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The Mayflower - Some New Insights in a New Book

Making Haste from Babylon by Nick Bunker is a new history of the Mayflower Pilgrims with in-depth research from apparently hitherto untapped archives. Author Bunker also went to the places prominent in Mayflower history. It's a "non-standard, non-linear" history with promising trivia and anecdotes which shed new insight into the character and actions of the usually lauded and glossed-over reality of these men and women. It's true that "heritage" is often white-washed and our view of the Pilgrim Fathers (and Mothers) is no exception. The stereotypical ideal is that they were grim and hardy folk who endured hardships for their faith, dressed in stark black and white with buckled hats and shoes.

In Laura Miller's review at Slate.com, she says, rightfully "We have an incomplete conception of how and why the colony was established, a two-dimensional interpretation rooted in sentiment and national myth." Further that author Bunker dug into "provincial archives of Tudor and Jacobean paperwork -- legal testimonials, contracts, trade and shipping documentation, wills...and.made some impressive finds, such as a deposition confirming the canonical account of how a precursor of the Mayflower group ran afoul of local authorities while trying to flee England for Holland. These documents don't so much overturn the accepted view of the colonists as expand it, revealing them to be both fundamentally English and linked to a transnational web of Protestant free-thinkers."

Bunker also "persuasively demonstrates, [the Pilgrims came] from a much broader region of northeastern England than is usually acknowledged, a surprisingly worldly area filled with educated, Puritan dissenters who thought the Church of England retained far too much of the old, corrupt, Roman Catholic ways. They were established yeomen and small-time merchants who held respected positions in the chain of independent-minded, Calvinist 'maritime republics' that lined Europe's coasts. [King] James I alternately encouraged
and harried them, depending on how threatened he felt by rebellious Catholics inside the country and at its borders. Economic opportunity and distaste for their dissipated neighbors played important roles in their choice to emigrate."

Bunker also delved into post-1620 times, for example 1628. "That was the year that colonial leaders sailed up the Kennebec River in southern Maine to establish a half-forgotten trading post at a place called Cushnoc, staking their claim as New England's primary dealers in beaver pelts. Only by investing in that highly desirable commodity did the settlers finally prove themselves to be more that mere 'dabblers, clinging to their footholds along the coast.' Beaver skins '-- the single way 'the Pilgrims could find the money to pay their debts and finance new supplies from home' -- transformed a tenuous, fragile community into something permanent."

As mentioned, Bunker is not simply an "armchair historian" but went "out to the places where the action went down to consider how the terrain might have shaped history. Since most of these sites seem to be salt
marshes, mud flats or bogs, call this gum-boot historiography."

"Finally, in the book's epilogue, Bunker climbs onto a ledge of a rock jutting out over the Kennebec River to scrutinize some little-known Native American petroglyphs. He's pretty sure these half-submerged carvings describe an encounter between the Plymouth colonists and the Penobscot tribe."

Isn't it lovely to see someone both visiting the historical sites AND digging into obscure original documents to bring us new information and insight into our ancestors?

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Comment by Heather Wilkinson Rojo on May 3, 2010 at 12:15pm
I'll have to read this one! I also loved the last two books I read about the Separatists, "The Mayflower Bastard" by David Lindsey and "The Times of their Lives" by James Deetz. They were both new insights after slogging throught Philbrick's book (I loved it, but it was long and scholarly).

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