American History and Genealogy Project


When John Alden Went to Jail

Let it be said at the outset that the stay of John Alden in jail was a short one; that he was there not as a convicted felon, but as the result of charges, and that he was found absolutely blameless of these charges, which involved nothing less than the crime of murder. This, for the sake of the multitude of Americans who are proud to trace their ancestry back to the stalwart youth of Plymouth, whose wooing the demure Priscilla encouraged; also for the sake of the peace of mind of that greater number who honor John Alden as one of the noblest of that Pilgrim band which laid the corner-stone of the nation.

But the imprisonment of John Alden in Boston, as the result of a fatal shooting affair in the far-off wilderness of Maine, is an event in his life which has been ignored or lightly touched upon by most writers; and the tragic affair itself is given such brief mention in most of the chronicles of early New England that it almost seems to belong to the misty realm of legend and tradition.

The reason for this is that the story of the Pilgrim Fathers on the Kennebec has never been given its due prominence. As a matter of fact, the Pilgrims maintained a trading-post on the Kennebec, where Augusta now stands, from 1627 to 1661, and by the profits of this trade and only by these profits, were they able to pay their burdensome debt in England, and save the colony from ruin. For over a third of a century, winter and summer, the leading men of Plymouth were in turn in charge of the trading-post at Koussinoc, as it was called, and were as familiar with that region as with Plymouth itself. Yet so little emphasis has been placed upon this important chapter of Pilgrim history that even the school-teachers of Maine, in telling their pupils the ever new story of the "Mayflower,'' fail to mention that the head of the tide on the beautiful Kennebec was visited, not once, but through many years, by Myles Standish, John Alden, Edward Winslow, John Winslow, John Howland, and the others whose names are usually associated only with Plymouth Rock.
It was in the early spring of 1634 that John Alden sailed from Plymouth to the Kennebec with supplies for the trading-post, of which John Howland was then in charge. The extent of the trade carried on with the peaceful Abnaki Indians may be imagined when it is stated that in this year, 1634, no less than twenty hogsheads of beaver skins, not to mention other furs, were shipped to England. Rumors of this profitable business had aroused the jealousy of the English on the Piscataqua, and they sent John Hocking as their representative to claim a share of the Kennebec.

Hocking's arrival at Koussinoc was bound to precipitate trouble. John Howland at once ordered him to return down-river, and a stormy colloquy followed. Hocking, "with ill words," refused to leave, and in token of his assumed rights, and also that he might intercept the fur-laden canoes coming down to Koussinoc, he anchored his craft in the river above the post. John Alden was a witness to what followed, but does not appear to have had any part in the exciting drama.

With four men in boats, John Howland put out into the stream and again ordered Hocking to depart. Again there was a contemptuous refusal, and Howland directed his men to cut the cables of the intruder's boat. As they were about to do this, Hocking seized the gun which he had ready, and threatened their lives.

"Shoot me, not them!" cried the intrepid Howland, springing to the rail of his boat. "They are only obeying my orders!"
But Hocking fired at short range at one of the men, Moses Talbot, as he cut the rope, and Talbot fell dead in the boat. Upon this one of the others promptly fired at Hocking, and he also fell, shot through the head, and died without a word. The old chroniclers discreetly fail to mention the name of the man who thus avenged Talbot's death. In his brief account of the affair, Governor Bradford simply says that it was "one of his fellows that loved him well," and distinctly states that John Alden, although present, "was no actore in ye business."

Naturally, when the news of the affair reached the Piscataqua and Plymouth colonies, there was intense excitement. Massachusetts Bay, moreover, felt called upon to interfere in behalf of the Piscataqua plantation, and bitter feeling was aroused between Boston and Plymouth. When John Alden, having returned from the Kennebec, went to Boston on business, he was seized by the authorities of that town and put into prison. Capt. Myles Standish hurried to his rescue and tried to secure his release, but the Boston magistrates insisted on a hearing of the whole case. Winslow and Bradford appeared in behalf of Plymouth, and Winthrop and Dudley in behalf of Massachusetts Bay. The Piscataqua plantation did not even bother to send a representative. It was finally made plain that the Plymouth traders were on the Kennebec by virtue of a royal patent covering that region, granted in 1672, and that the shooting of Hocking had been an act of self-defense, after he had killed Talbot. "Whereupon John Alden was allowed to depart in peace to the anxious Mistress Priscilla and the children, and the men of Plymouth enjoyed undisputed possession of Koussinoc and the Abnaki trade until the game became so scarce and the red hunters so few that the post was abandoned. Its decaying ruins were visible a generation later.

It is from Father Gabriel Druillettes and other Jesuit missionaries, who came down through the wilderness from Quebec, and who maintained for many years a mission on the Kennebec, a mile or two above the trading post at Koussinoc, that we learn most about the life of the Pilgrims there. Possibly one reason why the Pilgrims themselves wrote so little about it is that they did not care to have the world of that time know too much about the nature and extent of their business on the Kennebec. They had no trouble with the Indians, but they made no attempt to civilize or Christianize them. They welcomed the Jesuit mission, and Father Druillettes and John Winslow were particularly warm friends.

There is a story that one Englishman who came to Koussinoc frequently worshiped at the little mission chapel above the post. It is assumed that this was Myles Standish, who came of a Catholic family in England, and who never joined the Pilgrims in their church relations. It rather upsets the popular notion of the bigotry of those times to read that Father Druillettes went from Koussinoc to Plymouth and Boston, where he was most cordially received. He was even allowed to celebrate mass in a Puritan home, and was hospitably entertained by John Eliot, the apostle to the Indians.
The precise spot upon which the Koussinoc trading-post stood has been in dispute among historians. It was near an island at the head of the tide, and most authorities have located it on the plateau at the east end of the bridge at Augusta, where historic Fort Western, which is still standing, was erected in 1754, almost a century after the post was abandoned. There are many things to support this idea. Others have located it a little farther up the river, and although in the minority, they stoutly maintain their position.

A few years ago an Augusta antiquarian, Dr. W. Scott Hill, in exploring some of the many Indian graves near the river, two or three miles above the city, came across two graves close together, which were plainly different from the others. Only a rusty discoloration of the soil remained of what had once been human bodies; but there were strands and shreds of cloth which quickly crumbled when exposed to the air, and a number of shot, discovered by a minute examination, offered a suggestion of tragedy. Moreover, in one of the graves there was a pipe of peculiar make, of which there is an exact duplicate in the collection of Pilgrim relics at Plymouth. These things convinced Doctor Hill that the graves of John Hocking and Moses Talbot had come to light after more than two centuries and a half, and that the scene of the 1634 tragedy, and consequently the site of the post itself, was thus definitely located at a point several miles above old Fort Western. It is known, however, that the shooting-occurred above the post, but how far above can never be known.

Jo Jin Clair Minot

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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