As far as we can tell, the names Allerton Hill and Point Allerton, separate geographic features at the northern end of town, are not simply honorary appellations. Legend states that Isaac Allerton, the fifth signer of the Mayflower Compact, visited the area and set eyes upon the landforms that still carry his surname today. But we may never know for sure whether or not this tale is true.
The story of the Pilgrims is retold every year at this time, not just here on the South Shore but around the United States. It has been scrutinized; it has been exaggerated; and it has been twisted for various reasons. Mayflower descendants have trumpeted the virtues and accomplishments of their ancestors for decades, rightly or wrongly. We have sought perceived American values of sanctity and purity in the story of the first Thanksgiving, oddly taking these fresh-off-the-boat immigrants as becoming the first true Americans almost as soon as they hit New World soil. Assigning any sort of modern-day patriotism to them seems odd; they were British subjects fleeing what they considered to be religious wrongs. And, of course, most accounts through time have overlooked or downplayed the Native American side of the story.
Thankfully, though, the adventurers themselves left behind journals and memoirs that we can use as our primary source base, knowing full well that these writings have their biases, too, being written for specific audiences. Even diarists knew that someday their words would be read by others. So, we have to take them as they are, and interpret them the best we can.
Unfortunately, neither William Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation” or “Mourt’s Relation,” or the “Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth” by Bradford and Edward Winslow names Isaac Allerton as being on the settlers’ Fall 1621 journey into Boston Harbor.
We do know why they set sail in the shallop that fall. “It seemed good to the company in general, that though the Massachusetts had often threatened us (as we were informed),” wrote Bradford and Winslow, “yet we should go amongst them, partly to see the country, partly to make peace with them, and partly to procure their truce.”
The Massachusett who lived in and around Boston Harbor, moving inland and back to the shore with the seasons, had already suffered greatly at the hands of European visitors. French, British, and Dutch explorers frequented the area in the years leading up to 1620, following the paths forged by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602 and John Smith in 1614. An incident in 1616 at Peddocks Island left several sailors aboard a French ship dead, slaughtered by the natives. The following year, as if by divine providence – or so the Puritans who settled Boston believed – the Massachusett began to succumb to what may have been smallpox. The disease, or perhaps bubonic plague, claimed 90 percent of the population. The Massachusett the Plimoth men entreated to visit were hardly representative of the strength of the community even five years prior. Had it come to full-blown war, with their own population halved by the brutal winter of 1620-1621 the Mayflower passengers might never have been able to stand against the might of the Massachusett had the natives never been struck down by the ravages of the European-delivered disease.
And so, “Ye 18 of September, they sent out their shallop to the Massachusetts, with 10 men, and Squanto for their guide and interpreter, to discover and view that bay, and trade with ye natives; the which they performed, and found kind entertainment,” wrote Bradford in “Of Plimoth Plantation.” “Mourt’s Relation” states: “For these ends the Governors chose ten men, fit for the purpose, and sent Tisquantum, and two other Salvages to bring us to speech with the people, and interpret for us.” Of utmost importance in understanding the mission of the venturing Pilgrims of September 1621 is the use of the word “Salvages” in all accounts from the period. While some first contactors chose the word “savage,” with its scurrilous undertones of heathen-like avoidance of religion and questionable ethics, Bradford and others with him used the word “salvage,” derived from the same etymology as the word “sylvan,” meaning, loosely, “forest-dweller.” By the term, they meant no disrespect.
The “Governors” at that time were William Bradford and his assistant, Isaac Allerton. Allerton had lost his wife Mary in February 1621. He had also been an important negotiator and diplomat in the short months the Pilgrims had spent in Plimoth. In March, he and Myles Standish had visited “King Massasoit” in order to determine whether or not a native attack was imminent; they were greatly relieved to find that it was not.
So, since no account names the 10 men in the shallop, we are left to wonder who exactly they were. We know that the Pilgrim men left their mark in naming not only Point Allerton but the Brewster Islands, in honor of Elder William Brewster. That the names remained even for a short time is remarkable. One would surmise that once the Puritans settled what would become Boston they would name or rename prominent islands and headlands for their own leaders. Point Allerton could just as easily have become Point Winthrop or Point Blaxton.
Was Isaac Allerton on the journey? Of course, the possibility exists. His stature as a leader and his experience as a peacemaker seem to point in that direction; so, too, does the naming of the headland on the journey. But did they land at the point? “We set out about midnight, the tide then serving for us,” wrote Bradford and Winslow in “Mourt’s Relation.” “We supposing it to be nearer than it is, thought to be there the next morning betimes; but it proved well near twenty leagues from New Plimoth.
“We came into the bottom of the Bay, but being late we anchored and lay in the Shallop, not having seen any of the people,” they continued. “The next morning we put in for the shore. There we found many Lobsters that had been gathered together by the Salvages, which we made ready under a cliff. The Captain [Myles Standish, the military leader of the Colony] set two Sentinels behind the cliff to the landward to secure the Shallop, and taking a guide with him, and four of our company, went to seek the Inhabitants, where they met a woman coming for her Lobsters, they told her of them, and contented her for them. She told them where the people were; Tisquantum went to them, the rest returned, having direction which way to bring the Shallop to them.”
The cliff under which they prepared the lobsters has been described as either Copp’s Hill in today’s Boston, or even the northeast corner of Squantum in Quincy. The party moved across to today’s Charlestown, hiked inland, and returned to the shallop, after hearing of two mighty rivers that feed into the harbor, and meeting many of the natives. “Better harbors for shipping cannot be then here are,” wrote Bradford and Winslow. “At the entrance of the Bay are many Rocks; and in all likelihood very good fishing ground. Many, yea, most of the islands have been inhabited, some being cleared from end to end, but the people are all dead, or removed.
“Our victuals growing scarce, the Wind coming fair, and having a light Moon, we set out at evening, and through the goodness of God, came safely home before Noon the following day,” about September 22.
“They returned in safety, and brought home a good quantity of beaver, and made report of ye place, wishing they had been their seated,” wrote Bradford in “Of Plimoth Plantation,” noting that God had other plans for the land.
The return to the plantation could not have come at a better time. Bradford continued: “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”
Furthermore, stated Bradford and Winslow in “Mourt’s Relation,” “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
These passages are taken to represent the first Thanksgiving feast, which may have taken place as early as September 29, Michaelmas, a traditional time for such a celebration.
Herein lies the mystery. “Mourt’s Relation” was published in 1622 in London, and subsequently lost to time, until a copy surfaced in Philadelphia in 1820. Reprinted fully in 1841, it sparked new interest in the story of the first Thanksgiving, and among Allerton descendants. “A party of ten men – of whom Mr. Allerton was probably one – were sent in September 1621 to visit the Massachusetts Indians,” wrote Hon. Henry W. Cushman of Bernardston, Mass., in “Memoir of Isaac Allerton” in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register of July 1854. “At that time or at a subsequent period three small islands being the ones as you approach Boston Harbor from the east were named the Brewsters in honor of Elder Brewster and as a mark of respect to Mr. Allerton the first headland or cape of Nantasket was called Point Allerton.”
A footnote to this entry correctly notes that both Allerton himself and the Point carrying his name were often incorrectly called “Alderton” but that on an 1844 map of Massachusetts, published “under the authority and at the expense of the State, it is correctly spelled Point Allerton.”
By the end of the century, Allerton’s presence on the journey had been historically cemented in place, accurately or not, by Walter Scott Allerton, in “A History of the Allerton Family in the United States, 1585 to 1885.” “In September, 1621, a party of ten, including Isaac Allerton, went by water to explore what is now the harbor of Boston,” wrote Walter Scott Allerton in 1888, “and to visit the Indians who lived in that vicinity, and on this trip the first headland at Nantasket at the entrance to the harbor was called Point Allerton, a name which it still retains, although it has sometimes been spelled Alderton; an adjoining hill in the town of Hull was also known for many years as Allerton Hill.”
In September 1971, on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim visit to Boston Harbor, the people of Hull dedicated a plaque memorializing the moment. It remains today, in memory of the days just before the first Thanksgiving, when the Pilgrims explored the coast of what would one day become the town of Hull.