Desolate Wilderness

Every Wednesday before Thanksgiving for the past fifty years, the Wall Street Journal has published excerpts from Nathaniel Morton’s 1669 history of the Plymouth colony, New Englands Memoriall, on its editorial page.  While Morton’s history does contain the first published list of those who signed the Mayflower Compact, it features only a negligible account of what we often call the first Thanksgiving.  Morton writes, simply: “they [the Pilgrims] began to fit up their buildings against winter, and received in their first harvest, and had great plenty of fowl and fish, to their great refreshing.”

Nathaniel Morton's Memoriall (Papantonio copy)

Morton borrowed quite heavily from Plymouth governor William Bradford’s manuscript history, Of Plymouth Plantation, for his own work.  The nephew by marriage of Bradford (1590-1657) and his agent in many affairs, Morton (1613-1685) was keeper of the records of Plymouth colony from 1647 to 1685, drafter of colony laws, tax collector, town clerk, and secretary of the council of war during the campaign against King Philip.  He was an authority on the history of Plymouth, having spent much time with Bradford, and inherited Bradford’s papers in 1657.

The Society owns three copies of the Morton Memoriall, two of which were bound by John Ratcliff, a British binder who came to Massachusetts in the early 1660s to bind the Eliot Indian Bible. One of the Ratcliff-bound copies of Norton’s Memoriall came to AAS with John W. Farwell’s collection of rare British and early American printed books and maps.  Farwell died in 1929 and left five thousand dollars to the Society, but his collection wouldn’t come to AAS for another thirteen years.  The other Ratcliff copy belonged to Michael Papantonio, co-founder with John Kohn of Seven Gables Bookshop, AAS member, and collector of American bindings.  Papantonio’s copy, which was recently on display at the AAS Grolier Club exhibition, prominently features a “Thomas Deane” gilt-lettered ownership stamp.  Deane was a wealthy merchant and most likely handsomely paid Ratcliff, who had expressed discontent over his commission for binding the Bible, for this elaborate early American work.

Nathaniel Morton's Memoriall (Farwell copy)

Deane was one of the early English merchants who came to Massachusetts in hopes of establishing strong financial ties between Old and New England.  He was the very type of immigrant who Bradford, Morton, and others, looking back in nostalgia, saw helping to destroy the simplicity of the early Massachusetts commonwealth.  As we celebrate the same kind of simplicity this Thanksgiving, I wonder if Ratcliff’s showy binding, its fancy gilt sheepskin covering only a mirage of Thanksgiving, isn’t more representative of what we’ve become.

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