The Pilgrims Before Plymouth
A tour of the Dutch city of Leiden yields new insights into a chapter of the Thanksgiving story not taught in schools
- By John Hanc
- Smithsonian.com, October 19, 2011
(Leiden American Pilgrim Museum)
We begin at the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum on tiny Beschuitsteeg (Biscuit) Alley in the city center. Established in 1997, the museum is located in a 14th-century building—one of the oldest datable houses in Leiden, built in 1367-70. Museum founder Bangs greets us: Although a native of Oregon, he has lived in Leiden for over 30 years, and with a wardrobe change into early 17th-century robes, he could easily be envisioned as a prosperous burgher in a portrait by Rembrandt (himself a Leiden native).
While no Pilgrims lived in this house, William Brewster, one of the more prominent members of the church, is believed to have visited here in the early 1600s. In addition to period furniture, the museum’s collection includes beautiful Delft tiles along the baseboard, and objects from daily life, some of which belonged to the Pilgrims. Bangs shows us what he wryly calls “the historian’s favorite tool”—a nit-pick, or lice comb, from the 1500s. Also in the collection are pipes, including one made by a Pilgrim for smoking tobacco, which was becoming all the rage in Northern Europe, and perhaps most surprising, a number of toys. The existence of these items—which include a silver toy soldier, jacks made from bones, and miniature pewter and pottery dishes—leads historians to conclude that Pilgrim children were encouraged to play, a view at odds with the stern, don’t-spare-the-rod parenting style commonly ascribed to the Pilgrims. Bangs paraphrases the Pilgrim intellectual and spiritual leader John Robinson on this point: “He said in essence, ‘Don’t let your children grow up too soon.’ ”