Of Plymouth

I just finished Of Plymouth Plantation, the memoirs of the colony’s first governor, William Bradford.  I expected it to be dry, but it’s highly readable… Bradford himself might have meant to be dry, but his curse was to live in interesting times.  Lots was happening: persecution in England, exile in Holland, starting a new colony, meeting the Indians, getting screwed by capitalists, hotheads, and Frenchmen.  There’s even a hurricane and a visit by pirates.

Garrison Keillor talked about his ancestors coming over from England “in hopes of discovering greater restrictions than were permissible under English law”.  This is a great joke but not at all fair; the Puritans came over because King James, he of the Version, felt threatened by their rejection of the Church of England and actively persecuted them.  The Salem Witch Trials permanently darkened their reputation, but, hey, that was a different colony and two generations later.  Bradford himself seems quite level-headed and must have been an exemplary public servant– he was re-elected governor thirty times.

Curiously, he describes the Indians as cruel savages, but also valued peace with them and complains hotly of dissolute Englishmen who stole from the Indians.  There was no need to steal their land– he mentions pestilences which decimated the Indian population and left their land up for grabs.  Very likely these pestilences were spread by European fishermen and others who had visited the coast before settlement began.

The Pilgrims were supported by English investors, which led to endless squabbles which occupy much of the book.  The best early source of cash was beaver pelts– thousands were shipped to England each year.

It was fun to see names of quite a few places I knew, including the neighborhood I lived in for three years, Wollaston.  There was a settlement there founded by one Capt. Wollaston, but for awhile the main base of a lawless group of men centered on one Morton, whom Bradford singles out for dissolution and licentiousness, and for selling guns to the Indians.

Plymouth helped settle the region, and then declined, largely due to the rise of Boston.  Plymouth wasn’t well situated to be a major agricultural center, and it was an inconvenient port, too far within the Bay and with too shallow water– goods had to be brought ashore by boats, while at Boston they could be unloaded on a wharf.