Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Great Dying

New England's Coastal Plague, 1616-1619

[How] strangely they have decreased by the Hand of God... and it hath generally been observed that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them.” – Daniel Denton (early American colonist)

The popular Pilgrim myth involves a persecuted group of Christian reformers who fled England in order to worship freely in the New World. In a narrative that finds parallels with the Israelite exodus from Egypt, these chosen people were guided by God in a perilous journey across the Atlantic in search of what would later be described by Puritan leader John Winthrop as “a beacon of religious light, a model of spiritual promise, a city upon a hill."1 Through heroic struggle and an unshakable commitment to their faith, they were able to conquer the vast New England wilderness, tame the hostile natives and expand the glory and dominion of the Christian God in these new lands.2

In reality, the promised land wasn't exactly a Canaan that needed to be conquered. The area that would become Plymouth Colony was essentially a ghost town by the time that the Pilgrims stepped foot off the Mayflower. Deserted villages and untended fields dotted the landscape, with caches of crops, tools and other supplies hastily left behind... along with the skeletal remains of the former inhabitants. A few years prior, the entire coastal region had been ravaged by a mysterious disease that wiped out most of the native Wampanoag and neighboring Massachusetts, Pennacook, Nauset, Permaquid and Abenaki populations.

For the English settlers, this was all part of a divine plan. Providence had taken the form of a "miraculous pestilence" that had swept the land clean so a new Christian society could be established. Thomas Morton, an early colonial merchant, praised the epidemic that had recently depopulated the land, leaving it
“much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”
3