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

Leiden, Holland
Aerial view of the city of Leiden, Holland © Picture Partners / Alamy

Twenty-five miles from Amsterdam, the city of Leiden—known today for its canals and windmills, its popular farmers’ market and prestigious university—was in the early 17th century a bustling, economic hub in a Dutch republic beginning to exert its influence around the world. Famous for its large textile industry and its religious tolerance, Leiden welcomed workers and refugees. It is where a band of English Calvinists fled when persecuted in their homeland. In 1609, after a brief stay in Amsterdam, about 100 of them settled in Leiden. A decade or so later, as Leiden’s political and economic climate changed, the refugees moved again. They boarded a ship called the Mayflower, sailed across the Atlantic and in 1620, put down roots in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Today we call them the Pilgrims.

We know that story. But we don’t know much about the Pilgrims’ Leiden years. Historian Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, an American expatriate who went to Leiden as a graduate student in the 1970s, has devoted his life’s work to piecing together the details of this important chapter in the history of the Pilgrims—and thus, in our history as well.

When he began working as a curator in Leiden’s municipal archives, Bangs admits he thought there was little left to learn about the Pilgrims. “I had believed the prevailing views that they were rigid fanatics,” Bangs says. But as he followed the paper trail in the city’s records and other sources, a different picture emerged. “They were much more tolerant than people think, particularly for their time,” he says. “They did not require people in the Plymouth Colony to follow Calvinist beliefs. This led to a conscious construction of a society with separation of church and state.” Bangs, whose extensive research has made him one of the pre-eminent authorities on the Pilgrims, cites a 1645 proposal by the Plymouth Colony leaders that Jews, Catholics, Unitarians and many other sects be accepted in the Plymouth Colony.

As the author of a comprehensive 800-page history, Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation, Bangs knows as well as anyone can from the perspective of five centuries, the early American colonists who had lived in Leiden: their marriages and families, their occupations, their legal squabbles and even in some cases, their attitudes.

Envisioning the Pilgrims’ life in Leiden is helped by the fact that the city, which dates back to Roman times, retains much of its 17th-century architecture. On a cool, sunny afternoon in May, Bangs escorted me through its narrow streets to shed light on some forgotten corners of one of the most familiar of American narratives.

Here are some of the highlights of Bangs’ tour of the Pilgrims’ Leiden—a place that their leader, William Bradford, would describe years later in a written account as “a fair & bewtifull citie, and of a sweet situation.”

Exterior of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum

American Pilgrim Museum
(John Hanc)
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.’ ”

Leiden Castle (Burcht van Leiden)

Leiden Castle
(John Hanc)
We leave the museum and head for a crowded, outdoor beer garden around the corner. We’re not there to partake, however. High on a motte (man-made hill) overlooking the garden is an ancient circular castle, built in the 12th century. Used primarily as a fortification and refuge, the castle and its grounds had become a public park within the city walls by the time the Pilgrims arrived. They, like many Leideners, would no doubt have visited the area to buy fresh fruit from vendors and stroll the walkway around the ramparts, taking in the cityscape of their new home. “You could relax here,” said Bangs. “And yes,” he deadpans, “the Pilgrims did relax.” Occasionally.

Church of St. Louis (Lodewijskerk)

Church of St. Louis
(John Hanc)
Despite the occasional respite at the Burcht, the Pilgrims’ life in Leiden was principally one of long, hard labor, much of it at the looms, where they wove various fabrics—linen, fustian, serge, wool cloth—that made the city rich. William Bradford, a weaver like many of his fellow Pilgrims, was a member of the cloth guild that met in the Lodewijskerk, a 16th-century church with a decorative tower. The chapel served as a guildhall in the early 17th century. “That’s where Bradford and other weavers had to bring their products for guild inspection before anything could be sold,” Bangs says. Once in the New World, Bradford put aside his loom and proved to be a most capable leader. He became the governor of the Plymouth Colony, a post he would hold for more than 30 years, and wrote Of Plymouth Plantation, still considered the most complete history of the Pilgrims.

The Walloon Church (Vrouwekerk)

Walloon Church
(John Hanc)
Among the many religious groups seeking refuge in Leiden in the late 1500s was the French Protestant sect known as the Walloons or Huguenots, who were granted use of one of Leiden’s large medieval churches, the Vrouwekerk. The Pilgrims, some of whom also attended the church, had extensive contact with the Walloons, and several Walloons joined the Pilgrims in colonizing Plymouth. Among them was Phillipe DeLannoy, who had been baptized at Vrouwekerk in 1603 and whose name is still discernible in that of his more famous descendant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR is one of four American presidents who are descended from De Lannoy and his extended family: Grant and the two Bushes are the others. (FDR’s middle name comes from his mother’s family; his distant relationship to Theodore Roosevelt is through his father.) Although only the east wall of the old church remains, a bronze commemorative plaque inscribed with the remarkable story of the route from the Walloon church to the White House will be unveiled at the site on Thanksgiving Day 2011.

Leiden Siege Plaque

Leiden Siege Plaque
(John Hanc)
A plaque above the door of Leiden’s spectacular, block-long City Hall chronicles a significant event in its history, one that also offers a clue to an interesting question about the influence of Leiden on the Pilgrims. Was it here that they got the model for the Thanksgiving feast? Bangs thinks so, in part. Here’s why:

In 1574, in a climactic end to the 80-year war for Dutch independence, the starving city of Leiden triumphed after a long siege under Spanish forces. The annual Thanksgiving festival, held every October in commemoration, is an event the Pilgrims would have witnessed during their decade in Leiden. The festival lasted for days, starting with a prayer, followed by a meal and then militia exercises and festivities. When the Plymouth Pilgrims decided to hold Thanksgiving in 1621, Bangs thinks they looked, at least in part, to the Leiden festival. “They thought the Dutch had it right,” Bangs says. “The Pilgrims also found in Deuteronomy the description of how to hold a harvest thanksgiving,” he adds, “which included inviting all the “strangers” living within one’s boundaries. This would account for inviting the Indians.”

St. Peter’s Church (Pieterskerk)

St. Peters Church
(John Hanc)
This Gothic church, with its awe-inspiring, vaulted ceiling, is located in the middle of what would have been called the Pilgrims’ neighborhood. A number of the English lived in the area, most significantly, John Robinson. He, along with many other Pilgrim men, women and children, are now buried in the Pieterskerk. For these individuals, who never made it to the New World, Leiden was the last stop on their pilgrimage. A monument to them in the church quotes Pilgrim Robert Cushman’s Bible–inspired comment:

“We are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims.”

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