A new account of New England’s founders puts the Pilgrims — and Maine — in a fresh light.
- By: Colin Woodard
Maine’s role in the founding of New England has always gotten short shrift, in large part because so much of our region’s history has been written in Massachusetts. From Francis Parkman to Nathaniel Philbrick, our Bay State neighbors have suffered from a strange variety of myopia, in which most events taking place northeast of the Merrimack are fuzzy, unimportant, or invisible.
Maine’s role was secondary, but not inconsequential. It was the site of the first European colony in the region (a failed one at St. Croix Island), the first English colony (at Popham Beach), the first year-around outposts (the fishing stations at Damariscove and Monhegan), and the base of operations for what was to have been the official government of New England (Sir Ferdinando Gorges’ manor in York).
Few outside the state hear much about these events, or realize the role Maine played in the survival of the Pilgrim colony across the Gulf. Read Philbrick’s celebrated Mayflower, and you won’t hear a peep about how the Pilgrims were saved from starvation by the charity of Damariscove fishermen. Nor will you realize that it was the Pilgrims’ beaver trading post at Augusta — not their farming village at Plymouth — that paid the colony’s bills. Gorges’ name never comes up at all, even though the Saints were squatting on his land and had to beg his permission to stay there.
Nick Bunker’s groundbreaking new history of the Pilgrims, Making Haste From Babylon (Knopf, New York, NY; hardcover; 400 pages; $30), offers a fresh perspective from a scholar who lives not in Maine or Massachusetts, but in Lincoln, England, a few miles from the Pilgrim leaders’ home villages. Liberated from the heavy baggage of New England nationalism, Making Haste From Babylon gives us the Pilgrims on their own terms, rather than those of their spiritual, political, or genetic descendants.
Mainers will appreciate that the narrative opens not in Plymouth, Leiden, or Scrooby, but on the banks of the Sandy River in Maine’s western foothills. It closes on a rocky promontory on the Upper Kennebec where the Wabanaki carved petroglyphs en route to trade beaver furs with the Pilgrims. In the pages in between, the central role of beaver pelts to the Pilgrim story is clear: Without the European craze for felt hats, the extermination of northern Russia’s beaver, and Maine’s Wabanaki trappers, the colony probably would have gone the way of St. Croix Island and Popham Beach.
If you thought there was nothing new to be learned about the Pilgrims, think again. Bunker is a thoughtful and tenacious researcher who discovered a wealth of contextual information overlooked by the dozen or so generations of scholars who came before him. In obscure provincial collections, overlooked folios in the gloriously enormous British National Archives, and the buildings, landscapes, and shorelines of England, Holland, and the U.S., Bunker has unearthed new details that greatly enrich our understanding of the people aboard the Mayflower.
Pilgrim experts are in for a feast, including a delightfully flatulent portrait of King James I, a provocative reassessment of the villages the Pilgrim leaders hailed from, and a never-before-seen historical account of their flight across the English Channel to Holland. Newly exposed documents flesh out our understanding of various supporting characters, from Maine’s Squanto to London investor John Pocock.
With all these strengths, it’s a pity Making Haste From Babylon is not a more accessible book. Bunker’s prose is elegant, but he applies it almost entirely to fleshing out the nuances of the Pilgrims’ story, assuming the reader has already internalized the basics. He launches into a brilliant chapter on the early life of Pilgrim colonist leader William Brewster on the presumption that we already know what he later did, and why his formative influences might matter to the rest of us. Bunker takes his time showing us subtle new insights, but speeds over major events — the transatlantic crossing or unlikely encounters with Indians who’d lived in England — in the blink of an eye.
If you’re not already a scholar of early New England, you may want to first read Philbrick’s more pedestrian account to better appreciate the significance of Bunker’s contributions. Maine, you’ll find, is very much a part of the Pilgrims’ story.
- By: Colin Woodard