Excerpt from 1491 by Charles C. Mann, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

by Charles C. Mann

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2005, 480 pages
    Oct 2006, 528 pages

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A friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Captain Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians.

My teacher explained that maize was unfamiliar to the Pilgrims and that Tisquantum had demonstrated the proper maize-planting technique—sticking the seed in little heaps of dirt, accompanied by beans and squash that would later twine themselves up the tall stalks. And he told the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil by burying fish alongside the maize seeds, a traditional native technique for producing a bountiful harvest. Following this advice, my teacher said, the colonists grew so much maize that it became the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving. In our slipshod fashion, we students took notes.

The story in America: Its People and Values isn't wrong, so far as it goes. But the impression it gives is entirely misleading.

Tisquantum was critical to the colony's survival, contemporary scholars agree. He moved to Plymouth after the meeting and spent the rest of his life there. Just as my teacher said, Tisquantum told the colonists to bury several small fish in each maize hill, a procedure followed by European settlers for the next two centuries. Squanto's teachings, Winslow concluded, led to "a good increase of Indian corn"—the difference between success and starvation.

Winslow didn't know that fish fertilizer may not have been an age-old Indian custom, but a recent invention—if it was an Indian practice at all. So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked up the idea from European farmers. The notion is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Tisquantum had learned English because British sailors had kidnapped him seven years before. To return to the Americas, he in effect had to escape twice—once from Spain, where his captors initially sold him into slavery, and once from England, to which he was smuggled from Spain, and where he served as a kind of living conversation piece at a rich man's house. In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.

Skipping over the complex course of Tisquantum's life is understandable in a textbook with limited space. But the omission is symptomatic of the complete failure to consider Indian motives, or even that Indians might have motives. The alliance Massasoit negotiated with Plymouth was successful from the Wampanoag perspective, for it helped to hold off the Narragansett. But it was a disaster from the point of view of New England Indian society as a whole, for the alliance ensured the survival of Plymouth colony, which spearheaded the great wave of British immigration to New England. All of this was absent not only from my high school textbooks, but from the academic accounts they were based on.

This variant of Holmberg's Mistake dates back to the Pilgrims themselves, who ascribed the lack of effective native resistance to the will of God. "Divine providence," the colonist Daniel Gookin wrote, favored "the quiet and peaceable settlement of the English." Later writers tended to attribute European success not to European deities but to European technology. In a contest where only one side had rifles and cannons, historians said, the other side's motives were irrelevant. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Indians of the Northeast were thought of as rapidly fading background details in the saga of the rise of the United States—"marginal people who were losers in the end," as James Axtell of the College of William and Mary dryly put it in an interview. Vietnam War–era denunciations of the Pilgrims as imperialist or racist simply replicated the error in a new form. Whether the cause was the Pilgrim God, Pilgrim guns, or Pilgrim greed, native losses were foreordained; Indians could not have stopped colonization, in this view, and they hardly tried.

Excerpted from 1491 by Charles C. Mann Copyright © 2005 by Charles C. Mann. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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