From the Editor

Four hundred Novembers ago the first Europeans to succeed at moving to New England arrived on the Mayflower. I say first to succeed because others had tried, most notably Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602, who is credited with giving the Island of Noepe a new name: Martha’s Vineyard. But his crew turned out to be summer dinks. After a nice season on Cuttyhunk eating strawberries, stealing canoes, buying furs, and discovering that the local women “would not admit of any immodest touch,” they abandoned their plans to stay through the winter and sailed home to Old England.

It may have been a “new” England to the 102 Mayflower passengers when they disembarked eighteen years later, but it wasn’t remotely a new place for people to make their homes. The Wampanoags and their ancestors had been more or less in residence for at least twelve thousand years. I say more or less because a lot changed in Native American culture over the millennia. As the historian David J. Silverman makes clear in his fascinating article in this issue about Native American politics in New England in 1620, a fundamental misperception about pre-colonial Native America is that it was a kind of land where time had stopped.

Fundamental misperceptions are often the result of lies repeatedly told, of course, and The Timeless Indian standing tall in the corner of the landscape was a convenient idea and image in the centuries to follow the Mayflower. That’s why it’s invariably sunset in those pictures. It couldn’t be genocide if The Timeless Indian’s time had already passed away into the mists, just like it couldn’t be slavery if Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were smiling. So long, Jemima and Ben. Take old Timeless with you.

Here’s an odd thing about the Mayflower arrivistas. Even though they had no permission from the current owners of the place to move in, their first obsession upon arrival at Cape Cod was straightening out their status in regard to the “old” world they’d left behind. Like the Wampanoags, the Mayflowerers were not monolithic. In fact, they were quite divided. On one side were the familiar Pilgrims: sincere religious purists, fanatics some might say, or just single-issue voters. Their minority faith had not made them particularly wealthy and they had little to invest in the move to America other than their bodies and their labor. On the other side were the agents of a small cadre of well-heeled real estate speculators back in England who had funded the adventure in the hope that however wacko the Pilgrims’ faith might seem, their honest and pious labors might eventually translate into a continent of profits.

The two groups had almost nothing in common. They neither liked nor trusted one another. But in Provincetown, before they had seen a single Wampanoag owner of the place or laid eyes on what would become New Plymouth, the pious Pilgrims and the gimlet-eyed guardians of the bottom line made a bold bargain and signed the Mayflower Compact, which has been credited by some with laying the foundation of constitutional self-government in the future United States.

“Let’s agree to overlook all the things we disagree about, which is pretty much everything once we start listing it,” they sort of said. “And let’s just hold our noses around one another and work together. That way a few of us who want to try can
get to heaven, and a few of us who want to try can make our bosses really rich.”

You see? History is always changing. Sometimes even in November.