Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2



Thomas H. Brown

Predetermining Interpretation: William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation

Thomas H. Brown (Ph.D., American Literature, University of Georgia) teaches at the University of Alabama—Birmingham where he has served as Department Chair and Director of the American Studies Program. He has served as a Fulbright Lecturer and USIA Academic Specialist in American Literature in Finland, Brazil, and Chile. He is currently editing a collection of essays on Twain's
Pudd'nhead Wilson.


Irish poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde once quipped, "It is a vulgar error to suppose America was ever discovered. It was merely detected" (Ellman 166). There is, of course, an element of profound truth in what was clearly intended as a disparaging remark, because to be discovered implies that an entity has been sought. The Americas, as these western continents came to be called, were not, as we know, sought. They were merely impediments "detected" on the discoverers' search for the Orient. Perhaps this is what Wilde had in mind.

Ever since this detection occurred, however, Europeans have been attempting to come to terms with these obstacles, with the peoples who inhabited them, and conversely, with themselves. Similarly, ever since the establishment of a permanent English colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, transplanted Europeans, or neo-Americans, have been attempting to come to terms with their relation to the native inhabitants, to the land, and to the countries they left behind.

There is no definitive history of those early cultural confrontations between the native inhabitants of North America and the English immigrants. There probably never will be, nor can be, in view of the fact that the written historical record is so heavily weighted to one side of the conflict. But perhaps it is this very impossibility of achieving objectivity, or neutrality, that continues to lure researchers into making the attempt.

If we examine examples of the cultural confrontations that occurred between native inhabitants and the English settlers at Plymouth Plantation as detailed in Bradford's account of them, we find that Bradford is engaged in what has been called "a continuous scrimmage of meanings" (Wilson 469). Bradford's discourse is fascinating for both what is said and for what remains unsaid in his attempt to make meaning out of the Plymouth experience. I use the term Plymouth experience because Bradford's text does not emanate from his experience alone; it is, rather, accumulative and collaborative with the community about which he writes. As an instrument of power the text attempts to constrain debate and thereby contain history itself. Even when a writer is wrong or deliberately misrepresenting, his text is just as significant as when he is speaking the truth. What is important is that the text be "receivable" by the writer's contemporaries, or that it has been regarded so by the writer (Todorov 54).

To understand Bradford's text, we must attempt to understand Bradford's perception of the world in which he lived. In The Order of Things Michel Foucault insists that fundamental cultural codes impose order upon existence. He calls this nonformal knowledge "epistemes," which he defines as "the historical 'a priori' which, in a given period, delimits in the totality of experience a field of knowledge, defines the mode of being of the objects that appear in that field, provides man's everyday perception with theoretical powers, and defines the conditions in which he can sustain a discourse about things that is recognized to be true" (xxii).

Foucault portrays the Renaissance as an era in which the world was "defined by the unity of words and things…in a seamless web of resemblances" (48). In other words, Renaissance persons thought in terms of endless sets of similitudes. Foucault contends that "Renaissance knowledge assumed that God had put a mark as signature on things (on everything) in order to spell out their mutual resemblances" (48) But since God's signatures were often hidden, "knowledge was bound to be an exegesis of the arcane" (44). Consequently, much of learning was engaged in guessing. For those living during the Renaissance, then, knowing was an act of interpreting rather than observing or demonstrating.

This habit of mind, this manner of seeing and interpreting the world, this episteme, runs clearly throughout Bradford's text; it profoundly shaped the manner by which the Pilgrims attempted to resolve their conflicting interpretations of the native American. In the very first chapter of his text, for example, Bradford points to the similarity between the contemporary scene in England for true and pure Christians and the persecutions of the early Christians by "the heathen and their Emperours" (24). He writes, "The like methode Satan hath seemed to hold in these later times, since the trueth began to springe and spread after the great defection made by Antichrist, that man of sinne" (24).

Leaping several chapters to pick up Bradford's account of the landing at Plymouth, we again find him interpreting experience in terms of similitude. He likens the Pilgrims' joy at setting foot on land again to that of "wise Seneca [who] was so affected with sailing a few miles on the coast of his owne Italy; as he affirmed, that he had rather remainee twentie years on his way by land, then pass by sea to any place in a short time; so tedious and dreadful was the same unto him" (95).

Experience can be interpreted in terms of contrarieties as well as similarities, and Bradford employs this strategy in contrasting the experience of Paul with that of his own company: "It is so recorded in scripture as a mercie to the apostle and his shipwracked company, that the barbarians shewed them no smale kindness in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise" (96).

In discussing Columbus's view of the Indians in The Conquest of America, Todorov argues that Columbus was predisposed by conviction, temperament, and religion to know "in advance what he [would] find; the concrete experience [was] there to illustrate a truth already possessed, not to be interrogated" (17). The very same argument can be made for Bradford's and the Pilgrims' view of the American Indians.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the writings of Peter Martyr, the principal Spanish chronicler of Spanish colonization efforts, had been translated into English. Martyr had depicted Indians who had resisted the Spanish as cannibals, and so by the process of comparison, by the process of seeking similarity as a means of knowing or understanding, the English had developed a similar view of North American Indians. Bradford, just as Columbus, knew in advance what he would find and how it would be interpreted.

Even before having set foot on North American soil, for example, Bradford predicted what they would find: "The place they had thoughts on was some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitfull & fitt for inhabitants where there are only savage & brutish men, which range up and downe, little otherwise then the beasts of the same" (40). Before they had left Leyden (Holland), Bradford believed they would be in continual danger of the "salvage people, who are cruell, barbarous, & most trecherous, being most furious in their rage, and merciles where they overcome; not being contente only to kill, & take way life, but delight to tormente men in the most bloodie maner that may be; fleaing some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting of the members & joints of others by peesmeale, and broiling on the coles, eate the collops of their flesh in their sight whilst they live; with the other cruelties to horrible to be related" (40). Genuine as these fears may have been to the Pilgrims living in Holland, it is ironic to today's reader that a prime reason Bradford gives for nevertheless undertaking such risks was the conviction that "The Spanish might prove as cruell as the salvages of America…" (42). Thus they may as well take their chances in North America.

For Bradford, belief predetermines interpretation. From his first discussion of native inhabitants, even before he has actually seen or encountered any, he interprets them by similitude—wild beasts and wild men are similar to one another. Tellingly, in chapter nine, when detailing the emotions the Pilgrims experienced upon first landing at Plymouth, he writes, "Besids, what could they see but a hidious and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and willd men? and what multitudes ther might be of them they knew not" (96). Precisely! At this point in their actual experience they had not even seen a single native inhabitant, yet they knew, from both Spanish and English travel literature, what to expect to see.

There is no irony, no contradiction, in Bradford's discussing in the same sentence, "those vast and unpeopled countries of America" and those "salvage and brutish men" that inhabit those unpeopled countries, because his sources had told him that these people "range up and downe" just as the "salvage and brutish" beasts of the land (emphasis mine). The right of Englishmen to occupy open, or "waste," lands held by manorial lords was an ancient one, stretching well back to the medieval past (Allen 1). Thus the members of the Plymouth Colony, like the Puritans who followed them ten years later, believed that they had a natural right to make use of any part of the earth which another had not possessed before him. Since the North American Indians had not improved the land through enclosure, maintenance of cattle and pasturage, cultivation of crops, or the building of permanent homes, they could hardly be said to have "possessed" the land. Therefore, the land was for them open, free to take for improvement. The English did not understand, of course, that the Indians were in fact agriculturalists who harvested animal populations and vegetable crops "symbiotic with them," nor did the Indians realize for many years the serious threat the English posed to their very existence (Kehoe 235-36).

The episteme of similarity or resemblance by which Bradford interpreted experience also shaped his view of the "hidious and desolate wilderness" (96) because according to the folk imagination of the time, the forest, throughout civilized Europe was still seen as the "great chaos, the lair of the wild beasts and wilder men, where order and shaping are not, where hapless peasants are first be-wildered, then seduced into all manner of sin" (Stilgoe 7). Satan lived incarnate in the wilderness; the wilderness was to be dreaded and feared, of course, but it was also to be subdued and finally conquered by the forces of pious Christians, assisted by the power of their God, Satan's enemy. This fundamentally different attitude toward nature, toward the wilderness, is perhaps one of the most significant cultural differences between the natives and the English settlers, one which was to continue to have profound implications for North American Indians well on into the twentieth century.

Just as Columbus's first gesture upon contact with a newly discovered land or island was "an act of extended nomination" (Todorov 28) by which he declared them to be the property of the Kingdom of Spain, the English settlers rapidly replaced Indian place-names, full of aboriginal meanings, with English names, thereby symbolically imposing order upon chaos by creating what is called "a web of resemblances" to that which was familiar (Foucalt 44). Thus Aggawam becomes Ipswich; Acushena, Ponagansett, and Coaksett become Dartmouth, and Pyquag becomes Wethersfield (Allen 1). Heathen names, and presumably heathen memories, are thereby erased; the unfamiliar is eradicated, the familiar reinstated. This act of nomination, of transforming the wilderness into familiar place names greatly assisted the development of a society based on an English model. A further resemblance to England is even to be seen in contemporary maps of New England, in which New England is depicted "as an island located between the 'river of Canada,' the St. Lawrence, to the north, and the Hudson River to the west" (Allen 2).

Though the Pilgrims had seen Indians as early as late November, shortly after their arrival, and though they had had a brief skirmish with a small band in December, a skirmish in which neither Indians nor English were injured, it was not until March that they had any communication with Indians.

"About the 16. of March," Bradford writes, "a certaine Indian came bouldly amongst them, and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand, but marvelled at it" (72). Did they marvel that a sole Indian would dare come to them? Did they marvel at the Indian's boldness in coming to them alone? What they apparently marvelled at was that an Indian could speak English, broken or otherwise.

Did the fact that an Indian had learned the English language call into question their assumptions about the natural inferiority of the Indian? Is the master of interpretation the master or the slave? On these questions the text is pregnantly silent. What the text is not silent about, however, is how readily the English were prepared to appropriate the linguistic skills of Samoset and Squanto to their own advantage, both militarily and economically. Their value to the Pilgrims is articulated in clear mercantilist language: "He became profitable to them in acquainting them with many things concerning the state of the country in the east-parts wher he lived, which was afterwards profitable unto them; as also of the people hear, of their names, number, and strength, of their situation and distance from their place, and who was cheefe, amongst them" (72).

While Samoset was indeed a profitable informant, Squanto "was their interpreter, and was a spetial instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corne, wher to take fish, and procure other comodities, and was also their pilott to bring them to unknowne places for their profitt, and never left them till he dyed" (73). In Squanto they enjoyed loyalty as well as profit.

We can only attempt to imagine the emotional and psychological tensions the Pilgrims experienced as they sought to balance their actual experience with the Indians against the preconceived notions they had carried with them to North America. Did their episteme of resemblance, similarity, likeness, inform and shape their interpretation of the native Indians? Despite the promise of those early years, despite the treaty drafted with chief Massasoit which, with two notable exceptions,1 was truly bilateral, as subsequent events in the Pequot War were to illustrate, the Pilgrims could never overcome their perception of the Indians as something Other. Whether rooted in their ethnocentrism, their religious convictions, or both, the consequences were the same. If one begins by emphasizing difference, difference itself is at once interpreted in terms of superiority and inferiority. Clearly, the English perceived the native inhabitants as inferior by nearly every measure they chose to apply.

While the English did attempt to seek out similarities between themselves and the Indians, and in fact discovered many, their ethnocentrism tended to emphasize differences and to condemn all deviations from English norms, just as their Christian religion, while seeking to be universal, condemned all other religions and gods. By aligning themselves with their colonial neighbors in the genocidal extermination of the Pequots, the Pilgrims resolved once and for all the tension of interpretation that these savage men had posed for them from the beginning. Similarity yielded to difference; difference meant inferiority; inferiority called for subjugation; and if subjugation were resisted, extermination was not only in order, it was, finally, justifiable.

We cannot suppose that we have yet discovered, or recovered, the whole story of the cultural conflicts between the native inhabitants of North America and the English settlers in the seventeenth century. That story may never be entirely "tellable," yet it is a subject that still invites research and inquiry because it is a story about cultural tensions that are still largely unresolved today. What is at stake is the attempt to discover and affirm the existence of a human "other" that is not seen as merely an inferior or imperfect state of one's own self.



1Two terms of the agreement were decidedly one-sided. First, if any Indian "did hurt" to any Englishman, the Indian was to be sent to the English "that they might punish him." No reciprocal arrangement was stipulated. Second, when Indians approached the English, the Indians were to "leave their bows and arrows behind them." Again, reciprocity was not mentioned.



Allen, David Grayson. "Vacuum Domicilium: The Social and Cultural Landscape of Seventeenth-Century New England," New England Begins: The Seventeenth-Century. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982.

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. NY: Capricorn, 1962.

Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Kehoe, Alice B. North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1981.

Merquior, J.G. Foucault. Berkeley: UC Press, 1985.

Stilgoe, John R. Common Landscape of America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. NY: Harper and Row, 1984.

Wilson, Christopher P. "Containing Multitudes: Realism, Historicism, American Studies," American Quarterly 41.3 (September 1989): 466-495.


Back to Top