By James W. Baker
The Pilgrim story is known the world over as one of America’s founding narratives. The traditional account—the flight from religious persecution, exile in Holland, the 1620 voyage and the Compact, landing on Plymouth Rock, the fatal first winter, and the First Thanksgiving—has achieved canonical status. However, this narrative did not spring forth from history fully formed; rather it has evolved over time and is still being shaped by changing social and political circumstances.
When the Pilgrims first entered the new national pantheon at the time of the American Revolution, their story’s significance was primarily as an example of oppression, suffering, and perseverance. The Pilgrims set a precedent for the revolutionary generation as a group of ordinary emigrants who defied royal opposition and, without any help from authority, established an independent society that grew to become Puritan New England. Plymouth Rock symbolized the transition between the old world and the new, while the Mayflower Compact exemplified self-determination and democratic action, lending legitimacy to the establishment of a new autonomous nation. The Pilgrims’ symbolic import was seen as separation and independence. The Dutch experience was minimized and, as the available sources were limited to Morton’s New England’s Memorial, Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana and an abridged version of Mourt’s Relation, there was nothing about Scrooby origins, John and Priscilla Alden’s courtship or a “First Thanksgiving.”
As time went on, the focus on separation that had served the Revolutionary age so well was challenged by the need to discourage rebellion and secession, so the earlier emphasis was muted. People also wanted to learn more about these “founding fathers.” The full text of Mourt was rediscovered (1820), Rev. Joseph Hunter’s research in the 1840s revealed the Nottingham/Lincoln/Yorkshire point of origin, and finally Gov. Bradford’s lost manuscript was recovered and published (1856), greatly increasing common knowledge of the Pilgrim venture. The contemporary “domesticity movement” encouraged the humanization of the Pilgrims, turning them from “little more that aggregate virtue” (in Rev. Gomes’ felicitous phrase) to real human beings, the chief vehicles for which were Longfellow’s Courtship of Miles Standish(1858) and a host of popular accounts aimed at casual readers. Rev. Alexander Young’s identification of the harvest celebration of 1621 as America’s “First Thanksgiving” provided a suitable denouement and happy ending to the story. The Pilgrim story achieved full maturity at the beginning of the 20th century—and slipped into historical inertia.
For most Americans, the Pilgrims became more like characters in legend than actual historical figures. The traditional narrative was not factually inaccurate, but it was basically cut off from the world of affairs in which it took place, restricted by a fixed beginning (in Scrooby), development (the Mayflower crossing) and conclusion (Thanksgiving). Pilgrim history was usually considered a “closed account” and professional historians turned their attention elsewhere. People with a special interest in the subject (such as Plymouth residents or Mayflower descendants) continued to research Pilgrim history and genealogy, but the narrative and it traditional significance remained untouched. Although the Pilgrims were widely revered, it was assumed that everything anyone needed to know about them could easily be learned in elementary school.
From time to time, there were attempts to revitalize public enthusiasm in the Pilgrims by depicting them in a new manner or by revealing ostensibly “new” information. For example, the surge of patriotism and concomitant interest in national symbols following World War II resulted in the best-selling Saints and Strangers by George Willison (1945), and the founding of Plimoth Plantation (1947), both of which were dedicated to presenting an updated and more appealing view of the Pilgrims and their story. Willison’s lively and detailed recapitulation of the Pilgrim story was, until recently, the most successful effort at breathing new life into an old subject. However, the research is quite dated now and his naïve effort to “humanize” the Pilgrims by dividing them into two distinct factions was a misleading “false dichotomy” as Dr. Bangs carefully explains (see below), despite its continued popularity among unsophisticated readers. What was once a breath of fresh air has now become yet another element of Pilgrim story orthodoxy. Plimoth Plantation as a living institution, on the other hand, evolved over the years to keep up with the latest research (and social fashions in history), but the museum’s contribution (due to its chronological focus on 1620-1627) has been more in increasing the accuracy of representing material and social culture than broadening our understanding of the Pilgrims’ place in history.
Although I have no idea why they should have appeared almost simultaneously, three excellent new works on the Pilgrims have escaped the limits of the traditional narrative and actually increase our knowledge and understanding of the Pilgrims. The first is Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower (2006). The first part is basically just a new version of the standard narrative, but done so effectively that this book is the first Pilgrim account since Saints and Strangers to achieve the readability and popularity of a best seller. It is the second part, however, in which the real achievement lies. By going beyond the “First Thanksgiving” to trace the events leading up to and through King Philip’s War, Philbrick expands the story to include what actually happened after the idealized 1620s, locating the Pilgrims in the larger historical context and revealing the complexity that transcends the traditional narrative.
Next we have the magisterial opus of Dr. Jeremy Bangs, Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (2009). It is hard to adequately express the importance of this massive volume, the life work of a singularly gifted historian whose profound knowledge of Puritan theology and historic art and architecture, coupled with an unprecedented mastery (by a writer in English) of Dutch sources, enabled him to compose this unsurpassed in-depth analysis and description of the Dutch context of the Pilgrim experience. Unlike Philbrick’s more popular treatment, Bangs’ work is not a “quick read,” although his style and acerbic humor make it far more accessible than standard academic stodge. It is however the answer to the prayers of anyone seriously interested in the life and times of the Pilgrims, and especially of their formative sojourn in the Netherlands, as well as in England and America. It effectively supersedes the Dexters’ England and Holland of the Pilgrims(1905), previously the major source for the Dutch experience, and its extensive digressions—often comprehensive theses in themselves—fully elucidate the doctrines, politics, and culture of the era in which the Pilgrims were actors.
This brings us to the third of these remarkable volumes, and the actual focus of this review: Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon: the Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: a New History (2010). Bunker’s book is in some ways the middle ground between Bangs’ and Philbrick’s work. Written in a clear journalistic style (Bunker is a professional journalist and a former investment banker), this second large book does for English documentary sources what Bangs’ work does for the Dutch. After the flurry of archival research leading up to the 1920 Tercentenary, it was assumed that everything of interest had been discovered. Bunker’s curiosity and research ability (like that of Caleb Johnson) has disproved that. There were—are—still a large number of unexamined archival resources in England that can contribute to our greater understanding of the Pilgrim story. These are no earth shattering revelations, but the incremental additions—such as the name of the ship and its captain that brought the fleeing Scrooby congregation to Stallingborough (Immingham Creek); William Brewster Senior’s brush with the law, or other trans-Atlantic activity in Plymouth; Devon at the time of Mayflower sailing—add enlightening details to the original story. Shadowy figures on the periphery of the Pilgrim narrative such as Thomas Helwys of Nottingham or London adventurers John Beauchamp, John Pocock and Thomas Weston (whose traditional one-dimensional, “wheeler-dealer” image is replaced by understandable biographical analysis) are restored to their actual historical significance.
It isn’t just accumulation of detail that makes Making Haste from Babylon a significant contribution to the Pilgrim story, however. Bunker is as effective in revealing broader perspectives as he is with historical minutiae. The book opens with a chapter on the unsung savior of Plymouth Colony—the beaver—whose pelts served the role tobacco did in Virginia. There have been generalizations in the past about the economic realities of the Pilgrim venture (“some colonists came for religious freedom, others for free land”), but Bunker does a wonderful job of explaining the scope that contemporary investment strategies played in Plymouth’s ultimate success.
He avoids compartmentalizing religion, politics, and economics to show how the Pilgrim story was truly a small—but unexpectedly central—cog in the larger international ambitions of the time. He shows that powerful contemporary “movers and shakers” kept a close eye on the success or failure of the new colony, and how Plymouth’s precedent smoothed the way for the more ambitious Massachusetts Bay project. The Pilgrims’ economic ups and downs are analyzed in the context of the economic crisis of the 1620s and the religio-political predicament of Huguenot La Rochelle, and how the providential fad for beaver hats meant that problems in the Baltic trade presaged prosperity for New England. Bunker is also very effective in explaining the importance of topography in colonization, as how the traditions of marshland agriculture in the fens of Lincolnshire found new purpose in the salt meadows of Massachusetts. He provides evocative portraits of landscapes and their occupants in England and America, and demonstrates how these mundane details could make or break the pattern of new world settlement.
In essence, Nick Bunker has taken the standard Pilgrim story as his basic canvas and added a mass of new detail and perspective to what was already known, as embroidery is employed on a flat surface to more fully develop an elegant design. In fact, the amount of new material is so extensive and at times overwhelming that the result is more like three-dimensional 17th century stump work than the smooth tapestry of Dr. Bangs’ work. Similarly, while his text is very readable, it lacks the novelistic flow of Nat Philbrick’s Mayflower, and sometimes gets bogged down in anecdotes and digressions, fascinating as these may be. There is a certain “undigested” quality about some of the massive amount of material that Bunker covers, resulting in blocks that impede the progress of the narrative (and makes it difficult to craft a concise synopsis of the book). Finally, not even Bunker’s omnium gatherum has everything we’d like to see – he mentions that a list of 15 names associated with the abortive flight through Boston (Lincolnshire) exists, but only gives three or four examples. These criticisms are, nevertheless, insignificant in what is by any measure, a fascinating and invaluable addition to Pilgrim history.
Predictably, some people will querulously assert that all anyone really needs is the traditionally succinct Pilgrim story; that anything more is irrelevant or just plain wrong. Others will want to turn the story on its head, and make it all about the Indians, with attendant guilt trips. The sheer size of Bunker’s book, like Bangs’, may be daunting to casual readers, despite its accessible style. We cannot overlook the emotional appeal of familiar romance and myth (Pilgrim or Native), but if the Pilgrim story is to be viable for their 400th anniversary, the insights contained in these books need to be incorporated in the narrative as we know it. But we are all the richer for these efforts, and anyone truly interested in a fuller understanding of Plymouth Colony and its founders cannot do better than avail themselves of this treasure house of historical scholarship.