“And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been,” says the “Book of Ecclesiasticus.” Such are the people Carol Gardner sets out to celebrate in “The Involuntary American.” Most of what we know of the past, she writes, has come down to us through the lives of the “elite: pious, educated, and literate individuals,” those names we all recognize. We know next to nothing about the poor, uneducated and illiterate. Without their sagas, the historical record has a glaring hole.

Cover courtesy of Westholme Publishing

Take the 150 Scottish prisoners of war transported to the New World against their will in 1650. They were the unfortunate remnants of an army raised by the future Charles II. Three thousand of them were captured in the Battle of Dunbar by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces in the last phase of the English Civil War.

By the time these prisoners reached New England, they had survived conscription, fighting and defeat, a horrific hundred-mile “death march” from the battlefield to a makeshift prison, and weeks of hardship and seasickness in the hold of the ship that took them across the ocean. Arrived in Boston, they were sold as “indentured servants” to various farmers and businesses. For the term of their servitude – six or seven years – they were as good as slaves.

Gardner, a writer and journalist living in the midcoast town of Alna, “stumbled upon” the trials of these unknown men tucked away in Maine’s colonial history. Her “involuntary American” is one Thomas Doughty, the “broad arc” of whose life she says is “traceable.” On the ground he left his name on Doughty Falls, in what is now North Berwick, where he built a sawmill. More ephemeral details Gardner chased down with bulldog tenacity. (There are over 40 pages of notes and bibliography.)

From the rags of his capture and enslavement, she shows that Doughty achieved, if not riches, at least a fairly comfortable position in his new country. Life on a contested frontier meant frequent and drastic setbacks, but he probably did better than his peers in Scotland.

His unusual longevity (Doughty died at 75 in a time when relatively few reached their allotted “three score and ten” years) allows the book to encompass the seminal events of that era, from the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland – also known as the English Civil War) on one side of the Atlantic, to King Philip’s War, the first French and Indian War, and the Salem witch trials on the other.

Doughty’s life, Gardner writes, “offered a vehicle for understanding how these events affected individuals of modest circumstances, particularly those who arrived by force.”

She also stresses the importance of broader forces in making the mid-17th century such a perilous era. The severe weather of the incipient Little Ice Age, especially, greatly contributed to the instability of the times.

“But there are plenty of gaps in that record, too,” she admits. In fact, her subject left only a single document “in his own voice” (he was almost certainly illiterate.) To fill these gaps inevitably required casting a wide net. If sometimes the results of Gardner’s research seem to stray from the main story, they are always interesting.

Occasionally I wished for a stricter editor who might have cut down on repetition in the text, or argued against a few flippant phrases. In the face of advancing smallpox, on top of the destruction of war, “the eastern frontier just couldn’t catch a break;” or “The courts simply didn’t tolerate physical abuse, regardless of which spouse was dishing it out.”

Despite her protests to the contrary, Gardner seems to have found it difficult to accept the impossibility of knowing what Thomas Doughty thought or what kind of a character he really was. In that regard, attempts to penetrate a cultural fog nearly 400 years thick are not persuasive. “To survive on the Maine frontier, Doughty had to be forward-, not backward-looking,” she writes. Surely what he and all people like him really had to do was keep his eye on the dangerous and unpredictable present. Efforts elsewhere to draw comparative conclusions based on so little evidence just don’t stand up to scrutiny.

None of this takes away from “The Involuntary American” as a fascinating piece of history, ably told. Carol Gardner has done a worthy service in memorializing an unsung un-hero. “What life is too obscure or unworthy to pass without the merest acknowledgment?” Thomas Doughty was, she insists, “as real as Oliver Cromwell, John Winthrop, Cotton Mather” and all the other “historical” figures we learn about in school.

Or, in the words of Ecclesiasticus, “Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.”

Thomas Urquhart is an author and conservationist; his history of Maine’s Public Lots will be published next year. [email protected]


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