The Memory Holes: Debunking the Myths Surrounding the Pilgrims in Plymouth, MA
It was idealism that motivated them, idealism and a self-righteous belief in their own rectitude. Prickly is a word that might have been used to describe them, as well as narrow minded and intolerant. They were not easy people to get along with.
They left England because they feared persecution for their religious beliefs. But what they saw as persecution was actually a result of their own refusal to get along with others. If anything characterized the Pilgrims before they left Europe for the New World it was their predisposition for provocation followed by a resort to victimhood when they got a reaction, a technique used by certain American news outlets today to garner attention and build a following.
So much of what we do today the Pilgrims did before us. They are not called the Pilgrim Fathers for nothing.
First myth debunked: The Pilgrims were Puritans. They were not. The Puritans were Protestants trying to reform the Church of England from within. The Pilgrims were Separatists, Brownists to be exact, a group of English Dissenters named after a renegade Anglican minister named Robert Browne who advocated total separation from the Church of England. To achieve his goal, Browne moved his congregation to Holland, which was known to be more tolerant than England, and then, displaying a surprising intolerance of his own, fell out with his spiritual community, eventually moving back to England and rejoining the Church of England, as if the whole messy affair had never happened.
Yet this did nothing to dampen Separatist zeal. Twenty-one years later, a charismatic Anglican priest named John Robinson fell under the spell of Brownism and repeated the exodus to Holland. Robinson’s congregation was unique among Separatists by not rapidly fracturing over internal squabbles. In fact, they held together long enough to become annoyed by the toleration they had come to Holland to enjoy. Like many Americans today, they demanded tolerance for themselves but had none for others. In time Holland proved too liberal for Robinson’s group of Separatists, so they decided to head off for the New World. The year was 1620.
Although 102 of them set out, John Robinson wasn’t one of them. Providing the model for the now common type of charismatic preacher who demands more from his followers than he himself is willing to submit to, Robinson remained behind, promising to come later, after the hard work was done. He never showed up.
Second myth debunked: The Pilgrims’ settlement at Plymouth was the first English colony in the New World. Actually, the Jamestown colony predated Plymouth by thirteen years. Not only had the English already gotten a foothold in North America by the time the Pilgrims showed up, they had mapped the coast of New England and made contact with Native Americans by way of freelancing fur traders and cod fishermen.
Hence, the Pilgrims had a pretty good idea of where they were going when they set out. Where they were going was the sheltered island of Manhattan near the mouth of the Hudson River, considered an ideal location to start a colony. Unfortunately, foul weather and poor navigation pushed them off course and they fetched up against the crooked arm of Cape Cod sixty-five days later. They were half-starved, shivering with cold and burning with fever. It was just the start. Four months later half of them would be dead.
Third myth debunked: The Plymouth colonists were all pious men of God. In fact, the Pilgrims constituted less than half the surviving colonists aboard the Mayflower. The others were passengers recruited by the expedition’s investors to replace the Separatists like John Robinson who had gotten cold feet.
Like many Americans today, these other passengers were indifferent when it came to spiritual matters but passionate about making money. They were going to the New World to establish a trading post. The fact that they would have to do so alongside a bunch of religious fanatics didn’t really bother them. In 17th century Europe they had learned to live side by side with people who had utterly foreign points of view, people mesmerized by bombastic preachers and noisy demagogues, people looking forward to the end of the world and a radical social reordering, not unlike many Americans today.
The Pilgrims called their fellow travelers “Strangers”, which tells you all you need to know about how warmly they viewed those with different religious views. By the time the Mayflower drew within sight of Cape Cod, however, the Pilgrims’ self-righteous arrogance was already melting away.
Disease knows no faction. It was killing Strangers, Pilgrims and sailors alike. Everybody was literally in the same boat, and they needed to get off of it. But Cape Cod was too sandy and inhospitable to accommodate a settlement, so they searched for a better place to establish a settlement.
As they trolled up and down the coast, sending out search parties to scout locations, they gathered together on the Mayflower, Pilgrims and Strangers alike, and hammered out an agreement.
The Mayflower Compact was as simple as it was profound. In this important document they consented to follow the rules and regulations of the community they were about to found. It was a civil contract without resort to any particular religious point of view. Its purpose was to head off factionalism and to keep the new settlement from fracturing along spiritual lines.
The Mayflower Compact was the start of the separation between church and state in America and marked a turning point in the Pilgrims’ attitude toward others. To survive they were going to have to get along with those who didn’t share their point of view. It was a remarkable concession and an everlasting rebuke to those in subsequent generations who hold that refusing to compromise is the path to success.
Fourth myth debunked: The country the Pilgrims settled in was already inhabited by Native Americans. At this point, we’ve all seen the movie where intergalactic explorers land on a distant planet and find the remnants of a lost civilization. That was pretty much the Pilgrims’ experience.
After crossing Cape Cod Bay and establishing a settlement at Plymouth, the Pilgrims explored inland. What they saw shocked them. The surrounding countryside was largely depopulated. Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims, wrote, “Thousands of men have lived there, which died in a great plague not long since; and pity it was and is to see, so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same.”
The Native American inhabitants of the region had been dramatically reduced by the shock of first contact with European fur traders in previous decades. Disease had decimated them. By the time the Pilgrims arrived those Indians who remained were small in number and hanging on by a thread.
The Memory Holes
Exploring the wilderness, the Pilgrims came upon circular foot-deep holes in the ground. They later learned that these were dug by the Native Americans in remembrance of events that had happened on those spots in the past, an act of bravery, the discovery of a precious stone, the death of a loved one. They were called memory holes, historical markers where tribesmen were obliged to stop and recall what had occurred, as a way to keep the past from slipping away from them.
Theirs was an oral tradition, and no doubt their stories became embellished in the telling. We, on the other hand, have written records to keep the truth from becoming mythologized. Fat lot of good it’s done us.
Two Pilgrims wrote detailed accounts of their experiences, William Bradford who served as governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621 to 1633, and Edward Winslow who served as governor from 1636 to 1637. Additionally, letters were written back and forth between the settlers, and ship’s records were kept for the Mayflower. In none of this does anyone mention stepping onto a rock when landing in the New World.
The whole story is the result of a claim by a descendant of a pilgrim who said his father told him that a rock at the waterside in Plymouth was the Pilgrim’s first contact with the New World. At first the story was disregarded. The alleged relic lay beneath a pier in Plymouth Harbor until 1774 when patriotic fervor was running high and rebellious Americans were hungry for any kind of story that would distinguish them from the British.
The rock was dug up and placed in Plymouth town square. Unfortunately, it was dropped along the way and broke in half. After being cemented back together, it remained in the town square until 1834 when it was moved to the front of newly built Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth. Once again it was dropped and broke in half. Once again it was cemented back together. Legends die hard.
Pilgrim Memorial State Park
Today Plymouth Rock is enshrined in an ornate granite edifice in Plymouth’s Pilgrim Memorial State Park. The places where it was cracked and cemented backed together are the only notable things about it. Lozenge shaped and about the size of a kitchen garbage can, Plymouth Rock is nothing if not anti-climactic. Yet it is the most visible marker of the mythmaking surrounding the Pilgrims’ story, mythmaking that grew and flourished over the centuries, transforming the Pilgrims into the devout and kindly benefactors of the Indians that a generation of schoolchildren have been taught to look up to. Turns out a story doesn’t have to be oral to be embellished.
Memory Holes are useful as anchors. The lack of physical evidence invites distortion. Our current tendency to ignore, deny or distort the facts in pursuit of a political agenda is nothing new. Mythmaking can be viewed as a benign version of the same thing.
The Pilgrims’ story invites distortion because so little is left of the world they set foot on. Look around Pilgrim Memorial State Park in Plymouth today and you won’t see much that resembles what they saw, just a grassy triangle where kids toss Frisbees, mothers push babies in strollers and people walk dogs, a row of gift shops, and some public facilities. The only exception is the Mayflower II.
The Mayflower II
Built in 1956, the Mayflower II is a faithful reproduction of the original ship, featuring English oak timbers, hand-forged nails, hemp cordage, and linen canvas sails. It has the same brown hull and dark-red strapwork thought to have adorned the original Mayflower. Carved into its stern is a blossom of hawthorne, otherwise known as an English mayflower.
A look below decks gives the visitor a sense of the cramped and rustic quarters the colonists endured during their two month voyage to the New World. It was not a pleasant trip. In their eagerness to get away from Holland they left in early November and made the passage as temperatures dropped and snow began to swirl, inadvisable today, sheer madness in 1620. Their faith in God had to be strong to undertake such a voyage. One of the first things they did after arriving in the New World was to bury their dead and say prayers over them.
Plimouth Patuxet Museum
To get a sense of the settlement they built after landing you have to travel three miles down the road from the gift shops and ice cream parlors of Plymouth to the Plimouth Patuxet Museum, a living history museum and recreation of the former colony.
As a reproduction, Plimouth Plantation is as close to the real thing as proximity will allow. It consists of several thatch-roofed cottages set along a short dirt road that stretches from a hilltop fort to the water’s edge. Along the road, actors in period costumes play the parts of the Pilgrims and Strangers, staying in character as they answer questions and engage in conversation about their lives and experiences.
Adjacent to the plantation is the recreation of a Wampanoag Indian village. The Wampanoag are an umbrella group whose ancestors were comprised of a loose confederation of Native American tribes native to the region, including the Patuxet, the Pocasset and, most importantly from the Pilgrims’ point of view, the Pokanoket.
The Threat of Violence
Fifth myth debunked: The Pilgrims enjoyed friendly relations with the Indians. By and large, the Native Americans of New England were suspicious of the Pilgrims and disinclined to mix with them. Some tribes bordered on open hostility while others tried to steer clear of them. It has been argued that the only reason the Pilgrims survived was because the Native Americans had been so reduced by disease before their arrival that they lacked the manpower to mount an effective attack.
Unique among the tribes was the Pokanokets whose chief Massasoit saw the benefits of trading with the Pilgrims. Others within his tribe disagreed with him, and one tried to turn the tribe against the chief. When the Pilgrims got word of this, they sent one of the Strangers, a former mercenary named Miles Standish to teach the renegade a lesson. The threat of decapitation changed his mind, and thereafter the Pokanokets enjoyed friendly relations with the Pilgrims, the threat of violence always lurking in the background to keep it that way.
The idea that the Pilgrims helped the Indians by introducing them to Christianity is almost entirely inside out. On the contrary, the Pilgrims would probably not have survived their first year in the New World without the help of the Pokanokets. Granted, the Pokanokets benefited from their trade with the Pilgrims, but Christianity played a negligible role in the relationship. More important by far was the show of mutual respect between peoples and cultures, something the Pilgrims learned to do in spite of their prickly and intolerant beginnings.
The First Thanksgiving
Sixth myth debunked: The Pilgrims were inflexible and sanctimonious. While it’s true that the Pilgrims were as self-righteous and evangelical as they came before they departed Holland, by the end of their first year in America they had made a remarkable shift, demonstrating an open-mindedness and willingness to compromise that was the key to their survival. They did not hold themselves apart, as they had in Holland, but actively engaged with both the Strangers, who had settled with them, and the Pokanokets, who lived nearby.
Surprisingly, the story of the first Thanksgiving and its openhearted fellowship is the most authentic of the myths surrounding the Pilgrims. It’s true that the Pilgrims did share a feast with the Pokanokets. They did eat Turkey and squash, among other things. And they did give thanks to God.
But giving thanks to God was something they did every day, at every meal, and the feast was more of a harvest festival than a religious observance. The most momentous event of the day was not the saying of grace, as a generation of schoolbooks would have it, but the pouring of beer.
It was the first beer they had brewed since their arrival, and they were looking forward to drinking it. It seems the first Thanksgiving had more in common with a tailgate party than a church picnic. The Pilgrims had learned how to relax and enjoy the company of others who were different from them, something Americans still have a flair for today when they are not being misled into thinking they ought to impose their views on others and shout them into submission.
The Pilgrims’ story has been distorted to serve as proof that America was a Christian nation from the start, that exceptionalism can take the place of tolerance, and that compromise can be viewed as a weakness. Austerity in behavior and action is viewed as a strength in this telling, and peace comes from submission and conversion. Little about this squares with reality.
While it’s true that the Pilgrims started out as religious zealots, the Pilgrims of 1622 bore little resemblance to those who had left Holland two years before. They had grown. They had learned that wisdom, humanity and justice were as important as piety and devotion to God. They had learned that respect for others is a necessary prerequisite in a diverse world, and that you can get farther in building a community by understanding and accommodating others than by forcing your views on them.
Us and Them
The democratic principles that came to characterize America and set it apart from Europe in the 18th century were present at Plymouth from the start, as were the Separatist tendencies that drove the Pilgrims from Holland. Both sides of the American character existed in the Pilgrim fathers. Liberal attitudes of inclusiveness and conservative attitudes of exceptionalism resided side by side in Plymouth Colony, pushing and pulling, shaping the people we became.
Little has changed since then except for the amplification that comes from 24/7 exposure to the news media. What we are now is what we were then, a brave and resilient people trying to survive in an often unfamiliar world while trying to decide how to cope with the strangers among us.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Nantucket Island, MA
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Lexington and Concord, MA
My American Odyssey Route Map
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1645. Independently published. 2018. Website
Cheney, Glenn Alan. Thanksgiving: The Pilgrim’s First Year in America. New London Librarium, 2013. Website
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. Penguin, 2006. Website
Embarkation of the Pilgrims, a painting by Samuel Bellin, Robert Walter Weir, Public domain
The Pilgrims departing Holland with John Robinson looking on, a painting by Bernard Gribble, Public domain
The Mayflower at sea, illustration by John Clark Ridpath, Public domain
The Strangers, illustration by Thomas Dibdin, Public domain
Below decks on the Mayflower II, Malcolm Logan
Signing the Mayflower Compact, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public domain
Pilgrim’s landing, a painting by Henry Bacon, Public domain
Memory hole, Alexis Wilke
Plymouth Rock, Malcolm Logan
William Bradford statue, Malcolm Logan
Mayflower II, Malcolm Logan
Plimouth plantation, Malcolm Logan
Fort at Plimouth plantation, Malcolm Logan
Massasoit smoking a ceremonial pipe with the Pilgrims, artist unknown, Public domain
The First Thanksgiving, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public domain
Pokanoket wetu, Malcolm Logan
Pilgrim farmer, Malcolm Logan
21st century actors at Plimouth-Patuxet Museum, Malcolm Logan