Settlers endured terror, pain

November 18, 2011|Lisa Prejean

Did you ever wonder how we know about Pocahontas and her role in the history of Jamestown, Va.?

Or how we learned that Squanto helped the Pilgrims at Plymouth?

Perhaps you've wondered if the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay followed the law as severely as the characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" or Authur Miller's "The Crucible."

What inspired Hawthorne and Miller to write those works?

The answers to all those questions can be found in early American literature, specifically what is referred to as the literature of settlement.

Most of what we know about the early days of our country originates from the historical accounts, diaries and letters of the leaders of the early settlements.

We know about Pocahontas because the writings of Capt. John Smith provide a detailed account of the founding of Jamestown.

We first learned about Squanto from the pen of William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth colony.

The Puritan way of life was revealed through the pen of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. It is interesting to examine how his factual accounts might have influenced the fictional works of Hawthorne and Miller.

Then there are the accounts of the Indian attacks. In some movies, it seems as if Indians' primary roles are to scalp and burn.

Perhaps those script writers have read the works of Mary Rowlandson, who, in 1676, was captured and kept in captivity by Indians for 11 weeks and five days. Rowlandson was rather graphic in her descriptions of the attack on her village and her experiences while in captivity.

Recently I mentioned in class that Rowlandson was the next author we would read. If the students finished their grammar assignment early, they could start reading in their literature books.

After a few minutes, one of my students looked up and cleared his throat. He seemed a little uncomfortable, so I asked if something was wrong.

"Well, this story ... it's a little graphic," he said.

I was surprised because I don't think Rowlandson's writings are any more graphic than what today's teens see on TV or at the movies.

When I looked back over Rowlandson's writing, though, I could see my student's point. Violence in the written word somehow has a greater impact than violence on the screen. Perhaps because in movie form we know the violence is not real. In historical accounts, we know the violence actually happened.

It's not too pleasant to read about someone's bowels being split open by Indians. That is pretty graphic, but it reveals some of the terror the early settlers faced. Their courage to face the unknown is an important part of our history.

Frankly, I'd much rather read about Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to plant corn, but that was just a small part of the early authors' writings.

Thankfully Bradford gave us the account of Squanto, but we are fortunate to have many viewpoints from the early days of those first colonies.

Having a well-rounded image helps us to appreciate the Pilgrims and other early settlers to a much greater degree.

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