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The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History

Written by Nick BunkerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nick Bunker



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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

At the end of 1618, a blazing green star soared across the night sky over the northern hemisphere. From the Philippines to the Arctic, the comet became a sensation and a symbol, a warning of doom or a promise of salvation. Two years later, as the Pilgrims prepared to sail across the Atlantic on board the Mayflower, the atmosphere remained charged with fear and expectation. Men and women readied themselves for war, pestilence, or divine retribution. Against this background, and amid deep economic depression, the Pilgrims conceived their enterprise of exile.

Within a decade, despite crisis and catastrophe, they built a thriving settlement at New Plymouth, based on beaver fur, corn, and cattle. In doing so, they laid the foundations for Massachusetts, New England, and a new nation. Using a wealth of new evidence from landscape, archaeology, and hundreds of overlooked or neglected documents, Nick Bunker gives a vivid and strikingly original account of the Mayflower project and the first decade of the Plymouth Colony. From mercantile London and the rural England of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I to the mountains and rivers of Maine, he weaves a rich narrative that combines religion, politics, money, science, and the sea.

The Pilgrims were entrepreneurs as well as evangelicals, political radicals as well as Christian idealists. Making Haste from Babylon tells their story in unrivaled depth, from their roots in religious conflict and village strife at home to their final creation of a permanent foothold in America.

Excerpt

Prelude

The Beave of Mawooshen

The planters heare aboutes, if they will have any beaver, must go 40 or 50
myles into the country, with their packes on their backes.


—an English settler on the coast of Maine, June 1634


Seventy miles from the Atlantic, in the central lowlands of Maine, if you head west along Route 2 and cross the Sandy River you will see a line of mountains far away upon your right. Built of slate, they rise to more than three thousand feet. They reach their finest color on a winter’s day, when the air is sharp and cold and the sunlight turns their eastern slopes from gray to blue. Above the modern town of Farmington, they form the outlying ramparts of a dark massif.

Here the influence of the ocean ends, and the American interior begins. Behind the blue ridge, the high ground extends for sixty miles, as far as the frontier with Canada. Between hills black and shaggy with spruce but dusted white with snow, the road ascends an esker, a ribbon of gravel, dropped into place by a glacier fourteen thousand years ago.

The esker makes a platform for Highway 27. Along the road, you climb until you reach a narrow pass and a chain of lakes. Beyond them lies a gloomy wetland, called Hathan Bog, where in the dusk moose wander from the swamp across the asphalt. Then, a little farther on, the highway arrives at a plateau, and a liquor store, and a customs post, at a hidden place named Coburn Gore, where day and night the Frenchmen thump back over the border in their logging trucks. Like the valleys of West Virginia, the pass supplies an aperture, an entry into the land beyond the mountains, at the northern end of the Appalachian barrier.

At places such as this, the west begins: but where did America start for new settlers arriving from England in the 1620s or the 1630s? Maybe they saw it first from ten miles out on the ocean, with a glimpse of sandy cliffs along the eastern rim of Cape Cod, or at forty miles, if their first sighting was Cadillac Mountain, above Bar Harbor, visible to any ship bound in from Newfoundland. Or did the New World really begin later? Did its strangeness dawn upon them when they saw ice jamming a river mouth as late as April, or a belt of white wampum beads, or a field of maize, or a man in deerskin breeches, with a shaved head and a torso painted purple? The point at which the alien was glimpsed for what it was, alarming, uncanny, or sublime, might occur at any of these moments, or at none of them. Half of the early migrants simply faded and died.

There was another point when America began. The moment took place when new settlers crossed a different kind of boundary, when for the first time they could be certain that their colony was going to endure. So far as the Mayflower Pilgrims were concerned, this moment occurred in the territory in Maine that lay below Coburn Gore, in the year 1628. Eight years earlier, they had landed at Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the extremity of Cape Cod. Soon afterward they founded their settlement across the bay at New Plymouth. That was another beginning, but it was tenuous and frail. It took far longer for the Plymouth enterprise to make itself permanent, and to open the way for the foundation of Boston to the north, by colonists in far larger numbers.

Fraught with risk, the Mayflower project endured a long period of trial, experiment, and error. Deeply in debt to their backers in London, and chronically short of supplies to keep their feet shod, their muskets loaded, and their small boats afloat, they needed a commodity to send back to England to be swapped for silver coins or used to redeem their IOUs. They eventually found it, in the quantities they needed, up here in Maine. They bought it from the people who lived in the country below the watershed between what we now call Quebec and the United States. This was where the moment of maturity occurred: the place where they passed
across an emotional frontier, the line that separates insecure ambition from likely success.

There was only one way in which the Pilgrims could find the money to pay their debts and finance new supplies from home. They needed the fur of Castor canadensis, the North American beaver. No other colonial product fetched so high a price, in Paris, in London, or in Holland. What made the skins so precious? That will be the subject of a later chapter. All we need know for the time being is that during the 1620s the price of a beaver pelt increased fourfold, to reach a peak of nearly forty shillings. That was enough to rent nine acres of English farmland for a year.

Until they had pelts, the colony at New Plymouth remained a fragile outpost, a tiny corn- growing settlement wedged between the forest and the sea. For it to become something more, the seed or nucleus for a much larger inflow of the English, they had to find beaver skins, and in Maine the valleys and the high ground supplied a vast habitat for the mammal.

As many as fifty beavers may have lived in each square mile, or even more densely in places such as Hathan Bog. Alongside the esker, on every stream beavers built their dams and lodges. Today the animals have left a chain of beaver meadows, dried- up ponds, strung out along the side of Highway 27. Take the surface area of Franklin County, Maine, around and beneath the bog and the highway, and multiply it by fifty. You come to an estimate of ninety thousand of the creatures in that one county alone.

Why did the beavers of Maine become the target of exploitation, and not those of another region? The Pilgrims might have gone elsewhere, and sometimes did. Beavers will live in any setting with the trees they like to gnaw, the quaking aspen or the willow, and streams that flow down gradients a few degrees above the level. As for the date, why did it take so long for the Pilgrims to begin to penetrate the deep interior? Because it was only in 1628, and in Maine, that chance and circumstance combined to make it feasible. Access, demand for the skins, the legal right to settle, the technology of transport, the command of language, a supply of trading goods, and the presence of people able and willing to hunt: these were essential too.

As we shall see, the very early history of New England contains many hidden, forgotten corners, niches quite as remote as Coburn Gore. Most often, these spots of vagueness or omission arise because, in the British Isles, the evidence lies neglected, scattered in odd places in dozens of archive collections.

They contain a wealth of overlooked material about the origins of the Mayflower project and its place in the wider history of England under King James and his son the future Charles I. For the most part, British scholars have either left these very early sources untouched or failed to see their significance. They have done what the Pilgrims did not do, and left America to the Americans. This is why so much of the Pilgrim narrative remains in shadowy monochrome, like a photograph in sepia or a silent film, deprived
of color, light, and sound.

Among the gaps in the story, one of the most serious concerns the trade in beaver pelts, shipped back in their thousands by way of the ports of Barnstaple, Bristol, and Plymouth in the west of England. That is why we start in Franklin County. We might begin by imagining its character, not by way of fantasy, but with the aid of available resources, scientific and archaeological, and verbal too. To help us, we might imitate the native people of the region. We might invoke the spirit of a bird to function as an
airborne guide.

Today more than four hundred pairs of bald eagles breed in the state of Maine. When Charles I sat on the throne, doubtless their numbers were far greater. What might she have seen, an eagle, if in the spring of 1628 she swung her head around through three- quarters of a circle and scanned the country below Coburn Gore? She saw the land of Mawooshen. That was the name given then to the region: mountain, river, valley, plain, and coast, and among them the Eastern Abenaki, who lived between the blue ridge and the ocean.

The Bald Eagle’s Nest


From her zenith, at four thousand feet, she sees the Sandy River bending back and forth. Fed by streams cascading down off the massif, the river swings around and doubles back but never ceases to drop toward the sea. Beyond its broad, flat valley, to the south the ground rolls out to form a plain covered by birch woods and pine, with strewn on the earth beneath them hundreds of pale gray boulders. They were abandoned, like elliptical cannonballs, by the same retreating glaciers that formed the esker.

As the ice melted and the Atlantic rose, the sea reached this far inland, laying down thick beds of silt and sand. Even now, the ocean is far closer than it seems. In the seventeenth century, long before men dammed the rivers of Maine, salmon swam all the way up from the sea to Farmington to spawn.

If our eagle of 1628 leaves her nest at the top of a tall white pine, and goes looking for game along the valley, she comes to a spot where the Sandy meets another river, deeper and wider. Before it begins its own final descent toward the sea, it flows in a sequence of long, quiet reaches between sets of falls and rapids. Each one marks a geological division, ten or fifteen miles apart, where the river suddenly alters course. For this reason, the river bears the name Kennebec. In the native language of the country the word gwena means “long,” while the syllable bague refers to a placid
stretch of water.

Hovering above the Kennebec, the eagle probes with her eyes for a leaping fish or a squirrel breaking cover. When she finds one, she swoops down at the spot where the Sandy River meanders in from the west, near the site of the modern town of Madison. Beneath a bluff, the water forms a calm, deep pool, tinted in spring by a drifting haze of pollen from the pines. As she skims the amber surface and then swings back up into the sky with a fish in her talons, she flies over a place where the woods have been cleared, to make a wide, flat open space on a terrace thirty feet above the river.

As she climbs, the eagle pays little heed to the village of Naragooc, or the human beings stooping down to collect Maine fiddleheads, edible wild ferns gathered at this season. She ignores the circular huts along the bluff, the wooden longhouse, or the people moving to and fro between cooking fires, storage pits, and the fields of maize that loosely encircle the settlement.
Instead, she rises steeply again. From her highest altitude, she can see as far as eighty miles. With the dense packing of nerve cells in her retina, she can pick out objects three or four times smaller than those detected by a human eye.

Far to the north, she sees the mountain escarpment and the dark smudge marking the site of Hathan Bog. Bare summits and icy mountain streams offer little by way of food, and so she turns toward the south. On the way to the sea, the landscape becomes a mottled rug, made up of ridges of gravel between elongated lakes. They point toward the site of the modern city of Augusta, forty miles away, with the Atlantic visible far beyond it as a distant rim of silver.

This was Mawooshen. Even the English called the country by that name. They did so in a document compiled in about 1607,most likely as a briefing paper for a failed attempt to found a colony at the mouth of the Kennebec, at Fort St. George.The word apparently referred to a confederacy of some thirteen towns and villages of the Eastern Abenaki, scattered across the zone between the Sandy River and Cadillac Mountain.

Among them, the deepest inland was Naragooc, located at the junction of the Sandy and the Kennebec. Today its name survives on a modern map in the altered form of Norridgewock. When the English manuscript was written, Naragooc provided a home to as many as four or five hundred people, led by a Zegeme, or sachem, a chief by the name of Cocockohamas. His clan occupied a spot where the earth was unusually good. A fine olive brown tilth called Hadley loam, it formed a narrow carpet along both banks of the river, like the rich soil of exactly the same kind along the Connecticut valley, coveted by later English settlers.

At Naragooc, the Abenaki lived at the northernmost point where at the time the climate permitted the cultivation of maize. They also sat on the perimeter between the northern hardwoods, spruce, and fir and the softer oaks and pines of southern New England. Accessible by water, Naragooc was poised between corn country and the hunting spaces of the north. And so in spring, when our imaginary eagle saw the village, the people who lived there would be skinning hundreds of dead beavers. Late winterwas the time to catch them, with a spear driven through the melting ice, when the animals were most hungry and least cautious and their pelts were thickest.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the trade in beaver fur had come to lie at the heart of the life of the Abenaki. At Naragooc the evidence is plain, and it takes two forms, material and linguistic. In the 1990s, when archaeologists explored the village sites beside the Kennebec, they found scores of beaver bones, from the animal’s jawbone, skull, and legs. But the beaver left a still deeper mark on the language that the people spoke.

It survives in the form of a lexicon compiled more than three hundred years ago by a French Catholic missionary, Father Sebastian Râle. He listed more than thirty nouns, verbs, and phrases used by the people of Naragooc to describe the animal, its skin, its behavior, and the manner in which they pursued it. They called the beaver temakwe, meaning “tree cutter.” They gave different names to male and female adults, and they called a young beaver a temakwesis. They had separate words for beavers as they appeared in winter and as they were in warmer weather when their pelts had thinned. Then they were known as nepenemeskwe, from nipen, meaning “summer.”

The people of Naragooc called the skin of a beaver matarreh, and they added extra syllables to grade the pelts into categories of size and quality. The beaver’s kidneys, rognons de castor, had their own Abenaki word—awisenank—and this suggests that once skinned, the beaver was cooked and eaten: an English visitor to Maine in the 1620s compared the taste to roast lamb. Father Râle recorded phrases referring to the beaver’s motion, as its tail beats the surface of a pond, as it lifts its head from the water, or as it dives back to hide. At home, the English hunted otters with packs of webfooted hounds. Râle tells us that the Abenaki did something similar: they pursued the beaver with a chien à castor, a “beaver dog,” or in their language a temakwekkwe.

They inhabited a place ideal for the purpose. From the highland plateau, three river systems descend to the north, south, and east: the Kennebec, the St. John, and the Chaudière, the Canadian river that drains away from the far side of Coburn Gore and down into the St. Lawrence. If the sheer quantity of mammals was the first great attraction of the region, the second lay in the ease of entry and exit along these great waterways. To the Eastern Abenaki, the chain of ponds and lakes around Hathan Bog were the high road that led from Mawooshen to Quebec and back.

After the British seized control of Canada in 1759, they sent a military engineer called John Montresor to find the path, as a means to move men and guns from Quebec to Boston and back. He found the bog and the beaver dams, but Colonel Montresor remembered how reluctant the people of Mawooshen were to disclose the secret of the forest highway.

The Abenaki, he said, were “the natural proprietors of the country . . . No nation having been more jealous of their country than the Abenaquis, they have made it a constant rule to leave the fewest vestiges of their route.” In the early days of New England, long before Montresor, no European had trod the path at all. The first were Râle’s forerunners, French Jesuits, in the 1640s, coming over the watershed southward. This was a journey a skilled Abenaki could accomplish in a week or so, if the weather were benign.

With a birch-bark canoe, eighteen feet long, fit to carry two men and one thousand pounds of cargo, the Abenaki could pole and paddle along streams as little as five inches deep. But to make canoes like these, they needed sheets of bark from birch trees at least four feet in circumference. In the seventeenth century, paper birch of such a size grew rarely in southern New England, but the trees existed in plenty in Maine. For this reason, the birch-bark canoe was chiefly a tool of the people of Mawooshen and
the country that lay behind it.

With their canoes, they could travel for hundreds of miles, from the headwaters of the Connecticut River in the west to Nova Scotia in the east. Up on the plateau, the belt of land around Coburn Gore could be crossed on foot. Down in the lowlands, the pattern of lakes and low ridges left behind by the ice sheets created natural canoe trails, by way of short overland carries between the waterways. By this means, the Abenaki could make detours around obstacles in the Kennebec, cross from it to another river, the Androscoggin, and reach the mountains of northern New Hampshire. In the other direction, going east from Naragooc by way of the Sebasticook, they could enter the vast basin of the Penobscot and the St. John. In turn, those rivers led them across the modern border into what is now the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

If there were boundaries to movement, they arose only from hostile opponents. In 1626, on the Hudson River, the Mohawk killed and ate seven Dutch fur traders, and two years later they ejected from the same region their foes the Mohican. So, for the people of Naragooc, the Mohawk and their fellow Iroquois fixed the limit of commerce to the west.

To the east, the St. John marked a frontier with the Micmac, known then as the Tarrentines, long the enemies of the Abenaki. They were sea-going raiders and middlemen, passing up and down the coast between the French in Canada and the people of Massachusetts to the south. Even so, between these limits there remained forty thousand square miles of uncontested country. And that was why, in the spring of 1628, our bald eagle saw the English up the Kennebec
Nick Bunker|Author Q&A

About Nick Bunker

Nick Bunker - Making Haste from Babylon
A graduate of King's College, Cambridge, with a master's degree from Columbia University, NICK BUNKER has had a diverse career in finance and journalism. A former investment banker and reporter for theFinancial Times, he now lives, with his wife, in Lincolnshire, England.

Author Q&A

Q: What made you, as an Englishman, want to tell the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims?

A: Before they were American, they were English, and a revolutionary war had to be fought before the two nations separated for good. Long after the Mayflower, the history of England and America remained deeply intertwined. You can’t understand one without delving into the other as well.

In my case there’s also a family reason for my fascination with the American past. I’m called Bunker. In England we’re very few and far between. For centuries the Bunkers lived lives of total obscurity, as farmhands and farriers and the like in the countryside  northwest of London. Except for one Bunker, a yeoman farmer called George, born in about 1600 in a village in deepest Bedfordshire.

His local parish clergyman made a name for himself as an outspoken Puritan. It seems that George Bunker listened to his sermons and became a Puritan himself. In 1632, he sailed to Massachusetts, most likely on the Lyon, a ship which also supplied the Plymouth Colony. He settled at Charlestown, where he gave his name to Bunker Hill, but George was a free-thinking man who upset the authorities by supporting the religious radical Anne Hutchinson. So they took away his gun, and banned him from holding public office. Even so, he did well. George Bunker became one of the earliest benefactors of Harvard College. His descendants were still living at Charlestown in 1775, when Bunker Hill became a battlefield, while their cousins, another lot of Bunkers, were whaling captains on Nantucket.

You won’t find George Bunker in Making Haste from Babylon, but his story wasn’t so very different from those of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. It raises the same kind of questions. Exactly why did they embark on this bold, hazardous project called New England? What did they find when they arrived? How and why did they succeed, so that families like the Bunkers, who’d been unknowns in England, came to be entrepreneurs in America, the kind of people you read about in Moby Dick?

I find these questions fascinating, but very few Britons have shown any interest in answering them. That’s why I decided to write the book. I felt that it was time the story was told from an English perspective, and I guessed that historians had overlooked a mass of relevant material here in the United Kingdom.
 

Q: You have an unusual background. You’re not an academic specialist in early colonial history. You were a newspaper reporter, and then an investment banker before you turned to writing history. Have your past careers given you a unique perspective on the Pilgrims?

A: Not unique, but certainly wide-angled, which is valuable in itself. If we’re trying to understand the foundation of New England, we have to break down the barriers which universities create, boundaries been the history of economics, religion, politics, and the natural world. We need to recognise that a marine biologist or a farmer in rural Maine can have as much to offer by way of insight as a specialist in Puritan theology. We also have to be scrupulous about accuracy. Most of my career as a journalist was spent at the Financial Times, where accuracy always came first.
 

Q: You unearthed an extraordinary number of documents relating to the Pilgrims and the early settlement of New England, most of them virtually untouched. How did you find these records? And what do they reveal?

A: It’s a matter of timing. In the nineteenth century, when people started to look to the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower as the inventors of America, scholars from New England began to make visits to London in search of archive material that might shed more light upon them. By the time of the tercentenary in 1920, it looked as though every relevant document had been discovered. Since then, many books have appeared about the Plymouth Colony, both academic and popular. But with only one or two exceptions the authors have relied entirely upon sources which were already in print a century ago.

Since 1945, record offices in England have made available huge quantities of new material from the Tudor and Stuart period, documents which were previously either hidden away in private hands, unlisted, or too badly damaged for use by scholars. Archivists have sorted out and numbered thousands of loose papers, created new catalogues, undertaken conservation projects, and become far more open and accessible. Of course, only a tiny fraction of their holdings relate to people involved in the settlement of New England. Even so they contain a wealth of relevant detail which simply wasn’t available to researchers until quite recently.

I tried to be methodical. I made lists of the names of people referred to in previous histories of the early colonists, and the locations from which they came. Then I travelled the length and breadth of England, visiting record offices, searching for manuscript material relating to them. That alone took me about eighteen months, with more time later devoted to visiting Northern Ireland, France and the Netherlands.

Let’s be clear: by itself, no single document will change our view of the Mayflower or New England. What I’ve done is to assemble a mosaic of fragments, as carefully as I can, to form a new picture of what happened. I hope it’s much clearer than anything exhibited before. I wanted to show exactly how things were: how faith, politics, business and the necessities of physical survival interacted with each other, to produce what we now call Puritan America.

 
Q: What is the single most important new source you discovered?

A: It’s always been thought that only one account survived of the flight of the Pilgrims from England across the North Sea to Holland in 1608, an account written by the Mayflower passenger William Bradford. I found it odd that such a dramatic event—nearly a hundred men, women and children, gathered on a beach to wait for a Dutch ship—should have left no trace in the State Papers.

So instead of using the catalogue, known as the Calendar of State Papers, I began to scroll through the entire microfilm of the original material from the year in question. It took half a day. Then suddenly I saw the names “Elvish” and “Stallingborough”. I recognized Elvish as an alternative spelling of the name of Thomas Helwys, a leading religious nonconformist and a man regarded as a hero by many modern Baptists. Stallingborough I also knew, as the name of a creek on the Humber estuary, next to the modern oil tanker terminal at Immingham.

I nearly fell off my chair when I realized that I’d found a set of depositions, sworn statements taken by the local magistrates immediately after the event. They fully describe what happened, with names, dates and locations. Historians have overlooked these documents because, when the State Papers were catalogued in about 1856, the Victorian archivists failed to see their significance. I went back to check the Calendar, and I found that yes, the depositions were listed, but the entry was brief and cryptic. It gives no indication of the importance of what lies behind it.
 

Q: One of the key features of your book is that it places the Mayflower in a new global context, connecting the Pilgrims not only to religion, but to political and economic forces as well. How does this change our understanding of the settlement of North America?

A: It makes the story richer and deeper, more adult and more inclusive, and it removes the myths and clichés.

The year 1620 was the equivalent, in the seventeenth century, of 1931 in the twentieth. Western Europe was sliding into an economic depression, and the continent was already at war: a war that would last for thirty years and leave millions dead. It was the conflict described by Brecht in his play Mother Courage, set in this same period, when New England was being created. Meryl Streep played the title role in Central Park a few years ago, as the woman who drags her cart from one grim German battlefield to another, while civilization collapses. Her performance was very accurate. In the early seventeenth century, life was very, very hard and getting harder. From the Baltic to the Mediterranean, millions of people were forced to go on the road, moving back and forth in search of something better: not just Puritans but also gypsies, Jews and Irish exiles, and a vast multitude of anonymous peasants, driven off their soil by war, taxes, and bankruptcy.

So the voyage of the Mayflower was simply the most famous of many migrations, in a world of trauma. If we see it like that, suddenly it ceases to be a quaint children’s tale. Instead, the Mayflower becomes a symbol of the experience of migrants of all kinds. Because we can find out much more about the Pilgrims than we can about most of the other exiles and refugees whom I mentioned, their story can be told with rare fidelity and accuracy. But I hope that many other kinds of people can see it as something relevant to their own lineage, even if they’re not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants like me and like Bradford.
 

Q: You also give us the story of the men in London who saw the Mayflower as a way to make money. What sort of men were they, and why did they get involved?

A: I began with the list of shareholders in the Virginia Company, which financed the settlement at Jamestown, and I compared it with the only available list of investors in the Plymouth Colony. There’s no overlap. That’s a very important finding in itself. It tells you that the merchants in London who backed the Pilgrims were new, untried men, young and with little capital, who were trying to make a risky fortune by opening up a new source of supply of beaver skins, a long way from Chesapeake Bay.

But, as you’d expect with any enterprise, the bulk of the money seems to have come from a core group who were far more highly motivated than the rest. They included John Pocock, a London merchant whose career I’ve tried to reconstruct. He was an unsung pioneer of American business. He put up cash to finance the first ironworks in North America, on the Saugus River next to Lynn, Massachusetts, where today a General Electric plant makes jet engines for airliners. But Pocock was also an evangelical Puritan, and that was essential too. Whether we agree with him or not, that was what made him persevere with New England, when others didn’t.
 

Q: The New World itself, along with many of its creatures, is just as prominent a character in your book as the Pilgrims. How did you learn so much about the land from the Kennebec Valley in Maine down to Cape Cod?

A: Nothing on earth exceeds the beauty of the American landscape, in grandeur, sublimity and scientific fascination. What’s more, the engagement with terrain and with nature has defined much of American history. So no writer should even begin to approach the origins of colonial New England without due preparation.

Much of my early work was done at the British Library in London, which has superb collections of scientific journals from America. I’ve also built up my own collection of topographical maps from the US Geological Survey, which I have shipped over from a store in Boulder, Colorado, and soil, crop and wildlife reports from the US Department of Agriculture and from state governments. In Boston, I did research in the magnificent public library in Copley Square, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the state archives. Up in Maine I used the library at the historical society in Portland, and the excellent collections at the state library and museum in Augusta.

Then I rented a car, and headed for the hills with a pair of stout boots, warm clothing from L.L. Bean, and a clutch of reservations in the cheapest motels I could find. A year later I did it all again, in case I’d missed anything. I waded up and down the beaches and in and out of the salt marshes of Cape Cod, and I explored most of Plymouth County on a bicycle. I did much the same in England, by the way. It was great fun, and very healthy.

I wrote the final chapter of  the book—The Last Shaman—over three days in a motel room in Bingham, Maine, a long way up the Kennebec River, just as the first winter snows were falling and the deer hunting season was beginning. Then I drove down to Skowhegan, and celebrated with steak and eggs for breakfast.

 
Q: One of these creatures, the beaver, plays a particularly vital role in the story. What was so important about beavers? What did they allow the Pilgrims to accomplish that previous settlements had not achieved?

A: Colonies in North America could not succeed without a rare, valuable commodity that they could package up and send back to London. Otherwise, they couldn’t pay down the debts they owed in the old country, debts they’d run up when they bought supplies to bring to Massachusetts or Virginia.

What did New England have to offer? Nothing better than beaver skins. They fetched a high price in London and Paris as raw material for producing felt, used to make sleek and fashionable beaver hats. The beaver hat was the Rolex watch, the Hermès scarf or the Prada handbag of its day, something every aspiring member of the English gentry wished to own. It’s ironic, since we think of the Pilgrims as austere, frugal people—which they were—but they built New England on the back of luxury goods. The critical breakthrough came in 1628, when the price of beaver pelts soared because of a sea war between England and France.

 
Q: You say that Thanksgiving was actually based in part on Jewish traditions. Can you explain the Jewish roots of Thanksgiving and how the Pilgrims came to study Judaism?

A: I think you have to look at the origins of Thanksgiving in two ways. The festive, turkey-eating side of Thanksgiving has its roots in an event in the fall of 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people who surrounded them held a kind of harvest festival. They ate venison and wildfowl, and exchanged presents.

However, Thanksgiving has another dimension, which is religious. It’s about giving thanks. And if you study William Bradford’s narrative carefully, you will see that there was an earlier Thanksgiving, at the very moment when the Mayflower first dropped anchor in American waters, at Provincetown in November 1620. Bradford says that they “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven, who brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”

Now, whenever you read William Bradford, you need to have a Bible close at hand and preferably also a concordance with a dictionary of biblical words and phrases. You will find that in describing their arrival on Cape Cod, he used language taken from Psalm 107. This is very significant, because that psalm was the source of a Jewish thanksgiving prayer, called the birkat ha-gomel. Devout Jews are required to say the prayer when they reach the end of a journey safely. The Pilgrims copied the same ritual and performed it themselves.

We can be absolutely sure that Bradford knew that this way of giving thanks had Jewish origins. We know that he and his comrades greatly admired an English scholar called Henry Ainsworth, whose books traveled to America with them. Ainsworth belonged to a generation of English religious writers who, in the 1590s, became fascinated by Hebrew, Judaism, and by the commentaries on the Bible written by the rabbis of the Middle Ages. They believed that you had to study Hebrew if you wished to understand the Word of God and they treated the rabbis with great respect.

Ainsworth wrote his own commentary on Psalm 107, and he specifically refers to the birkat ha-gomel. He quotes from the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who traced the prayer back to its roots in this psalm. Later in life William Bradford began to learn Hebrew himself.
 

Q: One misconception that you try to correct in your book surrounds the lives the Pilgrims led in England. What was their experience really like?

A: They weren’t poor, but even so they endured an existence that we would find intolerable. It wasn’t a peaceful rural idyll. The best comparison I can give is with the plains of northern India today, along the valley of the Ganges in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where conditions in the early 21st century resemble those in Jacobean England.

In other words, the Pilgrims came from an environment where the earth produced a meagre crop. Incomes were mostly tiny. Society was divided into a hierarchy of caste and status, and the gap between rich and poor was becoming wider and wider. People felt very insecure because of the risk of slipping downwards into poverty, and so they quarrelled and squabbled with each other.

Like the people of modern India, the Pilgrims could vote in elections and debate politics, but just like modern Indians they took religion far more seriously than anything else. All too often it gave rise to sectarian conflict, of the kind you encounter in Asia in our time. And in the time of James I, you couldn’t trust your local government, because it was run by landowners with their own agenda: principally, looking after their own relatives and friends.

In fact, it was when I spent six weeks travelling up the Ganges, from Calcutta to the Himalayas, that I first began to think about this project. It happened very late one night in February 2004, as I was waiting for a train at Lucknow Junction. I saw a group of Hindu pilgrims returning from a shrine in the countryside. That planted the idea in my mind, though it was only in 2006 that I was able to start work.
 

Q: You write about the prominent role the press played in the success of the Pilgrims’ colony. How did the press operate in the 1620 and how did it help ensure their survival?

A: Newspapers were very, very new, but they already did what the modern press does: they told striking, unusual stories about war, crime, and kings and queens. Like so many other innovations, the newspaper began in the Dutch Republic, where the first examples appeared in 1618. It’s easy to see why. Not far away, the Thirty Years’ War was beginning to escalate. The Dutch wanted to know what their old enemies, the Spanish, were up to.

The idea soon caught on in London too. The first genuine British newspaper—a regular, weekly publication, sold for a few pence, and dealing with current affairs—appeared in the autumn of 1621. The timing couldn’t have been better. Newspapers created a taste for exciting, topical journalism, and that was what the Pilgrims could provide.

Before he sailed on the Mayflower, Edward Winslow had been apprenticed to a printer and publisher in London. His contacts included the men who were pioneering this new medium. So, when the Pilgrims wrote a narrative of their earliest adventures in New England, Mourt’s Relation, they easily found a publisher. It appeared in print in 1622. Then Winslow wrote a sequel, called Good News from New England, which came out two years later.

This sort of thing was extremely important. Think about Jamestown, Virginia, which received a terrible press in England because of disease, internal strife, and bloody conflict with the Native Americans. Colonies needed flows of new investment from home, to keep them going until they achieved critical mass. So you needed to market and promote yourselves. That was what Winslow did, with the help of this new invention called journalism. The Plymouth Colony soon had a much better reputation than Jamestown. That (plus the beaver trade) helped attract a much bigger second wave of migrants to Massachusetts in 1630.

Praise

Praise

“One opens this book with a weary sense of resignation. More hagiography about national origins? Another group of founders? The Pilgrims? The Mayflower? The Compact? The first Thanksgiving? A ‘new history’? Please! Enough already. And yet . . . it’s not like that, not at all. To the contrary, Nick Bunker offers a remarkably fresh take on (it’s true) an old and well-worn story. . . . The evidence . . . adds up to a picture so full and vivid as to constitute a virtual ground-level tour of an otherwise lost world.” —The Washington Post
 
“A meticulous exploration of the lives of the Pilgrims before they even set sail. . . . It’s a comprehensive work of genius and a delight to read.” —GalleyCat.com
 
“A wonderfully engaging study. . . . There is so much here that is fresh and invigorating that Making Haste from Babylon will seem to some lovers of early American history a real page-turner with new readings and perceptive takes in each chapter. Bunker has written that rarest of books—a scholarly history with all the narrative punch of a novel.” —The Providence Journal

"Nick Bunker’s thorougly researched new history digs deeper than previous accounts. . . . Making Haste from Babylon is a remarkable tour de force destined to become an indispensible resource for in-depth understanding of the colonial experience in New England." –Historical Journal of Massachusetts

“Bunker . . . is simply a marvelous writer with a nose for the fascinating anecdote. . . . There’s some intriguing fact or story on every page . . . so much of Making Haste from Babylon [is] rich in the thrill of brushing up against the past and its fathomless mysteries.” —Salon.com
 
“A bold work of revisionism.” —Harper’s Magazine
 
“Making Haste from Babylon is essential reading for those who think they know the story of the Pilgrims. . . . All this and more Bunker relates with enviable concision and verve.” —BBC History Magazine


“Prodigious . . . [Bunker’s] vivid style and bold analysis infuse this book with colour and pace, and the result is an indispensable contribution to understanding how it all began.” —Literary Review

"This superb book secures for the Pilgrims their iconic perch among the earliest founders of colonial America. Bunker…has succeeded in writing a major history, unprecedented in its sweep, of the Plymouth Colony. . . . Never before has such a comprehensive and thoroughly researched study of the subject appeared. . . . The results are stunning. Certain to be the dominating work on the Pilgrims for decades.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
 
“Nick Bunker has done the seemingly impossible: he has shed new light on the oldest of stories, the epic of the Pilgrims' experience in the Old and New Worlds.  With graceful writing and diligent scholarship, he has given us an engaging and original book.” —Jon Meacham

 
“I have rarely read a book which combines such a breadth of canvas...with such penetrating and detailed research.” —Patrick Collinson, Professor of Modern History, Cambridge University (emeritus)
 
 
“In this beautifully written and imagined book, impeccably researched, and full of  so many fresh insights and  discoveries,  Nick Bunker has given us the most grounded and convincing portrait  yet achieved of what drove the Pilgrim Fathers to seek their faith and fortune in the New World. . . . Combining intensive archive research with a time traveler’s eye  he conjures  a wonderfully evocative  sense of place. . . . It is a fabulous tale of our ancestors, but also the true founding moment of America.” —Michael Wood, British historian, documentary filmmaker, and broadcaster

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