Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I read Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick and was blown away by how much I didn't know about the Pilgrims. Herewith are my...

Top Ten Pilgrim Myths

10. Myth: The Pilgrims were Puritans
----Nope: The Puritans were a completely different religion than the Pilgrims

Back in Jolly Old England, it was illegal to practice any religion except the Protestant version of Christianity run by the Church of England. The Puritans were a very conservative offshoot of the Church of England. While Puritans weren't well-liked by mainstream Anglicans, they were not illegal because they still belonged to the Church of England. The Pilgrims rejected the Church of England altogether as too corrupt and decadent. (You know your religion is hardcore when you think Puritans are too decadent.) The Pilgrims even went so far as to call their religious group the Separatist Movement. Nothing caused the English government to fire up the stakes faster than a separatist movement. Since the Pilgrim Separatists were land-owning farmers they had a choice: they could stay and suffer persecution, or they could give up their homesteads and get out of Dodge. Half of them stayed in Britain, and half got on a ship and went to...Holland.

9. Myth: The Pilgrims were missionaries
---Nope: The Pilgrims believed in freedom of religion

That's right. They were the opposite of missionaries. During their time in Holland, they learned about the Dutch practice of separation of Church and State. They kept their religion to themselves and believed the Indians should also worship any way they liked. They complained loudly to the Puritans in America who were converting the Indians to Christianity. Mostly because along with Christianity, they were selling guns and alcohol to the Natives as well.

8. Myth: They originally landed on Plymouth Rock
---Nope: They originally landed on Cape Cod

The Pilgrims were aiming for the Hudson River and missed by a few degrees north and landed in Cape Cod. They could have continued north and founded the city of Boston, but it was winter and they wanted to just get off their ship. They sailed around Cape Cod and landed several times until finally unloading at Plymouth. Plymouth was a backwater then, just like it is now. The water supply is brackish and the soil is so poor that the Indians had to fertilize their crops with dead fish to get them to grow. That's why there were no Indians living there when the Pilgrims landed.

7. Myth: The Pilgrims "founded America"
---Nope: They only founded Plymouth Colony

Jamestown had been established twenty years before, the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island was doing brisk business, and two years later the Puritans founded Boston leading directly to America, the Red Sox, and Tea Parties. Not necessarily in that order.

6. Myth: The Pilgrims were teetotalers
---Nope: They drank copious amounts of alcohol

Booze-soaked fraternities have nothing on the Pilgrims. Waterborne disease was such a problem that the Pilgrims drank beer with every meal. Even breakfast. And they also sucked down a homebrew hooch called aqua vita which was basically raw sour-mash moonshine cooked up in a backwoods still. The Indians had been trading with white men on ships before, so the first thing they asked the Pilgrims for was...guns and alcohol. And there's really nothing more American than that. While revisionist heshers would have you believe that the Pilgrims were a bunch of hemp-growing patriots, the first European crop they planted was wheat and potatoes. Not. It was hops, then barley. Clearly the 17th century was Miller time.

5. Myth: The Pilgrims starved because they had no food
---Nope: They were living on an all-you-can eat seafood buffet

Shortly after they landed, and the Mayflower departed for England, the Pilgrims mostly died during the winter they came to call "the Starving Time." Thing is, they were living a few yards from Cape Cod, one of the richest fisheries in the world (same as it is today). They could have feasted on King Crab, lobsters, Bluefin Tuna, oysters, Atlantic Cod, and Bay Scallops if they only knew how to fish. But they were farmers. (At one point a Pilgrim spots a Baleen Whale and states he would have dinner if he only had a harpoon.) And while the Indians knew how to fish, they considered fishing a summertime activity and preferred to live off of their stores of corn in the winter. It would be a full generation before the Pilgrims figured out how to regularly put calamari on the menu.

4. Myth: Miles Standish was the leader of the Pilgrims
---Nope: He was their Dick Cheney

Miles Standish was not the governor of Plymouth Colony, he was the military commander. The governor was John Carver who promptly died and then passed it to William Bradford. Miles Standish would have killed all the Indians he didn't like if civilian leaders like Governor Bradford hadn't reined him in. Due to William Bradford's political skill, there was peace and much trading between the Pilgrims and the Indians for the first twenty years of Plymouth Colony. Things turned sour later when Miles Standish killed the native proud braggart Wituwamat in a knife attack so fierce and brutal Quentin Tarantino would blush. The Indian war that broke out finally brought the feuding Pilgrims and Puritans together to fight the Indians. And that was the last time an overzealous military leader dragged the peaceful citizens of America into an unnecessary war.

3. Myth: The Pilgrims came to America to found a church
---Nope: The Pilgrims were a for-profit enterprise

While the Pilgrims ostensibly came to America to be free to worship as they liked, they financed it by agreeing to send back goods to England. They originally set out with two ships, but one started leaking so it turned back to England. The captain of the Mayflower made it to America, but then hightailed it back home so fast, the ship was completely empty. That prompted the London financiers to send a nasty letter to Governor John Carver asking why the Mayflower wasn't loaded down with bounty. John Carver had, of course, died of starvation (along with most of the Pilgrims) by the time the letter arrived in Plymouth. The Mayflower Company went bankrupt and the original investors never did recover their losses.

2. Myth: The first Turkey Day was in November
---Nope: The first Thanksgiving was in late September or early October

And it was most likely fish and corn served. Perhaps some geese. No turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, or football. A soccer-like game called football existed, but the Pilgrims didn't play it, unlike their out-of-control, sinful Puritan neighbors who played football on Christmas. I am not making this up.

And the number one Pilgrim myth...

1. Myth: The Pilgrims were anti-slavery
---Nope: Slavery was practiced by both sides

During King Philip's War (started by good ol' Miles Standish), the Pilgrims sold Indian captives to plantations in the Bahamas as slaves. The Indians kept white captives as slaves. They also sold white captives to other tribes and sometimes back to other whites, as slaves. The one difference between the Indians and the whites is: the Indians did not rape their female captives.

-Jason Rohrblogger


Jenn said...

Excellent, excellent post! I love it! You should do more of these! And I am so in the mood for a beer now, yay!

Anonymous said...

Not excellent! Some truth mixed with a lot of misinformation. The truth is accurately documented in Gov. Bradford's journa. Read it!

Anonymous said...

I am equally blown away buy how easily people are manipulated. How do you know what is a myth and what is not? Maybe what you knew before was closer to truth? May be not. I haven't even read this book. Just saying -- do not be blown away so easily.