So who were the Pilgrims? This question has been a vexing one for modern historians, and depending on the source consulted, different definitions emerge. Were they all of the Mayflower's passengers, or were they only the minority of religious dissenters among the group? Does the term refer to those who came on four other ships, the Fortune, Anne, Little James and Charity which arrived during the first seven years of the Colony? Might the term apply to all of the residents of Plymouth Colony during its existence as a separate colony until 1691? There is no modern consensus regarding this matter, and little wonder, for the people of Plymouth never perceived themselves as a group who would at the end of the eighteenth century come to be known as Pilgrims. However, if we change the tense of the verb in the question from were to are, a reasonably concise definition can be offered. The Pilgrims are a quasi-mythic group of people who are looked upon today as the founders of America, and whose dedication to hard work and noble purposes gave rise to our nation as we know it. What most of us know about them we learned as early as grade school, especially around Thanksgiving time. Stern and godfearing, possessed of the loftiest motives, the women dressed in somber attire with white collars, and the men also dressed in grey and black, with buckles on their hats, belts, shoes, and for all we know, even on their undergarments. Some modern Plymouth residents refer to them as the "Grim Pills." This is the image with which we are all so familiar, but its origins lie more in early nineteenth century America than in the reality of a time two hundred years earlier.
With the final stroke of the pen at the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 by representatives of France, England and her newly independent former American colonies, the American Republic came into being. A decade later the early Plymouth settlers were first referred to as Pilgrims in a sermon delivered in Plymouth by the Reverend Chandler Robbins, who used a phrase from a copy of Bradford's history, ". . . but they knew they were pilgrims," a quotation from the New Testament. Note the use of the lower case "p" in the term; Bradford was using it in a generic sense, and in no way singling out the Plymouth party as the sole bearers of the name. In fact, until the early nineteenth century, the term "pilgrim" was used to designate any early group of settlers. Those who were adults in 1783 almost certainly retained a strong bond with England, since they were displaced English people. Although separated by an ocean, English colonists still followed the precepts of English law and custom. By 1660, however, a large proportion of the colonial population had never laid eyes on England. .... by the time the first generation born in the new Republic had come of age, such a bond with the old mother country held little if any significance. By the early nineteenth century, the new nation needed a myth of epic proportion on which to found its history. Who better than the Pilgrims, a term which by that time had narrowed its definition to apply solely to the settlers of Plymouth, whose piety, fortitude and dedication to hard work embodied a set of ideals that could make every American proud? To be sure, Plymouth was the second oldest permanent English colony in North America, but Virginia, established at Jamestown in 1607, was hardly a candidate for a national symbol, since it was initially settled by men only, who were looked upon as a rowdy crowd, interested simply in personal gain. Too, relations with the native Powhatan Indians were marked by periods of conflict from the very beginning in Virginia, whereas the Plymouth settlers concluded a peace treaty with the local Wampanoag people which lasted for over half a century, and was honored throughout that time. So it was that Plymouth was chosen to represent the beginnings of the infant nation, and the nineteenth century construction of the Pilgrims' way of life reflects more of the values of that time than the reality which it was meant to represent. The word "construction" is of particular importance. Although we frequently hear references to reconstructing the past, this is an impossibility since a complete reconstruction is beyond our grasp, simply because we do not have access to all of the complexities of life in earlier times. What we do is construct the past, and in so doing, decide what is important and what is not. Such constructions invariably reflect, to a greater or lesser extent, the values and biases of the time when they were written. Our image today of the Pilgrims was strongly influenced by the people of the time when it was created, and incorporates as much if not more of how people in the early 1800s saw the world in which they lived.
The Pilgrim myth had matured into a robust tale by 1820, the two hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Plymouth band of settlers. The Pilgrim Society had been established in 1819, and one of the first items on its agenda was the construction of Pilgrim Hall, claimed by many to be America's oldest museum, and which stands today on Main Street in Plymouth. When it first opened, it contained a remarkable assortment of objects, some with genuine "Pilgrim" provenience, but others which had no relationship to Plymouth whatsoever, including Algerian pistols, a pitchfork from Bunker Hill, and assorted sea shells. The quantity of "Mayflower Furniture" which lacked any provenience was so great that a Pilgrim Society member suggested that it was enough to have sunk the ship.
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The year 1820 also marked the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of Plymouth, and was celebrated with great enthusiasm. On that occasion the great American orator Daniel Webster gave an address which extolled the virtues of the Pilgrims as they were perceived in those early decades of the nineteenth century. Appropriately, it was delivered while standing by a fragment of Plymouth Rock which at the time reposed in Town Square. He referred to the rock in his remarks, making both the rock and the Pilgrim myth accessible for the first time to an audience far beyond the confines of the town of Plymouth itself.
The Pilgrim myth did not materialize overnight, but rather was the final and defining episode of an ongoing process which stretches back at least to the later seventeenth century. The Plymouth settlers used several terms to designate themselves. One pair of the terms relates to the make-up of the Mayflower's passengers. A minority among them were serious dissenters against the established church, the majority made the crossing in the hope of improving their lot over what it had been in England, where chronic unemployment and increasing shortage of land was making life very difficult for many. The former group was referred to as "Saints," the latter as "Strangers." Two other names were used by the Plymouth settlers to designate themselves, "Old Comers" and "Old Planters," or simply "Planters," but future generations of Plimothians, and later the entire country, would refer to them simply as the "Forefathers." The evolution of the national view of the Forefathers combined with another potentially powerful symbol, Plymouth Rock, form two more strands in the fabric of the Pilgrim myth.
In 1769, a small group of young Plymouth men, all from the more well-to-do families of the town, joined together to form a social organization which they called the Old Colony Club. Among its stated purposes was the establishment of a social environment of a more refined nature than that of the local inns and taverns. One of their first accomplishments was the designation of December 22 to celebrate the date of the landing of the Mayflower passengers in Plymouth Harbor. They were even more specific than that, however, and stated that the day would commemorate the landing on Plymouth Rock. The day soon became an annual celebration observed by the people of Plymouth, and as time passed, by people in all parts of America, where it became known as Forefathers' Day, and was observed by speeches, parades, and other festive events. It was, in fact, the predecessor of Thanksgiving, but with its emphasis on keeping alive in people's memories both the landing and the rock on which it was supposed to have occurred. While December 22 was the date on which it was usually celebrated, from time to time it would slip back to December 20. The celebration of Forefathers' Day continued into the nineteenth century, and it is still observed in Plymouth, although it had been eclipsed by Thanksgiving in the rest of the country by the opening years of the twentieth century. The Pilgrim myth was given concrete form when in 1859 construction began on an eighty-one foot tall monument on a hill overlooking the town of Plymouth. Thirty years in the making, and still standing, when completed it was appropriately named the "National Monument to the Forefathers."
In describing the monument, James Baker writes, "Although it was dedicated to the Pilgrims, they were represented only in the smallest bas-relief elements. Their attributed virtues--Faith, Law, Education, Freedom and Morality--completely overshadowed the human Pilgrim men and women." The monument in fact is an eighty-one foot high metaphor, the symbolism of which cannot be missed, for the "virtues" mentioned are represented by very large, full, rounded statues, four seated on pedestals around the base, and the fifth, representing Faith, standing on top. In spite of efforts by a number of writers, some clearly of the "debunking" school, but more objective and serious historians as well, it is this image and the relationships which it implies, which has come down to us to this day.
The earliest symbol to be associated with the Plymouth settlers is the famous, or perhaps infamous, chunk of granite known as Plymouth Rock. Most Americans know of it, and even a breed of chicken has been named after it. Lacking hard numbers, it is not possible to say that it is the most popular attraction in modern Plymouth, but one has the intuitive sense that such is the case.
What, if any, factual basis supports the attribution of the Rock as the first spot on which the Mayflower passengers set foot? There is one slender thread which, however thin, cannot be entirely dismissed. In 1741, ninety-five year old Thomas Faunce asked to be taken for what he thought might be his last look at a certain granite boulder on the beach in Plymouth. Faunce lived two miles south of the town and was brought to the waterfront in a chair. Before a small gathering of people, with tearful eyes, he identified a rock, directly below Cole's Hill, as that which was the very spot "which had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival." He had been told this by his father, who had arrived in Plymouth on the Anne in 1623, and who in turn had been told by one of the original party of settlers. This is, of course, a third hand account, and as such, not of the greatest reliability, yet it does lend a touch of authenticity to what otherwise would be a story made up of whole cloth. What are the facts? We know from the account in Mourt's Relation, published in London in 1622, that a group of passengers and crew left the Mayflower in a shallop on Wednesday 6 December 1620, searching for a suitable harbor and place to settle. Shallops were small craft, primarily propelled by a number of oarsmen, although they did have a mast and a single sail, and featured a leeboard which allowed the boat to sail into the wind in the same way a centerboard or a fixed keel would, and the usual rudder on the stern used for steering. Two days later, on a stormy Friday night, the group reached Plymouth Harbor, found themselves close to an island, and "fell upon a place of sandy ground, where our shallop did ride safe and secure all that night." On the Monday, after sounding the depth of the harbor, they "marched also into the land." There is no mention of the rock. William Bradford's account in his history, Of Plymouth Plantation, is identical. And in case Faunce was referring to the first time the Mayflower docked in Plymouth Harbor on December 16, 1620, Mourt's Relation only picks up the story two day's later: "Monday the 18th day, we went a-land, [the shallop] manned with the master of the ship and three or four sailors." Bradford simply mentions that after their arrival they "afterwards took better view of the place, and resolved where to pitch their dwelling." These are the only contemporary accounts of the time when the Mayflower passengers actually arrived on the mainland at Plymouth.
So the matter stands, but whether or not Plymouth Rock as we know it today was ever trod upon by one or more Mayflower passengers, is immaterial in the context of the Pilgrim myth. What does matter is that it is possessed of a symbol of great power, as witness the hundreds of thousands of people who pay homage by gazing upon it from above, separated from it by only a sturdy iron railing.
The final component of the myth of the Pilgrims which made its appearance very early in the nineteenth century, is what is referred to today as the Mayflower Compact. Finding themselves outside the area which was covered by a patent which gave them rights to settle in Virginia, and in William Bradford's words, "Occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the Ship," a covenant was drawn up of a type with which they were very familiar, as covenant agreements were used as a basis for social regulation in England by numerous Puritan and Separatist groups. The document was signed on November 11, 1620 while the Mayflower lay at anchor off Cape Cod.
As is befitting a story of mythic proportions, the Mayflower Compact has been endowed with an importance which far transcends reality. In 1802, President John Quincy Adams had this to say:
[The Mayflower Compact] is perhaps the only instance in human history of that positive social compact which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate course of government. Here was a unanimous and personal assent by all the individuals of the community to the association, by which they became a nation.
Having become an integral part of the Pilgrim myth, this perception of the significance of the Mayflower Compact remains with us to this day. A well-known historian, Henry Steele Commager, commented in a television production in the early 1970's:
They drew up one of those familiar church or sea compacts, but it was of epic making proportions, the Mayflower Compact that some claim to be the first of all written constitutions. It was drawn up democratically, it was signed by the heads of families and also by some of the servants and hired help. Imagine that, in seventeenth century England or on the European continent. It was based on the principle that political authority comes from below not from above, and that government derives all of its authority from the consent of the governed. New ideas these in politics, but ideas which were to be the very foundations of American political theory and political practice, and that were to spread throughout the globe.
Many see it as a forerunner to the American Constitution and it did indeed provide for "political authority [coming] from below not from above" and embody the principle that "government derives all of its authority from the consent of the governed." But a close examination of the list of signatories shows that only four of the ten adult servants aboard the Mayflower signed, and none of the women. As for it containing "ideas which were to be the very foundation of American political theory and political practice, and that were to spread throughout the globe," this is, to put it mildly, a bit of an overstatement. In fact, in 1619, Virginia had established the House of Burgesses which, within limits, provided for a similar type of representative government, although membership in this case was restricted to male landowners. This is not, however, to decry the fact that the basis of Plymouth government was a belief in the rule of law, not nearly as clearly formulated as it is today, but visibly present in what can be seen by 1671 as an embryonic bill of rights.
The myth of the Pilgrims, with its three central themes, the Forefathers, the Rock and the Compact, became increasingly pervasive in the American collective consciousness during the nineteenth century. It would receive even greater attention, this time on an international scale, when in 1858, just one year before construction began on the Forefathers' monument, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an epic poem, The Courtship of Myles Standish. Its popularity was almost instantaneous, and more than 10,000 copies sold in London in a single day. Along with The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, it would endow four rather ordinary colonists with heroic and romantic qualities which, although greatly exaggerated, would be perceived as such by those who read the poems. Most of us are familiar with the central story line of The Courtship, but far fewer have read the poem in its entirety, which in a way is a mercy. According to Longfellow, Myles Standish, who was in his late twenties or early thirties upon his arrival in Plymouth, became enamored of Priscilla Mullins, the daughter of William Mullins, who died in the sickness of the winter of 1620-1621. Priscilla was seventeen. Standish, however, could not muster the courage to approach Priscilla and make a personal offer of marriage, so he prevailed on his friend John Alden, who was twenty-one, to act on his behalf. When Alden approached Priscilla with Standish's offer, she spoke the now immortal words, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" Whether as a result of Standish's request or not, and it seems highly unlikely that such was the case, John and Priscilla were married in 1623, and produced ten children, six girls and four boys. There was until the 1960's a line of canned goods produced in Massachusetts with the brand name John Alden, which carried a slogan in small print on its label: "It speaks for itself," referring of course to the can's contents, whether peas, corn, beans or some other vegetable.
It was not until the opening years of the twentieth century that Thanksgiving was added as a central component of the myth of the Pilgrims, joining the other four, the Pilgrims themselves, the Forefathers, the Rock, and the Compact. Just why it should have taken so long for this to occur is not entirely clear, but James Baker offers an explanation which is both logical and convincing. Nineteenth century depictions of the event almost always involve conflict between the settlers and the native peoples. A print from Frank Leslie's Illustrated, 1869, shows people seated around a table, complete with a turkey at one end, under attack by a group of native people, with an arrow stuck in the door and another in the table which appears to have barely missed the turkey. One man is lifting his musket from its rack on the wall to defend his family, and the others show expressions of alarm, except for the man at the head of the table, who stands with hands folded in prayer, and a woman at the opposite end whose head is bowed. It would appear that the attack took place just as the family was giving thanks.
How this violent image became transformed into a peaceful encounter between colonists and Indians is explained by Baker as follows:
It was only after the turn of the century, when the western Indian wars were over and the "vanishing red man" was vanishing satisfactorily, that the romantic (and historically correct) idyllic image of the two cultures sitting down to an autumn feast became popular. . . . By the first World War, popular art . . . school books, and literature had linked the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving indivisibly together, so much so that the image of the Pilgrim and the familiar fall feast almost ousted the Landing and older patriotic images from the popular consciousness.
This is the image that we carry today, and at holiday time stores are filled with depictions of clean shaven Pilgrim men, buckled hats and all, equally well scrubbed women with little white caps, Indians, usually with a single feather stuck in a headband, and of course turkeys, turkeys, and more turkeys, both in cardboard cutouts and in the frozen food section of supermarkets. Schools the nation over present Thanksgiving plays; most Americans are familiar with such productions, and many have participated in them. By far the most memorable of these is to be seen in the film Addams Family Values in which Wednesday Addams and some of the other "misfits" at a summer camp are cast as Indians in a Thanksgiving play. After being greeted by a pretty young blond Pilgrim maiden, she tells the Indians that they are not different from themselves, except that the Pilgrims wear shoes and have last names. The Indian members of the cast have revised their part of the script, unbeknownst to the camp counselors, and Wednesday delivers a short speech which is both funny and sadly true:
I am Pocahontas, a Chippewa maiden.
Wait, we cannot break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadside. You will play golf and enjoy hot hors d'oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They say, Do not trust the Pilgrims.
The Indians then proceed to tie the Pilgrim maiden who greeted them to a stake and pour gasoline around her feet (we are spared seeing the match applied), the Indians burn the village, and the scene closes with two Pilgrims being spit roasted together over a fire. Regardless of the mix-up between Plymouth and Virginia, and between the Chippewa and the Wampanoag, there is far more than a little truth in Wednesday's, a.k.a. Pocahontas's words. For an important segment of the American people, Thanksgiving is hardly a day to celebrate in a festive way. To Native Americans, Thanksgiving has come to symbolize the beginning of what would eventually become the tragic destruction of their culture.
In 1970, Thanksgiving was declared a National Day of Mourning by Native Americans, and Plymouth was chosen as the location where it would be observed. Native peoples, both local and others from as distant as various western states, converged on Plymouth, assembling on the waterfront adjacent to the Rock and Mayflower II, anchored and secured to the wharf nearby. Attendance some years has exceeded five thousand, and while some occasions are marked by more overt protest than others, the Day of Mourning overshadows all other events in town on that day. Drums and singing are a constant part of the event, and speeches, often delivered with great passion, are also a regular feature of the program. On many occasions, Native Americans boarded the ship and climbed into the rigging, and more than once Plymouth Rock has been either painted red or buried in sand, and sometimes both. The participants fast during the day, taking food only after sundown.
There is a significant and understandable irony in the selection of Plymouth and Thanksgiving as the site and date of the Day of Mourning. This selection underlines the power of the Pilgrim myth in the minds of all Americans. Only in the way it is observed is there a dramatic difference. It is historical fact that the Plymouth settlers and their Wampanoag compatriots enjoyed one of the longest periods of peace in colonial history. There were Indian residents within the jurisdiction of the town of Plymouth, and the court records of the Colony tell us that they were treated in much the same way as were Europeans for various offences, and occasionally, received a lighter punishment for the same transgression as was meted out to the settlers. In fact, the second execution in the Colony, involving three Englishman, was carried out in 1638 because they had murdered and robbed a Nipmuck messenger from the chief sachem of the Narragansett. But in other colonies, particularly Virginia, Indian-European relations were strained from the outset. So one could argue that Jamestown would be a more suitable place for the Day of Mourning to be observed, but the power of the Pilgrim myth is such that Plymouth and Thanksgiving were perceived as the appropriate place and time.
A remarkable event took place on Thanksgiving Day 1971 which completely escaped media attention. Only those who participated in it, and those to whom they might have mentioned it, were, and still are, aware of it. James Deetz, then a senior staff member of Plimoth Plantation, an outdoor living history museum in Plymouth which shows what the settlement might have been like in 1627, taught a course on Native American history during the Harvard Summer School session that year. Among the class members were a number of Native Americans who had been enrolled in Harvard's newly established American Indian Program. In the course of the summer, Deetz developed friendships of varying degrees with a number of these Indian students, and they visited his home, a large Victorian-style house in Plymouth, for socializing at regular intervals, including nearly every weekend. By the time Thanksgiving approached, it was decided that the house, which had been the scene of so many parties, be used to entertain some eighty-odd Native American high school students who were coming to Plymouth to observe and participate in the Day of Mourning. The high school students, from groups all over America, were part of a program then in existence known as "A Better Chance," formed to expose American Indian students to a variety of educational experiences which would be very different from those obtained in mostly reservation classrooms. Plans were accordingly made. A traditional Thanksgiving dinner would be provided after sundown, [with food] enough to feed more than a hundred people. Late in the afternoon, some ninety Native Americans appeared at the Deetz home, and when it became apparent that the house, large as it was, could not possibly accommodate all that was planned, last minute arrangements were made to use a nearby church hall. At the beginning, there was a palpable tension in the air, and understandably, if one puts oneself in the place of the high school students, finding themselves suddenly in an alien environment, and perceived as not necessarily friendly. For two hours, conversation was minimal, and it was to the credit of the Harvard American Indian students that they served as mediators between the two parties. Once everyone adjourned to the church hall, however, the atmosphere underwent an immediate change. The Harvard group had brought a drum and there was singing and dancing, this alternating with live bluegrass music, the Plymouth group having among them a number of excellent musicians. Before the evening had ended, around ten p.m. when the high school students boarded their bus to return to Boston, it was concluded by all that the festivity had been an outstanding success. But the remarkable, wonderful thing about the entire affair was that it was the first time in three and a half centuries that such a celebration had taken place in Plymouth. It had not been planned in any way to be such an event, but the ethnic make-up of the participants was very close to that of the group who celebrated Harvest Home in Plymouth in the fall of 1621.
The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz. Excerpted by permission of W. H. Freeman and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.