The Secret Gold Mine on Martha’s Vineyard

Leo Bonfanti

This blog is about the enjoyment I get from books I find at flea markets and tag sales, and, I have to add, used book stores like the Whately Antiquarian Book Center. It was there I found a copy of Biographies and Legends of the New England Indians by Leo Bonfanti,  published by Pride Publications in Burlington, Massachusetts in 1993, revised edition.

This is a delightful little book, for which I spent $5, more than I would usually spend, but it’s hard to find historical works that focus on New England in this period. Usually the focus is on North America as a whole.

I’ve been reading about the first interactions between Europeans and Native Americans in New England, which, taken as a whole, make for a very sad story, a monstrous avoidable tragedy brought on by greed and cruelty, fueled by religion.

Depressing to read about, right? No! For we find, in examining the details of the mosaic, the woof of the embroidery, these individual stories of bravery and and heroism that delight us and inspire us, and inform us when it comes our turn to take a stand in our own lives.

Let me pass along one story about a man little known to history who was obviously a pretty good judge of character. Assocumet was kidnapped from somewhere in New England in 1605 by Sir George Weymouth (in Massachusetts we name towns after kidnappers, and worse) along with Manida, Skettawaroes, Dehamda and Squanto.

These men lived with Sir Ferdinando Gorges in London, where they learned to speak English and were questioned in detail about the peoples, the georgraphy and the resources of New England. In 1606, Assacumet and Manida were sent back to New England as interpreters with Captain Henry Chalons, but the vessel was captured by a Spanish warship and taken to Spain where the Indians were sold as slaves.

Nothing further is known of Manida, but Assacumet escaped from slavery and made his way back to London. Wait a minute. What? A member of the Wampanoag tribe with one year of English instruction, enslaved in Spain, escapes and gets back to London? Think about that for a minute. Right there you can see that Assacumet was definitely a resourceful guy.

In the meantime, Skettawaroes and Dehamda had been sent back to Maine with an expedition of 100 Europeans and had returned to their people. The English settlement was abandoned due to disease, cold and lack of food, and the English lost interest in New England for nearly ten years.

In the interim, another very vile personage, Captain Edward Harlow, kidnapped Sakaweston and Coneconam, Sachem of Manomet, and Epanow, Sachem of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. Harlow tried to sell these men into slavery in Spain, but couldn’t get the price he wanted, so he took them to London where he displayed to paying audiences. When the crowds began to dwindle, Harlow sold them to Gorges, who sent Assacumet to welcome them to London.

Well by now Assacumet has been in England for nine years and he wants to go home. The English have gone sour on the idea of a New England colony, so they aren’t sending any more expeditions. So along comes Epanow, Sachem of Gay Head, and Assacumet gets an idea.

He has seen how excited the English get about gold, so he gets Epanow to tell them about the secret gold mine on Martha’s Vineyard. His people would kill him for revealing the secret, he says, but he’s willing to risk death to regain his freedom.

“On the strength of this wild story,” Bonfanti writes, “Gorges outfitted a ship to go to Martha’s Vineyard, sending Assacumet along to act as an interpreter.”

“In spite of his seeming ingenuousness, Gorges was not a complete fool. He did not trust either Assacumet or Epanow, and ordered his men to keep them under close guard at all times, and to keep them dressed in long, loose clothing so they could be more easily caught if they attempted to escape.”

Artist's depiction of the attack on Capt. Nicholas Hobson's ship by Wampanoag warriors in 1614 on Martha's Vineyard
Artist's depiction of the attack on Capt. Nicholas Hobson's ship by Wampanoag warriors in 1614 on Martha's Vineyard

The ship gets to Gay Head and the Wampanoags come out in canoes and Epanow tells them he’s a prisoner and relays his plan.

The men come back with large bundles of furs, which Captain Nicholas Hobson decides he wants to trade for. He tells Epanow to tell the men to come aboard, but they pretend not to hear. Hobson tells Epanow to repeat the message, so he yells something unintelligible, breaks away from the sailors and jumps into the water.

“To cover his escape, his friends fired volley after volley of arrows at the ship, then retreated out of gunshot range. A number of sailor were wounded by the arrows, and in the ensuing confusion, Assacumet slipped quietly over the side and same ashore to freedom.”