Arrival and Departure

I thought I'd share a bit more of my jottings about those pilgrims. This is all rough, I will almost certainly junk it down the road, and, frankly, I can't quite believe I'm even sharing it. Usually I hide even polished writing behind a wall of finicky fear, but, hey, let's be vulnerable and try something new.

I'm trying to find the right way to describe these pilgrims, trying to find a way that relies on my sources (obviously!) without being enslaved by them. Contemporary observers saw the pilgrims' as utterly strange. I want to evoke these observers' feelings without letting their indignation and revulsion pollute my own understanding of the past. In that earlier sketch, I tried to capture something of what the last remaining pilgrims may have felt. (Which reminds me that I need to write later on about how to do that kind of thing without direct testimony from the pilgrims themselves, how to do that kind of thing, in other words, without making stuff up.)  Here, though, the voice is more straightforward, more conventionally distanced, as I'm describing the pilgrims' entry into an Ohio town.

Zanesville, Ohio, November 1817

They came in mud and rags, plodding forward in rhythm, the men hunched over like marionettes gone slack at the waist, the women following single file, the children and the sick piled wagons, the whole blighted company girdled in bearskins, and only the red-bearded man clad in leather and carrying a great wooden staff like some latter-day Moses. A chant floated up from the column as it approached: “Praise God! Praise God! Praise God, repent, fast, pray.” They preached on the courthouse steps. They prayed beside their tents. They cast out devils. They came, they said, for the good of mankind.

Rumors preceded them: They had come from the northern country, gathering in the lost and the wanting like the promised ingathering at the end of days. They were bound for the New Jerusalem somewhere in the West. They had no map but the Almighty’s voice. They refused to bathe. They ate only a crude porridge from a communal vat, all of them supping through perforated quills like strange beasts watering from a trough. Their leader, the prophet, was a paralytic who rose to walk again. He healed the sick and the lame. He had been a man of elegance and talent who forsook the vanities of the world for a life of repentance and penury. No, he was an imposter and his acolytes all fanatics. He was a murderer, had killed a child, one of their own, dosed him with a decoction of poisonous bark “by command of the Lord.”

In Zanesville, they stayed for two weeks. In the city streets, boys taunted them: “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark / The Pilgrims have come to town / Some in rags and some in tags / And some in dirty gowns.” They found one convert. As winter set in, the Spirit of God told them to head west.