Over Thanksgiving Break, my dad lent me a book called A Stranger Among Saints: Stephen Hopkins, The Man Who Survived Jamestown and Saved Plymouth. I had never heard of Stephen Hopkins, although my dad had recently discovered that my family can claim him and several of his contemporaries at Plymouth as ancestors. Four months later, I have finished the book, which is quite an achievement for me these days – having a 6-month-old baby will do that to you.

Overview

The author, Jonathan Mack, is a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, which means he really has his pedigree in order (they are quite the nitpicky bunch when it comes to ancestry documentation). He also has his research in order: the book is meticulous in citing original documents and primary sources. As far as his relaying the information we have regarding Stephen Hopkins and his involvement in both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies, I have no problem recommending Mack’s account. It’s fascinating stuff: Hopkins, a working-class commoner living in the squalor of an over-crowded English village, became the clerk to one Reverend Buck, the Anglican minister in the company setting out for Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609. Indenturing himself in this way meant that Hopkins was committed to a seven-year separation from his family, but the promised renumeration, as clerk to the minister, would have been attractive.

Mack describes the expedition unflinchingly: the shipwreck of the Sea Venture (upon which Shakespeare purportedly based the corresponding event in his play The Tempest), the clash of authority and allegiances, and the harsh justice imposed on anyone suspected of mutiny. Because the company had shipwrecked away from Jamestown, the authority of the man in charge, Thomas Gates, was questionable, in both a technical and a real sense. The man who audibly questioned it, in a “one-man insurrection,” was Stephen Hopkins. He raised arguments “both civil and divine” suggesting that, since the company was not, in fact, at Jamestown, the authority of the future Jamestown governor was not binding on them.[1] This might have been the end of Hopkins’ story, if other leaders in the company had not interceded against the immediate death penalty Thomas Gates imposed. He was spared, however, and proceeded with the others to Jamestown, where he would gain a perspective on the Native Americans that would, in Mack’s terms, “save Plymouth” colony a decade later. Hopkins observed the folly of hastily picking a settlement, Jamestown being situated in a swampy place without ready access to clean water. He also learned, to some extent, Algonquin[2], which would enable him to be liaison between the Plymouth settlers and the Native Americans. Finally, as the assistant to the Anglican minister, Reverend Buck, he observed the marriage between John Rolfe and Pocahontas, an experience Mack cites as prompting Hopkins “to see past the history bigotry that encumbered the typical Englishman’s view of the world outside his country.”[3]

Good Things

Mack has done his homework. He continually cites original sources, which reassured me that I was getting an accurate retelling of the narrative. And he writes compellingly. Many historians write as if they are themselves bored with history. Not so with Mack. He is clearly fascinated with his subject, and he typically offers a nuanced characterization of these people about whom we know relatively little. I enjoyed the appropriate quotes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which Mack includes before each chapter. The suggestion that Stephen Hopkins was the inspiration for the character Stephano in the aforementioned play is one I never heard in my English Literature classes,[4] but it made me want to re-read the play in light of what I now know of Hopkins’ life.

Less Good Things

Much less is recorded about Hopkins specifically in the accounts we have of the Mayflower expedition, such that Mack relies to a greater extent on speculation, filling in the gaps of history, so to speak. This is where the book began to lose me at times, in part because Mack’s constant questioning of the motivations of the Plymouth settlers became tiresome. While I have no interest in defending the atrocity of King Philip’s War, for example, or the actions of Josiah Winslow, removed merely one generation from the Plymouth Pilgrims, I do take the view that the intent of the Mayflower Pilgrims was honorable and their actions toward the Native Americans were consistent with their Christian worldview. As a biographer of an individual of whom we have relatively little concrete information, Mack almost seems to insert himself and his modern take of Pilgrims versus Indians into his representation of Stephen Hopkins. For example, when a Pilgrim exploratory party encountered a basket of Indian corn, Mack relates that there was a consultation between Miles Standish, the leader of the party, and his three companions, one of whom was Stephen Hopkins. On the one hand, Mack points out, stealing the natives’ corn would be an inauspicious first act as settlers; on the other hand, the men, women, and children they had left behind on the Mayflower were starving even as they spoke. They took the corn, resolving to repay the Indians later. Thus far, I take no issue. But the way in which Mack imagines the content of the debate, and later, the way he characterizes the desperate actions of the Pilgrims (who later repaid what they had taken), seems, well, snobby?  

Jamestown had shown Hopkins the importance of establishing goodwill, so he probably would have argued against taking the corn. While substantial, the discovery would only feed a hundred people for a few days. Instead of stealing this small amount, they should try to trade for a continuous supply, as he’d seen done in Virginia. Theft would have been the exact opposite of what he desired and thought best.

Thus, the first act in the New World by the Pilgrims, a group whose journey was initiated by Christians so devoted to worship that they had fled their homeland, was to steal food from the people upon whose land they wished the settle. Faith alone would not feed them, and dogma apparently collapsed under the burden of extremity.

Mack, 119-20

The extension of what Hopkins “probably would have” wanted or thought is not too egregious here, but the issue is that this process is the main substance of Mack’s book. We have limited information on what Hopkins himself believed, and so in writing his biography, Mack is forced to choose between the light of speculation and the darkness of silence. He too frequently chooses the former. Where we have historical record, I have no hesitancy in Mack’s suggesting Hopkins as being uniquely friendly to the Native Americans. For example, while the historical record does not give us the specific name of the individual, we know that Samoset, the messenger from an initially unfriendly Massasoit, stayed with someone in the Plymouth colony and, by morning, was familiar with much that had not been discussed in official parleys. I accept Mack’s suggestion that the likely host was Stephen Hopkins, who would have been able to communicate with Samoset and had previously shown peaceable tendencies toward the Indians.[5] This incident is probably the most compelling in Mack’s biography, as it reminded me that the initial contact between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans was hostile at face value, and uneasy at best. I had forgotten the crucial role Samoset played, and had never known the equally crucial role his host—apparently Stephen Hopkins—likewise played.

This is where my agreement with Mack ends, because while he goes on to subtly undermine the Pilgrims’ attribution of their peaceable relationship with the Indians to God’s providence, I absolutely affirm it, even while acknowledging that God uses human instruments. In Mack’s account of the first Thanksgiving, he frames it in terms of the Pilgrims and the Indians honoring each other and celebrating their relationship with one another, rather than a feast of Thanksgiving to the God of the Pilgrims for preserving them.[6] The rest of the book goes on in similar theme: Mack speculates on what poor records we do have of Hopkins’ later life (primarily records of physical altercations with later settlers), and attributes to Hopkins his own dissatisfaction with the English coming over in such swarms to steal the Native Americans’ land.

We know, for example, that 1636, Hopkins was tried before a jury for assaulting a younger, newly-arrived colonist named John Tisdale.[7] While we have no record of Hopkins’ reasons for attacking the man, Mack cannot resist speculating for several pages. Here is his conclusion:

Hopkins no doubt was in the wrong for attacking Tisdale, but since he’d not previously been involved in any kind of physical altercation in Plymouth, it would be reasonable to assume that he was somehow provoked by the younger man. Tisdale was a newcomer, one of the bees in the swarm that was quite literally changing the face of the New England landscape. As talk in Plymouth in 1636 would have included conversations about the possibility of war with the Pequot[8] in Connecticut, perhaps Tisdale made some stray remark that revealed his disdain toward the native people upon whose lands they now lived.

Mack, 195, emphasis mine

Later incidents in Hopkins’ life include his being fined for overcharging for liquor served in his tavern and his resolution to turn out of his house his indentured maidservant who became pregnant out of wedlock.[9] In this second instance, while Mack admits the possibility of Hopkins acting out of a moral objection to the woman’s actions, he ultimately favors the explanation that the woman’s lover was a man who murdered a Native American.[10] That, Mack postulates, was why he was angry.

Conclusion

I mean, maybe. It may be that Stephen Hopkins was a progressive in every sense of the word, and did not care at all that his servant had violated the seventh commandment (which, by the way, as a former Anglican clerk, he would have known very well). It may be that every record we have of Hopkins implies his disdain for his fellow colonists and his love for Native Americans. Mack, at least, does not assert his views without qualification. But it seems like he is having to do some digging to support his thesis that in literally every way, Hopkins was a man ahead of his time.

I would recommend this book if you are curious about some of the lesser-known people and events surrounding the Plymouth settlement. Mack does a good job citing his sources, so this would be a good starting point for a student who knows he wants to write about the initial encounters between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. I would not want to give this book to someone learning about the subject for the first time. While not as overt as some modern treatments, Mack does have his progressive slant that tends to question every action of the white men and applaud or excuse every action of the Native American. If you are willing to wade through some of that, it is an interesting read.


[1] Mack, 22-23.

[2] The language spoken commonly throughout the region. (Mack, 33)

[3] Mack, 36.

[4] Mack, x.

[5] Mack, 166-67.

[6] Mack, 186.

[7] Mack, 192-93.

[8] A particularly feisty group of Native warriors settled around the Connecticut River valley. Incidentally, the same tribe that was initially hostile to the Mayflower Pilgrims, and whose corn the exploratory party stole and later repaid.

[9] Mack, 204.

[10] Ibid.

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