What Pilgrims Heard When They Arrived in America

They came to America seeking religious freedom, but what did their prayers, and those of the local Native Americans, sound like?

For both the English settlers who landed at Plymouth Rock, and the Native Americans who met them, their first meetings introduced an entirely new soundscape. But with the passage of time, many of those sounds were lost—especially as the religious traditions that were so important to colonists and indigenous peoples changed or died out. So it was even more meaningful when an audience in Washington, D.C., gathered to hear the sacred sounds of both English colonists and New England’s indigenous Wampanoag people earlier this month.

Waking the Ancestors: Recovering the Lost Sacred Sounds of Colonial America,” was no ordinary living history program. Performed by educators from Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the program was developed as part of the Smithsonian’s Religion in America initiative.

Just as calls to prayer and church bells are part of city life around the world, the religious lives of America’s indigenous people and colonists had their own distinctive sounds. “Waking the Ancestors” explored just what those sounds might have been like. With the help of meticulous historical research, the team behind the program reconstructed how worship traditions sounded after the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts.

That soundscape is anything but familiar to 21st-century listeners. The region was new to English colonists, but not to the Wampanoag, who once numbered over 100,000 in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Pilgrims would have heard the traditional songs and dances of Wampanoag people when they arrived—and in turn, the Wampanoag would have heard Pilgrims worshiping in Anglican, Puritan and Separatist styles.

To demonstrate, the program featured worship music in all three styles, ranging from the choral harmonies of Anglicans to the unadorned chanting of Puritans and Separatists, which focused more on the text than music. “For [Separatists], music was just the handmaiden of worship,” Richard Pickering, Plimoth Plantation’s deputy director and the “Waking the Ancestors” program leader, tells Smithsonian.com. Attendees heard multiple versions of psalms sung in different styles and period accents—an attempt to illustrate the spiritual rifts and changes that occurred within what many think of as a homogenous group of colonists.

Those religious shifts were reflected in indigenous people as well. As Puritan missionaries like John Eliot began to organize indigenous people into townships based on religious beliefs, the sounds of Wampanoag worship changed.

“[Puritans were] so convinced of their own beliefs being the belief,” says Pickering. “Some [Wampanoag people] become Christian and some mantain their ancient faiths. There’s a very curious blending of both with some people. I don’t think you can even begin to grasp the complexity.”

“We’ve come through a lot in the past few centuries,” Darius Coombs, who directs Plimoth Plantation’s Eastern Woodlands interpretation and research. “Christianity came along and that was pretty much put on us as native people. We had to go along with the flow and accept that.”

Coombs oversees the plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite, which showcases 17th-century life through the eyes of indigenous people—and unlike other areas of Plimoth Plantation, it is staffed not by role players, but by Wampanoag and other native people. He lent the perspective and traditions of native people to the program, which culminated in a traditional Stomp Dance designed to awaken past generations.

The arrival of colonists is inextricably linked with tragedy for the Wampanoag people, who were stricken with a series of epidemics after encountering Europeans, were slaughtered during a war against the English colonists, and whose language died almost entirely over time. But ironically, some of the very forces that endangered native peoples’ spiritual traditions during colonization helped bring back the Wampanoag language in the 21st century.

In 1992, Jessie Little Doe Baird, who belongs to the Wampanoag Nation’s Mashpee tribe, began having dreams in which her ancestors appeared to her speaking a language she could not understand. Compelled to bring back Wôpanâak, which had been little used since the 1830s, Baird and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a rare book by missionary John Eliot to reconstruct the language. Eliot, who was given the nickname “the Apostle of the American Indian” due to his efforts to convert the area’s indigenous people, translated his so-called “Indian Bible,” a translation of the King James Bible, into the language of the local indigenous people in order to convert them, but his book has helped the Wampanoag connect even more deeply to their past traditions.

Though Wôpanâak is being taught to children and indigenous people today with the help of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, it is fiercely guarded by the Wampanoag people and is rarely spoken in public. Toodie Coombs, Darius’ wife, spoke in the language in a moment that was not recorded out of respect for the language itself. “That was incredibly powerful,” says Pickering. Coombs agrees. “A lot of people think that language is just an object. You can’t [treat it] like that—it took us a century to get our language back.”

For Pickering, part of the program’s challenge was the need to portray the complexity—and pain—of early colonial and Native American interactions. “We always acknowledge the loss and anguish,” he says. “We always talk about the human cost, but we place an emphasis on persistence. There are native people among you, but for so long, native people were utterly invisible, even though in plain sight.” 

Coombs adds that, unlike other interpreters at Plimoth Plantation, his identity as a native person is not a costume or a role he can shed at the end of the day. “It’s not like a job we shut off at 5:00 and turn on at 9:00. We are the people 24 hours a day.” With that historical burden comes a personal one, too, he says—a responsibility to bring his own ancestors with him as he helps modern audiences imagine the sounds of nearly 400 years ago.

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