Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Book 2, A.D. 1636–38 | Summary

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Summary

Book 2, A.D. 1636

Having returned from England after a few months in prison, Edward Winslow was elected governor of New Plymouth. The colonists continued to send large shipments of fur to England, though a plague outbreak prevented their agent, James Sherley, from disposing of those profitably. Letters from the other English agents, Andrews and Beauchamp, led the colonists to suspect Sherley was not dealing honestly with them. A conflict began to brew between the Pequots and the Narragansetts, with both tribes seeking the help of English colonists in Massachusetts.

Book 2, A.D. 1637

The Pequot/Narragansett conflict—known as the Pequot War—soon grew to include raids on English colonists in Connecticut. The Pequot mounted these attacks to discourage the English in their alliance with the Narragansetts. The tactic backfired, however, as it drew the New England colonies together into a joint expedition. A group of militia from New Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut proceeded to raze Pequot villages, setting houses on fire and capturing or beheading chiefs. Surviving able-bodied boys were shipped off to slavery in the Caribbean. Thus ended the Pequot War, but the division of lands and prisoners in the aftermath led to tensions among the Narragansetts and the "Monhiggs" (Mohegans), another neighboring tribe.

In England, meanwhile, the colony's three agents continued to fight in court for their share of colonial trade proceeds.

Book 2, A.D. 1638

The records for this year are succinct, describing three main developments. Three men were tried and executed for their murder of a Narragansett trader. A public execution was deemed necessary to placate the Narragansetts and prevent war. Cattle prices rose, to the benefit of New Plymouth, where livestock had been raised for some time. In early June a "fearful earthquake" briefly struck the colony. Bradford interprets this event as a sign of God's judgment. Back in England, the three agents spent another year wrangling over the colony's debts.

Analysis

The Pequot War was, in a sense, a spilling-over of an existing conflict to include new participants. Since about the time the Pilgrims first landed, the Pequot had been consolidating their power in southern New England, establishing dominion over numerous other Native American tribes. The English colonists, who in the mid-1630s included not only those at New Plymouth but also those at Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, provided those smaller tribes with another potential ally in the region. As the English made inroads into the politics and economy of southern New England, the Pequot faced dwindling opportunities to expand their own sphere of influence.

Although the Pequot were evidently the aggressors at the war's outbreak, the English colonists responded with a force and thoroughness that is hard to justify. They razed Pequot villages and burned fields of crops, rationalizing these acts partly as a deterrent to future attacks and partly as divinely sanctioned vengeance. In one particularly grisly passage from 1637, Bradford speaks of the victims of one such raid—the so-called Mistick Massacre—"frying" alive in the fires set by English militiamen. He professes to be disgusted by the blood and burning bodies, but then he invokes the language of Old Testament burnt offerings by calling the victory a "sweet sacrifice" to God.

Arguably worse was the behavior of the English after they had defeated the Pequot in battle. According to John Winthrop's letters, the surviving Pequot were taken prisoner, and their subsequent fate depended on age and gender. Men of fighting age were killed, women and girls were "distributed through the towns" as slaves, and boys were sold off to plantations in Bermuda. The sheer ruthlessness of the English colonists is likely a major reason it took so long—almost 40 years—for open war to rekindle between Native and colonial forces.

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