Even though much of what is believed about the Plymouth pilgrims is myth, the impact of the transplanted English settlers has had a profound impact on North American civilization.
The Puritan ethic pervades the culture.
Most Americans know that the Puritans were not the first to arrive in North America as settlers. When the Mayflower arrived in 1620, the new settlers quickly met Squanto of the local Indian culture. He spoke English, which was a boon for the new arrivals.
Squanto had been kidnapped and taken to Europe where he learned the language while trying to make his way back home.
Turkey has become the dominate food for modern Thanksgiving. In the Plymouth Colony, venison was the food of choice. The deer were provided by the local Indians. There were some wild turkeys, but certainly not of the Butterball variety. There is some question whether the big dinner with the Pilgrims and the Indians ever took place.
But the supposed dinner is celebrated today as Thanksgiving.
Clearly the arriving religious refugees were not well prepared for their tasks, and it was November in New England. There was disease and little food in some cases. This is an area that has become one of the fishing centers of the world. The stories say that the Indians taught the Pilgrims to plant corn. That food is an American development. But the corn at the time was best suited for grinding and baking. It was not the roasting ears of a good Labor Day picnic.
The Pilgrims never called themselves that. They called themselves saints. And they handed out punishment with a mixture of Old Testament. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is not too far off base. The Plymouth Colony had several convictions for adultery, and the penalty after a sound whipping was to wear the letters AD sewed on garments. Failing to display them was another crime.
Witchcraft also was a crime, but historians say
that the only two cases in the early history of the colony resulted in acquittals.
The history of the colony supports the assessment of H.K. Mencken that Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
The New England Historical Society notes that had it not been for his May Day party with a giant Maypole, Thomas Morton might have established a New England colony more tolerant, easygoing and fun than his dour Puritan neighbors created at Plymouth Plantation. Said the society:
“Merrymount was a colonial utopia in which the settlers . . . lived in harmony with the Algonquin Indians. The Puritans were horrified that the liberal-minded Morton and his men consorted with native women. They considered Morton an impious, drunken libertine. They also weren’t happy his easygoing colony attracted escapees from the strictness and starvation of Plymouth.”
The famous Myles Standish led a military invasion of the rival colony, detained Morton and eventually shipped him to England.
There were some ironies in the early colony history. Some historians think that the disease that ravaged the colony in its first year was transmitted because the Pilgrims were raiding Indian graves for artifacts to ship back to England and food left as offerings.
The true history of the colony is probably unrecoverable because the principal source is William Bradford’s “History of Plimoth Plantation.” He was the long-time governor.