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The Pilgrims in America: William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation

[N]ot having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

Paul the Apostle, “Epistle to the Hebrews”

Ideal communities have always been formed by minority movements.

Mark Holloway, Heavens on Earth

Jay Parini selected William Bradford’s chronicle Of Plymouth Plantation as one of the “thirteen books that changed America” (cf. his book of the same [sub-] title). Bradford in his book indeed did a lot to ‘create’ America as the Promised Land of the Pilgrims and by doing so dramatically changed the America he had found. Of Plymouth Plantation is a key text of ‘new world’ beginnings, a selfrepresentation of the Pilgrim experience, a crucial historical source, and a prominent foundational text of the United states. Its author was the single most important individual in the Pilgrim settlement of Plymouth: Bradford was the governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1620 almost continuously until his death in 1657 and wrote the history of the colony, seeking “through his history, to preserve both the record and the fact of Plymouth’s separate identity” (Delbanco and Heimert, “William Bradford” 51). Of Plymouth Plantation covers the period from 1606 to 1646 and encompasses two volumes: Book One describes the history of the Pilgrims until their landing in the ‘new world’ (1606-1620), Book Two recounts the early years of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (1620-1646). Bradford’s work has survived as a major document about 17th-century North America. Of course, we do not know and are not able to reconstruct to what extent Bradford’s account is trustworthy; still, for our purposes it is crucial to examine how he described and framed the Pilgrim enterprise as an Exodus from England to the Promised Land, and thereby established a powerful foil for the interpretation of early European settlement in North America.

Yet, whereas John smith’s self-confident narrative about his experiences and observations in Virginia and his narrative of the founding of Jamestown were immediately available to his contemporaries in print, William Bradford’s historiography, written between 1620 and 1647, was printed only in 1856. It was an immediate literary sensation - not least because of Bradford’s appended passenger list, which finally enabled Americans to trace their ancestry literally back to the Mayflower, an endeavor which previously had been based mostly on speculation. Prior to the publication of Bradford’s text, only a few clergymen and scholars had access to the manuscript - not least because it went missing in the Revolutionary War and only resurfaced in a London library in the 1850s - and yet it “was from these deliberately selective and didactic interpretations that the Pilgrim myth evolved” (Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims 23). Overall, the early clerical historians viewed the Pilgrims’ voyage from Europe to America as a “religious hegira” (ibid. 24), and “for two centuries, this reading of colonial history predominated and contributed greatly to the myth that the first settlers of Massachusetts were pious Puritans who immigrated to obtain religious freedom,” even though this “is not exactly the way Bradford wrote it” (ibid.). In fact, when we examine Bradford’s text, we will frequently find ambiguity, doubt, skepticism, and disappointment concerning the progress of the Pilgrims in realizing their Promised Land in North America. Yet, throughout his memoirs, the key text for a study of Pilgrim mythmaking, Bradford keeps referring to the biblical tale of the Promised Land, thereby consistently contrasting present oppression and misgivings with the promise of future freedom and salvation.

In the first part, Bradford’s narrative recounts the trials of the Pilgrims moving first from England to the Netherlands to escape persecution, and then back to England to prepare for their journey across the Atlantic. The narrative thus begins with the suffering of the Pilgrims in an environment hostile to their religious beliefs. According to Bradford, it is with God’s help that the group then manages to escape its plight and to preserve its faith and community. During their journey to North America, God’s special providence is revealed to the Pilgrims in many ways, e.g. by being delivered from the danger and terror of a heavy storm. They are also shown the consequences of blasphemy and ungodly behavior, e.g. in the somewhat drastic and highly illustrative episode about a young sailor onboard the ship who frequently mocked the Pilgrims during their journey:

There was an insolent and very profane young man, - one of the sailors, which made him the more overbearing, - who was always harassing the poor people in their sicknes, and cursing them daily with grievous execrations, and did not hesitate to tell them that he hoped to help throw half of them overboard before they came to their journey’s end. If he were gently reproved by anyone, he would curse and swear most bitterly. But it pleased God, before they came half seas over, to smite the young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first to be thrown overboard. Thus his curses fell upon his own head, which astonished all his mates for they saw it was the just hand of God upon him. (Bradford, Of Plymouth 41)

Bradford uses this episode to (somewhat smugly) illustrate God’s providence in guiding the Pilgrims on their sacred journey to the Promised Land and letting those perish who want to harm their progress. The spirit of companionship in God culminates in the so-called Mayflower Compact that was drawn up and signed by 41 men on board the Mayflower, who in so doing wrote into being a new “civil body politic:”

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc., having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and the furtherance of the ends aforesaid and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general use of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. (Bradford, Of Plymouth 49)

The Mayflower Compact is a collective speech act of a white, male elite and a pragmatic attempt to define those Pilgrims who are striving for their Promised Land in North America as a social entity unto themselves. Many accounts have idealized and mythologized this contract as the beginning of American democracy, or even as the first American constitution (among them George Bancroft’s 19th-century History of the United States); yet, in fact, it intended to achieve the exact opposite: namely to keep power and authority in the hands of the elite, to exclude other settlers and the Natives from it, and to exert control over how the ideal society was to look like. It was both a self-empowering declaration of loyalty as well as of autonomy by the separatists.

In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford describes the arrival in the Promised Land upon which, he writes, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries of it, again to set their feet upon the firm and stable earth, their proper element (cf. 42-3). The settlement site is named Plymouth, after their place of departure in England. Yet, this site at first does not look like a Promised Land at all. Bradford, in fact, compares himself standing on the dunes of Cape Cod to Moses standing on Mount Pisgah, yet under different and more difficult circumstances, as the Pilgrims could not go up to the top of Pisgah, to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the Heavens!) they could gain little solace from any outward objects. Summer being done, all things turned upon them a weather-beaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, presented a wild and savage view. (ibid. 43)

Thus, it is still a big leap from the “savage wilderness” to God’s “heavenly kingdom” (ibid.), and it is this ambiguity - the radical discrepancy between dogma and experience, between ideological construction and empirical reality - that continues to preoccupy Bradford even as the vision of America as the Promised Land for the Pilgrims propels his narrative. This kind of interpretation of God’s will and intentionality is characteristic of both Pilgrim and Puritan diction; the world and every detail in it become intelligible only as signs of God’s divine plan. Bradford in this way also justifies the Pilgrims’ sense of entitlement toward the ‘new world,’ which is “fruitful and fit for habitation, though devoid of all civilized inhabitants and given over to savages, who range up and down, differing little from the wild beasts themselves” (ibid. 13). Whereas Bradford recognizes the Natives at least nominally and acknowledges their presence even when denigrating their way of life as “brutish,” another text from the first half of the 17th century claims more drastically that the extinction of the indigenous population was God’s work, who by “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives by the smallpox a little before we went thither [...] [made] room for us there;” to the anonymous author, this revealed how “the good hand of God favoured our beginnings” (New England’s First Fruits 65). It becomes apparent in these sources that the Pilgrims’ notions of the Promised Land and of God’s divine scheme served to justify and legitimate the displacement and destruction of other peoples.

Yet, apart from his condescending attitude toward the indigenous population and despite descriptions of early English-Native conflicts and skirmishes, Bradford overall portrays the interaction with the Natives as relatively peaceful, which is mainly due to two Native figures: Squanto and Massasoit. Squanto is introduced as a Native American who upon their arrival “came boldly among them, and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand, but were astonished at it” (Bradford, Of Plymouth 51). Squanto, the only survivor of the Patuxet tribe, spoke English because of his previous captivity on board an English ship and a seafaring life that had brought him several times across the Atlantic, to the Mediterranean Sea, all the way up to Newfoundland, and eventually back to New England - just in time to greet the Pilgrims. His (mostly involuntary) geographic movements were quite exceptional at that time, and the Pilgrims therefore marveled at an English-speaking Native. Squanto appears as an “eccentric native,” as a “disconcertingly hybrid ‘native’ met at the ends of the earth - strangely familiar, and different precisely in that unprocessed familiarity” (Clifford, “Travelling” 19). He carved out a space for himself as the mediator between the culture of the newcomers and that of the Natives and was extremely helpful to the Pilgrims in showing them many things they did not know, because despite their claim to be culturally, religiously, and morally superior to the indigenous population, they were in fact utterly helpless and disoriented. From Squanto they learned how to survive that first long winter - after all, they had arrived at Cape Cod in November. Not surprisingly perhaps, the Pilgrims took Squanto’s presence not as an effect of the globalizing force and violence of colonialism of which they themselves were a part, but primarily as another token of God’s providence, which never ceased to amaze them:

[...] Squanto stayed with them, and was their interpreter, and became a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation. He showed them how to plant their corn, where to take fish and other commodities, and guided them to unknown places, and never left them till he died. (Bradford, Of Plymouth 52)

Whereas Squanto was a native informant, Massasoit was the chief of the Wam- panoags, who lived in the area where the Pilgrims settled. Massasoit from the beginning met regularly with the Pilgrims and initiated and negotiated a peace treaty in 1621, the first of its kind. Little did he know that those newcomers felt they were entitled to his people’s land on the basis of their interpretation of a story in a text collection compiled thousands of years before their arrival in America. Yet, the pilgrims managed to live peacefully with the Wampanoags for the first 50 years, while the nearby Puritans and the Virginians to the south were already fighting the local indigenous peoples over land and resources. The peace agreement between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims lasted until 1675, when an armed conflict often referred to as King Philip’s War broke out. But, to return to Bradford’s account of English-Native relations: as already mentioned he describes them mostly positively, yet at the same time he and his fellow Pilgrims are extremely condescending toward the Natives. For all the good intentions to give a balanced, even sympathetic portrayal of the indigenous population, Bradford repeatedly echoes Columbus’s representation of the American natives in his first letter from the ‘new world;’ a milder and more strongly religiously invested but not altogether different colonial hermeneutics emanates from Bradford’s text. The religious discourse of the Pilgrims is permeated by cultural assump?tions of their own (i.e., white) superiority; as we can see here, religion does not transcend (English) culture - rather, it is part of it. This is also evident in the writings of other Pilgrims; Edward Winslow for instance writes in a letter on December 11, 1621:

We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us, very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us. [...] Yea, it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us, that not only the greatest king amongst them, called Massasoit, but also all the princes and peoples round about us, have either made suit unto us or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us [...]. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are people without any religion or knowledge of any God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just. The men and women go naked, only a skin about their middles. (qtd. in Young, Chronicles 51)

Due to the lore that has developed around the experience of the Pilgrims’ first winter in North America as well as due to the absence of major hostilities in the early decades of the Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims’ settlement is often connected to notions of Native hospitality and peaceful intercultural relations - notions which inspired then-President of the United States Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 in order to commemorate that very first ‘Thanksgiving’ which took place in Plymouth in 1621. However, Bradford himself does not dwell on this event in his text, which has only been fleshed out and embellished by subsequent writers. Lincoln in his efforts to promote an ideology of peace and domestic harmony at a time when the ‘United’ States were at war with each other (cf. Seelye, Memory’s Nation 17) chose Thanksgiving as a day of commemoration, yet the ambiguity of Thanksgiving in the ideology of the Pilgrims is apparent: they gave thanks to God for their survival but hardly to their Native fellow men and women, who, they believed, acted not of their own accord but merely as instruments of God’s will. In Bradford’s text, the world is interpreted according to typological doctrine and biblical literalism in an often futile attempt to brush aside or smooth over ambiguity and uncertainty.

The second volume of Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which accounts for the settlement’s development in the early decades of its existence, is imbued with a rhetoric of damnation as well as reward; it is permeated by a sense of sinfulness and reveals that the colony was embroiled in tremendous generational conflict. It is here that Bradford’s writings show a deep ambivalence about the analogy of the Promised Land. He increasingly realizes a “failure of Plymouth to fulfill its original purpose as a selfless community,” and also makes note of “the concurrent completion of the Reformation through Cromwell’s victories in Old England” (Delbanco and Heimert, “William Bradford” 51). Bradford implies a causal connection - that “Plymouth’s congregational polity informed Massachusetts Bay and that the example of the larger colony in turn inspired the ecclesiastical revolution in England” (ibid.) - yet he also thinks that the colony is in decline because of its consolidation with the Puritan community, and nostalgically reminisces about the early ‘golden days’ of Plymouth, and even about the Dutch exile in Leyden. In revisiting the early days of the colony, Bradford not only chronicles history but also reminds his brethren of their vision and the strength of their faith, which he seeks to re-invigorate by calling to mind the divine signs which assured the Pilgrims of God’s providence. Bradford “seems intent on showing what might have been if a deeper devotion of all to all had prevailed,” and he is anxious that a great “change” will come over the colony, which he finds now devoid of “its former glory” (Rosenmeier, “With My” 100). Late in his life, William Bradford taught himself Hebrew to be able to read “that most ancient language and holy tongue, in which the Law and Oracles of God were writ” (qtd. in ibid.). About his Hebrew studies, he writes that “I am refreshed to have seen some glimpse hereof; (as Moyses saw the land of Canan a farr off)” (qtd. in ibid.). The Promised Land of William Bradford in the 1650s is no longer America but the Hebrew Scriptures, one might conclude. (Re)turning to the holy text more than thirty years after his arrival in North America, Bradford prepares for his own “resurrect[ion] to new and literal life” (ibid. 106) in a Promised Land not of this world: he dies in 1657. His history of the Pilgrims today appears to be much more complicated and ambivalent than has often been acknowledged, and moreover has in fact been straightened out and idealized by generations of religious scholars and historians, and by Americans who have celebrated Plymouth Rock - the site where the Pilgrims supposedly first set foot on American soil - as a symbol of ‘new world’ beginnings. Bradford sailed to the ‘new world’ in order to find/found a Promised Land, yet the high expectations in this self-proclaimed ‘exceptional’ community remained unfulfilled. As much as Bradford insisted that God had “preserved their spirits” through “crosses, troubles, fears, wants, and sorrowes” in the establishment of the colony (Of Plymouth 381), the whole enterprise ultimately seemed somehow incomplete, and dubious in its consequences for all parties involved - it was as if the Pilgrims had never really left the biblical wilderness and were perpetually stuck in a painful moment of delay in which the Promised Land was beckoning in the distance but could still somehow never be reached.

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