Our founding myths of America portray the original inhabitants William Bradford and the Pilgrims encounter as unsophisticated childlike adults entranced and terrified at the same time of the ultra-civilized Europeans who come to take over their lands and treasure. No doubt Bradford wants us to read his History of Plymouth Plantation in such a way. But let’s see what really is going on.
We have been thinking about William Bradford’s classic History of Plymouth Plantation as an appropriate read for November. If you are just now clicking in for the first time, take a moment and scroll down through the last several postings just to get a context for this post.
One day a Native American named Samoset appears boldly among them. He speaks English. Later he brings his chief, Massasoit, and another named Squanto who had actually been to England. The Native Americans teach the pilgrims basic survival skills to make sure the next winter would not be so bad. As it turns out, these inhabitants of the land claimed by the Pilgrims could speak some English and had met Europeans before. In fact Squanto spoke well and had spent extensive time among the English. Bradford devotes several pages telling of Squanto’s travels among the English. Because earlier English explorers had treated the tribes so badly these Native Americans were wary of the pilgrims at first.
Bradford labels these peoples as savages and children of darkness, yet it looks like they are more sophisticated than their European conquerors.
Of course, I may not be treating the Pilgrims fairly here. Bradford does say that Squanto was “a special instrument sent of God” to help save the Europeans in the brutal winter ahead. And as the Native Americans accommodated them the Europeans signed a compact to their mutual benefit. Here is the original compact, one of the first “Indian” treaties with the European conquerors:
- That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of their people.
- That if any of his did hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender, that they might punish him.
- That if anything were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do the like to his.
- If any did unjustly war against him, they would aid him; if any did war against them, he should aid them.
- He should send to his neighbors confederates to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
- That when their men came to them, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them.
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