Saturday, November 14, 2015


It is certainly true that much of our mythology about the Pilgrims and the Indians feasting together at harvest time in the 1620's is not quite right.  Multiple events have been fused into a single story, and some of the difficult bits have been taken out.  The cooperation and bonhomie were likely related to the near-starvation of the early settlers and the horrendous death-by-disease which many of the northeastern tribes experienced just prior to the arrival of the Europeans and all their cool technology.  Sometimes groups turn on each other in such situations, but for others, mutual benefit can be a bond, even among people who have little intuitive understanding of each other.

There is a dramatic truth which does emerge from the story, however.  For fifty years they lived together in remarkable peace.  Compared to how people were getting along back in England, and England vs Continental Europe, the Puritans now had remarkably good neighbors.  Compared to the tribes inland, the Mohawks vs the Iroquois Confederacy and even some of the very local other tribes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the natives around Plimoth enjoyed comparative peace as well.

There were terrible things done, more by the Europeans to the natives than the reverse but not all one-sided. But as is often the case, many Massachusets or Wampanoags considered the English safer and more reliable than Mahicans, while the English in their turn liked those natives better than the Dutch or French traders that happened by.

There is another revealing point as well.  Bradford and other diarists record that when the groups got together, the younger people had competitions and games, the women compared various works and skills of hand, and the adult men sat together and talked. Race and religion are perhaps not as reliable dividers of people as sex and age, at least in social situations.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

I recently proofed Thomas Morton's "New Canaan," written in the 1630's, about the Massachusetts colony. He quarreled bitterly with the Puritans ("Cruel Schismatics"), so you have to take his criticism of them with a grain of salt, but even he doesn't accuse them of failing to get along with the Indians. Part of his quarrel was that he was a lot more cavalier about trading guns and booze with the Indians than the Puritans could stand. Evidently they were accustomed to engage in friendly trade, but had learned that only trouble came of mixing Indians with rifles and alcohol. The Puritans resented Morton's trade advantage, as he could snap up all the best furs and other Indian trade goods by paying with what they wanted most.

Morton describes New England as a paradise, teeming with fish and game, and he often expresses incredulity that anyone with a gun could go hungry there. His contempt for some hungry Puritans is withering. He seemed to get along just fine with the Indians, without idealizing, patronizing, or demonizing them. Again, though, you can't quite take him at face value; he was not above changing a lot of facts around in aid of a good story.

One of his tales is about an Indian complaint that an English settler stole from his store of corn. The settlers took the complaint very seriously, even concluding that the thief must be hanged in order to preserve peace.