The natives did a bunk

Malcolm Gaskill

  • A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America by Sam White
    Harvard, 361 pp, £23.95, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 97192 9

When my editor asked for dust-jacket ideas, I said I wanted something with snow. My book was about 17th-century America, and for all the sweltering, maize-shrivelling summers, it was the winters that had stuck in my mind. I’d found the perfect image: George Henry Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church (1867), a depiction of settlers in New Plymouth trudging through their first winter. Why the snow seemed important I’m not sure. Perhaps extreme cold, and unpreparedness for it, enhances the drama of history, pointing up heroism and hardship. In the time I was writing about there were snowflakes the size of shillings. Beards froze so that men couldn’t get bottles to their lips; bread rattled on the communion plate. In December 1630, a shoemaker from Essex, desperate to find food, sailed a shallop down the New England coast accompanied by his young daughter and two others. A storm drove them to Cape Cod, where feet had to be chipped away from the ice in the boat. They tried to make a fire, but had no hatchet to cut wood. The party lay exposed to the cold all night. Everyone except the girl and one frostbitten man died. Their Indian rescuers hacked graves from the solid earth.

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