Those same years were crucial ones in the early life of the Plymouth colony, and it is in his close study of the commercial fortunes of the pilgrims that Bunker, a former investment banker and financial journalist, here following the lead of Bernard Bailyn, means to distinguish himself as an economic historian. (He is considerably less incisive about Puritan theology, and though he devotes many florid pages to the natural landscapes of sixteenth-century England and seventeenth-century America, those passages serve ultimately as reminders that the Romantic mode in narrative history is perhaps less a product of Victorian style than of missing archival material.)
“This condition of New England society in 1630,” Bailyn wrote in his great early study of the colonial merchants, “was the result not of the will and intentions of successful colonizers but of a series of failures that stemmed from misconceptions of the economic possibilities of the region.” The central misconception, Bailyn argued, was that the natural wealth of the American interior could be extracted at the shoreline, as it could in Asia, where trading forts sufficed to quickly exploit whole empires. The men who made up the earliest settlements in New England, including a failed outpost of the Virginia Company at Popham in present-day Maine, were not expected or trained to cultivate the land or penetrate the interior—and so they did not do so. A full century after the establishment of New Spain, New England was hardly more than a small fleet of fishing ships that trawled the north Atlantic coast, and a full decade after its founding the Plymouth colony remained a “tiny corn-growing settlement wedged between the forest and the sea.” Half of the early migrants “simply faded and died.”
The New Plymouth colony was not a commune, Bunker reminds us, but a common stock company—and one that accumulated heavy losses over its first decade, disappointing the London investors who had funded the voyage and the colony, with a financial contract called an “adventure.” “Adventure” is a gentle word for the experience of those who had made the Mayflower journey in 1620. By 1623, the Pilgrims were selling their clothes and bedding for food, and some of them were abandoning their cluster of huts to forage along the seashore for clams and groundnuts. Others hired themselves as servants to local Indians. In his enduring account of those years, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, compared the struggling settlers “to the sinful Israelites who ignored the law of Moses and turned to idolatry and fornication, suffering death as a result.” The situation was desperate; the settlement had become what Bunker calls a “squalid failure”—but success lay just around the corner, or more precisely inland and upriver, in the form of the North American beaver.