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“The image of the spiritual founding of America that generations of Americans have grown up with was created, oddly enough, by a poet who lived two centuries after the event in a country three thousand miles away. Her name was Felicia Dorothea Hemans and she was not American but Welsh.”

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Thus begins “Made in America,” a fascinating book by Bill Bryson.

Felicia had never been to America and appears to have known next to nothing about the country. It just so happened that one day in 1826 her local grocer in Rhyllon, Wales, wrapped up her purchases in a sheet of 2-year-old newspaper from Boston, and her eye was caught by a small article about a founders’ day celebration in Plymouth.

It was probably the first she had heard of the Mayflower or the Pilgrims, but it was enough to inspire her to write a poem titled “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (in New England),” which begins:

The breaking waves dashed high

On a stern and rock-bound coast,

And the woods, against a stormy night,

Their giant branches toss’d

And the heavy night hung dark

The hills and water o’er,

When a band of exiles moor’d their bark

On the wild New England shore

It goes on for eight more stanzas.

The poem became an instant classic, and formed the essential image of the Mayflower landing that most Americans carry with them to this day. Unfortunately, the image is full of inaccuracies.

“The one thing the Pilgrims certainly didn’t do,” writes Bryson, “was step ashore on Plymouth Rock. Quite apart from the consideration that it might have stood well above the high-water mark in 1620, no prudent mariner would try to bring a ship alongside a boulder in a heaving December sea when a sheltered inlet beckoned nearby. No mention of the rock is found among any of the surviving documents and letters of the age, and indeed it doesn’t make its first recorded appearance until 1715, almost a century later.”

Wherever they landed, we can assume the 102 Pilgrims stepped from their storm-tossed little ship with unsteady legs and huge relief. They had just spent nine and a half damp and perilous weeks at sea, crammed together on a creaking vessel small enough to be parked on a modern tennis court.

“They called themselves Saints,” says Bryson, “and those members of the party who were not Saints they called Strangers. ‘Pilgrims’ in reference to those early voyagers would not become common for another two hundred years.”

It would be difficult to imagine a group of people more ill-suited to life in the wilderness. They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet and a complete history of Turkey.

One William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots. Yet they failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line. Their military commander, Miles Standish, was so diminutive of stature he was known to all as “Captain Shrimpe” — hardly a figure to inspire awe in the “savage natives” whom they confidently expected to encounter.

With the possible exception of the little captain, probably none in the party had ever tried to bring down a wild animal, since hunting in 17th century Europe was a sport reserved for the aristocracy.

“They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigors ahead, and they demonstrated their incompetence in the most dramatic way possible: by dying in droves. Six expired in the first two weeks, eight the next month, 17 more in February, a further 13 in March. By April, when the Mayflower set sail back to England, just 54 people, nearly half of them children, were left to begin the long work of turning this tenuous toehold into a self-sustaining colony.”

Were it not for an incredible stroke of luck, chances are the little band of immigrants would have perished within a year. Instead, they were approached in spring by a young Indian of friendly mien named Samoset.

Samoset himself was a stranger in the region, but he had a friend named Tisquantum from the local Wampanoag tribe. Together they became the Pilgrims’ fast friends. They showed them how to plant corn and catch wildfowl and helped them establish friendly relations with the local sachem, or chief.

Before long, as every schoolchild knows, the Pilgrims were thriving, and Indians and settlers were sitting down to a cordial Thanksgiving feast.

“A question that naturally arises is how they managed this,” writes Bryson. “Algonquian, the language of the eastern tribes, is an extraordinarily complex tongue, full of formidable consonant clusters that are all but unpronounceable by the untutored. Clearly, this was not a language you could pick up in a weekend, and the Pilgrims were hardly gifted linguists. They weren’t even comfortable with Tisquantum’s name: they called him Squanto.

“The answer, surprisingly glossed over by most history books, is that the Pilgrims didn’t have to learn Algonquian for the happy and convenient reason that Samoset and Squanto both spoke English — Samoset only a little, but Squanto with total assurance (and some Spanish into the bargain).”

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel

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