Did you know that the Pilgrims (as they later came to be called) were indentured servants? Crossing an ocean with a bunch of supplies is an expensive operation, and nobody who had the money for it wanted to actually do it, but they (those with plenty of money) did want for someone to do it, because once the land was settled, the vast wealth of the New World would open to them. It’s sad, really. They saw the majestic mountains and dreamed only of gold, saw the towering old growth forests and thought only of lumber, saw the many diverse peoples already inhabiting the land nothing more than vermin to be shooed away or even exterminated.
Anyhow, these conspiring sorts had to come up with a way to get some boots on the ground in the New World, so they cooked up these schemes to send a bunch of poor people who wanted freedom and were willing to risk their lives for it. Expeditions of colonists were financed on seven year contracts, after which they would be given 100 acres of their own land. In the Old World this meant being wealthy, master of your own domain. You can see the appeal to people who had been subservient to such holders of title for generations. Especially in the midst of all the religious strife that came about with the Reformation.
On the hopes of owning their own land in a place where they could practice their particular version of religion, these people were willing to brave a new continent and toil for seven years in a village that was owned by the investors. In England, their religious independence was illegal, and they could be arrested and fined for not going to mass. The Church England was pretty much running the same program as the Catholic Church it broke away from when Henry VIII wanted a new queen back in the early fifteen hundreds. The floodgates were opened up on the Catholic Church exit, and all sorts of new forms of Christianity were being created. Most who opted out of the official religion (be it Catholic or Anglican) were not treated well by the crown, and after many years of persecution they wanted to go far away so they could play their own way. And thus, the great migration began.
It probably would have begun long before had it not been for the plague. North America was not an empty place when the Europeans started arriving. Along the Atlantic coast the population was so dense that fires were visible at night along the shoreline from the ships, as far as the eye could see. There were villages and roads, trading, and forest agriculture. The Spanish had gained a few strongholds further south, but nobody had settled up the Atlantic coast because it was already settled. Until 1614, that is.
The plague that wiped out vast swaths of the Native Americans in North America hit the east coast 1614, killing 90% of the population. Whole villages were abandoned and peoples uprooted. Only because of this was it possible for the early colonies to grow into the civilization that America was to become.
I have been musing upon history quite a bit on my travels. I have visited many historical places, traveling through time in my imagination. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, I didn’t just have to use my imagination though. At Plimoth Plantation, life in a seventeenth century village is lived out every day by actors, as part of a living museum exhibit. I have long wanted to visit Plimoth Plantation, so it was quite exciting to show up right as they opened, with as much of the day as I wanted to explore the village.
First I went through the native village, where a bark shingled house with smoke coming from within immediately drew my eye. It had just started to rain, and I ducked inside. I was greeted by a man sitting by the fire. A stack of split wood with many furs and pelts of all kinds on top of it encircled the room, making for a nice couch. This style of house was called a Wetu, and the natives of this area were known as the Wompanoag. I had a wonderful conversation with the man tending the fire about life on the land, food, and health. He described diets free of salt and sugar, with wild fish, game, berries, herbs, squash and beans. He talked about how children would be given dolls and then have to sew them clothes, or given a ring-over-the-stick game (made out of bones) to teach them how to hit a moving target. He talked about how the girls would marry at around seventeen, and the young men would move into the home of their bride. The boys married when they were a few years older, taking time to prove their courage and their ability to hunt. It was very much like being in another time, talking about these things with my host.
Also in the native village is a large center garden where they will grow mounds of corn, beans, and squash. A young woman roasting a duck over a small fire., talking about food preparation. Closer to the water a young man was making a canoe by hollowing out a giant log. I asked about moving such heavy canoes that are carved out of one giant log, and he said it takes many men. But once they go in the water, they stay in the water. When they leave an area seasonally, they put rocks in the canoes and sink them to keep them wet. This way they don’t dry out and crack.
After spending some time at the native village, I continued on to the craft center, where people were making candles, pottery, bread, and weaving, all with tools and methods from the 17th century. It was neat to see, though I didn’t spend a whole lot of time there. The sun had come out and I wanted to get down to the village.
What a neat place! Everything there has been built as though it were from the time period. It could totally be a movie set (it probably has been), so authentic are the houses and tools. And the people! These are not just your run of the mill park employees. These people really have to learn their stuff. They speak with a variety of British accents, differing in dialect based on where their character comes from. They use old fashioned language, and they know all about the political and religious affairs of the 17th century world. Each actor portrays an actual historical person, so when they tell the story of their lives in Europe and their passage to the New World, they are speaking from a very personal perspective. This living enactment made the story and the facts of the event much more memorable. Plus, it was neat to see such a well created replica of the Old World.
I believe this model of living museum exhibit could be elaborated upon, and I’ve been brainstorming variations of the idea. That for another time, though. Going to Plimoth Plantation was a good study for me on how such a thing can be done.
As I walked through the village, I would step into different houses, where people would be eating, sewing, or cooking. They would answer any questions we (the tourists) might ask, provided it was in the context of their time period. If asked about modern things, they would only act confused, or say they didn't know what we meant. They knew all about the time period though, and they regaled us with many tales of their crossing, of life in England and Holland before arriving. They taught us about their style of worship, their farming techniques, and the militia training, which all grown males were required to undergo.
The history of Europeans coming to the Americas is, ultimately, a tragic story. Yet it is a bit one sided to vilify the colonizers, as if they were just bad people coming to steal the land. For the most part, they were desperate people who just wanted a chance at being free. It bears remembering that all people were once indigenous, tribal people who were conquered by a culture, a way of life. The genocide of natural peoples in Europe took place over the course of several thousand years, and by the time the colonization of the Americas got underway, few remembered the old ways, and the descendants of the victims became the new perpetrators, harbingers of a culture of conquest and death.
That culture, based on the premise that the strong have the right to take whatever they want, is the only real enemy of humanity. This is the message of voluntaryism, the message that transcends race, religion, gender, and nationality. It doesn’t matter what kind of uniform you wear or what colors you fly on your flag; if you are aggressing against peaceful people, using force to make them do what you want, you are working for the culture of conquest and death. If you are living peacefully, allowing others to be who they are, then you are among the last of us holding on to the old ways, to true human culture. Even though the languages, the customs, and the cultural knowledge of Earth’s many indigenous tribes have almost been forgotten, these memories still live in all of us, though often they are dormant. As soon as the culture of empire has fully run its course, (it can only ever end one way) memories and dreams of long ago will awaken and our natural culture can be restored.
Understanding the history of our current age is important, but most important is for us to look to the future that we are creating now, with our everyday words and deeds. What kind of world do we want to be living in, my friends?