While writing A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony, John Demos dealt with an unbelievably difficult task. Even though Plymouth Colony existed more than 300 years ago, he had to make his book relevant and appealing to those of his time during the 1960’s. In the past, many historians that have researched Plymouth and its inhabitants have fallen short when it came to appealing to a much newer audience. This was so because a lot of them were using the same bland sources; the ones that gave the basic information about Puritan society and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. In other words, all of the stuff that everyone already knows! Therefore, John Demos decided to use a much different strategy while doing his research. In order to compile information about the physical setting of Plymouth Colony and the structure of households, Demos focused on obtaining evidence from the words of actual Mayflower descendents, the Plymouth Colony records (court proceedings and transaction details), and primary sources that he found while directly visiting Plymouth himself.
Two main parts of A Little Commonwealth are Demos’ descriptions of the physical setting in Plymouth Colony and the structure of households. In order to write on both of these subjects, it was necessary for Demos to consult the diaries and writings of actual Mayflower descendents. When it came to housing (physical setting), Demos talked for awhile in chapter one about the types of housing and the stages by which the settlers developed new types of dwellings for themselves in the New World. “It was what the English called a ‘cottage’; to us it would probably have seemed the meanest kind of hut.” (Demos, page 25) He goes on to state how these early hut dwellings would die out in Plymouth Colony. However, Demos was curious as to what happened to these huts later on because he found it impossible that all of a sudden they would have just disappeared. When researching a Mayflower descendent Web Adey, he came across the information he was looking for. In reference to what his house looked like, “The listing reads, one smale house and garden…The valuation is extremely meager even by the standards of the time, and the use of the adjective small is unusual.” (Demos, 26) He goes on to hypothesize that because of Adey’s poverty and the description of his house, he may have lived in one of the original hut dwellings till his death in 1652. This totally defies common belief on housing in Plymouth because most historians claim that by Adey’s death in 1652 the type of structure used for a house had become far superior to the original huts; therefore, wiping them out. This information and evidence makes A Little Commonwealth extremely worthwhile to readers of the present day.
It was also crucial that John Demos consulted the histories of Mayflower descendents when it came to the structure of households. This was so because during his introduction on house membership on page 62, Demos gives a strong opinion that many more homes possessed nuclear families; not extended ones where numerous generations lived under one roof. He backs this thought up on page 63 significantly. “The most crucial single datum confirmed by the deeds is a clear assumption on all sides that married siblings would never belong to the same household.” (Demos, 63) John continues on by using the arrangements for the wedding of Joseph Buckland and Deborah Allen of Rehoboth as his source. “Buckland’s father promised to build the said Joseph a Convenient house for his Comfortable living with three score acres of land ajoyning to it.” (Demos, 63) This gives an example of a household that was arranged to posses just the married couple and their future children, not their extended families like many assume. Therefore, Demos’ hypothesis that nuclear families were much more abundant in Plymouth Colony may indeed be correct, disproving many previous historians.
Another source that John Demos...
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