Mourt's Relation: A Relation or Journal of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England, by Certain English adventurers both merchants and others
The coming of the Pilgrims and their establishment of the Plymouth Plantation is one of the great adventures in the American experience. This book is the earliest published account of that adventure, a day-by-day journal written in a simple forceful manner by men who took part in it. The story is familiar—deceptively familiar, in that portions of it have undergone a complex process of transformation and emerge as modern myths in our national folklore. Still it is a story full of glory, and of tragedy, which deserves a wider public.
The glory, as usual, exists mostly in retrospect. The Separatists had already shown the courage of their convictions in defying both Church and State by worshiping in their own way in England. They had finally been driven to take refuge in Holland, the only European nation where they could then enjoy complete religious tolerance. After twelve years of poverty and social isolation in Amsterdam and Leyden, the self-styled “Saints” sought the New World largely as a land of economic opportunity where they hoped to start afresh. Similar motives undoubtedly moved the “Strangers,” the motley group of fellow travelers who joined the party at Plymouth, England, and doubled their numbers. The “Strangers” were loyal to the viii Church of England, as were the few indentured servants and hired men, who soon comprised a dissident faction. They cared no more for freedom of conscience than did the “merchant adventurers,” a joint stock company of about seventy London businessmen who sponsored the plantation only as a commercial venture likely to yield high profits.
Some have read the “Mayflower Compact” as the glorious cornerstone of American democracy, but it seems hardly revolutionary in context here where it first appeared in print. The fact that the Pilgrims enjoyed warm relations with some Indians is also much to their credit, but it may reflect the charity of the Indians at least as much as their own benevolence. Still one cannot belittle the achievement of these simple people. They consistently showed resourcefulness in coping with new problems, and courage in the face of danger. The greatest glory of the Pilgrims may well have been the ardent faith and dogged persistence which saw them through great tragedy.
Although there is little talk of tragedy in this volume, we know that more than half of the original party died during the first year at Plymouth. Considering their primitive living conditions, it is a wonder that so many did survive the “general sickness” while wading to and from the shallop, and working hard to develop new skills in the harsh and alien environment of a strenuous New England winter. Another tragedy is only presaged here, in the white man’s facile rationalization of his usurpation of lands which had long been used by Indians. Within the span of a single lifetime, the indigenous peoples were dispossessed, and their way of life did not long survive after the mutually debilitating “King Philip’s War.” The tragedy and the glory of Pilgrims and Indians alike emerge in a careful reading of this journal.