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Mayflower

History is like a quilt made up of different stories. Each patch or story is made from many threads, people, places, objects, events, perspectives. The story however is dynamic, we constantly add to it as new threads are woven with the new.

It’s a cool rainy morning in Orleans, on Cape Cod. I’ve been thinking about the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, Wampanoags, settlement in New England, Plymouth Plantation. I wish I had Nathaniel Philbrick’s “The Mayflower: voyage, community and war” (2007). Philbrick is a favorite. I’ve read most of his books and heard him speak on Nantucket several times. “Mayflower” traces the story from 1620 to the Revolution.


Plymouth is frequently viewed as the earliest English settlement despite Jamestown, 1607. “Virginia’s Jamestown was the continent’s first permanent English settlement. So how is that Massachusetts’s Plymouth has precedence in the minds of so many Americans? Jamestown and Plymouth vie for primacy in America’s recollection of its history, Plymouth usually winning despite Jamestown’s precedence.” Maybe Plymouth had better PR, consider Governor William Branford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” And who remembers Saint Augustine settled in 1565, forty-two years before Jamestown. Oh, but they were Spanish. Back to the Mayflower.

The Mayflower left Plymouth England on September 16, 1620. It carried 102 passengers and about 30 crew. A significant number were known as Separatists, a group of people who mostly wanted to live a life free from the current Church of England. The passengers are often grouped into ‘Saints’ or ‘Strangers’ by historians, alluding to their motivations for the journey. But it’s likely that many ‘Saints’ were skilled tradesmen and many ‘Strangers’ had their own religious reasons for leaving 17th century England. A second ship the Speedwell had to turn back to England. The Mayflower was headed to Virginia.

The Mayflower was off course when it landed at Cape Cod. “On the afternoon of Nov. 9, 1620, the Mayflower came to a turning point in the dangerous Pollack Rip off Chatham.  There, Capt. Christopher Jones steered the ship north, effectively ending its voyage to the Hudson River and Virginia. Two days later the ship anchored in Provincetown where it remained for roughly five weeks before sailing west to Plymouth.” On November 11 aboard ship in Provincetown, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact. It was basically an agreement — a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the community’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival.

On December 8, 1620, while the Mayflower was anchored off Provincetown. A small band ventured south and encountered the Nausets while camping at the beach. Now known as First Encounter Beach. The Nausets reportedly fired arrows and threw rocks at the Pilgrims, but no one was harmed. Desperate for food, the Pilgrims had stolen corn and robbed graves. And the Wampanoags also remembered that several years earlier, an English captain captured 27 Native Americans and took them back to England to be sold as slaves. Remember Squanto. The First Encounter was not so much an attack on the English settlers as the Wampanoags defending themselves and their culture.

“The natives had been tracking the Pilgrims’ movements since they arrived but didn’t confront them until a month later. Pilgrim records say the Nauset attacked once the Pilgrims had pulled their small boat ashore after spending the day exploring along the coast and were camped out near the beach. Although the Pilgrims and Nauset engaged in a brief firefight, there is no record of any deaths or injuries. Saxine said both sides felt they had won what was the first violent engagement between the Native Americans and the European settlers who would later colonize Plymouth. ‘The Mayflower party felt that they had won because the Nauset fighters pulled back after this firefight,’ Saxine (a professor) said. ‘The Nauset probably felt they had won because the English people sailed away and left them alone.’ Later that day, as the Pilgrims continued their exploration, a storm developed — their boat was blown across Cape Cod Bay to what is now known as Plymouth. What they found when they arrived was a village that had been decimated by disease. While the Wampanoags considered the site a cursed place of death and tragedy, the Pilgrims saw the deaths of the natives as a sign from God that this was where they should settle.”

And so began Plimoth Plantation. (Reframing the Story of the First Encounter Between Native Americans and the Pilgrims by Bob Seay, WGBH, November 2019).

Eastham would not be settled for another 24 years. Nonetheless, while Eastham doesn’t boast the Pilgrim fame that Plymouth does, it will always have this claim to fame. A moment in history forever commemorated in the form of a plaque that sits in the main parking lot at the beach. We usually go to First Encounter Beach at least once every year when we visit Cape Cod.

I only remember one trip to Plymouth. It was close to forty years ago. I think we were leaving Cape Cod and looked for a place to stay a night in Plymouth. The only room we found was a small house trailer with a shelf for Jenny to sleep on. Very small. We toured Plymouth plantation. I was fascinated at the reenactors only speaking in character. Then there was the replica Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, protected by a classical temple built around 1880.

“It wasn’t until 1741—121 years after the arrival of the Mayflower—that a 10-ton boulder in Plymouth Harbor was identified as the precise spot where Pilgrim feet first trod. The claim was made by 94-year-old Thomas Faunce, a church elder who said his father, who arrived in Plymouth in 1623, and several of the original Mayflower passengers assured him the stone was the specific landing spot. When the elderly Faunce heard that a wharf was to be built over the rock, he wanted a final glimpse. He was conveyed by chair 3 miles from his house to the harbor, where he reportedly gave Plymouth Rock a tearful goodbye. Whether Faunce’s assertion was accurate oral history or the figment of a doddering old mind, we don’t know. (And if Faunce indeed was telling a tall tale about the humble chunk of granite, he broke the cardinal rule of American mythology: When you make stuff up, go big—really big.” (History Channel)

Another patch or thread in the Mayflower story is Thanksgiving. Enshrined as a national holiday celebrating the peaceful meeting of the native Americans and Pilgrims. Like “the rock” it’s primarily myth. “On September 28, 1789, just before leaving for recess, the first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking that the President of the United States recommend to the nation a day of thanksgiving. A few days later, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” – the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution. Subsequent presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied. It wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.”

Like many American myths (see “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewe), historians have recently rewritten the story. In 2019 Claire Burgos wrote an article in Smithsonian magazine.

“In Thanksgiving pageants held at schools across the United States, children don headdresses colored with craft-store feathers and share tables with classmates wearing black construction paper hats. It’s a tradition that pulls on a history passed down through the generations of what happened in Plymouth: local Native Americans welcomed the courageous, pioneering pilgrims to a celebratory feast. But, as David Silverman writes in his new book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgivingmuch of that story is a myth riddled with historical inaccuracies. Beyond that, Silverman argues that the telling and retelling of these falsehoods is deeply harmful to the Wampanoag Indians whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth.”

“The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.”

“This mythmaking was also impacted by the racial politics of the late 19th century. The Indian Wars were coming to a close and that was an opportune time to have Indians included in a national founding myth. You couldn’t have done that when people were reading newspaper accounts on a regular basis of atrocious violence between white Americans and Native people in the West. What’s more, during Reconstruction, that Thanksgiving myth allowed New Englanders to create this idea that bloodless colonialism in their region was the origin of the country, having nothing to do with the Indian Wars and slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without having to confront the really dark characteristics of it.”

Perspective is never absent from historical interpretation. Our understanding of history isn’t static, written in stone but fluid growing, shrinking changing s we add need threads and new patches to the story.

Plimoth Plantation has changed its name to “Plimoth Patuxet,” in honor of Wampanoag name for the region. Maybe it’s time for another visit. And I want to reread Philbrick’s “ Mayflower.” My understanding of the Mayflower/Plymouth quilt may change again.


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One thought on “Mayflower

  1. Pingback: Mayflower - Cape Cod Daily News • Shreya Edits

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