John Pory’s Letter

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

For three years John Pory served as Secretary to the Governor and Council of Virginia.  On his way home to England in 1622, he stopped to visit the fledgling Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  A perceptive, scholarly man, Pory recorded his observations in letters two years after the colony was founded.  In his descriptions of the native peoples and colonists in the area, he demonstrated an awareness of the complexities of the two cultures, and the possible challenges to forging a peaceful coexistence. He contrasts New England with Virginia, and finds Virginia wanting.  He praises the New England colonists for their morality and industry, expressing the wish the Virginians were “as free from wickedness and vice as they are in this place,” and admires the strength of their buildings, particularly the “substantial palisade” and “a blockhouse which they have erected in the highest place in town in mount their ordnance upon.”  He comments on the abundance of seafood and the wholesomeness of the climate.  And then he describes the natives:

“The people seem to be of one race with those in Virginia, both in respect of their qualities and language.  They are great lovers of their children and people, and very revengeful of wrongs offered.  They make their canoes, their arrows, their bows, their tobacco pipes and other implements far more neat and artificially than in those parts.  They dress, also, and paint leather; and make trousers, buskins, shoes with far greater curiosity.  Corn they set none in their parts toward the   north, and that is the cause why Indian corn, pease and such like is the best truck [barter] for their skins—and then in winter especially, when hunger doth most pinch them. . . Their babes here also they bind to a board and set them up against a wall, as they do in the south.  Likewise, their head they anoint with oil mixed with vermillion; and are of the same hair, eyes and skin that those are of.”  He also describes the history of the political machinations between tribes and between colonists and natives and is open about the damage created by sea captains who took Indians captive in 1614 and 1620 and sold them into slavery.

Of course, Pory wrote his letter more than fifty years before tensions between colonists and natives had grown to the point of open violence.  But I find his account especially noteworthy because he puts the New England colonists and natives in a larger context.  Even in those days when transportation and information flow was so slow that we would find it unbearably frustrating, he was able to see the larger picture.  He was able to see the virtues and value the practices of people he did not live among.  It suggests he nurtured the seeds of a global mindset—a way of seeing the world beyond immediate, personal interests.  A mindset that we desperately need today.





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