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Historically Speaking September/October 2004 Re-Bunking the Pilgrims Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs In grade school in the 1950s, I learned that the Pilgrims were the most important and influential ofEngland's American colonists. Seeking religious freedom, the heroic Pilgrims setsail for distantshores. En route to America, these poor, purehearted souls invented democracy with the famed Mayflower Compact. After struggling through the initial hardships oflife on unfamiliar soil, they invented the classic American holiday ofThanksgiving, which they celebrated with their friends the Indians. More virtuous than the rapacious Virginians who preceded them, the Pilgrims were the first true Americans. Those inspiring Pilgrims of my youth have taken a beating! According to today's historians, the Pilgrims were among the least significant ofEngland's American colonists. Their tiny Plymouth Colony was soon absorbed by the larger and more prosperous Massachussets Bay. The Pilgrims were no friendlier to Indians than other Europeans in the Americas—which is to say, they were greedy, duplicitous purveyors ofgenocide . Nor did they invent democracy: the Mayflower Compact was just an expedient means of maintaining order in a new environment . And dieir first "Thanksgiving" was nothing more than a replica ofa traditional, secular English harvest feast. The Pilgrims didn't even call themselves Pilgrims, a term coined by the 19th-century Americans who invented these virtuous forbears out of thin air in an effort to grace the relatively new United States with a glorious past. Indeed, about the only aspect of my schoolboy Pilgrims that has survived this assault is their poverty. The truth about the Pilgrims—and yes, I do still call them Pilgrims—is perhaps closer to the "myth" than to what we can learn from today's textbooks. The vast gulf between what I once learned and what is now taught to schoolchildren is revealed in two new books from the National Geographic Society, 1621:A New Look at Thanhgiving and Mayflower 1620:A New Look ata Pilgrim Voyage, both ofwhich recite a litany ofinaccuracies as representing the fruits of "careful research ofprimarysources."1 Yet, in fact, they derive their information from identifiable secondary sources of dubious alloy in order to strip the Pilgrims ofthe characteristics that once made them appear so unique. These books describe the settlers of Plymouth Colony as people who were united only in their "desire to own land and provide a good future for their children." Repeatedlywe are told they "didn't even call themselves Pilgrims." This can be traced to James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz, whose book The Times ofTheir Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (2000) maintains that "the people of Plymouth never perceived themselves as a group that would . . . come to be known as Pilgrims," and that they "were not referred to as 'Pilgrims ' until the end of the 18th century." The Deetzes are repeating the opinions of George F. Willison, whose book Saints and Strangers (1945) claims that the "Pilgrims had no name for themselves as a group." For Willison, "in the history and saga ofthe Pilgrims . . . nothing is more curious than this— that their very name, 'the Pilgrims,' is little more than a century old, having come into common usage since 1840," when it began "to make its way into print." Willison is quite wrong. He overlooks the founding ofthe Pilgrim Society in 1820 with its museum Pilgrim Hall, and the use of the name in poems, histories, and school books from the 1790s through the 183Os, besides the publication ofWilliam Bradford's now famous phrase in Nathaniel Morton's New EnglandsMemorial, first issued in 1669, and republished in 1721, 1772, and twice in 1826: "they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below." The Pilgrims first used that reference (cf. Hebrews 11:1 3-16) in print in 1622. There is absolutely no doubt that they did consider themselves "strangers and pilgrims." It is simply misleading to suggest otherwise. Echoing the Deetzes, 1621:A New Look at Thanksgivingstates that, "[t]he 1621 gathering in Plymouth was not a religious gath- September/October 2004 Historically Speaking ering but most likely a harvest celebration much like those the English had known in farming communities backhome. The English never once used the word...


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