One of the most remarkable things about Of Plymouth Plantation is the way that William Bradford writes about the Native Americans that the Pilgrims encounter in New England. At times, Bradford voices his admiration for certain specific Native Americans, such as Squanto, who helps the Pilgrims communicate with Native American tribes and guides them through the wilderness. But even so, Bradford repeatedly characterizes the Native Americans as “bloodthirsty,” arguing that they’re “savages” because of their ignorance of Christianity. It’s an indisputable fact that Native Americans represent an essential part of early New England history, on both a practical and a philosophical level: Native Americans showed the early colonists how to survive in New England, and changed the way they thought about themselves and their culture. By studying what Bradford writes about the Native Americans—and, just as importantly, what he doesn’t write—readers can get a sense for the Native Americans’ enormous importance to the colonists.
Perhaps the most important thing that Bradford doesn’t say about the Native Americans is that, in many ways, they were better organized and more prosperous than the Pilgrim settlers. Bradford credits the Native Americans for providing the Pilgrims with some corn and beans; however, he says relatively little about the invaluable training that Native Americans gave the Pilgrims. Indeed, some historians have argued that the Pilgrims would never have developed agriculture had it not been for Native Americans’ advice. There’s some historical evidence that the Native Americans were initially healthier than the Pilgrims, though they soon began dying from smallpox (a disease that, unbeknownst to Bradford, English settlers passed on to them). Bradford’s treatment of the Native Americans illustrates the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance: the phenomenon whereby a subject holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and thus is forced to ignore one of them. On one hand, Bradford wholeheartedly believed that God would reward the Pilgrims for being good Christians and grant them prosperity. On the other, Bradford must have seen that, at least initially, the “heathen” Native Americans were better at surviving in New England than the Pilgrims were. (One key piece of evidence for this claim: Bradford notes that some settlers abandoned Plymouth to live among the Native Americans.) The result of this cognitive dissonance is apparent in Of Plymouth Plantation: whether consciously or not, Bradford downplays the sophistication of the Native Americans and emphasizes the Pilgrims’ independence from the Native American population.
The Native Americans also shaped the Pilgrims’ understanding of their own cultural identity. The historian James Loewen argued that there was no “Europe”—i.e., no collective identity for the people of France, England, Italy, etc.—until Europeans made contact with Native Americans. Of Plymouth Plantation supports a similar argument: the colonists of New England began to cooperate with one another, and defined themselves as one collective group, by defining themselves in opposition to “savage” Native American tribes. During the majority of the book, the Pilgrims are shown to think of themselves as a distinct religious group, unique from the rest of European society. Indeed, Bradford shows that the Pilgrims have, at best, very limited cooperation with neighboring colonies—even Massachusetts Bay, another Puritan settlement—and, at worst, outright hostility toward other colonies (for example, the French traders who impinge on English trading rights). It’s no coincidence that the first substantive act of cooperation between the New England colonies is a military alliance, the purpose of which is to raise an army against the Native Americans. The colonists’ leaders assert their common bond—i.e., by forming a council with a common set of rules and objectives—in the act of opposing Native Americans. This reflects Loewen’s point: European settlers in the New World, coming from many different backgrounds, developed a new group identity by defining themselves in opposition to the Native Americans. In more sense than one, European settlers relied on Native Americans for survival: both in the literal sense and the more abstract sense of the survival and success of the European group identity.
Native Americans ThemeTracker
Native Americans Quotes in Of Plymouth Plantation
They also found two of the Indians’ houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away and could not be seen. They also found more corn, and beans of various colors. These they brought away, intending to give them full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them.
Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies, and give them deliverance; and by His special providence so to dispose that not one of them was hit, though the arrows came close to them, on every side, and some of their coats which were hung up in the barricade were shot through and through. Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of the arrows, and later sent them to England by the captain of the ship. They called the place "The First Encounter."
How many Dutch and English have lately been killed by Indians, thus furnished; and no remedy is provided—nay, the evil has increased. The blood of their brothers has been sold for profit; and in what danger all these colonies are is too well-known.
The chief Sachem himself died, and almost all his friends and relatives; but by the marvelous goodness and providence of God not one of the English was so much as ill…
Some of the more ignorant colonists objected that an Englishman should be put to death for an Indian. So at last the murderers were brought home from the Island, and after being tried, and the evidence produced, they all in the end freely confessed to all the Indian had accused them of and that they had done it in the manner described. So they were condemned by the jury, and executed. Some of the Narragansett Indians and the murdered man's friends, were present when it was done, which gave them and all the country satisfaction. But it was a matter of much sadness to them here, as it was the second execution since they came,—both being for willful murder.
The said United Colonies, for themselves and their posterity jointly and severally, hereby enter into a firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for offence and defense, mutual advice and succor, upon all just occasions, both for preserving and propagating the truth of the Gospel, and for their own mutual safety and welfare.