The title caught my attention first—then the vintage photograph on the cover: antique actors posed in a tableau portraying famous pilgrim forefathers recreating a moment in American history.
Click the PLAY button above to hear the rest of the story and read along below.
The image, framed in a fanciful illustration of blue and gray, drew me in completely. I wanted to plunk down the cash and take this one-hundred-plus-year-old edition of Longfellow’s classic, The Courtship of Miles Standish home with me, rescuing it from the shelf of a used book store. But the costly price tag gave me pause. It was not equal to my purse and quite outside my budget. I had to walk away.
Months later, while a friend sorted through her cherished book collections, purging in preparation for an out-of-state move, she showed me a copy of this very volume. She’d owned one for years and treasured it, too. She wanted to leave it with a worthy caretaker and knew I fit the bill. Isn’t God good to bless us with these little things! Only He knew the desire of my heart to own this vintage book—and here it was gifted to me. No worries, my friend, I will steward it well.
As I gently poured over the hardcover book, it stirred thoughts of the days when classrooms across the country came alive with literary classics and history’s noblest ideas as the mainstay of their curriculum. This very volume might have belonged to a high school student studying the masterworks of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, committing his epic verse to memory such as Paul Revere’s Ride, The Village Blacksmith, and The Wreck of the Hesperus. Not to mention the nine poetic chapters of the ill-fated Courtship of Miles Standish.
Some Pilgrim History
Captain Miles Standish sailed with the infamous pilgrims from Plymouth, England on the Mayflower, seeking religious freedom in the New World. In the fall of 1620, the military commander, accompanying the pilgrims with some of his soldiers as protectors, helped the leadership of this band of Christians to navigate their new surroundings on Cape Cod. They had been blown off course in the wake of a fierce storm at sea during the crossing of the Atlantic. The original plan was to join the Virginia Colony in the warmer southern climate. But, they arrived on the shores of America as cold winter weather set in in the northeast. Plymouth Plantation was established and the colonists swiftly built shelter for that first brutal winter. January and February saw many tragic deaths due to what William Bradford calls in his record of the events, the General Sickness.
By spring, Captain Standish had said a final farewell to his beloved wife, Rose. No family that arrived in the fall remained untouched by death in the months that followed. Young Priscilla Mullens was left an orphan—her parents and siblings succumbing to the plague. Thankfully, the hale and hearty John Alden survived. Hired as a cooper, he maintained the soundness of the barrels and casks holding the all-important food supplies. His strong arms and back helped build the new homes and furnishings necessary for the colony to recover and begin to grow.
Longfellow knew the stories of these historic characters well. He was a direct descendent of John Alden on his mother’s side, and knew many intimate family stories passed down through the generations about his pilgrim forefathers. In particular, he was aware of the fanciful tale recounting how John Alden came to wed Priscilla Mullens through the courtship of Miles Standish.
Standish was a widower in search of a wife in 1621. He was also a very busy man with a great many responsibilities among the colonists. His days overflowed with all manner of occupation related to building plans, managing his troops, establishing relationships with the local Indian tribes, and helping to govern the small, growing village. He had little time for courtship. To that end, the family legend claims that he enlisted the help of the handsome young John Alden to take his missives and gifts to the gentle Priscilla. John’s task was to speak in the place of the Captain, and win her for him.
John attempted to do so—but his visits were not welcomed by Priscilla so much on behalf of the Captain as they were on behalf of John, himself. Priscilla could not be bothered to entertain thoughts of marriage to a much older man who could not be bothered to engage her in conversation on his own. She was, in fact, far more interested in the young man sent to bring the Captain’s regards. Eventually, she confronted John, suggesting that she would not welcome a marriage proposal from Captain Standish, but should John speak for himself, she would favor him with an answer.
Alden retreated to consider the matter, and returned on his own behalf, winning his bride. They eventually expanded their family to eleven children and served the church and Plimoth Plantation community in leadership for many years, until their deaths decades later.
The Longfellow Classic
Longfellow won great acclaim after the publication of The Song of Hiawatha, when it was suggested to him he write a poem about the Puritans and Quakers. Having some personal connection to the pilgrims and remembering the story of his own family tree, he decided to begin this new work in 1856. He planned to focus on the lifestyles of the colonists in those early years and referenced primary sourced materials in his research to craft the details of life as it had been lived at the time. He sought to capture the spirit of the era and relationships between those who lived in Plimoth. This included the friendships forged with the Indians.
These lifestyle episodes formed the backdrop for the more intimate love story and unconven-tional wooing of his ancestors, John and Priscilla Alden. The drama of Standish, coming to terms with his pride when he realizes he’s been betrayed by Alden, and the joy of the young couple and their community surrounding them in the finale of the wedding day, provides a satisfying, if partly fictionalized account of a moment in American history. The pilgrims are not a lump of plainly clad men and women and turkeys and Indians—as is commonly portrayed when Thanksgiving rolls around each year. They are living and breathing, working, loving, hurting, rejoicing people. Much like you and me.
I may find The Courtship of Miles Standish in a modern reprint, but this vintage edition with additional bonus poems from Longfellow’s collections is a treasured tome I display in the fall to honor the season. Illustrations within, by Sir John Gilbert, add to its charm and whisk me to another time and place. I shall look forward to a blustery fall day in November, brew a cozy cuppa tea, and curl up with another reading of The Courtship of Miles Standish from a book once read by a lover of literature over a century ago. Sigh.
Family Literacy Lifestyle Follow-up Activities
Though you may not own this vintage edition, you can easily pick up an inexpensive paperback of The Courtship of Mile Standish for a seasonal family read-aloud this Thanksgiving. Read one chapter at a time—there are nine of them. List all the varied aspects of life on Plimoth Plantation that are addressed in each chapter. Some jobs that were very important to the pilgrims at the time do not exist anymore. Discuss why that might be with your children. Priscilla spends her days working her spinning wheel. Do you know anyone who works with fiber arts and spins? Perhaps you can locate videos online to see how a spinning wheel works. Interesting fact: The first chore taught to children, as young as three years old, was how to spin wool into yarn using a hand spinner. Priscilla was barely eighteen when she arrived in the New World, but she’d been spinning yarn from her toddler days.
Want to hear more? Don’t miss my retelling the story of the Mayflower pilgrims coming to America and the first Thanksgiving celebrated on Cape Cod in From Leyden to Liberty: A Thanksgiving Tale. Featured in the audio performance is the famous Ballad of Plimoth Plantation in song plus links to Miss Kathy’s five-part blog post series on the epic tale of the pilgrim’s story—a great resource for teaching and learning American history. His story touching your story still, today.
RESOURCE TOOL: Thanksgiving Stories for the Stage
Do a deep dive into Plimoth Plantation history with The Pilgrim Chronicles, a teaching and learning package featuring 4 different dramatizations adaptable for elementary, middle, and high school students. Production notes include patterns for costume pieces and prop making ideas, plus additional resources for study. Comes packaged in 3-hole punched loose leaf pages ready for a binder and printing of scripts for varied use. Cost includes performance royalty. Order HERE from Pageant Wagon Publishing.
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