Posted on November 7, 2020

Plymouth Rock Landed on Them

Christopher Caldwell, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2020

Possibly someone will surprise us at the last minute. Possibly the coronavirus is to blame. But with 2020 nearly over, it looks like the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth, Massachusetts, is going to pass uncommemorated. {snip} Half a generation ago, journalist and historian Éric Zemmour expressed astonishment that the French government was ignoring the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz (1805). What hope is there, he asked, for a nation that doesn’t care about the greatest military victory of its greatest leader, in this case Napoleon? It was a good question. Here is a better one: what hope is there for a nation that doesn’t care about its beginnings?

At work is more than a failure to summon the Pilgrims to mind. There is an active project to exorcise them, in order that the country might find itself a past more congruent with its present-day political commitments. {snip}

Those locals to whom the Pilgrims’ memory has been entrusted have rushed to cooperate in their demotion. In July, citing the “reckoning with racial injustice” underway in street protests across the country, the trustees of Plimoth Plantation, the living-history museum that has explained the Pilgrim settlement to schoolchildren and tourists since 1947, announced they were changing the institution’s name to Plimoth Patuxet (the Wampanoag name for the spot) in order to be more inclusive. The director of the Provincetown Museum boasted to the Boston Globe about the “tough conversations” he had had as he trained his staff to think about the Mayflower landing in a different way. The Pilgrims survived, he said, because the Wampanoag Indians “helped them in true social-justice fashion.” {snip}


As in every matter that involves ethnic, cultural, or racial interactions, the “traditional” or “establishment” narrative has been censored in schools, city halls, and all the traditional places it was once told. No establishment lifts a finger to defend it. The “subversive” or “alternative” narrative, meanwhile, has become doctrine: it is championed by corporations and foundations and backed by the government’s full power to punish.

Over time, the intended result is reached: authorities cannot teach the story of the Pilgrims even if they would, because most of them no longer know it. The story of the settlement of North America has become a scandal. It is worth looking more closely at who the Pilgrims were, and what they did, to understand why so many people have grown so uncomfortable telling their story.

The Pilgrim Settlement

It is still told in straightforward histories, of which a representative recent example is Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower (2006). {snip}

{snip}One day, Samoset, a chief of the Abenaki Indians in what is now Maine, walked into Plymouth and addressed the settlers in English. He introduced the Pilgrims to Massasoit, chief of the region’s Wampanoag Indians, and to Squanto, a second English-speaker. Massasoit, who lived just west of the Pilgrims in the settlement of Pokanoket, offered food. Squanto offered planting and fishing advice. Most important, the two sides agreed to a common defense pact. In the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims and the Pokanoket Wampanoags shared a giant feast, the first “Thanksgiving.”

{snip}Against the backdrop of the early 17th century, the Pilgrims’ bond with the Wampanoags was atypical to the point of being mystifying. People had wanted to settle New England for a long time. The Virginia explorer John Smith, who first mapped the region for the British crown, thought Massachusetts a paradise. Hundreds of cod-fishing boats were working the Maine coast yearly by the time the Pilgrims arrived. But encounters between Indians and Europeans, as when fishermen landed to trade, most often ended in violence. Two years after the Pilgrims landed, Powhatan Indians slaughtered 347 colonists in Jamestown. All over the new world there had been stories like this, at least since 1528, when Giovanni da Verrazzano (the first great explorer of what is now the northeastern United States), having rowed ashore from his moored boat to explore a Caribbean island he assumed uninhabited, was captured and eaten on the beach in front of his horrified crew.

{snip} But even decades later, as tension rose between nearby colonies and nearby Indians, the Pilgrim-Wampanoag peace held.

What made the Wampanoag different? It is not that they were a particularly affable bunch of Indians. {snip}

But just before the Pilgrims’ arrival the Wampanoags, although warlike, suddenly found themselves weakened to the point of mortal danger. The central fact of 17th-century American history is biological, not political or military. It is the lack of any resistance among Indians, first, to European diseases (such as smallpox and typhus) and, later, to African ones (such as malaria and yellow fever). Some Indian settlements were completely depopulated.


The desolation would have had a profound psychological effect. The Pilgrims would have believed themselves favored by Providence. The Indians, seeing their neighbors drop like flies and the colonists escape unharmed, would have assumed the God the settlers proclaimed was a mighty one. But psychology was not the whole of it. As the historian Herbert Milton Sylvester wrote in his thrilling three-volume Indian Wars of New England (1910): “Had the plague not occurred as it did, the English would have been driven into the sea.”

The Wampanoags never recovered their demographic position, and the rapid influx of colonial settlers began to confine the Indians to their towns. After Massasoit’s death in 1660, the peace between Pilgrims and Wampanoags would break down.


Deadliest War

If Plymouth’s reputation is on the wane in our time, it is at least partly because historians now treat King Philip’s War (1675–76) not as a separate episode but as part of the story of the Pilgrim founding—the sanguinary final stage of it. Roughly a tenth of the European adult males of the southern New England colonies were killed or captured in the conflict, and half their villages burnt. Indians had it worse: “The settlers first despoiled the savages of their fishing-grounds, their hunting- and corn-lands,” writes the unmatchable Sylvester, “and then they annihilated them with fire and sword because they resented these aggressions.” It was, per capita, the deadliest war in American history.

The story had the shape of a Shakespearean tragedy. The gentle Massasoit’s son Metacom (known as Philip) led part of the Wampanoags and a confederation of central New England tribes against the Plymouth settlers he had grown up among. Those settlers, fortified by other New England colonies and several Indian tribes, were led, at least at first, by William Bradford, the son of the late governor.

The end to half-a-century of Wampanoag-English peace was less sudden than it looked. The logic of King Philip’s War was already evident in a war the Massachusetts Bay Colony had launched in 1636 against the Pequots of the southern Connecticut River Valley. Although Plymouth and its Wampanoag allies both took the side of the Massachusetts Bay settlers, Governor Bradford was troubled even then by rumblings he heard of a new, pan-Indian alliance. The Pequots were calling for the long-divided tribes to forget their ancient differences and focus their enmity on the usurping English. {snip}


There was something in the Indians’ culture of warfare that struck the European sensibility as especially sadistic. They were fond of ruses and ambushes, scalped their adversaries, tortured and enslaved their captives, and taunted the survivors. {snip}


A low point came with the battle of Fort Mystic. English troops surrounded the fort, then occupied by perhaps 500 women and children, breached its walls, and lit the wigwams on fire. They killed the men as they emerged from the inferno, and captured the women and children to sell into slavery.

Such episodes left an impression even on the Indian allies of the English, and a few years later, a beloved Narragansett chieftain named Miantonomo began traveling around with a message for leaders of the southern New England tribes: “Brothers, we must be one as the English are, or we shall soon all be destroyed.”

Though Miantonomo was betrayed and executed, distrust of the English and sentiments of pan-Indian solidarity had reached the Wampanoags, and eventually would reach King Philip.


In a Different Light

The George Washington university historian David J. Silverman, disinclined to view the Pilgrim colony as an improvement on what preceded it, asks in This Land Is Their Land (2019): “Why should a school-age child with the last name of, say, Silverman, identify more with the Pilgrims than the Indians?” {snip}


The Wampanoag perspective to which Silverman hopes to do justice has never been ignored. {snip}

Starting in the 1960s, a few developments transformed this perspective from a perennial dissenting view into the dominant academic paradigm in early American history. {snip}

The history of Plymouth Colony was part of the ferment of the 1960s and ’70s. Silverman opens his book with an account of the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in 1970, at which the Wampanoag Frank James saw his speech canceled when he tried to turn it into a protest. “This action by Massasoit,” James had planned to say, “was perhaps our biggest mistake.” By this James presumably meant the decision to welcome the Pilgrims in the first place, rather than to fight them on the beaches.

Massasoit appears in most of our histories up to the 20th century as a kindly and noble man who laid the basis for a lasting peace with European settlers, a peace frittered away after his death by his hothead son Philip. As noted above, there have always been dissenters from this view. {snip}


Silverman has much more to offer than this. He asks us to understand Massasoit—whom he calls by his tribal name, Ousamequin—not as a good guy or a bad guy but as “a great leader every bit as ruthless as those who sought to undermine him.” This requires understanding the way the balance of power had been shifted by the epidemic that hit New England on the eve of the Mayflower’s arrival. Massasoit’s Wampanoags were nearly extinguished as a people. The Pilgrim newcomers found most of the Wampanoag cornfields going back to forest. To complicate matters, the Wampanoags’ neighbors and bitter rivals the Narragansetts, for reasons unknown, had emerged from the epidemic largely unscathed. So by 1620 Massasoit, until recently a great warlord, had come under constant attack, and was paying the Narragansetts tribute.

The immigrants proved to be Massasoit’s deus ex machina. His outreach to them, Silverman tells us, was “a strategic response.” As allies, the Pilgrims were not numerous, but they were growing and, rightly managed, they could give him access to firearms. Massasoit, naturally, could have wiped them out at almost any time in the early days. {snip}


Ultimate Consequences

Like most peoples throughout history who have been fast-talked out of their birthright, the Indians felt for a long time that they had got a terrific deal. They seemed to be living better than they ever had. Suddenly, for instance, many Indians possessed horses. But Silverman notes that “within a generation they would have little land left on which to use the horses to ride or plow.” The horses had been bought with wampum, a real currency limited in supply by the skill needed to make it, and backed by valuable fur trade, especially in beaver. But soon their hunting grounds were sold away, and eventually overhunting killed off the beaver. The Indians had not been living better, it turns out. They had been living off the sale of their capital, and had not noticed, because the most valuable parts of a people’s capital are often hard to quantify.


Real expert opinion on migration always contains a large dose of civilizational pessimism. When an African boat with eight migrants in it pulls up to an Italian fishing vessel in the Mediterranean, a progressive politician sees a heartbreaking story on national television and calls for more lenient refugee laws. A populist politician understands that any invitation offered to those eight will also be heard by the billion young people the continent will add in the next generation. A version of that story was what happened when the Pilgrims landed. Massasoit was like a progressive. His foes were like populists, who viewed his friendliness to the Pilgrims as playing with fire.

Silverman’s Wampanoag-centered view of the 17th century is more pessimistic than most about what the possibilities for cultural harmony were. Perhaps this has to do with our changing times. {snip}


Where Philbrick is a liberal, Silverman has a more “woke” or “populist” view of intercommunal relations. Generally one side or the other controls the peace, and if that stronger side is not inclined to behave responsibly it will raise the price of peace to the point where peace is not worth having. By 1675, the Europeans controlled the peace.


Finally, the English had cohesion, however you choose to name it: solidarity, like-mindedness, uniformity. The Indians had diversity. That meant some fought with Philip and others fought against him. The Christians among them were an important source of intelligence to the English. War split up not just families but, among the tribal leaders, marriages. King Philip was driven eastward, back across Massachusetts, to his homeland and his fate.


{snip} Of the two communities that confronted each other in New England 400 years ago, it may now be the Indians, not the Pilgrims, who most resemble today’s Americans. The Wampanoags were divided between, on one hand, cosmopolitans like Massasoit, who believed that there was room for a mosaic of peoples in southeastern Massachusetts, and, on the other, skeptical provincials like Philip who lost faith in that ideal. They lacked the cohesion to stand up against a resolute rival.

A remark often bandied about today is Adam Smith’s to the effect that “[t]here is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” by which he meant that it takes a much greater set of misfortunes to destroy a nation, and over a much longer period of time, than we commonly realize. It is not actually true. The Wampanoags went from dominance and confidence to a point of no return in about 55 or 60 years. Suddenly they were losing population, and abandoning old values, too. Each problem fed on the other in a dangerous process. Once a people begins debating how much ruin there is in a nation, that process is already well underway.