Why the Pilgrims weren't allowed to go to Maine

A mere handful of penitent readers has responded with faint praise to extol my recent effort to transmogrify history as it is taught into history as it took place, until it amuses as well as instructs us.

This time I will dwell on Elder Brewster and explain the picklepuss expression of Pilgrim Piety he wears in his portrait.

Elder Brewster was indeed a pious man, and it is not my purpose to discredit him. But the historian misreads his evidence and is off on a wild gallop of presumption. The historian tells us rightly enough that the Pilgrims at Plymouth were desperate for food, and in their predicament, "subsisted on shellfish." I don't wonder.

The Pilgrims arrived in December and could not plant a garden until the gasperaux spawned in the spring, and then they'd find the dunes of Cape Cod inhospitable to the Burpee strains.

The Standish blunderbuss would prove likely to miss what it shot at, and as yet Stop & Shop had not extended beyond East Boston. So the Pilgrims subsisted on shellfish, which means clams, which could be found in abundance.

That is not piety the artist brushed on the Brewster portrait. That is the way you look after eating clams three meals a day from Twelfthtide into the blueberry season. Why don't you try clam fritters for a month and then look in a mirror? What else was on the Plymouth menu? Aha! Now we're really getting into history.

Two decades before the Pilgrims set sail to America, the British Crown issued charters to two trading companies that would settle colonies in America and promote business. This was based on ownership by discovery, and the French king was doing the same in Canada. The London Company got New England, and the Plymouth Company got lands to the south. Both held title as far as the western ocean, even if nobody yet knew where or what it was. Each was to avoid competition with the other.

Both companies were made up of venturesome gentlemen investors, and the London Company already had fisheries in Maine. In 1602 it explored for a site for a colony and in 1605 had sent settlers. That settlement failed.

When the Pilgrims returned from Holland, they decided to try America, and asked the London Company if they might settle on the London Grant.

This was given thought, and the decision was no. The Pilgrims had no great asset except faith, were uninformed about wilderness conditions, were dissenters and might be troublemakers, and the fish business was good – so why take chances?

As an afterthought, the London Company told the Pilgrims they might go ashore down around Massachusetts, but not to interfere in the fish business. Then the company alerted their managers in Maine that the Pilgrims were on the way, that they were good people if odd, and that if they called for help they should be assisted "in the name of the company."

So the Mayflower followed the established fisheries route and came to Monhegan Island in Maine, and then changed course and went upwind to Massachusetts Bay.

We could have had the Pilgrims in Maine, but we didn't want them. Now it was two years later that the Pilgrims were in such bad shape that they really needed help.

They had arrived in December of 1620 and tried hard, but before long had all begun to look like Elder Brewster. They had a small sailing boat called a shallop or sloop, so they launched her. A committee sailed up to Maine to get some groceries from the prosperous Maine fishermen.

The log of this voyage shows they were surprised at the activity they found beyond the Isles of Shoals. They'd supposed nobody else was here! Now they found sloops flitting from island to island, vessels in snug harbors, drying flakes by the thousands along shore, and people on beaches busy cutting and salting fish.

When the shallop reached Fisherman's Island in Sheepscott Bay, the Pilgrims aboard found wharves and derricks, cask factories, dwellings for workman, a boat-repair yard, and several vessels on mooring waiting to be loaded with salt-slacked cod, fish peas in kegs, and fillets in brine. A Spanish three-master had just arrived with salt to exchange for corned hake.

The place was a-bustle!

To be a truthful historian, I must say that the people in Maine at that time were not the finest kind. (See John S.C. Abbott's "History of Maine.")

Horrible debaucheries prevailed. The fish money had drawn the riffraff from the waterfronts and the slums. Morality didn't exist, the Indians were being cheated and led astray, nobody attended worship, and the London Company had sent over a salvation committee to try to restore law and order, virtue and decency.

Into this infamous ambience the Pilgrim shallop innocently sailed, seeking the charity of sustenance. But the word from HQ was remembered and the shallop was loaded with goodies, and the Pilgrim scribe wrote in his log with amazement: "Nor would they take any payment for the same."

It is comforting to reflect that, save for the generosity of these ruffians, the Pilgrims at Plymouth would surely have starved. Had that happened, what would the historians say today?

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