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The Rest of the Story: What Mourt's Relation Tells Us About Relations between the Pilgrims and the Indians

By Rosanny Bello, Lauren Eisner, Edward J. Gallagher, Timothy Guida, Jaime Miller, Megan Snyder, Daniel Spangler

[1]The "adventure" in Plymouth Adventure refers to the trials and tribulations of our revered Pilgrim forebears on the way to America. The film-makers made the decision to tell only part of the Pilgrim story. There are, for instance, no images of first contact with Native Americans, who appear only fleetingly in the deep background, virtually out of focus, in the film's penultimate scene. The film has no interest in intercultural relations. To us fifty years later, this is a meaningful omission. The film portrays America in a self-serving way as -- in Perry Miller's now troublesome term -- a "vacant wilderness" (see the preface to his Errand into the Wilderness, 1956) and renders an important part of our history invisible. To help fill in the rest of the story, we call your attention to Mourt's Relation (1622), the first record of the first Pilgrim months in America. We present short essays highlighting Pilgrim interaction with the Native Americans in the various chapters of Mourt's Relation. And remember when you read the predominantly positive accounts of first contacts that the purpose of Mourt's Relation seems clearly to be justification of the Pilgrim settlement and to promote emigration.

(page references to Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, ed. Dwight B. Heath [Bedford: Applewood Books, 1963])

"The Journal": Daniel Spangler 11/02

"After salutations, our governor kissing his hand, the king kissed him, and so they sat down." (56)

[1] The Pilgrims sought after only one goal in the New World: to live peacefully amongst themselves and the natives of the land. They arrived tired and hungry, as was to be expected after a long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. An exploration party was initially sent forth, with the goal of collecting firewood, exploring the land, and seeing "what inhabitants they could meet with" (18). Even at this early stage in the colony, then, the Pilgrims accepted the fact that there were already people living there. Their goal, however, was not to conquer these people, but only to live peaceably among them.

[2] Before the Pilgrims left the Mayflower, they wrote and signed a pact to bind themselves together under self-government. This Mayflower Compact shows how they were motivated to be accountable to one another and to live by standards set not by a king or a profit-seeking merchant, but by themselves in order to succeed as a self-sufficient unit. Unlike other Europeans, the Pilgrims didn't come to the New World to establish an empire or to seek wealth, but only to live on their own, free from an oppressive European government. Since this was their only motivation, they treated the natives with the same respect that they would want for themselves. The only time they stole from the native people was when they first landed. Having no food, they ate corn that they found in buried storage pots, but even this they did not do immediately. They first talked about what to do with the food. They consciously knew that it wasn't rightfully theirs, but (because they entrusted the success of the voyage to God) decided that it was His will that they found the food. Even after arriving at this conclusion, they planned to repay the owners if they were found.

[3] The Pilgrims' first contact with the natives was an attack, but one in which the Pilgrims were on the defensive. They fired few shots from their muskets, although many arrows narrowly missed them, and did not try to pursue and destroy or enslave their attackers. When they finally met with the natives on a personal level, the Pilgrims treated them with respect and as equals: "After salutations, our governor kissing his hand, the king kissed him, and so they sat down" (56). The fact that the leader of the tribe was referred to as a king shows the Pilgrims' great respect for the native people as a functioning society. The Pilgrims did not try to force the natives to conform to their own style of religion, probably because they were themselves fleeing forcible religious conformity. Their only interaction with the natives was peaceful. A pact was set up to ensure this peace. In it, both parties agreed to respect the property and persons of each other, come unarmed to each other's residences, and, going beyond simple mutual respect, they agreed to assist each other if either party came under attack. This treaty was not violated in any way for the generation of the original Pilgrims. The Pilgrims wanted only peace and made sure that their actions would have only positive results in their relations with the native people.

"On the Dock": Timothy Guida 11/02

"And as men are careful not to have a new house shaken with any violence before it be well settled and the parts firmly knit, so be you, I beseech you brethren, much more careful, that the house of God which you are and are to be, be not shaken with unnecessary novelties or other oppositions at the first settling thereof." (12)

[1] Mourt's Relation begins with a letter. John Robinson, the author of the letter, calls it "a further spur of provocation" (10) for the departing settlers, meant to remind them what to aim for in the new world. Native Americans are never mentioned in this letter. Would they not have been a major factor, something to remind the settlers of as they departed? Looking at the letter we see what the Pilgrims wished to accomplish and see that these goals leave no reason for extensive worry about the Native Americans.

[2] Robinson's letter does begin with a warning, however, but a warning for the Pilgrims to continue to observe their religious ways, to continue to repent before God. This warning reminds us that they are leaving primarily because of religious persecution. Other settlers departed with the idea of converting the native peoples, often giving rise to conflict between cultures. However, the Pilgrims, long victims of persecution, show no desire to convert the natives. In this way they may hope to avoid conflict with the indigenous peoples. A second warning is to keep peace among the men they are with. These men include not only fellow Pilgrims but also members of the voyage with their own secular agendas. This warning further shows the need for a tolerance of people who are not of their sect and also shows a desire to keep peace. This passage, though not strictly speaking applying to the natives, may explain the Pilgrim's future attempts at cordial relations with them. A final warning the letter gives is to work for the common good and to appoint leaders who will do the same. This type of government eliminates personal ambition, which is the most deadly force in Native-European relations. If the ambition for riches and personal gain is absent, then the people will have little reason to deal competitively with the Native Americans. Historically, we have seen that more often than not the purpose of relations with Indians has been to rob them of land and goods.

[3] Though this farewell letter makes no mention of Native Americans, then, it shows the reason why the Pilgrims were not concerned with them. Pilgrim settlers foresaw a much different kind of contact with the natives than, say, Spanish conquistadors. Their goals were not gain and glory, but separation and survival.

"Thanksgiving and more": Jaime Miller 11/02

"our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors." (82)

[1] Edward Winslow says much about the relations between the native Indians and the Pilgrims in a letter intended to make a friend in "Old" England feel good about coming to "New" England. In fact, Winslow indicates three levels of good relations with the Indians, and the three move from the narrow to the more general, from good relations between one group of Indians and the Europeans, to good relations between all the Indians and Europeans, to good relations among all the different Indian groups themselves.

[2] First, Winslow describes what we have now come to know and to celebrate as the first Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving makes both Pilgrims and Indians seem peaceful towards one another. This first harvest for the settlers was a celebration of success of their journey; thus they held a party: "[o]ur harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors" (82). This first Thanksgiving was a joyous celebration because of the friendships formed as well because of the harvest.

[3] In addition, however, Winslow further describes a second and third level of peace that we are not so familiar with and which, the third especially, are even more surprising. Second, then, is a more general and continuous peace between Pilgrim and Indian that lasts far beyond that one "Thanksgiving" celebration: "We have the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us, very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them" (82).

[4] And then, third, Winslow has the Pilgrims take credit for fostering the practically unheard of atmosphere in which Indian is at peace with Indian as well: "So that there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly, neither would have been but for us; and we for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as in the highways in England" (83).

[5] This letter Winslow writes is intended to "attract" the English to the "new land." In addition, Winslow undoubtedly takes credit for all relationships and treats the Pilgrims as the liaison between the groups. Winslow wants the people in Europe to know of the good deeds they are doing in the "New World" to convince and lure them over.

"A Diplomatic Mission": Rosanny Bello 11/02

Having established a formal agreement with the native tribe, the Pilgrims set out on a journey to Pakanoket, home of the tribe's king, Massasoit. Throughout Mourt's Relation, in fact, we see the Pilgrims' intention of further opening communication with the natives. The Pilgrims wanted it to be understood that they meant no harm, but came out of respect and hope of building a firm friendship with Massasoit and his people. Promising repayment for any damages done and any corn taken, the Pilgrims wished to cement the relationship they had begun to establish. This section of Mourt's Relation also suggests that there were no hostilities between the two groups or threatened by either group, unlike what we see in the accounts of the Spaniards. Their bond was founded on trust. The Pilgrims, wanting to confirm this trust, gave Massasoit a copper chain, so that if he were to send a messenger to them, the copper chain would be proof that the messenger was a friend. In the same way, Massasoit welcomed the Pilgrim's visit and offered them what he could. The purpose of this journey was to form the kind of successful future associations between European and native that was rarely seen beforehand.

"A Mission of Mercy": Lauren Eisner 12/02

"We told them we were sorry that any Englishman should give them that offense." (70)

[1] In this chapter, the Pilgrims send only ten men on a voyage deep into Indian territory to retrieve a lost boy, no doubt naturally fearing that he will be killed or, perhaps equally as bad, raised as a native. Two startling things happen: the Pilgrims meet a Cummaquid Indian woman who has lost her children to Europeans, and the Nauset Indians return the boy, not only without incident but with an elaborate peace ceremony. This chapter, then, shows both Pilgrims and Indians interacting with great mutual understanding and kindness.

[2] On the first part of their journey, the Pilgrims learn of the boy's whereabouts from the kindly Cummaquid, who are governed by a noble savage -- the "personable, gentle, courteous, and fair conditioned" Ivanough (70). These friendly Indians advise the Pilgrims that the boy is with the Nausets and invite them to share a meal. The conviviality is disrupted, however, when the Pilgrims meet the old Cummaquid woman. Her sons were taken captive by an English seaman, Master Hunt, and never seen again. Hunt's "imperial" acts are characteristic of the "savage" behavior of many Europeans in first-contact situations.

[3] The Pilgrim journey, then, is really framed by this "very grievous" meeting with an old woman who has lost three sons (70). There is a common bond of sympathy, since both the Pilgrims and the Indians have lost children. The Pilgrims relate to another human being who has spent her whole life agonizing over her loss, and they show compassion to counteract her pain. The startling thing that the Pilgrims do is put their common bond of humanity with the Indians over their patriotism and denounce the actions of their own countryman: "We told them we were sorry that any Englishman should give them that offense, that Hunt was a bad man, and that all the English that heard of it condemned him for the same; but for us, we would not offer them any such injury" (70). In a further attempt to soften her pain, the Pilgrims give her small gifts as well. In retrospect, the sad but meaningful irony of the scene for the reader of this chapter is that the Indian woman will never have her sons returned by the civilized English, but the Pilgrims will have their lost son returned in exemplary condition by the savage Indians.

[4] Because of a previous Indian assault in precisely the same place, the Pilgrims are cautious as they approach the Nausets. They even offer restitution to an Indian whose corn they had taken earlier. Startlingly, however, they have nothing to fear. There is no fighting, no negotiation, no game playing. The Nausets -- 100 strong, half of whom are armed -- return the boy safely in an elaborate peace ceremony marked by an exchange of beads and knives.

[5] Following this peaceful return of the boy, the Pilgrims leave the Nausets with hardly any fresh water for their return trip, only to again meet Ivanough, who does all he can to help the men find water, and his kindness and openness towards the Pilgrims is reiterated as he takes a bracelet from his neck and hangs it on one of the men. The Cummaquids celebrate the return of the Pilgrims with singing and further gift giving.

[6] The Pilgrims and the two groups of Indians handle a delicate situation with numerous acts of mutual good will. This section of Mourt's Relation presents both the Pilgrims and the Indians as being very fair and considerate in the nature of their relationship.

"A Military Mission": Megan Snyder 11/02

"There in the midst of them we manifested again our intendment, assuring them, that although Corbitant had now escaped us yet there was no place should secure him and his from us if he continued his threatening us and provoking others against us, who had kindly entertained him and never intended evil towards him till he now so justly deserved it." (75)

[1] It is quite evident that the movie Plymouth Adventure left out a crucial reality: natives existed in the new world. The relationship between native and settler here in New England is much different from what we know of past history with the Spaniards, and it is important to recognize that to dispel the possible assumption that relations proceeded here in the same cruel manner as they did in New Spain.

[2] The writers of Mourt's Relation describe a more peaceful encounter with the natives than we see in past native encounters. During their initial months in the new land, for instance, the Pilgrims befriended a translator named Squanto, and he became instrumental in establishing communication. In addition, the Pilgrims made a treaty with Massasoit that promised mutual peace and mutual assistance in war. Although there were combative relations between the two groups, one could argue that this was a necessary means by which the new settlers and the natives came to realize their boundaries.

[3] A good example of unbloodthirsty military behavior by the Pilgrims occurs when Squanto, their most effective communicator, is presumed captured and killed by Corbitant, who was rebelling against Massasoit. So, upholding their part of the treaty, preparing to fight a "just war," they forcibly entered Corbitant's camp with an armed force, only to learn that Squanto was, in fact, alive. Incredibly, saying "as for those who are wounded, we are sorry" (75), they apologized for the harm done and even brought the wounded "enemy" back to their settlement for treatment.

[4] Now, in contrast, the Spaniards acted as if they were the natives with a birthright to New World lands, treating the natives as a subhuman enemy. For the most part the Spanish dealt with these human beings of another culture as if they were merely pests. Here at the Plymouth settlement, however, one sees quite a different relation between European and native. The Pilgrims acknowledged not only native existence but native equality, and the treaty is a good example of that. Fear naturally ran through the minds of these new settlers and occasionally violence occurred between the groups, however Mourt's Relation depicts substantially more respect for the natives and less wanton action towards them than our knowledge of Spanish first contacts might prepare us for.

"Trading with the Enemy": Edward J. Gallagher 11/02

"But our answer was: Were they never so bad, we would not wrong them, or give them any just occasion against us." (79)

The voyage to the Massachusetts Indians is a voyage to the enemy, or at least a potential one. Though the small squad of Pilgrims marches "in arms" (78), the writer of this section represents the purpose of the journey as partly to see the country, partly to make peace, and partly to trade -- not to make war. And, indeed, the Pilgrims trade, make plans for future peaceful contact, and discover that "Better harbors for shipping cannot be than here are" (80). The conditions for taking rather than trading are surely present, however. The Pilgrims encounter only a "shaking and trembling" man and native women who had "fled for fear of us," pulling down their houses in such haste that they even leave valuable food behind (79). But both are soothed by the "gentle carriage" of the Pilgrims, and trade and promises of future trade are the result (79). Ironically, it is the Indian Squanto who is the war-like one -- encouraging the Pilgrims to "rifle the savage women" because they are a "bad people" and "have oft threatened you" (79). To wit, the Pilgrim response is to give peace a chance: they will neither start a conflict nor let merely verbal threats upset them. And so we are left with the image of a successful trading mission in which the native women happily sell the Pilgrims the very clothes off their backs (and fronts!).

Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Edited from the original printing of 1622, with introduction and notes by Dwight B. Heath. New York: Corinth Books, 1993.