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America’s Tale of the First Thanksgiving Is Only Part of the Story


The Landing Of The Pilgrims At Plymouth Mass Dec 1620

In this excerpt from The World of the Plymouth Plantation, historian Carla Gardina Pestana reveals what real life in the Plymouth Plantation was like—the hard work, small joys, and deep connections to others beyond the shores of Cape Cod Bay.

Author - Editorial Staff

Date - 21 November 2023

Time to read - 12 min

Americans know their Plymouth Plantation history. Plymouth and its “Pilgrims” may be more familiar than the mystery of the “lost colony” of Roanoke or the legend of Pocahontas rescuing John Smith. Knowledge of Plymouth’s past arises in part from the national holiday that commemorates the 1621 Plymouth harvest celebration widely known as the “first Thanksgiving.” Popular images of the holiday celebrate intercultural harmony, with Indians and settlers sharing a meal. Americans also know of Squanto, the interpreter and “friend” to Plymouth and the star of numerous children’s books. Most American history textbooks include a section on the founding of Plymouth Plantation and highlight the Mayflower Compact, an agreement signed on board the ship that carried the first settlers, one that purportedly established self-government among the men of the new settlement. American genealogists consider discovery of an ancestor who was on the Mayflower akin to winning the lottery. Tourists visiting Plymouth have, since the eighteenth century, gazed upon a rock designated many decades after the 1620 landing as the site where the first settlers stepped ashore. For the last seventy years, those tourists have ventured south of town to a living history museum, “Plimoth Plantation.” There they visit a highly conscientious historical recreation of the village, complete with costumed actors portraying individuals present in 1627. Whether in school, in popular art, or elsewhere, Americans know their Plymouth.

Pilgrim Brand Oranges Label Huntington Digital Library
Plymouth and its “Pilgrims” became so much a part of the lore of the origins of the United States that its imagery could be used in marketing. This lithograph appeared on citrus crates in California to advertise Pilgrim Brand Oranges. The iconic image depicts the landing, with a boat ferrying a group of men and women who use a conveniently placed boulder to disembark. The snowy ground tells us it is winter, and the sober attire presents a common understanding of “pilgrim” dress. The distant ship is presumably the Mayflower. Credit: Huntington Digital Library

Yet, how well do we really know Plymouth? These particular moments of Plymouth’s history appear more like fragments of a still life than pieces of a historical narrative. As originally created, Plymouth’s vignettes serve as part of the United States’ origin story: the Mayflower Compact laid the foundation for American democracy; the religious piety and sacrifice of the settlers portended a later commitment to religious freedom. How did forty-one men signing a shipboard “civil combination” (as they called the agreement) lead to the American Revolution? How did their desire to practice their religion open the way to the First Amendment’s prohibition on a religious establishment? Those who repeat the descriptions of these moments do so without tracing the unfolding history from 1620 to the revolutionary era, and Plymouth’s own later history is little known. Each Plymouth image—Squanto, the Mayflower Compact—is as isolated as a tourist’s snapshot, floating free. Today most of us see the plantation not as a real place in which people lived, worked, and died but only as a symbol of large, abstract concepts.

Fortunately, much more can be understood about Plymouth beyond this handful of well-known incidents. Those who participated in its first years described in their own words the world in which they lived. Two published narratives recounting events survive: A Relation or Journall (published in 1622) and Good Newes from New-England (1624). A number of different men contributed to writing A Relation, which strung together detailed descriptions of various events. Sent back by ship and printed in London, it appeared without any authors named; G. Mourt, who had not been in Plymouth, signed a preface written in London, and the little volume came to be known somewhat misleadingly as “Mourt’s Relation.” The twenty-seven-year-old Edward Winslow—who probably also contributed to A Relation—penned (and signed) Good Newes. At the end of the decade, William Bradford began writing a history that is today known as “Of Plimoth Plantation.” When he first took up his pen, he described events only up until the time of the landing; later, he returned to the project, continuing his account to chronicle life in Plymouth through its first two decades. Although it remained unpublished for centuries, Bradford’s history informed the writings of others because the original handwritten document circulated. Bradford’s manuscript was especially important for his nephew Nathaniel Morton, who, in his The New-England’s Memorial (published in 1669), spread information gleaned from Bradford to a wider audience. A century and more later, readers of these books pulled out particular stories—of the signing of a governance agreement, of the meeting with Squanto (known more often in the original sources and therefore in later chapters here as Tisquantum), and of a multiday fall gathering celebrating a first successful harvest. Yet these famous tales represent a selection out of long and detailed narratives that tell many stories.

Plymouth Rock
The boulder identified in the 1740s as the possible site of the landing has experienced misadventures since that time. It was dragged around Plymouth to various display sites, causing it to split. Various people chipped of bits as souvenirs. This chunk carries a painted inscription from 1830 explaining its origins and significance.

More than a century passed before the people of Plymouth began to promote their history as a significant founding moment. Interestingly, the rock—which is the only commemorative touchstone without any direct link to early writings—gained prominence first. In 1742, Plymouth residents trying to determine the landing site hit upon the rock with the assistance of an elderly inhabitant. Amid a rising interest in local history, Plymouth leaders in 1769 organized a Forefathers’ Day. In addition to recreating the landing, the celebration included speeches, each of them extolling the importance of Plymouth. Over the decades that followed, these speeches—which were often published—contributed to the belief in Plymouth’s significance. Invariably speakers extolling Plymouth after the Revolution linked its early history to the eventual creation of the United States. In these accounts, the Mayflower Compact held a key role; the agreement was depicted as establishing democratic principles of broad participation and community cooperation. Save for the improbably placed rock, all the well-known Plymouth scenes emerged directly from writings penned by participants, which were selected for their edifying lessons and repeated regularly.

Plymouth gained a place in our national mythology because eighteenth-century New Englanders—many of them descendants of the first colonists—sought to promote the region as the source of American values. Their efforts began even before the American Revolution, but expanded in the years after independence. Plymouth’s advocates elevated it over other settlements in New England for a number of reasons: it was first, certainly; but Plymouth also escaped association with the worst of local history. Plymouth executed neither religious radicals (as the Massachusetts government did with four Quakers) nor witches (as the jurisdictions of both Massachusetts and Connecticut did, Massachusetts most infamously in Salem in 1692). Plymouth appealed because it could represent a heroic past in which valiant settlers faced and overcame their fears in a new land, and because it had no taint of religious intolerance. Those New England boosters who promoted Plymouth found in it a perfect foil for Virginia, with its story of “Princess” Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith. That southern colony had, in fact, been first among the thirteen that initially formed the United States, and Virginians were promoting their own early history in a bid to claim the status of most significant origin moment.

“Plymouth gained a place in our national mythology because eighteenth-century New Englanders—many of them descendants of the first colonists—sought to promote the region as the source of American values.”

In the long run, Plymouth eclipsed Virginia. It entered early history textbooks as the representation of early colonization and of intercultural harmony, expressed in the stories of Squanto and of the first Thanksgiving. These advocates of the Plymouth story started the practice of referring to the “First Comers” as “Pilgrims,” and coined the term “Pilgrim Fathers” as a way to distinguish them from other settlers. American awareness of Plymouth as a foundational moment had become firmly entrenched by 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared the usually regional commemoration a national celebration of Union victories. That the New England holiday first went national at the height of the Civil War meant that Lincoln promoted a regional holiday dear to the hearts of many Union supporters at a time when the views of Southerners—who might have preferred a different story—carried no weight. Once the South returned fully to the Union, that region gradually adopted the celebration. Although today Southerners add their own flair to the classic New England meal (including macaroni and cheese as a side dish), they also eat the corn, cranberries, and molasses-flavored dishes that have long played starring roles in the iconic New England meal. Eventually named one of the first four official national holidays, Thanksgiving continues to symbolize family and gratitude for Americans with no connection to Plymouth and no broader understanding of its history.

Images of early Plymouth Plantation had formed a familiar constellation by the time Bancroft wrote. The nineteenth-century understanding of Plymouth took its place in the history of the new nation, as writers drew on the colonial past to explain why the United States had taken shape as a nation committed to religious freedom and democratic rights. These historians, as well as the men who gave the Forefathers’ Day speeches or painted Plymouth scenes, drew upon the early published information describing the settlement’s first years. Highlighting the first Thanksgiving, Squanto’s friendship, and the initial governance agreement, they fashioned the series of images that continue to resonate with Americans.

In a strange historical turn, these authors shaped the idea of Plymouth without direct access to the single, most comprehensive account of the early decades. William Bradford’s extended history of the endeavor, written in two periods (first in the 1630s and again in the 1640s), had disappeared by the time Plymouth began to gain prominence. Passed among different writers (beginning with Nathaniel Morton, who used it extensively), Bradford’s handwritten manuscript traveled across the Atlantic during the American Revolution, coming to rest eventually in Fulham Palace’s library, in the residence of the bishop of London. The history languished until it was identified and printed in the 1850s. It was not until 1897 that it was “repatriated” to the United States, where it has been held in Massachusetts ever since. Printed on numerous occasions, Bradford’s original has become the main source for those writing about Plymouth. Today, popular accounts of the plantation usually adhere to Bradford’s narrative arc, beginning the story of Plymouth with the Protestant Reformation, and then following the church founded in Scrooby, England, on its journey first to Holland, then on to southern New England. With the major plot points (as it were) of Mayflower Compact, Squanto, and celebratory meal all in place (absent the rock), Bradford’s account added nothing new, but he did affirm most of those vignettes that had become so prominent in the Plymouth story. In the only exception, he made no mention of a harvest meal.

The vignettes that capture our collective imagination also limit our insight. As we debate how best to understand the encounter between Squanto and the English who moved onto his village site, or we gaze down at the rock caged in its seaside temple, we accept the idea that Plymouth arose out of the participants’ wish to go it alone, to separate themselves from the wider world of European society, politics, economics, and religion. Plymouth Plantation, symbolizing “firstness” and New England’s contribution to America, stands as an isolated early settlement. Its residents win our admiration for their fortitude and piety. Its very isolation adds to the heroism of the First Comers, but it gives the false impression that Plymouth was disconnected from the world that gave rise to it. Although a small and seemingly inconsequential settlement, Plymouth existed within a broader context. Its relative marginality did not prevent it from participating in the world beyond Cape Cod Bay. The vignettes detach the plantation, but in reality, Plymouth enjoyed, indeed utterly relied upon, links to the wider world. Considering Plymouth as a place connecting to other places shows us this familiar story in a strikingly different light.

“Its very isolation adds to the heroism of the First Comers, but it gives the false impression that Plymouth was disconnected from the world that gave rise to it.”

The World of Plymouth Plantation reconnects our perceptions of Plymouth with the reality of the lives of its inhabitants. Reintegrating the plantation into its own time and place provides context for those who ventured to these shores as well as those they met upon arrival. This richer and deeper understanding not only makes sense of compacts and a meeting with a “friendly Indian.” It permits us to appreciate the larger significance of the historic changes in which Plymouth planters, as well as the indigenous people they encountered, took part.

Debunking the myths of Plymouth by questioning the surrounding facts or the meaning of the various vignettes partakes of a long tradition. Many other writers have challenged the established images—a fact about which Mayflower descendant, attorney, and amateur historian Francis Russell Stoddard complained bitterly as early as 1952. I confess to being deeply skeptical about the rock, since no one who has rowed a small wooden boat into shore would accept the idea that the crewmen navigated toward rather than away from rocks. I do take a certain perverse pleasure from the rather ludicrous fact that the tourist attraction Plymouth Rock is only a piece of the original boulder, which was hauled around town for display in a variety of locations and broken in the process. Given that it serves as a marker for a landing site, the rock’s journey around Plymouth itself seems almost surreal. My only objection to the other vignettes (of meals, compacts, and meetings) is that they ignore the wider history surrounding early New England. I would like to break the endless cycle of writing about Plymouth, in which some repeat the traditional vignettes while others debunk them.

Connections rather than isolation sit at the heart of the Plymouth story. Plymouth emerged out of and remained anchored to the world beyond its own shores as a result of the various people, ideas, and things that circulated into and through it. Capturing that history and that experience of connection is the goal of this book.

The World Of The Plymouth Plantation Carla Gadina Pestana 9780674238510