Friday, February 17, 2012

On 'Of Plymouth Plantation'

The contemporary view of the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Indians is one of exploitation of the natives. In contrast, the historical portrayal of this interaction is one of instant friendship, exemplified by the idyllic story of the first Thanksgiving. The complex nature of this relationship is illuminated in Of Plymouth Plantation, a firsthand account of the events surrounding it.
            The fundamental characteristic of the Indians’ and Pilgrims’ relationship was that neither group demonstrated overt hostility. As the Pilgrims searched for a place to erect their settlement, they first encountered the Indians in a small party containing “five or six persons with a dog” (Page 134). The Indians chose to avoid confrontation by evading contact with the Europeans altogether. Comparably, the actions of the Pilgrims were not hostile. They followed the Indians “partly to see if they could speak with them, and partly to discover if there might not be more of them lying in ambush.” (Page 134) Although the Pilgrims had preconceived ideas about the Indians being bloodthirsty and war loving savages, their first action was to try and converse with them in a non-violent manner. The hesitancy of both sides to use violence shows that their desires were for peace and not for war.
            Even first violent confrontation between the Pilgrims and the Indians is an excellent indicator of the primarily peaceful intentions of both sides. The delayed time of the attack showed that neither group wanted violent confrontation. When the attack did occur, the natives initiated it (Page 137). This would seem to indicate that it was the Indians, not the Pilgrims, who were hostile; however, earlier actions of the Pilgrims were likely the motivation for this attack. Soon upon their arrival in the New World, the Pilgrims had taken Indian corn from a deserted village so that they would not starve. Though they intended to pay for the food, and did so about six months later, the natives did not know this at the time. (Page 135) The loss of food could easily have been interpreted by the Indians as a threat, and when the Pilgrims did not leave, they may have seen no alternative to violent measures.
            The negative feelings between the Indians and the Pilgrims are chronicled in Of Plymouth Plantation in the first paragraph under the section heading, Dealings with the Natives (Page 140-141). At the beginning of this paragraph, Bradford describes the Indians as “skulking about” and as having “stole away their (the Pilgrims’) tools.” This tension was alleviated by the first communication between the two peoples when an Indian named Samoset approached the Plymouth settlement to converse with the Europeans (Page 140). Shortly after, the Indians’ leader came to Plymouth to return the stolen tools, demonstrating good intentions.  The boldness of Samoset and the linguistic abilities of his friend, Squanto, paved the way for an immediate ceasefire and peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Indians which lasted for more than twenty-four years (Page 141).
The interactions between the Pilgrims and the Indians illustrate their desire to avoid confrontation. The actions of these two groups showed that they were not overtly hostile. Even when the Indians did attack the Pilgrims, they were likely motivated by a perceived threat. Despite their earlier hostilities, communication between the Pilgrims and the Indians resulted in a symbiotic relationship between them. Although many European and Indian encounters ended negatively, communication between the Indians and the Pilgrims was able not only to alleviate the hostility but also to foster a situation of mutual support.

All pages from The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume A, eighth edition

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