Facts You Might Not Know About the Mayflower Pilgrims

The Mayflower Compact, 1620 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

It’s coming up on Thanksgiving, the time of year when we remember the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed aboard the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, narrowly survived starvation and disease during their first harsh winter, befriended the local Wampanoag Indians who taught them how to thrive in the New World, and gave thanks for their deliverance with a huge harvest festival. In their memory, we all give thanks for the things in our lives we are grateful for, and gather with family for a big turkey dinner celebration.

However, as is often the case with history that has become part of our national cultural mythology, the story we have always been told isn’t quite what I would call “complete” or “accurate”. Being the history buff that I am, I think it’s only appropriate to clear up some misconceptions and share some of the less well-known facts about the Mayflower Pilgrims.

They were NOT Puritans

In the minds of most Americans, it seems “Pilgrim” and “Puritan” are interchangeable. We imagine both as strangely-dressed, hard-working folk. Even I’ve mistakenly referred to the Mayflower Pilgrims as “Puritans” in passing. However, the Pilgrim Fathers were most certainly NOT Puritans, and would have been offended by the suggestion that they were.

Puritans were a faction within the Church of England that wanted to “purify” it from traditions, practices, and beliefs that they saw as “too Catholic”, and make Anglicanism a truly Protestant faith. Their struggle with the more traditionalist, high-church faction that British monarchs tended to back played a huge role in the history of 17th-century England, particularly when the English Civil War broke out. Many Puritans would settle in New England during this time, founding Salem in 1626 and Boston in 1630, and their beliefs would help shape the character of colonial Massachusetts.

However, there was an even more radical Protestant faction in England at this same time – the Separatists. Also called “Dissenters”, these were people who believed that the Church of England was beyond saving and that the only way into heaven was to break the law and leave the Anglican church behind entirely, forming their own autonomous sects.

One of these sects were the Brownists, who had a congregation in Scrooby, England. This small group of radicals, fearing arrest by English authorities for their beliefs, fled to the Netherlands and set up a small English community in Leiden. However, life in Leiden wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. They were legally barred by the Dutch from taking any job other than low-paying, unskilled work. Their children were assimilating into Dutch culture at a rate they were not comfortable with. Most importantly, however, the Dutch had an uneasy truce with Catholic Spain that was nearing its end, and if Spanish troops entered Leiden they would surely have been massacred.

The decision was made: they would head to the New World. It took quite a bit of negotiation, but they managed to secure financing from a group of merchants and obtained a royal charter. However, they also had to take on a number of non-Brownists that would settle the colony with them. Called “Strangers” by the Brownists, these were people with skills that would be needed: farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths. The Strangers actually made up the majority of the Mayflower colonists, and relations between the Brownists and Strangers would be tense for the entire voyage and early years of the colony.

Plymouth Colony was built on an Indian ghost town

Wickiup image by Edward S Curtis

We all remember Squanto from our elementary school classes, right? The local Native American man who taught the Plymouth settlers how to grow corn by putting fish in the ground as fertilizer? Well, it turned out he had a very dark and tragic past that your history class probably didn’t teach you.

Born and raised in a Patuxet town on the Massachusetts coast, he was kidnapped by English sailors and brought to Europe, where he was nearly sold into slavery in Spain before Catholic friars rescued him. He converted to Christianity, but wanted nothing less than to return home and spent years trying to get passage back to the New World. When he finally made it back in 1619, he found that his entire village had been wiped out by smallpox, and not a single one of his family or friends was left alive.

Imagine being in Squanto’s shoes. You’ve been taken from your home, spent years in foreign lands, returned home to find that everyone you’ve known or loved has died, and one year later some new people from that faraway land arrive and build their new homes on what had once been your village. That’s right – Plymouth was built on an Indian ghost town. The fact that Squanto not only didn’t try to seek some sort of revenge on the Pilgrims, but actually tried to help them, is an astonishing testament to just how magnanimous and kind-hearted he really was.

Not only that, but the Plymouth Colony was built in the wrong spot!

When the Mayflower set sail for the New World, its goal was to land somewhere in the Colony of Virginia, where the Pilgrims had obtained the legal right to settle. However, during the ship’s crossing of the Atlantic, it was blown off course by a storm and landed many, many miles north of its intended destination. Realizing their error, the crew of the Mayflower began sailing south toward their intended destination, but when they began to round Cape Malabar they ran into extremely dangerous waters. They soon reached the point where they realized that if they tried to press on, the ship would likely sink and all aboard would die. Finally, the Mayflower turned around and headed back to Cape Cod.

This was a huge problem, as the settlers were now outside the legal jurisdiction of any European sovereign power. The non-Brownists argued that this meant they were now free to do as they pleased. After some debate, all the men aboard the Mayflower decided to sign a contract agreeing to set up a colonial government and to submit to its authority. The Mayflower Compact had, by accident, laid down a precedent that would shape U.S. history. For the first time, colonists were setting up their own governments by themselves, rather than depending on charters back in Europe. This idea that colonists in the New World could govern themselves would become important 155 years later, when Americans began demanding their independence.

The “First Thanksgiving” was NOT America’s first Thanksgiving.

Pocahontas and John Smith Disney image from Fanpop

Everyone thinks it was the Pilgrims that started our Thanksgiving tradition, but the idea of holding a harvest festival that celebrated all one has to be grateful for was actually a very old one when the Pilgrims adopted it. Europeans had held thanksgiving-style celebrations for generations. When your livelihood depends on agriculture, I suppose it’s just an obvious idea to be grateful and throw a party when the harvest is good. The English, French, and Spanish all had Thanksgiving-like traditions long before they arrived in the Americas.

The first for-sure documented Thanksgiving in the United States was actually held in Virginia in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims even arrived. The English had settled in Jamestown in 1607, and ever since its foundation it had struggled to survive. Of the 490 settlers that first arrived in Jamestown, only 60 were still alive in 1610. The only reason the colony was able to keep going was because England kept sending more and more settlers to Virginia to replace those that died; they were not about to let the Spanish and French claim the entire North American continent!

So it was that a group of English colonists led by Jamestown veteran John Woodlief was sent out to settle the “Berkeley Plantation”, a stretch of land about 8,000 acres in size. The voyage was long and difficult, and even when Woodlief’s ship arrived in Virginia it was another storm-swept week before it reached its destination. Upon landing on December 4, 1619, Woodlief declared the colonists should hold a day of prayer, thanksgiving, and feasting upon the local seafood to celebrate their safe arrival. He further declared that the anniversary of this day would be an annual thanksgiving festival.

So why do we remember the Pilgrims, but not Woodlief’s expedition in Virginia? Well, it may be because the Berkeley Plantation didn’t survive very long. It was destroyed and its inhabitants killed by angry Powhatan warriors in 1622. However, the modern-day owners of the Berkeley Plantation revived the tradition in the 1960s and today they hold an annual “Virginia Thanksgiving Festival” on their land.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, some new trivia you might want to share at the dinner table over turkey and sweet potatoes!

Happy Thanksgiving

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