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5 myths about the Pilgrims

| 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.”

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