Miles Standish

Miles Standish

(c. 1584-1656)

Miles Standish was born in Lancashire county in northwest England, and his family was evidently Roman Catholic. Not much else is known of his early years except that he served in the Netherlands and Belgium as a mercenary soldier. Because of his reputation as a military man, he was hired by the Pilgrim colonists to go along when they sailed to North America in 1620.

After landing at Plymouth, the Pilgrims came to rely greatly on Standish’s practical experience. Over the first winter, he was one of only a handful of colonists who did not become terribly ill, and he helped to nurse the others. He also became adept at dealing with the local tribes, even learning their dialects. Standish designed and supervised the construction of the Plymouth’s fort, and he organized various other measures to defend the colony.

By 1625, the Plymouth Colony was having financial and legal problems with its sponsors in England. Standish was asked to return home to negotiate on behalf of the colony. He went to England, and although he did not have much success in negotiations, he returned in 1626 with some loans and valuable supplies.

In 1627 he became one of the financial supporters of the colony, and from that point on he held several important positions within the colony’s administration. In 1628 he also led the expedition from Plymouth that broke up the unruly Merry Mount settlement in nearby Quincy, led by the renegade Thomas Morton.

Standish’s first wife had died during the first winter, and in 1624 he married a woman who had come over from England the previous year. More than 200 years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his well-known poem—The Courtship ofMiles Standish. The poem tells of how Standish, too shy to ask Priscilla Mullins to marry him, asks fellow colonist John Alden to propose on his behalf.

In fact, Alden also loves Priscilla, and when he proposes for Standish, Priscilla asked, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” Although Longfellow’s poem is one of the most beloved and oft-quoted poems in American literature, there is no basis for the tale.

In fact, Alden—who did indeed marry Priscilla —and Standish were friends. In 1631 they founded the adjacent town of Duxbury, where Standish lived during his later years.

Standish was a striking man, short, rather stout, and with a florid complexion and red hair. His enemy, Thomas Morton, called him “Captain Shrimp,” and another acquaintance described him as follows: “A little chimney soon fired.” However, no description ever denied that Standish was a brave, hardy, and irreplaceable member of New England’s first colony.