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All beginnings are hard


No nation has a better and more satisfying foundation story than the United States. Other nations explain their origins through a mixture of myths and historical fantasies that are not much better than fiction. Rome traced its foundation to the unlikely twins Romulus and Remus. The Mayan creation story also featured a pair of twins, with the aid of a feathered serpent. England had King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and many nations trace their history back to unnamed but supernaturally wise “ancestors” who created their culture, their language and their religion. The total absence of wisdom in later generations is never fully explained in these stories.

The United States, by contrast, has a real origin story featuring real people, and we celebrate an important part of it this week at Thanksgiving. Like all important historical stories this one has been reduced to a simplified, cartoon-like form with the improbable tale of the Indians and the turkeys, but the plain truth is perfectly well-known.

In the Fall of 1620, a ship called The Mayflower arrived at Plymouth, bearing a brave cargo of English men and women — the Pilgrims. It was a tiny ship with only a hundred passengers, although, judging by the number of people who claim to be descended from them, it might as well have been the size of an ocean liner. The group established a small and fragile colony, barely survived their first winter and celebrated in November 1621 before winter came again. Puritans like to celebrate winter because it makes them feel cold and miserable, and therefore virtuous.

In the 1630s and 1640s a few miles to the north thousands of settlers followed the original Pilgrims and created the larger Massachusetts Bay Colonyaround Salem and Boston. There was no wall to discourage them from landing, and no immigration officials to check their papers. They found themselves in a beautiful, fertile land, entirely uninhabited except for the people who happened to be living there. Unlike most modern migrants they were mainly families, not single men, and they brought many practical skills with them. They also brought their pastors, and a severe, unforgiving religion that probably helped them survive. They were virtually a complete, ready-made community.

The particular group of people who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony are interesting to me because most of them came from a geographical area I know well — the eastern counties of England collectively known as East Anglia. The place names tell you all you need to know: Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Colchester, Norwich, Boston. I had lived and worked for half my life in that region and, when I arrived in the New World in my turn, I found myself surrounded by these same familiar names, and even familiar architecture. Sixty percent of the first immigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony came from this small area of Eastern England, just as whole villages later migrated to the Midwest from Germany or Scandinavia.

Those first white settlers must have been rather like my relatives, friends and neighbors in East Anglia — no longer Puritans, certainly, but hardworking, sturdy and sensible people, perhaps a little credulous, but deeply involved in their communities and in family life. It was a good start for the new nation.

As origin myths go this one is not flashy or dramatic — there’s no feathered serpent for example. But it is a history worth celebrating. Happy Thanksgiving.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.