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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. II. The Beginnings of Americanism: 1650–1710

George Alsop

GEORGE ALSOP, the only literary representative of Maryland, included within this volume, was born in London, in 1638, and had been apparently an apprentice there before he emigrated to the colonies as an indentured servant in 1658. Little is known of his life, but it may be inferred that he was a pronounced opponent of Cromwell, for some rugged verses, scattered through his book are devoted to execration of the Lord Protector. Other outbursts of his “melancholy Muse” are of a jovial, ribald, and even occasionally obscene character, almost unique in colonial writings. But regrettable as this may be, Alsop’s book is as entertaining as anything that seventeenth-century America produced. It bears the quaint and somewhat cumbrous title A Character of the Province of Maryland, also a Small Treatise on the Wild and Naked Indians or Susquehanokes of Maryland, their Customs, Manners, Absurdities, and Religion. It is dated 1666, and has been twice republished (1869, 1880). He describes the Arcadian liberty and virtue of the province sympathetically, the Susquehanna Indians entertainingly, and his experiences during servitude graphically. His letters to his relatives in which his experiences are narrated are not models of epistolary style, but they are full of life, and by no means devoid of humor.

Maryland Fish.
[From “A Character of the Province of Maryland,” London, 1666, Chap. I.]

AS for fish which dwell in the watery tenements of the deep, and by a providential greatness of power, is kept for the relief of several countries in the world (which would else sink under the rigid enemy of want), here in Mary-land is a large sufficiency, and plenty of almost all sorts of fishes, which live and inhabit within her several rivers and creeks, far beyond the apprehending or crediting of those that never saw the same, and, which with very much ease is catched, to the great refreshment of the inhabitants of the province.

“Of the Government and Natural Disposition of the People.”
[From the Same, Chap. II.]

MARYLAND, not from the remoteness of her situation, but from the regularity of her well-ordered government, may (without sin, I think) be called singular: And though she is not supported with such large revenues as some of her neighbors are, yet such is her wisdom in a reserved silence, and not in pomp, to shew her well-conditioned estate, in relieving at a distance the proud poverty of those that wont be seen they want, as well as those which by undeniable necessities are drove upon the rocks of pinching wants: Yet such a loathsome creature is a common and folding-handed beggar, that upon the penalty of almost a perpetual working in imprisonment, they are not to appear, nor lurk near our vigilant and laborious dwellings. The country hath received a general spleen and antipathy against the very name and nature of it; and though there were no law provided, (as there is) to suppress it, I am certainly confident, there is none within the Province that would lower themselves so much below the dignity of men to beg, as long as limbs and life keep house together; so much is a vigilant industrious care esteem’d.

He that desires to see the real platform of a quiet and sober government extant, superiority with a meek and yet commanding power sitting at the helm, steering the actions of a state quietly, through the multitude and diversity of opinionous waves that diversly meet; let him look on Mary-Land with eyes admiring, and he’le then judge her, The Miracle of this Age.

Here the Roman Catholic, and the Protestant Episcopal, (whom the world would persuade have proclaimed open wars irrevocably against each other) contrarywise concur in an unanimous parallel of friendship, and inseparable love entailed unto one another: All inquisitions, martyrdom, and banishments are not so much as named, but unexpressibly abhorr’d by each other.

The several opinions and sects that lodge within this government, meet not together in mutinous contempts to disquiet the power that bears rule, but with a reverend quietness obeys the legal commands of authority. Here’s never seen Five Monarchies in a zealous rebellion, opposing the rights and liberties of a true settled government, or monarchical authority: Nor did I ever see (here in Mary-Land) any of those dancing Adamitical Sisters that plead a primitive innocency for their base obscenity and naked deportment; but I conceive if some of them were there at some certain time of the year, between the months of January and February, when the winds blow from the north-west quarter of the world, that it would both cool, and (I believe) convert the hottest of these Zealots….

And I really believe this land or government of Mary-Land may boast, that she enjoys as much quietness from disturbance of rebellious opinions, as most states or kingdoms do in the world: For here every man lives quietly, and follows his labor and employment desiredly; and by the protection of the laws, they are supported from those molestious troubles that ever attend upon the commons of other states and kingdoms, as well as from the aquafortial operation of great and eating taxes. Here’s nothing to be levied out of the granaries of corn; but contrarywise, by a law every domestic governor of a family is enjoined to make or cause to be made so much corn by a just limitation, as shall be sufficient for him and his family: So that by this wise and Fanus-like providence, the thin jawed skeleton with his starv’d carcass is never seen walking the woods of Mary-Land to affrighten children.

Once every year within this province is an assembly called, and out of every respective county (by the consent of the people) there is chosen a number of men, and to them is deliver’d up the grievances of the country; and they maturely debate the matters, and according to their consciences make laws for the general good of the people; and where any former law that was made, seems and is prejudicial to the good or quietness of the land, it is repeal’d. These men that determine on these matters for the Republique, are called Burgesses, and they commonly sit in junto about six weeks, being for the most part good ordinary householders of the several counties, which do more by a plain and honest conscience, then by artificial syllogisms drest up in gilded orations.

Here suits and trials in law seldom hold dispute two terms or courts, but according as the equity of the cause appears is brought to a period, the Temples and Grays-Inn are clear out of fashion here: Marriot would sooner get a paunch-devouring meal for nothing, then for his invading counsel. Here if the Lawyer had nothing else to maintain him but his bawling, he might button up his chops, and burn his buckram bag, or else hang it upon a pin until its antiquity had eaten it up with dirt and dust: Then with a spade, like his grandsire Adam, turn up the face of creation, purchasing his bread by the sweat of his brows, that before was got by the motionated water-works of his jaws. So contrary to the genius of the people, if not to the quiet government of the Province, that the turbulent spirit of continued and vexatious law, with all its quirks and evasions, is openly and most eagerly opposed, that might make matters either dubious, tedious, or troublesome. All other matters that would be ranging in contrary and improper spheres, (in short) are here by the power moderated, lower’d, and subdued. All villainous outrages that are committed in other states, are not so much as known here: A man may walk in the open woods as secure from being externally dissected, as in his own house or dwelling. So hateful is a robber, that if but once imagin’d to be so, he’s kept at a distance, and shun’d as the pestilential noisomeness.

It is generally and very remarkably observed, That those whose lives and conversations have had no other gloss nor glory stampt on them in their own country, but the stigmatization of baseness, were here (by the common civilities and deportments of the inhabitants of this Province) brought to detest and loath their former actions. Here the constable hath no need of a train of Holberteers [Halberdeers], that carry more armor about them, then heart to guard him: Nor is he ever troubled to leave his feathered nest to some friendly successor, while he is placing of his lanthern-horn guard at the end of some suspicious street…. Here’s no Newgates for pilfering felons, nor Ludgates for debtors, nor any Bridewells to lash the soul of concupiscence into a chaste repentance. For as there is none of these prisons in Mary-Land, so the merits of the country deserves none, but if any be foully virtuous, he is so reserv’d in it, that he seldom or never becomes popular. Common ale-houses, (whose dwellings are the only receptacles of debauchery and baseness, and those schools that trains up youth, as well as age to ruin) in this Province there are none; neither hath youth his swing or range in such a profuse and unbridled liberty as in other countries; for from an ancient custom at the primitive seating of the place, the son works as well as the servant, (an excellent cure for untam’d youth) so that before they eat their bread, they are commonly taught how to earn it; which makes them by that time age speaks them capable of receiving that which their parents’ indulgency is ready to give them, and which partly is by their own laborious industry purchased, they manage it with such a serious, grave, and watching care, as if they had been masters of families, trained up in that domestic and governing power from their cradles. These christian natives of the land, especially those of the masculine sex, are generally conveniently confident, reservedly subtle, quick in apprehending, but slow in resolving; and where they spy profit sailing towards them with the wings of a prosperous gale, there they become much familiar. The women differ something in this point, though not much: They are extreme bashful at the first view, but after a continuance of time hath brought them acquainted, there they become discreetly familiar, and are much more talkative than men. All complemental courtships, drest up in critical rarities, are mere strangers to them, plain wit comes nearest their genius; so that he that intends to court a Mary-Land girl, must have something more than the tautologies of a long-winded speech to carry on his design, or else he may (for aught I know) fall under the contempt of her frown, and his own windy oration.

One great part of the inhabitants of this Province are desiredly zealous, great pretenders to holiness; and where any thing appears that carries on the frontispiece of its effigies the stamp of religion, though fundamentally never so imperfect, they are suddenly taken with it, and out of an eager desire to any thing that’s new, not weighing the sure matter in the balance of reason, are very apt to be catcht. Quakerism is the only opinion that bears the bell away: The Anabaptists have little to say here, as well as in other places, since the Ghost of John of Leyden haunts their Conventicles. The Adamite, Ranter, and Fifth-Monarchy men, Mary-Land cannot, nay will not digest within her liberal stomach such corroding morsels: So that this Province is an utter enemy to blasphemous and zealous imprecations, drain’d from the limbec of hellish and damnable spirits, as well as profuse prophaneness, that issues from the prodigality of none but crackt-brain Scots.

  • ’Tis said the Gods lower down that chain above
  • That ties both prince and subject up in love;
  • And if this fiction of the gods be true,
  • Few, MARY-LAND, in this can boast but you:
  • Live ever blest, and let those clouds that do
  • Eclipse most states, be always lights to you;
  • And dwelling so, you may for ever be
  • The only Emblem of tranquility.
  • “A Relation of the Customs, Manners, Absurdities, and Religion of the Susquehanock Indians in and near Maryland.”
    [From the Same.]

    THE INDIANS paint upon their faces one stroke of red, another of green, another of white, and another of black, so that when they have accomplished the equipage of their countenance in this trim, they are the only Hieroglyphics and Representatives of the Furies. Their skins are naturally white, but altered from their originals by the several dyeings of roots and barks, that they prepare and make useful to metamorphize their hides into a dark cinnamon brown. The hair of their head is black, long and harsh, but where Nature hath appointed the situation of it anywhere else, they divert it (by an ancient custom) from its growth, by pulling it up hair by hair by the root in its primitive appearance. Several of them wear divers impressions on their breasts and arms, as the picture of the Devil, bears, tigers, and panthers, which are imprinted on their several lineaments with much difficulty and pain, with an irrevocable determination of its abiding there: and this they count a badge of heroic valor, and the only ornament due to their heroes.

    These Susquehanock Indians are for the most part great warriors, and seldom sleep one summer in the quiet arms of a peaceable rest, but keep (by their present power, as well as by their former conquest) the several Nations of Indians round about them in a forcible obedience and subjection.

    When they determine to go upon some design that will and doth require a consideration, some six of them get into a corner, and sit in Junto; and if thought fit, their business is made popular, and immediately put into action; if not, they make a full stop to it, and are silently reserved.

    The warlike equipage they put themselves in when they prepare for Belona’s march, is with their faces, arms, and breasts confusedly painted, their hair greased with bears’ oil, and stuck thick with swans’ feathers, with a wreath or diadem of black and white beads upon their heads, a small hatchet, instead of a cimeter, stuck in their girts behind them, and either with guns, or bows and arrows. In this posture and dress they march out from their fort, or dwelling, to the number of forty in a troop, singing (or rather howling out) the decades or warlike exploits of their ancestors, ranging the wild woods until their fury has met with an enemy worthy of their revenge. What prisoners fall into their hands by the destiny of war, they treat them very civilly while they remain with them abroad, but when they once return homewards, they then begin to dress them in the habit for death, putting on their heads and arms wreaths of beads, greasing their hair with fat, some going before, and the rest behind, at equal distance from their prisoners, bellowing in a strange and confused manner, which is a true presage and forerunner of destruction to their then conquered enemy.

    As for their religion, together with their rites and ceremonies, they are so absurd and ridiculous, that it’s almost a sin to name them. They own no other deity than the Devil (solid or profound), but with a kind of a wild imaginary conjecture, they suppose from their groundless conceits, that the world had a Maker, but where he is that made it, or whether he be living to this day, they know not. The Devil, as I said before, is all the God they own or worship; and that more out of a slavish fear than any real reverence to his infernal or diabolical greatness, he forcing them to their obedience by his rough and rigid dealing with them, often appearing visibly among them to their terror, bastinadoing them (with cruel menaces) even unto death, and burning their fields of corn and houses, that the relation thereof makes them tremble themselves when they tell it.

    Once in four years they sacrifice a child to him, in an acknowledgment of their firm obedience to all his devilish powers, and hellish commands. The priests, to whom they apply themselves in matters of importance and greatest distress, are like those that attended upon the Oracle at Delphos, who by their magic spells could command a pro or con from the Devil when they pleased. These Indians ofttimes raise great tempests when they have any weighty matter or design in hand, and by blustering storms inquire of their infernal god (the Devil) how matters shall go with them either in public or private.

    When any among them depart this life, they give him no other entombment than to set him upright upon his breech in a hole dug in the earth some five foot long, and three foot deep, covered over with the bark of trees archwise, with his face due west, only leaving a hole half a foot square open. They dress him in the same equipage and gallantry that he used to be trimmed in when he was alive, and so bury him (if a soldier) with his bows, arrows, and target, together with all the rest of his implements and weapons of war, with a kettle of broth, and corn standing before him, lest he should meet with bad quarters in his way. His kindred and relations follow him to the grave, sheathed in bear-skins for close mourning, with the tail droiling on the ground, in imitation of our English solemners, that think there’s nothing like a tail a degree in length, to follow the dead corpse to the grave with.

    SIR:—After my obedience (at so great and vast a distance) has humbly saluted you and my good mother, with the cordialest of my prayers, wishes, and desires to wait upon you, with the very best of their effectual devotion, wishing from the very centre of my soul your flourishing and well-being here upon earth, and your glorious and everlasting happiness in the world to come.

    These lines (my dear parents) come from that son which by an irregular fate was removed from his native home, and after a five months dangerous passage, was landed on the remote continent of America, in the province of Mary-Land, where now by providence I reside. To give you the particulars of the several accidents that happened in our voyage by sea, it would swell a journal of some sheets, and therefore too large and tedious for a letter: I think it therefore necessary to bind up the relation in octavo, and give it you in short.

    We had a blowing and dangerous passage of it, and for some days after I arrived I was an absolute Copernicus, it being one main point of my moral creed to believe the world had a pair of long legs, and walked with the burthen of the creation upon her back. For to tell you the very truth of it, for some days upon land, after so long and tossing a passage, I was so giddy that I could hardly tread an even step: so that all things both above and below (that was in view) appeared to me like the Kentish Britains to William the Conqueror, in a moving posture.

    These few number of weeks since my arrival, has given me but little experience to write anything large of the country; only thus much I can say, and that not from any imaginary conjectures, but from an ocular observation, that this country of Mary-Land abounds in a flourishing variety of delightful woods, pleasant groves, lovely springs, together with spacious navigable rivers and creeks, it being a most healthful and pleasant situation, so far as my knowledge has yet had any view in it.

    Herds of deer are as numerous in this Province of Mary-Land, as cuckolds can be in London, only their horns are not so well dressed and tipped with silver as theirs are.

    Here if the devil had such a vagary in his head as he once had among the Gadareans, he might drown a thousand head of hogs and they’d ne’re be missed, for the very woods of this Province swams with them.

    The Christian inhabitant of this Province, as to the general, lives wonderfully well and contented: the government of this Province is by the loyalness of the people, and loving demeanor of the Proprietor and Governor of the same, kept in a continued peace and unity.

    The servant of this Province, which are stigmatized for slaves by the clappermouth jaws of the vulgar in England, live more like freemen than the most mechanic apprentices in London, wanting for nothing that is convenient and necessary, and according to their several capacities, are extraordinary well used and respected. So leaving things here as I found them, and lest I should commit sacrilege upon your more serious meditations, with the tautologies of a long-winded letter, I’le subscribe with a heavenly ejaculation to the God of mercy to preserve you now and for evermore, Amen.

    Your obedient son,
    G. A.
    From Mary-Land, Jan. 17, Anno.

    SIR:—You writ to me when I was at Gravesend, (but I had no conveniency to send you an answer till now) enjoining me, if possible, to give you a just information by my diligent observance, what thing were best and most profitable to send into this country for a commodious trafic.

    Sir, the enclosed will demonstrate unto you both particularly and at large, to the full satisfaction of your desire, it being an invoice drawn as exact to the business you employed me upon, as my weak capacity could extend to.

    Sir, if you send any adventure to this Province, let me beg to give you this advice in it; that the factor whom you employ be a man of brain, otherwise the planter will go near to make a skimming-dish of his skull: I know your genius can interpret my meaning. The people of this place (whether the saltness of the ocean gave them any alteration when they went over first, or their continual dwelling under the remote clime where they now inhabit, I know not) are a more acute people in general, in matters of trade and commerce, than in any other place of the world, and by their crafty and sure bargaining, do often overreach the raw and unexperienced merchant. To be short, he that undertakes merchant’s employment for Mary-Land, must have more of knave in him than fool: he must not be a windling piece of formality, that will lose his employer’s goods for conscience sake; nor a flashy piece of prodigality, that will give his merchants fine hollands, laces, and silks, to purchase the benevolence of a female: but he must be a man of solid confidence, carrying always in his looks the effigies of an execution upon command, if he supposes a baffle or denial of payment, where a debt for his employer is legally due.

    Sir, I had like almost to forgot to tell you in what part of the world I am: I dwell by providence servant to Mr. Thomas Stocket, in the County of Baltimore, within the Province of Mary-Land, under the Government of the Lord Baltimore, being a country abounding with the variety and diversity of all that is or may be rare. But lest I should tantalize you with a relation of that which is very unlikely of your enjoying, by reason of that strong antipathy you have ever had ’gainst travel, as to your own particular: I’le only tell you, that Mary-Land is seated within the large extending arms of America, between the degrees of 36 and 38, being in longitude from England eleven hundred and odd leagues.

    G. A.
    From Mary-Land, Jan. 17, Anno.


  • E’re I forget the zenith of your love,
  • Let me be banished from the thrones above;
  • Light let me never see, when I grow rude,
  • Intomb your love in base ingratitude:
  • Nor may I prosper, but the state
  • Of gaping Tantalus be my fate;
  • Rather than I should thus preposterous grow,
  • Earth would condemn me to her vaults below.
  • Virtuous and noble, could my genius raise
  • Immortal anthems to your vestal praise,
  • None should be more laborious than I,
  • Saint-like to canonize you to the sky.
  • The antimonial cup (dear cousin) you sent me, I had; and as soon as I received it, I went to work with the infirmities and diseases of my body. At the first draught, it made such havoc among the several humors that had stolen into my body, that like a conjurer in a room among a company of little devils, they no sooner hear him begin to speak high words, but away they pack, and happy is he that can get out first, some up the chimney, and the rest down stairs, till they are all dispersed. So those malignant humors of my body, feeling the operative power, and medicinal virtue of this cup, were so amazed at their sudden surprisal, (being always before battered only by the weak assaults of some few empyrics) they stood not long to dispute, but with joint consent made their retreat,…

    Cousin, for this great kindness of yours, in sending me this medicinal virtue, I return you my thanks: it came in a very good time, when I was dangerously sick, and by the assistance of God, it hath perfectly recovered me.

    I have sent you here a few furs, they were all I could get at present, I humbly beg your acceptance of them, as a pledge of my love and thankfulness unto you; I subscribe,

    Your loving cousin,
    G. A.
    From Mary-Land, Dec. 9, Anno.