1491: Peculiar Shopkeepers

Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods—copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets—unlike anything else in New England. Moreover, they would exchange these valuable items for cheap furs of the sort used by Indians as blankets. It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers’ used socks—almost anyone would be willing to overlook the shopkeeper’s peculiarities.

To the colonists, Massasoit could be distinguished from his subjects more by manner than by dress or ornament. He wore the same deerskin shawls and leggings and like his fellows had covered his face with bug-repelling oil and reddish-purple dye. Around his neck hung a pouch of tobacco, a long knife, and a thick chain of the prized white shell beads called wampum. In appearance, Winslow wrote afterward, he was “a very lusty man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.” The Europeans, who had barely survived the previous winter, were in much worse shape. Half of the original colony now lay underground beneath wooden markers painted with death’s heads; most of the survivors were malnourished.

—Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

I wrote in a previous post that the history of first contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans is part of my mixed Spanish-Mexican Indian DNA. Reading this passage in 1491 reminded me that the other half of my DNA is connected to this history too. I am one of the many descendants of John Alden, the hired cooper on the Mayflower, who is said to be the first member of that company to set foot on North America. Since I am here, he obviously survived the first winter at Plymouth and he must have been a sturdy fellow because he lived to ripe old age of 88.

It is a little odd to read these rather pathetic descriptions of a group of people that included one of my relations. Since I grew up in Canada I know next to nothing about the history of Plymouth (though I gather from 1491 that much of what U.S. schoolchildren are taught is wrong). Until I read the Wikipedia article just now I did not know that my ancestor features in “The Courtship of Miles Standish” by Longfellow. I am amazed that my bout of bookish synchronicity has led to a famous poem about one of my ancestors!


2 comments on “1491: Peculiar Shopkeepers

  1. Stefanie says:

    Very cool that you are a descendant of John Alden! Unfortunately, what passes for history in schools here is the cleaned up back of the cereal box version.

    • Sylvia says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same for Canadian history, though they aren’t shy about teaching us that the first prime minister had a drinking problem!

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