The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

Bernard Bailyn, one of our greatest historians, shines his light on the nation’s Dark Ages

The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
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“OK, they have a shell like this and then they have to bore a hole all the way down through the middle of the thing in order to hitch it to the next one and do it with certain color regularities. It’s hard to do! And it becomes of value.”

Me (thinking of home-beading kits my mother had): Doesn’t it seem arbitrary?

Bailyn concedes he’s not up on “wampum literature.”

“There’s wampum literature?” I asked. “You think I’m kidding. There are wampum experts and they don’t fool around!”

Our wampum discussion leads to the fascinating “fair price” controversy in the Puritan communities, the argument over how much profit a pious person should make on a given transaction.

Free market theory dictates there should be only one motive in economic culture: getting the max. But early colonists integrated piety and humility into their economic lives. Spiritual considerations. One of his favorite stories is about the English merchant who couldn’t stop confessing the sin of overcharging.

“Robert Keayne,” he recalls, “was a very, very proper Puritan tradesman from London who made it big and set up trade here and then got caught for overpricing.”

“The guy who made a big apology?” I ask, recalling the peculiar episode from his book.

“He wrote endlessly, compulsively,” of his remorse, Bailyn replies.

“50,000 words or so, right?”


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