Digging Up the Past in Caleb's Crossing

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The idea for Caleb's Crossing grew out of a notation on a map of the island of Martha's Vineyard. It marked the birthplace of the first Native American graduate of Harvard. I immediately thought of the 1960s civil rights era, and wondered if I might run into this person at the farmer's market one day. Then I learned that the graduation in question took place in the 1660s, not the 1960s. Immediately, my imagination went into hyperdrive.

What was Harvard like then, at the dawn of the English colonial experiment? (Hint: not the rich and well-appointed institution it is today.) Who was this young man, and what would it take to step out of an ancient animist tradition and into the Latin-speaking world of the Puritan intellectual elite?

Caleb's Crossing author Geraldine Brooks


Photo credits: Randi Baird


To find out, I plumbed Harvard's archives. But even though the college was founded in 1636, it had only 465 graduates by 1700, and there was very little to be found about the Class of 1665 and its two Vineyard scholars. (Caleb was accompanied at Harvard by Joel Iacoomis, also a member of the Wampanoag tribe.)

Disappointed in the paper trail, I took part in an archeological dig in Harvard Yard that aims to unearth more information about the Indian College where Caleb and Joel both lived. The dig yielded all kinds of artifacts, such as broken pipes (even though students were barred from smoking), fancy buttons (even though ornamentation was frowned on by the Puritan college) and a hand-made whistle (though music was deemed a frivolous distraction).

For three years, as I wrote this book, I lived on two islands; the Vineyard of today and the island as it was when the first English colonists arrived in 1641. At that time, there were some 3,000 Wampanoag Indians living well on its abundant resources, moving with the seasons from the summer shores to the sheltered inland woodlands. With plenty of fish and game, they enjoyed a varied diet of oysters and clams, ducks and turkeys, strawberries and beach plums, supplemented by cultivated crops of corn, squash and beans.

The first English settlers all remarked on the stature and radiant health of the natives. One account tells of a days-long game, resembling football, played with great vigor up and down the beaches of the south shore. The island Wampanoag also had a rich cosmology, creation stories and rituals.

Members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah were generous in sharing their insights about these traditions, which have been cherished by the elders and reinvigorated by a young tribal leadership. To understand more, I spent a raw fall day in a warm and comfortable wetu at Plimouth Plantation, sitting on the fur-covered benches of this domed bark structure discussing the traditional planting methods in the gardens outside with knowledgeable Wampanoag historians. Later, at the replica English settlement, I attended services in the Meeting House and learned how the Puritan order of worship differed from that of the Orthodox church.

For the English, Martha's Vineyard in the 1660s was far from the place of summer idyll that it is today. The toil required to erect the first English dwellings in the settlement known as Great Harbor, and to impose English ideas of agriculture, was relentless and required fortitude and resourcefulness. Although it seems that most of the first settlers sought good relations with the Indians, the effect of their coming was nonetheless devastating. Unfamiliar diseases took a terrible toll, and unfamiliar ideas about private property led to dispossession and debt peonage for many Wampanoag.

My novel is a work of the imagination, and I have peopled it with characters of my own invention. My narrator, Bethia, is the daughter of Great Harbor's minister. Restless of spirit and intellectually curious, she longs for learning and experience outside the bounds of what is considered Godly for a young Puritan girl.

When she encounters Caleb, son of a Wampanoage sonquem, or chief, she is drawn into his world just as she brings him into hers. The results are profound for both of them.

This is a story about magic and faith that draws from ideas particular to its period. But it is infused with the passionate loves, hatreds, desires and ambitions shared by human beings of every era.

Learn more about Geraldine Brooks at her website and at Penguin Publishing.

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