We found also abundance of corn planted by them, very good and well
liking. And we brought with us about two hundred passengers and planters
more, which by common consent of the old planters were all combined
together into one body politic, under the same Governor.
There are in all of us both old and new planters about three hundred,
whereof two hundred of them are settled at Neihumkek, now called Salem:
and the rest have planted themselves at Massachusetts Bay, beginning
to build a town there which we do call Cherton, or Charles town.
We that are settled at Salem make what haste we can to build houses,
so that within a short time we shall have a fair town.
We have great ordnance, wherewith we doubt not but we shall fortify
ourselves in a short time to keep out a potent adversary. But that which
is our greatest comfort and means of defense above all other, is that
we have here the true religion and holy ordinances of almighty God taught
amongst us. Thanks be to God, we have plenty of preaching, and diligent
catechizing, with strict and careful exercise, and good and commendable
orders to bring our people into a Christian conversation with whom we
have to do withal. And thus we doubt not but God will be with us, and
if God be with us, who can be against us?
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