American Character: Edward Winslow

There probably aren’t too many Americans who know the name Edward Winslow. He was one of the Pilgrims, a trusted friend and helper for William Bradford for many years. As with Bradford, Winslow’s Christian faith led him to depart England for Holland, and then on to the New World.

Winslow suffered in the same way Bradford did at first in the new colony of Plymouth. The first winter was severe, and half the company died. One of those was Winslow’s wife, Elizabeth. Yet he continued to believe that God had called him to this venture.

Winslow became the chief diplomat for the Pilgrims with their Indian neighbors. Chief Massasoit had a special regard for Winslow because of one particular episode.

Massasoit was dying, probably from typhus. Plymouth sent Winslow to see what could be done to help. Upon arriving at the Indian village, Winslow examined Massasoit’s tongue and saw that it was “exceedingly furred” and so swollen that the chief could eat nothing. Winslow was able to get some fruit preserves into the chief, then scraped the “corruption” from his mouth and tongue.

Winslow’s constant attention to Massasoit’s needs, which included shooting and cooking a duck for him, as well as offering what medicines he could, led to the chief’s recovery when everyone thought he was going to die. Massasoit then asked if Winslow would do the same for others in the tribe suffering the same sickness. Winslow dutifully scraped the mouths of everyone who was sick, something he admitted was “much offensive to me, not being accustomed with such poisonous savors.” But his Christian faith, and the desire to maintain good relations with the natives, inspired him to complete the task. As Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower,  comments, “This was a form of diplomacy that went far beyond the usual exchange of pleasantries and gifts.”

Winslow also performed diplomatic missions for the colony with the English government. On one such trip back to his native land, he decided to stay and help with the Parliament’s war against Charles I. He never returned to Plymouth, but was instead named a commissioner for a British naval effort against the Spanish. He died in 1655 of yellow fever off the coast of Jamaica. Philbrick concludes,

Winslow undoubtedly looked to his final decade in England as his shining hour as a diplomat, but his most significant contribution to British and American history had actually occurred more than thirty years earlier when he became the Englishman Massasoit trusted above all others.

Edward Winslow’s life and character should not be shuttled to the back pages of American history. His contribution to the founding of the New World should be known by every American.