Monday, April 15th, 2024

Doing History From My Dining Room

Marking the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival.

By Dr. Francis J. Bremer, professor emeritus of history at Millersville University

Our country, indeed the world, is facing an unprecedented challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.  In the midst of suffering and death, individuals shelter in place and try to maintain as much of their normal lives as they can.  In my case, that means continuing to function as a historian.

For much of my professional life as a student of New England and of puritanism in the Atlantic world, I have looked forward to 2020 and the start of commemorations that would direct attention to these important fields.  I helped to organize New England Beginnings, a partnership of institutions and individuals dedicated to developing and promoting programs that would educate the public about the various peoples and cultures that shaped early New England.  I watched with interest the efforts of other, more commercial ventures, such as Plymouth 400 Inc in this country and Mayflower 400 in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to develop public programs to highlight the stories of the Pilgrims and the Native peoples of New England.

Now, many of the scheduled events have been canceled or postponed, and the likelihood is that more will eventually have to be canceled.  In a related development, Plimouth Plantation, the marvelous living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, opened its doors for the season, only to close the next day.  School groups and families who may have traveled to Plymouth to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival and to learn about the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag will likely not be making that trip.

While it will likely be many months before public events are resumed, scholarship has continued.  Lectures and symposiums that have been canceled may be offered online.  New books on the Plymouth story have recently been published or will soon appear by scholars such as Jeremy Bangs, Robert Anderson, David Silverman, John Turner, myself and others that reflect the best of current scholarship but are directed to a general public.  A new edition of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s history Of Plimoth Plantation, sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the New England Historic and Genealogical Society is in press and will be available in months.  All of these can be purchased in paper or e-editions to distract those confined to their homes while revealing new aspects of our nation’s history and the struggles of early settlers.

I have personally continued to work on talks that may or may not be given in person, and books that will illuminate the ongoing history of puritanism in early New England.  It might very well be, as a friend in the same situation put it, that we are like Father Mackenzie (Eleanor Rigby), “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.”

The pandemic has underlined for me one of the most important changes in my professional life over the past decades.  When I first embarked upon my studies, doing so involved traveling to archives and libraries in this country and in England to consult 17th century sources – research that would be impossible today.  But over time technology has brought an overwhelming number of such sources to my computer.  Early English Books Online has searchable copies of over 125,000 books published in England from the 15th through the 17th centuries.  The NEH-funded “Hidden Histories” project of Boston’s Congregational Library and Archives provides a growing number of church records gathered from throughout New England.  The Yale American Indian Papers Project (currently transferring to a new portal) offers materials illustrating Native history.  These are just a few of the electronic resources I regularly consult.  Scholars in other fields can point to similar projects.  Over the years such efforts provided convenience for the researcher.  Today, in the midst of a pandemic, they are an essential lifeline, particularly in cases where the actual holding libraries and archives have been closed.

Francis J. Bremer is Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and Coordinator of New England Beginnings.  He is one of the co-editors of the 400th anniversary edition of William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, and author of over a dozen books on New England puritanism, including One Small Candle: The Story of the Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England, which will be published this summer by Oxford University Press.

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