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A Real-Life Pilgrim Romance… Maybe?

An engraving from Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”

Happy Thanksgiving, sweety darlings!

So in my search for Thanksgiving-themed romances for the Sweet Rocket Tumblr, I ran across a Pilgrim romance I’d completely forgotten: The Courtship of Miles Standish.

I’m hardly the only one who has forgotten The Courtship of Miles Standish; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1858 poem about friendship and unrequited love in Plymouth Colony is relegated now to the realms of high school American literature textbooks and scholars of American literature.

Based upon real people and dramatizing (and speculating upon) real events, The Courtship of Miles Standish recasts the Pilgrims’ progress in Plymouth Colony in the light of a love triangle that may or may not have been a fact.

The principals in The Courtship of Miles Standish were all real members of the Plymouth Colony. The best known is, of course, Miles (or Myles) Standish, the Englishman hired by the Pilgrims as a military advisor, who became a leader in the colony’s fledgling government. Our other male lead, John Alden, was another Englishman, hired as a cooper (barrel maker) who also became an important figure in the colony’s governorship, as well.

Our heroine is Priscilla Mullins, who’d come from England on the Mayflower with her mother, father and siblings, all of whom perished in that first hard winter in the colony. About half the colony was lost that winter, most of them women and children, the marriageable women who remained were a hot commodity.

Another woman lost during that winter was Rose Standish. Rose Standish is sometimes referred to as Miles Standish’s wife, sometimes by the more vague term of “consort.” Either way, once she passed, Miles Standish was another of the colony’s men who were in need of a wife.

In Longfellow’s poem, Standish and Alden have become roommates and friends who share confidences. Standish, a stout 35 or so, grieving for Rose and seeing the teenage Priscilla in need of the protection of a husband, sends young Alden to present his suit to Priscilla.

Little does Standish know that Alden’s nursing a tendre for Priscilla himself; less does he know that Priscilla’s bolder than Alden, who gives her the hard sell on Standish’s behalf, and when he’s done, says “why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”

Much sturm and drang ensues. Standish roars and howls and calls Alden Brutus. Alden puffs up and proclaims himself the victor. Natives pose a threat and Standish chases them, all the while decrying Alden’s perfidy and the nature of women. Standish is rumored to have been slain, and Alden and Priscilla mourn, but carry on with their wedding preparations. And lo, on the day of the wedding, who should appear but Standish, ready to beg the forgiveness of his friend and wish the bride well. Cue the happily ever after.

Longfellow’s lusty (so far as lust in mainstream literature in the Victorian era was possible) Pilgrims were a revelation to American and English readers accustomed to thinking of the Pilgrims as dour Puritans. As Frances D. Leach writes for the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Love & Legend: The Courtship of Miles Standish,

(Captain) Miles Standish appears as a swash-buckling hero, brave but inarticulate and somewhat peevish. Handsome young John Alden is torn between his devotion to the Captain and his love for the Pilgrim maiden. Priscilla, despite her domestic virtues, speaks her mind in the manner of a modern feminist. Longfellow could tell a romantic tale, and in so doing, he made the names of these three Pilgrims household words across the nation.

Most modern readers know Longfellow more by name than for his work, having been exposed to excerpts and his shorter poems in the schoolroom, but Longfellow was the superstar historical romance writer of his day. His epic poems based upon American history were bestsellers in book form, and often adapted to the stage and song. The Courtship of Miles Standish was a sensation with mid-Victorian era readers; published as a book, the poem sold 25,000 in its first two months in print, and was rumored to have sold 10,000 copies in London in a single day.

But how much of Longfellow’s story was true?

Longfellow claimed to have heard the story of the Standish-Alden-Mullins love triangle, from his family, and as his mother was a direct descendant of Plymouth settlers, this is a possibility. His poem compresses much of the action of the first two years of the colony’s existence, but hews fairly close to the facts as known.

As for that love triangle, there was further precedent for this legend in an 1814 book by one Timothy Alden, bearing the typical early 19th century title A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions With Occasional Notes. In this volume, Alden writes that:

In a very short time after the decease of Mrs. Standish, the captain was led to think, that, if he could obtain miss Priscilla Mullins, a daughter of Mr. William Mullins, the breach in his family would be happily repaired. He, therefore, according to the custom of those times, sent to ask Mr. Mullins’ permission to visit his daughter. John Alden, the messenger, went and faithfully communicated the wishes of the captain. The old gentleman… said it was perfectly agreeable to him, but the young lady must also be consulted. The damsel was then called into the room, and John Alden, who is said to have been a man of most excellent form with a fair and ruddy complexion, arose, and, in a very courteous and prepossessing manner, delivered his errand. Miss Mullins listened with respectful attention, and at last, after a considerable pause, fixing her eyes upon him, with an open and pleasant countenance, said, “prithee, John, why do you not speak for yourself?” He blushed, and bowed, and took his leave, but with a look, which indicated more, than his diffidence would
permit him otherwise to express. However, he soon renewed his visit, and it was not long before their nuptials were celebrated in ample form… What report he made to [Standish]… tradition does not unfold; but it is said, how true the writer knows not, that the captain never forgave him to the day of his death.

So Longfellow might have made Standish a more upstanding man than he was, but John Alden and Priscilla’s happily ever after seems fair enough: John and Priscilla went on to have ten children. Of that number, Sarah Alden, the fourth, married one Alexander Standish, the second of seven children from the union of Miles Standish and Barbara Standish.