The Courtship of Miles Standish Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1858

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Sentimental

Time of work: 1620-1621

Locale: Plymouth, Massachusetts, and its environs

Characters DiscussedMiles Standish

Miles Courtship of Miles Standish, TheStandish, a captain and protector of Plymouth against the Indians. He is short, broad-shouldered, muscular, and middle-aged; his manners are rough but he is kind. His ancestors were English gentry, and he has led soldiers in notable battles. His favorite author is Julius Caesar. His wife has died, and he wishes to wed Priscilla. Because he believes that he lacks the skill with words to ask her to marry, he begs his friend John Alden, in the name of their friendship, to do so for him. When John reports that Priscilla prefers him to Standish, the captain is enraged and charges John with betrayal. His rage continues at the village council meeting, at which he answers an Indian challenge; he then marches out with his soldiers to fight the Indians. After he sees their crafty preparations for an ambush and hears the Indians’ taunts, he kills one warrior (Pecksuot), leads his men to victory, and brings the head of another Indian back to Plymouth, to the joy of the townspeople. Months later, he is reported killed by an Indian poisoned arrow, but after John and Priscilla are married, he returns, asks John’s forgiveness, and makes a gallant and sincere speech to Priscilla, one worthy of an English gentleman.

John Alden

John Alden, a fair, blue-eyed scholar, the youngest person to have come to America on theMayflower. He is a pious man, a writer, and a composer of fanciful phrases, and he is silently in love with Priscilla. When Standish asks him to propose to Priscilla on his behalf, John is dismayed, but in the name of their friendship, he agrees. He makes an eloquent appeal, but Priscilla tells him to speak for himself. When Standish becomes enraged that Priscilla prefers John, the pious John is tormented by guilt for betraying his friend. He believes that God is angry with him and decides to leave Plymouth on the Mayflower, which is preparing to sail from Plymouth Rock. As he is about to get on board, he sees Priscilla in the crowd and suddenly has a revelation that he cannot leave her. He and Priscilla agree to be friends. In the months that follow, John builds a house and becomes closer and closer to Priscilla, so close that when he hears of Standish’s death, he proclaims that the restraint imposed by their friendship is over. He and Priscilla are married. When Standish appears, all are reconciled.


Priscilla, a modest, sweet, patient, and strong young woman who works industriously at her spinning. Because her parents and brother have died, she is lonely and dreams of returning to England. When John communicates Standish’s proposal, she is stunned and rejects it, saying that Standish’s warlike virtues do not attract her. She then implies that John himself might be accepted. When she sees that John did not sail on the Mayflower, she seeks him out and asks forgiveness for her frankness. She tells him that because women are supposed to be silent, they often go through life in mute pain. She explains that she could not be silent and proposes that they be friends. When she hears the report of Standish’s death, she willingly weds John Alden and then accepts the returned Standish’s gallant compliments. She rides to Alden’s house through the streets of Plymouth on the back of a white bull.

The Elder of Plymouth

The Elder of Plymouth, a white-haired old religious man. At the village council, he advocates peace with the Indians. Later, he blesses the marriage.

The Magistrate

The Magistrate, the chief secular official of Plymouth, who presides at the wedding.

The Master of the Mayflower

The Master of the Mayflower, an impatient man who is glad to sail away from the poor town of Plymouth and all of its preaching.


Pecksuot, an Indian warrior at the encampment, seemingly friendly but actually treacherous. His boasts and insults provoke Miles Standish into stabbing him fatally.


Wattawamat, an Indian warrior at the encampment who also is treacherous. He boasts elaborately of his epic birth and is killed by gunshot in the melee that follows Pecksuot’s stabbing. Standish takes his head back to Plymouth.


Hobomok, an Indian friendly to the people of Plymouth who acts as interpreter.

BibliographyArvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Sees The Courtship of Miles Standish as an unpretentious domestic comedy, presented with simple truthfulness, appropriate Puritan coloration, and biblical imagery.Ferguson, Robert A. “Longfellow’s Political Fears: Civic Authority and the Role of the Artist in Hiawatha and Miles Standish.” American Literature 50 (May, 1978): 187-215. Interprets John Alden as representing both the helpless, authority-fearing artist and the personally conflicted Longfellow himself. Interprets Miles Standish’s admiration for Julius Caesar as intended to be an unpleasant characteristic.Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Poetry and Prose. New York: Ungar, 1986. Praises The Courtship of Miles Standish for its faultless narrative flow, skillfully evoked atmosphere, unfaltering plot elements, and detailed, realistically presented, and developed characters. Asserts that the work neatly balances comedy and serious drama.Williams, Alicia Crane. “John and Priscilla, We Hardly Knew Ye.” American History Illustrated 23 (December, 1988): 40-47. Explains that, although John Alden and Priscilla Mullins were elevated by Longfellow to legendary status, biographical information concerning the real pair is sketchy. John, a cooper who became a civil officer, and Priscilla, who inherited considerable money, married about 1623 and by 1650 had eleven children.Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Twayne, 1964. Provides a detailed plot summary of The Courtship of Miles Standish that includes carefully chosen quotations. Extols the work as part of America’s cultural heritage and refers to Longfellow’s journals for details about the work’s composition.
Categories: Characters