Wednesday, January 9, 2013

William Bradford and Plymouth Plantation

Much of America's early history is shrouded in myth, and this myth is reinforced by the sanitized stories we like to tell ourselves on holidays like Thanksgiving.  As with much history, the complex reality turns out to be much more interesting than any myth.

Continuing my slow and steady trek though the Norton Anthology of American Literature, today I read some selections from William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation.  Bradford was a "pilgrim" on the Mayflower and he was elected governor of the newly-formed colony.  He was born in England to modestly well-off parents.  Around age 12 or 13, he was captivated by the sermons of the "Nonconformist" minister Richard Clyfton, who spoke against the church of England.  Eventually,  Bradford joined this "Separatist" community, re-located to Holland, and finally sailed on the Mayflower for the New World.  His history of the Plymouth colony gives fascinating insight into what life was like for the "pilgrims".

"Divine" Purpose

Given his strong religions beliefs, Bradford often compares the experiences of the pilgrims to the experiences of Bible  characters, like the Israelites and the apostles.  While his faith clearly gave him and his companions purpose and hope in very difficult times (half of the settlers died in the first winter), his faith also gave him a sense of moral and cultural superiority over the Native Americans, whom he refers to as "barbarians" and "savages".

The First Encounter

The first contact between the pilgrims and the Native Americans was not the happy "first Thanksgiving/"  Rather, it was a violent conflict, in which the pilgrims were victorious.  Bradford interpreted this victory (which mainly had to do with the fact that the pilgrims had guns and the Indians did not) as a sign of Divine favor.  He writes:

"Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance and by His special providence so to dispose that not any one of them [the colonists] were either hurt or hit…Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks ad praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of their [the Indians] arrows…and called that place the First Encounter."

The Mayflower Compact

The famous Mayflower Compact, one of the first documents outlining government rule in the New World, was occasioned by the fact that not all the "pilgrims" who came on the Mayflower were Puritans fleeing religious persecution.  A Norton footnote explains, "Many of those who came to Plymouth with them [the Puritans] were not church members but adventurers looking forward to business success and making new lives in the New World."

The Mayflower compact, according the Bradford, consisted of "laws and orders, both for their civil and military government as the necessity of their condition did require, still adding thereunto as urgent occasion in several times, and as cases did require."  In other words, it was flexible.

Indian Relations

Bradford describes the first peace treaty between the pilgrims and the Native Americans, which was facilitated by the famous Squanto and Samoset, which is heart-wrenching to read in light of the violent history that followed:

1.) That neither he (Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag) nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of their (the Plymouth Colony) people.
2.) That if any of his did hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender that they might punish him.
3.) That if anything were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do the like to his.
4.) If any did unjustly war against him, they would aid him; if any did war against them, he should aid them.
5.) He should send to his neighbors confederates to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
6.) That when their men came to them, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them.  (The treaty does not stipulate whether or not the pilgrims must leave behind their guns when entering Indian territory.)

Squanto, who served as interpreter and liaison between the Indians and the pilgrims, had a rather intense life.  He was captured as a slave by one of John Smith's men, sold to Spain, escaped to England, and sailed back to the New World in the company of an Englishman named Dermer, for whom he served as interpreter and liaison with a Native population who were (quite understandably) becoming increasingly hostile with the gun-toting European settlers like the pilgrims.

The First Thanksgiving

The famous first Thanksgiving is not recorded by Bradford as a specific event, but rather a (brief) time period when there was sharing of food and friendly relations between the settlers and the Native Americans.

Thomas Morton of Merrymount

Perhaps the most interesting (and least well-known) tale from Bradford's account is of a a man named Thomas Morton, who was hated by the pilgrims and loved by the Native Americans.  He was a lawyer, scholar, and social reformer who convinced the Indians of his area to oust the local slave-trading English lieutenant, and free themselves.

Morton set up a kind of proto-hippie utopian commune where there was equality and much merry-making, hence the name, Merrymount.  Bradford describes the liberal policy of Merrymount's residents, who would "keep no servants, for Morton would entertain any, how vile soever, and all the scum of the country or any discontents would flock to him from all places."

Bradford clearly did not like Morton, calling him a "Lord of Misrule," despite the fact that Merrymount was, by all accounts, a prosperous and fast-growing settlement.  Morton was also a writer and poet.  His book New English Canaan was harshly critical of the Puritans and their treatment of Native Ameriacns, and sought a more enlightened, tolerant policy.

The last straw came when Morton began selling guns to the Native Americans to protect themselves.  Bradford and other colonial leaders got together a militia, raided Merrymount, captured Morton, and banished him to an island off the coast of New Hampshire.  It was Bradford's, not Morton's, ideas that would prevail in the early American experiment.  


  1. Great blog post, and I am enjoying your blog in general. Thank you.

  2. Thank you! I have to read the New England Canaan

  3. Thank you! I have to read the New England Canaan

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