Mourt’s Relation is the earliest known eyewitness account of the Pilgrims’ first seven months in New England plus a few additional events up through November 1621. It was published in 1622 in London. Its writing precedes William Bradford’s account, Of Plimoth Plantation, by a decade and the subsequent publication of Bradford’s by 234 years. Mourt’s Relation, as it is commonly known, in fact has a seventy word title: A Relation Or Journal of the beginning and proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England, by certain English Adventurers both Merchants and others. With their difficult passage, their safe arrival, their joyful building of, and comfortable planting themselves in the now well defended town of New Plymouth. As Also a Relation of Four several discoveries since made by some of the same English Planters there resident. (The titles of the four discourses then follow.) Thus it is obviously known by its short title, Mourt’s Relation, a G. Mourt having written the introduction. As no authors’ names appear, scholars believe that, based on known writing style, it was written by William Bradford and Edward Winslow. Also missing is a much needed index.
The following index is compiled from the Dwight B. Heath modernized, and indexless, edition published as Mourt’s Relation, A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1963).
- from the introduction by Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr. at his Index of Events and Individuals Named in Mourt's Relation, which is the source of the title page picture
The text can be found at The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. I read the Heath version which I recommend for the clean, modernized style (although some of Heath’s claims in his introduction seem unsupported by the text). Here are some brief notes on the different sections of the book:
- To the Reader (written by George Morton)
Morton arranged business affairs for the Pilgrims, so he had a vested interest in seeing the enterprise in the New World succeed. While making sure the “relations” got published, his introduction downplays the hardships faced (“first attempts prove difficult”) while stressing potential earnings from such an investment. His three hopes for the undertaking are “the furtherance of the kingdom Christ, the enlarging of the bounds of our sovereign lord King James, and the good and profit of those who, either by purse or person or both, are agents in the same…”. William Bradford and Edward Winslow might stress different things in their sections, but Morton and Robert Cushman (see the last section) consistently hit these points.
- Certain Useful Advertisements sent in a letter written by a discreet friend unto the Planters in New England, at their first setting sail from Southampton, who earnestly desireth the prosperity of that their new Plantation (written by John Robinson)
Robinson, the pastor for the religious Pilgrims, sent this letter with the Pilgrims. Robinson stressed that the Pilgrims should continue their religious ways. In addition to finding peace with God, the pastor emphasized maintaining peace among all people. At this point, Robinson reminded the Pilgrims that “strangers” would be among them and that they were traveling for different reasons than escaping religious persecution. While desiring peace, Robinson recognizes that some settlers will be tempted to advance themselves instead of working toward the common good. Lastly Robinson enjoins them to elect good leaders for self-government. His language foreshadows what is in the Mayflower Compact, as well as sets the stage for one of the greatest ironies surrounding the Pilgrims. In expanding the rule of King James, the seeds of self-rule have been planted.
What I found interesting about Robinson’s list is what it excludes—Indians. They may have been implied in the “be excellent to one another” section, but there was no mention of conversion or concern for safety.
- A Relation or Journal of the proceedings of the Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England (written by William Bradford)
Bradford’s section covers about half the book, providing more detail of the first few months than was in Of Plymouth Plantation. Some passages are almost identical in both books, but the additional information and anecdotes, such as Bradford getting caught in an Indian deer trap, further flesh out their initial time in New England. I have emphasized the business aspect of the Pilgrims without clarifying trading and business was to pay off their debt for their investors and not to enrich themselves. The Pilgrims did steal things (corn and a few items from an unoccupied hut). They did keep an eye on the legitimacy of their claims. Heath snidely comments that the Pilgrims used a prior plague wiping out the previous inhabitants as divine intervention and a “convenient rationalization” for settling where they did. I saw it as looking at the legality of their settlement. Since they did not have a patent for their location, Bradford frames their search as part of their contract-based outlook. The immediate treaty with Massasoit fits into that outlook.
Bradford does not hide the facts that there were deaths, but he does not provide statistics either. You have to read his Of Plymouth Plantation for an idea of how many deaths, including his wife’s, there were that first year. While disease would prove to be a problem in future years, more mundane problems like fire (especially when close to gunpowder) proved to be dangers as well. And while the Indians were the first to attack the Pilgrims, given previous encounters with Europeans (with natives stolen or placed into slavery) their wariness and aggressiveness seem understandable.
- A Journey to Pokanoket, the habitation of the great King Massasoit; as also our message, the answer and entertainment we had of him (written by Edward Winslow)
Heath highlights how inconsiderate the Pilgrims were to the Indians but fails to mention the Indians continually disrupting the Pilgrims, limiting their work. This section covers a group of Pilgrims visiting Massasoit, deepening the bonds with the Indians (or at least this tribe) as well as limiting their visits. In addition, if Winslow is to be believed, the Pilgrims initiated repayment for the items they took soon after landing.
- A Voyage Made by ten of our men to the kingdom of Nauset, to seek a boy that had lost himself in the woods; with such accidents as befell us in that voyage (written by Edward Winslow)
This section shows high levels of interaction between the Indians and the Pilgrims. While the group of ten Pilgrims was searching for the lost boy they encounter an old Indian woman mourning her three sons taken by an Englishman several years ago. The Pilgrims make sure that the Indians know that they are not there for profit or power like previous visitors (who seem like savages).
- A Journey to the kingdom of Nemasket in defense of the great King Massasoit, against the Narragansets, and to revenge the supposed death of our interpreter Squanto (written by Edward Winslow)
This section of Mourt’s Relations is more problematic as the Pilgrims attack an Indian tribe. In many ways, however, their behavior is consistent with what we have seen so far. They uphold their end of the treaty, believing Squanto to have been killed. The Pilgrims take the Narragansets by surprise but to their shock they find Squanto alive. Doing more than apologize, the Pilgrims take injured Indians to their settlement for treatment. For better or worse, the impact of the Pilgrims breaking into an Indian settlement at midnight, seemingly unprovoked, must have been great for this tribe and for the surrounding tribes as well.
- A relation of our voyage to the Massachusets, and what happened there (written by Edward Winslow)
Even though the Massachusets had threatened the Pilgrims, the settlers attempt to peacefully trade with the Indians. While finding only a couple of very scared natives, the Pilgrims make a favorable impression in treating the Indians as equals. Squanto comes across as savage, wanting the Pilgrims to ‘rifle’ the women and steal their valuables.
- A letter sent from New England to a friend in these parts, wetting forth a brief and true declaration of the worth of that plantation; as also certain useful directions for such as intend a voyage into those parts (written by Edward Winslow)
This section contains the most famous description of the first Thanksgiving, stressing the relationship with the Indians as much as the successful harvest. Winslow goes into detail about relations with the Indians, highlighting the harmony not just with the Pilgrims but between differing groups of Indians. Having initially partnered with one of the weakest tribes in the area, the Pilgrims altered the balance of power among the tribes and inadvertently brought a measure of peace to the area. As rosy as everything sounds, it is important to keep in mind that Winslow intends to attract more English to the area in addition to not appearing idle.
- Reasons and considerations touching the lawfulness of removing out of England into the parts of America (written by Robert Cushman)
Cushman approaches his argument like a sermon, interlacing his writing with quotes and allusions from the Gospel. His concern on “lawfulness” is a recurrent theme throughout the work as the Pilgrims look not for just what is right but what is legal. Cushman reiterates many of the same three hopes mentioned in George Morton’s introduction. Here is Cushman’s final paragraph, which lays it on thick regarding the “plentifulness” of New England—visit sunny Plymouth!
To conclude, without all partiality, the present consumption which growth upon us here, whilst the land groaneth under so many close-fisted and unmerciful men, being compared with the easiness, plainness and plentifulness in living in those remote places, may quickly persuade any man to a liking of this course, and to practice a removal, which being done by honest, godly and industrious men, they shall there be right heartily welcome, but for other of dissolute and profane life, their rooms are better than their companies. For if here, where the Gospel hath been so long and plentifully taught, they are yet frequent in such vices as the heathen would shame to speak of, what will they be when there is less restraint in word and deed? My only suit to all men is, that whether they live there or here, they would learn to use this world as they used it not, keeping faith and a good conscience, both with God and men, that when the day of account shall come, they may come forth as good and fruitful servants, and freely be received, and enter into the joy of their Master.