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Sam Smith: Before The Pilgrims / Liberals


By Editor Sam Smith

A marvelous new book by Colin Woodward, The Lobster Coast, further undermines the myth that the Pilgrims – in the words of Plymouth Memorial State Park – ''founded the first New England colony.'' And that they are people worth celebrating.

This has long been a matter of interest to me – ever since I did a college paper on 40 voyages to New England before the Pilgrims. The course, taught by maritime historian Robert G. Albion, was exceptionally good, a fact of which I was reminded many years later in the harbor of South Freeport, Maine, when I spotted a motorboat, the “Robert G. Albion,” so named by another former student. How many Harvard professors have boats named after them? It is hard to imagine the motor vessel ‘McGeorge Bundy.’

Albion was, before his time, a social historian in a college where only great men were supposed to create history, and preferably Harvard graduates at that. My little project also introduced me to the idea of what was called history was often myth.

I learned, for example, that John and Sebastian Cabot, five years after Columbus, had charted Maine’s Casco Bay on their way from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. By 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold arrived at Cape Neddick near York, Maine, his presence was considered by the Indians to be less than remarkable. John Bereton, the chronicler of the voyage, wrote:

“One who seemed to be their commander wore a coat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band.... They spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand more than we, for lack of language, could comprehend...They pronounced our language with great facility; for one of them sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smilingly to him with these words: How now sirha are you so saucy with my tobacco, which words (without any further repetition) he suddenly spake so plaine and distinctly as if he had been a long scholar in the language.”

Captain John Smith may have been the first person to put in writing the attraction the Maine coast would have to centuries of later arrivals: “Here are no hard landlords to racke us with high rents; no tedious pleas in law to consume us with their many years deputations for Justice; no multitudes to occasion such impediments to good order, as in the popular States. So freely hath God in his Majesty bestowed his blessing on them that will attempt to obtaine them as here every man may be master and owner of his own labor and land; or the greatest part in a small time."

Woodard writes that during this period, Micmac Indians could be seen skillfully operating “vessels that had two masts, were as long as forty feet, and weighed twelve tons. They ranged as far south as Massachusetts Bay, and one of their leaders, Messamouet, had visited France, where he had been a houseguest of the mayor of Bayonne.”

Other contacts, however, were less benign. For example, Cartier kidnapped a chief, five adults and four children and took them off to France. There were stories of theft and rape. And the Indians became that that some of their wildlife was being decimated by the “ship people.”

Nearly a full century before the Pilgrims, in 1524, Giovanni Verrazano arrived on the Maine coast but failed to hit it off with the Indians, describing them as of “such crudity and evil manners, so barbarous, that despite all signs we could make, we could never converse with them.”

The Wabanakis, for their part, were so skeptical of the visitors that they would only consent to trade if they could sit on a high cliff “with the Europeans floating in a tiny boat beneath them” with goods “traded in a basket hauled up and down the cliff with a long rope.” The Indians then mooned their customers and laughed “immoderately.”

The British had some familiarity dealing with people they considered “savage;” at home they were busy suppressing the Irish. One of the main figures in the colonization of Maine, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had placed heads of recently slain Irish along the path to his encampment. “It did bring greate terrour to the people when thei saw the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolke, and friends, lye on the grounds before their faces, as they came to speak to said collonell.”

By the time the Pilgrims got to Massachusetts, a year round trading and fishing station had already been established at Damariscove Island in southern Maine. It was to this island that the “founders of New England” had to go in 1622 to beg for supplies.

The men who worked there were not, as Woodard notes, “stern, sober, Calvinists ideologues.” But they did have food.

By the time the Pilgrims were settled enough to be known as Puritans, they showed their gratitude by unilaterally annexing Maine to their mini-empire. This was not a good idea as the Mainers had been more successful at getting along with the Indians. They also were not particularly concerned with personal beliefs and so included a random bunch of heretics including Anabaptists and Quakers. At one point, Governor Gardner of Maine tried to deflect a Puritan demand that he remove all guns from the Indians, arguing that the native Americans needed them for hunting. Gardner was arrested and tried for treason.

Things deteriorated throughout New England until a full scale Indian rebellion known as King Phillips war began in 1675, which wiped out several tribes, killed one in five English men of military age, and left for several decades not one settler in Maine beyond its southernmost tip.

This is not, of course, what most Americans are taught about the Pilgrims and early New England. It’s too bad. As we attempt to colonize another group of purported savages in a far way land, we might have learned that religious rigidity is a poor tool of public policy. And despite our Thanksgiving myth, it can’t even be counted to keep food on the table.



By Editor Sam Smith

One reason liberals have a hard time is because of the language they use, which often denigrates the values and the culture of the very people who they are trying to attract.

A case in point is the term “urban sprawl.” It’s hard to see how you get anyone to agree with you when you start out calling their community “sprawl.” Yet planners and liberals do it repeatedly.

Obviously there are aspects of suburbia that need fixing such as the over-reliance on the automobile and the damage to open space, but the National Trust also includes in the definition of sprawl “dispersed, low-density development that is generally located at the fringe of an existing settlement.” And the EPA calls it a “a pattern of growth [that] has largely occurred in an unplanned, ad hoc fashion.”

In other words, if you like low density development that has occurred, god forbid, in an unplanned, ad hoc fashion, you are a sprawl co-conspirator.

Having split my time between life in a setting that is currently described by that other self-serving and sublimely arrogant phrase, “smart growth” and vacations in a low density, unplanned, ad hoc locale, I have to admit that I like them both.

And while I have written extensively on how cities could be improved by some of the same proposals finally seeping into the generic urban planning mind, I have always assumed that people were put on this earth to lead their own lives and not those designed for them by planners.

Still, if you are planning something, there are ways of going about it without insulting your supposed beneficiaries. For example, one can use Terry Fowler’s useful distinction between emphasizing mobility and providing access. By offering people better access they might listen to you more kindly that if you imply that the house they are working so hard to pay off is to blame for our urban woes.

Better yet, cut the planning jargon entirely, speak the way normal people talk to each other and about things they want and need, and, above all, listen to them. As Jane Jacobs noted long ago, "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."



MAR 1, 2004

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