5 myths about the Pilgrims
By Robert Tracy Mckenzie
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can't choose your relatives is just plain wrong. Americans have chosen the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors, and we tend to see their story as inseparable from the story of our nation, “land of the Pilgrims' pride.” We imagine these honorary founders as model immigrants, pacifists and pioneers. We have burdened them with values they wouldn't have recognized and shrouded their story with myth.
1. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
If you visit Plymouth today, you'll find a distinctive rock about the size of your living-room sofa embedded in the sandy beach. Curiously, William Bradford never mentioned Plymouth Rock in his history, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” and if the expedition landed there, he seems not to have noticed.
2. The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom.
It's fair to say that the Pilgrims left England mainly to find religious freedom, but that wasn't the primary motive. Remember that the Pilgrims went first to Holland, settling eventually in the city of Leiden. There they encountered a religious tolerance almost unheard of in that day and age.
If a longing for religious freedom had compelled them, they probably never would have left. But while they cherished the freedom of conscience they enjoyed in Leiden, the Pilgrims had two major complaints: They found it a hard place to maintain their English identity and an even harder place to make a living. In America, they hoped to live by themselves, enjoy the same degree of religious liberty and earn a “better and easier” living.
3. The Pilgrims' autumn celebration in 1621 was the first American Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims were hardly the first people to stop and thank their creator for a bountiful harvest.
Among English settlers, there is evidence of a thanksgiving celebration in 1607 at a short-lived colony on the coast of Maine, and of two others among Virginia colonists in 1610 and 1619.
4. The Pilgrims were a humorless lot with a fondness for black.
When we read a description of the 1621 harvest festival, however, we're transported to a scene of beer and barbecue, shooting and sports. And forget about the ubiquitous black outfits. In fact, the Pilgrims had a taste for a wide range of bright colors. Estate inventories in Plymouth Colony contain abundant references to red, blue, green, yellow and orange garments.
5. The Pilgrims' Mayflower Compact was an early and noteworthy example of American democracy.
Americans have loaded this document with far more significance than it's worthy of. We read it selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form a “civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.”
But it is no accident that the compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” Having been blown off course en route to America, the Pilgrims were about to settle some 200 miles north of the northernmost jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, which was authorized by King James I to coordinate colonial ventures along the Atlantic seaboard. It was quite possible that they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the crown. So they made a point of assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty.
Robert Tracy McKenzie is chairman of the history department at Wheaton College and the author of “The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning From History.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Analysis: Steelers could fill needs with free agents while not spending big bucks
- Steelers to release LaMarr Woodley; Taylor restructures contract
- Pittsburgh council introduces resolution to pay Rocco’s vet bills
- Crosby lifts Penguins over Capitals in last game of road trip
- Woman sues UPMC over pregnancy drug test
- Valley’s marina owners ready to repair ice-damaged docks
- Police charge Westmoreland County priest in $124,000 theft case
- Marcellus shale driller Noble Energy Inc. sinks roots into Pittsburgh
- Legislators propose bill to split up Pennsylvania-owned university system
- Lawyers make opening statements in Jordan Miles lawsuit
- Top pitching prospect Taillon’s time with Pirates must wait a bit