* * * * * * * *from Bill Bryson's MADE IN AMERICA (Avon Books, New York, 1994)

 

 

Chapter 1

THE MAYFLOWER AND BEFORE
 

The image of the spiritual founding of America that generations of Americans have grown up with was created, oddly enough, by a poet of limited talents (to put it in the most magnanimous possible way) who lived two centuries after the event in a country three thousand miles away. Her name was Felicia Dorothea Hemans and she was not Amer­ican but Welsh. Indeed, she had never been to America and appears to have known next to nothing about the country. It just happened that one day in 1826 her local grocer in Rhyllon, Wales, wrapped her pur­chases in a sheet of two-year-old newspaper from Boston, and her eye was caught by a small article about a founders' day celebration in Plym­outh. It was very probably the first she had heard of the Mayflower or the Pilgrims. But inspired as only a mediocre poet can be, she dashed off a poem, "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (in New England)," which begins

 

The breaking waves dashed high

On a stern and rock-bound coast, And the woods, against a stormy sky, Their giant branches toss'd

 

And the heavy night hung dark

The hills and water o'er,

When a band of exiles moor'd their bark On the wild New England shore

and carries on in a vigorously grandiloquent, indeterminately rhyming vein for a further eight stanzas. Although the poem was replete with errors-the Mayflower was not a bark, it was not night when they moored, Plymouth was not "where first they trod" but in fact marked their fourth visit ashore-it became an instant classic, and formed the essential image of the Mayflower landing that most Americans carry with them to this day.*


 

(*Mrs. Hemans's other contribution to posterity was the poem "Casabianca," now remembered for its opening line: "The boy stood on the burning deck..")


 

    The one thing the Pilgrims certainly didn't do was step ashore on Plymouth Rock. Quite apart from the consideration that it may have stood well above the high-water mark in 1620, no prudent mariner would try to bring a ship alongside a boulder in a heaving December sea when a sheltered inlet beckoned nearby. If the Pilgrims even noticed Plymouth Rock, there is no sign of it. No mention of the rock is found among any of the surviving documents and letters of the age, and in­deed it doesn't make its first recorded appearance until 1715, almost a century later.' Not until about the time Ms. Hemans wrote her swoop­ing epic did Plymouth Rock become indelibly associated with the land­ing of the Pilgrims.Wherever they landed, we can assume that the 102 Pilgrims stepped from their storm-tossed little ship with unsteady legs and huge relief. They had just spent nine and a half damp and perilous weeks at sea, crammed together on a creaking vessel small enough to be parked on a modern tennis court. The crew, with the customary graciousness of sailors, referred to them as puke stockings, on account of their apparently boundless ability to spatter the latter with the former, though in fact they had handled the experience reasonably well.' Only one passenger had died en route, and two had been added through births (one of whom ever after reveled in the exuberant name of Oceanus Hopkins).

They called themselves Saints. Those members of the party who were not Saints they called Strangers. Pilgrims in reference to these early voy­agers would not become common for another two hundred years. Even later was Founding Fathers. It isn't found until the twentieth century, in a speech by Warren G. Harding. Nor, strictly speaking, is it correct to call them Puritans. They were Separatists, so called because they had left the Church of England. Puritans were those who remained in the Angli­can Church but wished to purify it. They wouldn't arrive in America for another decade, but when they did they would quickly eclipse, and eventually absorb, this little original colony.

It would be difficult to imagine a group of people more ill-suited to a life in the wilderness. They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers,a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. One William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and thirteen pairs of boots. Yet they failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line. Among the professions represented on the Mayflower's manifest were two tailors, a printer, several merchants, a silk worker, a shopkeeper, and a hatter­--occupations whose indispensability is not immediately evident when one thinks of surviving in a hostile environment.' Their military com­mander, Miles Standish, was so diminutive of stature that he was known to all as "Captain Shrimpe"- hardly a figure to inspire awe in the sav­age natives, whom they confidently expected to encounter. With the uncertain exception of the little captain, probably none in the party had ever tried to bring down a wild animal. Hunting in seventeenth-century Europe was a sport reserved for the aristocracy. Even those who labeled themselves farmers generally had scant practical knowledge of hus­bandry, since farmer in the 1600s, and for some time afterward, signified an owner of land rather than one who worked it.

They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigors ahead, and they demonstrated their incompetence in the most dramatic possi­ble way: by dying in droves. Six expired in the first two weeks, eight the next month, seventeen more in February, a further thirteen in March. By April, when the Mayflower set sail back to England,* just fifty-four people, nearly half of them children, were left to begin the long work of turning this tenuous toehold into a self-sustaining colony.'

At this remove, it is difficult to imagine just how alone this small, hap­less band of adventurers was. Their nearest kindred neighbors-at Jamestown in Virginia and at a small and now all but forgotten colony at Cupers (now Cupids) Cove in Newfoundland*-were five hundred miles off in opposite directions. At their back stood a hostile ocean, and before them lay an inconceivably vast and unknown continent of "wild and savage hue," in William Bradford's uneasy words. They were about as far from the comforts of civilization as anyone had ever been (certainly as far as anyone had ever been without a fishing line).

For two months they tried to make contact with the natives, but ev­ery time they spotted any, the Indians ran off. Then one day in February a young brave of friendly mien approached a party of Pilgrims on a beach. His name was Samoset and he was a stranger in the region him­self. But he had a friend named Tisquantum from the local Wampanoag tribe, to whom he introduced them. Samoset and Tisquantum became the Pilgrims' fast friends. They showed them how to plant corn and catch wildfowl and helped them to establish friendly relations with the local sachem, or chief. Before long, as every schoolchild knows, the Pil­grims were thriving, and Indians and settlers were sitting down to a cor­dial Thanksgiving feast. Life was grand.

A question that naturally arises is how they managed this. Algonquian, the language of the eastern tribes, is an extraordinarily complex and ag­glomerative tongue (or more accurately family of tongues), full of for­midable consonant clusters that are all but unpronounceable by the untutored, as we can see from the first primer of Algonquian speech prepared some twenty years later by Roger Williams in Connecticut (a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame, incidentally). Try saying the following and you may get some idea of the challenge:

Nquitpausuckowashawmen-There are a hundred of us.

Chenock wonck cuppee-yeaumen?-When will you return?

Tashuckqunne cummauchenafimisz?-How long have you been sick?

Ntanneteimmin-I will be going.'

Clearly this was not a language you could pick up in a weekend, and the Pilgrims were hardly gifted linguists. They weren't even comfortable with Tisquantum's name; they called him Squanto. The answer, surpris­ingly glossed over by most history books, is that the Pilgrims didn't have to learn Algonquian for the happy and convenient reason that Samoset and Squanto spoke English-Samoset only a little, but Squanto with to­tal assurance (and some Spanish into the bargain).

         

That a straggly band of English settlers could in 1620 cross a vast ocean and find a pair of Indians able to welcome them in their own tongue seems little short of miraculous. It was certainly lucky-the Pil­grims would very probably have perished or been slaughtered without them-but not as wildly improbable as it at first seems. The fact is that by 1620 the New World wasn't really so new at all.

 

 


*The Mayflower, like Plymouth Rock, appears to have made no sentimental im­pression on the colonists. Not once in History of Pliniouth PlantPlation, William Bradford's history of the colony, did he mention the ship by name. Just three years after its epochal crossing, the Mayflower was unceremoniously broken up and sold for salvage. According to several accounts, it ended up being made into a barn that still stands in the village of Jordans,' Buckinghamshire, about twenty miles from Lon­don, on the grounds of the British headquarters of the British Society of Friends, or Quakers. Coincidentally, almost in its shadow is the grave of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. He almost certainly had no idea that the barn beside his eventual final resting place had once been the ship that carried Pilgrims to the land he himself did so much to promote.

Founded in 1610, this small colony was abandoned in the 1630s, though it was soon replaced by other British settlements on the island. Because of their isolation, Newfoundlanders created a peculiarly colorful patois blending new coinages and old English dialectal words that now exist nowhere else: diddies for a nightmare, nunny-bag for a kind of knapsack, cocksiddle for a somersault, neshing the waddock for the game of rugby. They continue to employ many odd pronunciations. Chitter­lings, for instance, is pronounced "chistlings." The one word that Newfoundland has given the world is penguin. No one has any idea what inspired it.