Pilgrims’ folly

Sam Smith, 2002

I have considered Pilgrims among the most overrated American historical figures ever since I wrote a college paper in Robert G. Albion’s class on forty recorded voyages to New England before the Mayflower. And that didn’t include all the ones made by those who didn’t – or didn’t know how – to write it down. About a decade before the Pilgrims, for example, Samuel Champlain not only visited Plymouth harbor, he charted it, including Plymouth Rock.

But history favors occupiers over explorers, hunters, fishermen, and traders. And the literate over the literate. If you want to be remembered here, you have to stay here. And write it down.

A wonderful history of Maine, “Lobster Coast,” also suggests that the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving dinner didn’t hold up all that well. That winter the Pilgrims were forced to go to get food from some of their pre-arriving countrymen manning a trading post on a Maine island.

The first Europeans to visit New England waters were probably Scandinavian fishermen, who could make the northern transit of the Atlantic and never be more than a few hundred miles from shore. John and Sebastian Cabot, five years after Columbus, passed through and charted Maine’s Casco Bay on their way from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. By 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold arrived at Cape Neddick, his presence was considered by the Indians to be less than remarkable. John Bereton, the chronicler of the voyage, wrote:

“One who seemed to be their commander wore a coat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band. . . They spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand more than we, for lack of language, could comprehend. . . They pronounced our language with great facility; for one of them sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smilingly to him with these words: ‘How now sirha are you so saucy with my tobacco,’ which words (without any further repetition) he suddenly spake so plaine and distinctly as if he had been a long scholar in the language.”

As far back as 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, arriving to the west of Casco Bay near Ogunquit, got a reception from the Indians that suggested more than a little previous contact with Europeans or “the boat people” as the natives called them. The Indians insisted on standing on a cliff and trading with Verrazano’s crew by use of a rope. “We found no courtesy in them,” Verrazano complained. Worse they rounded out the transaction by “showing their buttocks and laughing immoderately.”

As for Robert G. Albion, who got your editor started on all of this, his course was considered a “gut” at Harvard, heavily attended by football players and other lightweights. While I fit the latter category, I also was an avid sailor and an admirer of Albion’s mentor, maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morrison. Much later, I realized another reason Albion didn’t get much credit at Harvard; he was, well ahead of his time, a social historian on a campus that believed deeply that history was the work of great men. Nonetheless, another student of Albion named his motor yacht the “Robert G. Albion,” making the professor probably the only Harvard professor ever to reach this pinnacle of honor.

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