Why the Myths of Plymouth Dominate the American Imagination

A new book shows us a different picture of the English settlers who arrived at the lands of the Wampanoag

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth
This popular painting of "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe is an example of how the myths of the holiday became engrained in Americana. Public domain via Wikicommons

As reliably as summer turns to autumn, when leaves start to fall Americans start to think about a meal with turkey at the center. Though Virginians (among others) have argued for earlier feasts as the first real Thanksgiving, the small settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts, has an enduring claim to this essentially American holiday.

This fall marks the 400th anniversary of the December 1620 arrival of the Mayflower, the ship that carried 102 English settlers into the lands of the Wampanoag and their neighbors. When they crossed the bay from their initial landing spot on Cape Cod to what would become Plymouth, the settlers entered the much-longer history of the Native Americans, who were, of course, the “first” to reside there. This is not how Plymouth’s history is typically framed, however. In the nation’s lore, Plymouth has often operated as the de facto beginning of American history, demarcated by groundbreaking moments in religious freedom and democracy.

In her new book, The World of Plymouth Plantation, historian Carla Pestana explores Plymouth’s grip on the American historical imagination, including Thanksgiving and other “firsts,” such as the Mayflower Compact that is often lauded as evidence of colonists’ early interest in a democratic form of government. Yes, Indigenous and English people shared a meal in early New England in the fall of 1621, and yes, they did eat vegetables that the settlers had learned from the Wampanoag how to grow, but it’s not even clear a turkey was on the table.

In fact, much of what Americans associate with “the Pilgrims” is the product of centuries of mythologizing, beginning with making Native Americans part of the European story rather than the other way around. The English were far from the first Europeans to be seen in those regions; explorers, fishermen and traders had been passing through for a hundred years before, some of them kidnapping Native men. In 1614, an English ship captain took two dozen men from the area near the future Plymouth to sell as enslaved labor in Spain. One of them was the interpreter the Plilgrims would know as Tisquantum, or Squanto.

The Pilgrims also were not all that religiously tolerant, though compared to later New England settlers they seemed so. Some of these myths were sown in their earliest writings as they reacted to, and then shaped, how their settlement was perceived. The Pilgrims were embedded in a larger world, primarily a Native world, but also a world connected to European trade and ideas. If Americans see these early settlers as part of something larger, they can better understand the truth behind Thanksgiving, not to mention the origins of the United States itself.

Pestana, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke with Smithsonian about her book and what she learned in her research.

The World of Plymouth Plantation

An intimate look inside Plymouth Plantation that goes beyond familiar founding myths to portray real life in the settlement—the hard work, small joys, and deep connections to others beyond the shores of Cape Cod Bay.

What happened to bring about that “first Thanksgiving”?

By the early fall of 1621, the settlers been there for almost a full year. They had harvested some crops, probably in September, not November, and decided to stop their labors and have a little celebration. At the beginning of it, they had what they called a “martial display.” They have a drum, and they shoot off some muskets. This was maybe part of their celebration, though Native scholars have recently speculated whether it was intended to say something like, “We're here, and we're armed, and we're not going anywhere.”

If it was intended to be threatening, or throw down some kind of gauntlet, that might be the reason why 90 Native American warriors showed up. Whether that's a tense moment or not, those Native men brought with them venison, deer that they've hunted.

Then, [the two groups] ate together, so it did end up being a harvest celebration with Native peoples present and contributing some of the food. Not turkey, as I'm always telling my students, but in fact, they're eating this deer meat, basically, and probably the corns, beans, and squash the settlers had managed to plant and harvest with some guidance.

And how did that event turn into a national holiday? It started around the Civil War, right?

Yes, but it was a regional holiday much earlier than that. And it starts with a local focus on Plymouth Rock about 1740, as some descendants of the first colonists tried to locate the original landing site when they got to Plymouth Bay. So they asked an elderly townsman who pointed them to a boulder, a piece of which we now know as the Rock. What they were doing was making a case that their little, out-of-the-way town was the preeminent settler site in New England. They had a lot of local pride about having been “first.”

In the late 1760s, they started hosting “Forefathers' Day” in Plymouth, where they had a celebration of the importance of their firstness, with speeches and parades. They admired the Rock, which was now sitting somewhere else in town because they kept moving it. It became a regular local pride festival, basically. Then they started having a celebratory kind of regional meal, which became a regional fall celebration, a day of thanksgiving that's supposedly a recreation of the "Pilgrims" and Plymouth.

That, then, was the well-established regional holiday in antebellum America when Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, wanted to have a moment of national unity, or at least unity for the Union. So he declared in 1863 that everyone was going to celebrate this day of thanksgiving in the fall. Of course, he was doing that when half the nation was at war with the other half. The half that was on his side was the half that has New England in it, where they'd been celebrating this all along.

You’ve written that there are lots of things about Plymouth—like Thanksgiving, like Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower Compact, even the ideal of religious freedom and tolerance—that became important only later. In other words, are those myths rather than history?

When I started reading about Plymouth, I was immediately struck by how long ago people started complaining about the myths around Plymouth! I pictured that would be maybe in the 1970s or something, but no, it's just been going on like that for centuries! People have been rereading the original 17th-century sources, and questioning every element: the Rock is real, no, not that rock, maybe there never was a rock; Mayflower Compact is important, then not so much; first Thanksgiving, yeah, maybe.

All of these things are referenced, but often in very small ways, in the surviving contemporary accounts of early Plymouth like William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. The Mayflower Compact is one that I find really fascinating, because you can see in their writings that they did not think that was a big deal at the time. It became much more important to people’s ideas about the Plymouth settlement only later.

Similarly there's descriptions of early contact with Native peoples, including a meeting with Squanto (although they also use his native name, Tisquantum) where they describe him teaching them to plant corn. There's a couple different ways to read that meeting. It could be seen by the settlers as God sent someone who could speak English to help them, they think that that's part of the providential nature of their being there.

In another sense, it shows that Plymouth’s leaders realized pretty early on that this was only going to work if they could live side-by-side with the Indigenous people who are already there. The English are a small number of people, very much outnumbered, and they do want to be able to communicate. Tisquantum becomes a symbol of welcome, in a more generic sense, for white Americans to think that they had positive relations with the Native people when they arrived. It just glosses over everything else.

There's also a narrative about religious freedom and persecution that we owe to Bradford, who says that the English king James I had harassed this little church out of England and they had to flee to the Netherlands, and that that church then came to settle Plymouth. It’s very compelling, but when they got to the Netherlands, they actually had perfect religious freedom. They don’t need to leave the Netherlands for religious freedom, and Bradford says as much; the idea that they go to America for religious freedom is just off.

I do think that in Plymouth they tended to be somewhat more tolerant of alternate religious views. Decades later when the Harvard president openly explains that he's a Baptist and has to leave Massachusetts, he goes to Plymouth. The first Quaker in Massachusetts who gets converted goes to Plymouth. I actually think that's one reason why Plymouth wins in the sweepstakes for becoming the most important founding moment in the region. They don't kill witches like Salem. They don't kill Quakers like Boston. Some of the worst things that people in the late 18th century were starting to be embarrassed about, about their ancestors, didn't happen in Plymouth.

What are some things in your research about Plymouth that the myths might have crowded out?

One thing I got fascinated with was the everyday reality of the settlers’ lives. In the book, I tell the story of a man named Thomas Hallowell who gets called before the grand jury in Plymouth in 1638 because he's wearing red stockings. The reason why his neighbors call him on this is that they know he doesn't own red stockings and has no honest way to acquire them. So think it needs to be looked into. When he's called in to court, he immediately confesses, yes, I was up in the very new town of Boston. I saw these stockings laying over a windowsill, drying, and I pocketed them, and brought them back to Plymouth, and put them on, and wore them in front of my neighbors, who knew I didn't have them.

That story tells you so much. The neighbors knew exactly what clothes he had, because clothes were really scarce and valuable. The materials to make clothing were not locally available, at first, and so it all has to be imported, which means that it's expensive. Mostly they have to make do with what they have.

There were lots of references in letters, accounts, and even in the court records about people and their clothing, and about having to provide a suit of clothes to somebody, or having some shoes finally arrive on a ship, and what they're able to do because the shoes have arrived. You'd think, shoes arrived, no big deal, but the shoes don't just make themselves!

Cloth was is coming in, and it's being traded with Native hunters, and it's being used by local people to make clothes. They try to get sheep, so they can have wool and start making woolen cloth. All of this trade is connecting them to other places, where sheep are available, or skills are available, or the cloth is coming from, or the shoes are coming from. That little story about this man’s stockings really tells us so much.

So Plymouth was not isolated?

I was really struck by how all the images of early Plymouth are of isolation. This image of being the first has this idea of being all alone in New England, of settler sacrifice, with just a few stepping off a boat onto a windswept shore. They write about meeting one Indian; that's just not actually the case.

Native people in that region of the world had already started to experience what it was going to mean to have Europeans there. Tisquantum, had been kidnapped by Europeans and returned; European disease had already ravaged the community.

Everything about the English settlers being in Plymouth is connected to larger developments. The narrative about reliance on the Native peoples is true, but it's not the whole story. They could not have survived without ships arriving regularly from England or Europe. Their numbers wouldn't have grown without new people coming all the time. Within three months after the Mayflower arrived, half of the original settlers were dead, but within a year, more people had started arriving.

Changes were happening in the wider world, of which they were part. English people are in Virginia and Bermuda. The English are going in and out of the Caribbean all the time, and thinking about setting up settlements down there. Fisherman operating off the Grand Banks and in the northern fisheries are always stumbling into Plymouth. Then shortly after Plymouth, the New Netherland colony was founded so English have these not-too-distant European neighbors from the Netherlands. French fishing boats are constantly in the region, so there's all kinds of activity, and people coming and going. Almost immediately after Plymouth is founded, other peoples from England say, "Well, we can go there, too. We don't need to be part of Plymouth, but we can go to that region, and actually mooch off of Plymouth for a while for food and supplies, and then go set up a trading post somewhere else." Thomas Morton, who's famous for his irreverent 1637 book about early New England, was part of one of these groups that just came and set up in the general vicinity.

Mythology aside, does Plymouth actually matter for the history of the United States?

Well, of course! You can’t erase the mythology that’s been important to national ideals. People in the early United States wanted forefathers who would be in support of a separation of church and state, for example. They wanted to look in their past and say, "This thing we're doing now, saying that religion should be up to the individual, has a basis in our past."

That mythology about colonists who got along well with Native Americans and were religious, family-oriented, hardworking, and willing to sacrifice for what they believe? I mean, there are worse things to think are wonderful.

It also seems to me that recognizing that there are similar connections being made everywhere else in the Atlantic world at the same time gives it a different frame of reference. If you wanted to see the origin of something in Plymouth, you'd need to see it as this deeply interconnected, much more complex, much more global kind of story, right from the beginning.