Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Pilgrim Story

I enjoy Thanksgiving, but can do without the “Thanksgiving Story.” The events of 1621 have been mythologized, tortured and twisted to suit particular political agendas for so many years that the real “Pilgrim story,” if there is one, lies buried somewhere underneath. Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” has long been a starting point for American politicians to launch off in any number of generally unhealthy directions. A recent manifestation has the Tea Party crowd staking claim to the national myth, casting it as a victory of capitalism over socialism (here.)

The Puritans have suffered from bad press ever since Hawthorne (and no, they did not dress all in black and white, and yes, alcohol was permitted as long as it did not lead to drunkenness.) Their perceived influence over the development of our national consciousness can be overblown at times. I pulled this from The New England Mind by Perry Miller, an old text from my colonial American history class:

The posterity of American Puritanism have devised nothing that would more shock their fathers than their inquiry into the comparative force, among motives which impelled the settlement, of the economic as against the religious….it was unthinkable that children conceived and educated in Massachusetts and Connecticut would become preoccupied, not with universal Christendom, but with provincial merchandise.

Exactly. So perhaps the Puritan ethic was determinative after all, just not in the way they intended.

The Puritans are a bit hard to warm up to, you might say. Despite their much vaunted importance to the development of representative government and all that sort of thing, and despite the industriousness by which they recreated East Anglia on the rocky shores of Cape Cod, I have never found their story to be that compelling. Give me Virginia or Pennsylvania any day.

Of course, there are alternative histories of New England. I find it unfortunate that the libertine Merrymount Commune and Thomas Morton--the early thorn in the flesh of the Massachusetts Bay Colony--have not become part of our national memory. Morton greatly preferred Algonquin society to English, and had his vision carried the day, rather than that of his Puritan neighbors, New England might have developed along radically different lines, as least as it concerned the native populations. And one might also look to the stories of people like Mary Mills, who created such a ruckus in Boston, and who also happens to be my 7th great-grandmother.

My ancestry is solidly Southern—always starting in Virginia or southern Pennsylvania, and flowing in two streams of migration—either through the Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, or following the Piedmont through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, perhaps Mississippi (but never Louisiana) and then on to Texas. The only exception is my paternal grandmother’s family. Her father was born in Texas, but both his parents were born in Indiana, from where their bloodlines go back to the earliest settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut. They eagerly joined the westward migration—Ohio by 1815, Indiana by 1820, Missouri by 1840 and Texas by 1860. In Indiana, they threw off the last vestiges of Calvinism and put on Campbellism, which served the family well for 6 generations or so…that is, until I ditched it for the real thing.

Though I find myself descended from redoubtable Puritan women with names like Mehitable, Remember, Experience and Genevrah, the one that sticks out in my mind is aforementioned Mary Mills, who burst upon the Boston scene in the third Puritan generation. She was only in her teens at the time of her notoriety. The Quaker community in Boston met quietly in the homes of members. But such impertinence was not to be sanctioned in Puritan Boston. Officers would break up the meetings and demand that the Quakers attend public worship. One such meeting consisted of a group of women including young Mary Mills. And the women did attend public worship, but not as the authorities intended. With heads uncovered and hair disheveled, ashes on their faces and dressed in sackcloth, the women marched down the aisle of New South Meetinghouse, occasioning, as one observer noted, "the greatest uproar that I ever saw."

The women were jailed and tried, with execution a real possibility. Young Mary declared that she was ready to die for her beliefs. None of the women were executed, however, but they were “carted.” Stripped to the waist, they were tied to the back of a cart and pulled through the streets of Boston.

After the uproar had died down a bit, the Quaker community secreted Mary out of Boston, placing her with a young couple in Sandwich, a quiet village on Cape Cod. Here she stayed for several years, but in time her presence in the household began to cause problems. The wife charged that her husband’s affections had been transferred to young Mary.

Relief came in the form of an elderly, but prosperous, sea captain. Mary Mills found herself married off to William Gifford, 45 years her senior. Within 4 years, the captain was dead, leaving Mary a young widow with 2 small sons. She never remarried and remained in Sandwich, where her family prospered and became substantial citizens. The youngest, James, went to sea like his father, but kept a family at Sandwich. His granddaughter, Deborah, was the first of the line to head west. I have visited her grave, on a knoll behind a cornfield, 40 miles south of Cleveland.

Years ago, I visited in Sandwich. The old town cemetery there is chock-full of jumbled tombstones of Tobey and Ellis and Perry and Burgess and Bassett, all my people. The old Quaker burial ground, where Mary and the Giffords repose, is another thing altogether. An ancient rock wall encloses a perfectly manicured lawn, without a single marker, stone or rock to denote a burial. For that was the way of the early Quakers. I understand the point they were making—modesty, humility, a stark recognition of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” etc. And this simplicity impresses me more than the overly ostentatious “weeping Angel” monuments of America’s wealthy elite of later generations. But the Quakers were wrong, on this as on any number of things. For there is no rock which one can stand before and cry “Memory Eternal.”


Milton T. Burton said...

Fine post, history at it's best--up close and personal. I agree about the Quakers taking things too far with the absence of tombstones. Few things can teach us the important lesson of the transitory nature of life as can an old cemetery where even the monuments themselves have begun to weather away. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sandra Hildreth Ball said...

Thank you for this post. I also am descended from Mary Mills and have appreciated her bravery to stand up for what she believed in.

Terry (John) said...

Well, hi cousin. Mary's grandson, Sylvanus Gifford, moved to Lee, MA, and then his daughter, Deborah Gifford Phinney Tobey moved on to points west. How do you descend?