Set against the backdrop of a fierce Indian war, the tale focuses on a love-triangle between three Pilgrims: Miles Standish, Priscilla Mullens, and John Alden. Longfellow claimed the story was true, but the historical evidence is inconclusive. Nevertheless, the ballad was very popular in nineteenth-century America, immortalizing the Mayflower Pilgrims.
The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) was a literary counterpoint to Henry Longfellow's earlier Evangeline (1847), the tragic tale of a woman whose lover disappears in a colonial war. Together, Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish captured the bittersweet quality of America's colonial era, then only recently past. However, the plot of The Courtship of Miles Standish deliberately varies in emotional tone, unlike the steady tragedy of Longfellow's Evangeline. The Pilgrims grimly battle against disease and Indians, but are also obsessed with an eccentric love-triangle, creating a curious mix of drama and comedy. Two bumbling, feuding roommates, Miles Standish and John Alden, vie for the affections of the beautiful Priscilla Mullins, who slyly tweaks the noses of her undiplomatic suitors. The independent-minded woman utters one of the most famous retorts ever: "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?". The saga has a surprise ending, one full of optimism for the American future.
A debate persists as to whether the tale is fact or fiction. The main characters, Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins, have names of real-life Pilgrims. Henry Longfellow claimed to be a direct descendant, and that he was relating oral history. Skeptics dismiss his saga as a folktale. No conclusive evidence exists either way. At minimum, Longfellow used poetic license, condensing several years of events. Scholars though, recently confirmed the cherished place of romantic love in Pilgrim culture, and documented the Indian war described by Longfellow. Circumstantial evidence of the love-triangle also exists. Miles Standish and John Alden were likely roommates; Priscilla Mullins was the only single woman of marriageable age. The families of the alleged lovers remained close for several generations, moving together to Duxbury, Massachusetts, in the late 1620s. Descendants still retell the love-triangle of their ancestors.