A recent PBS article quoted Eric H. Shed, director of the Harvard Teachers Fellows Program and a lecturer on education, as recently saying, “I think it’s a part of a general shift in the way in which we teach history, to question the past and not accept it as fact.”
Retelling history is being done across the board in public education, especially with revered figures like Columbus and the Pilgrims.
For example, instead of focusing upon Europeans seeking to escape religious persecution, Shed advises teachers to focus on how a horrific disease had claimed countless indigenous lives in and around Plymouth, and how they consider the landing of the Pilgrims a day of mourning.
Really? Skip escaping religious persecution as the primary teaching?
Let’s examine the facts.
On Sept. 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail with its passengers from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Though there is some debate about the exact number of people on board, scholars believe there were 102 passengers and about 26 crewmen headed to the New World. The passengers were made up of 50 men, 19 women (three pregnant), 14 young adults (between ages 13-18) and 19 children, with their average age being 32 (most men were in their 30s). The oldest person on board was 64, and the youngest was a baby born on the trip who was named Oceanus Hopkins.
The Mayflower was originally purposed to carry goods, not people. So, most of its passengers lived on the mid or second deck of the three-deck ship that had a ceiling height of only about five-and-a-half feet. Keep also in mind the fact that most passengers rarely, if ever, saw the sunlight on the top deck for the entire 66-day, 2,750-mile journey.
To compare, imagine being enclosed for 66 days in the rear of a semi-trailer truck for the 2,913 miles from New York to San Francisco, then add the sways and swells of storms in the ocean, and travel at an average speed of 2 mph! Needless to say, there were no showers, and we can only imagine the stench from inadequate and overused depositories for human waste.
Once they arrived in the New World on Nov. 11, 1620, they spent their first full winter onboard the Mayflower as they built their homes. Tragically, only 53 passengers and roughly 13 crewmen survived the first winter.
Once they moved ashore, living on land was just as challenging. Over the first winter, more than half of the remaining Plymouth colonists died from disease, malnutrition and the harsh New England climate. The truth is, without the intervention and help of the Native Americans, all the colonists would likely have perished.
You may have known most of the preceding about the Pilgrims, but what you may not know about them are a few facts from the History Channel, as well as a little of my own research I dug up.
1) The Mayflower not only didn’t land in Plymouth but also wasn’t heading there in the first place.
The Hudson River was the original destination of the Mayflower, where the colonists hoped to find fertile farmland somewhere north of present-day New York City. At the time, Virginia extended from Jamestown in the south to the mouth of the Hudson River in the north, so the colonists hoped to live generally under the English law but govern themselves and, more importantly, worship in their own, separate church, north of Anglican Virginia.
Nevertheless, back on the Mayflower, they were blown off course by a storm and ended up at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, at what is now Provincetown. They wanted to make another run at the Hudson, but they eventually settled in Plymouth Harbor on Dec. 16, 1620, because of lack of supplies, the onset of winter and undoubtedly weariness to press on.
2) The Pilgrims didn’t name Plymouth, Massachusetts, for Plymouth, England.
As Wikipedia states: “Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame had explored the area in 1614 and is credited with naming the region of New England. He named many locations using approximations of Native American words. The future site of the Pilgrim’s first settlement was originally named ‘Accomack’ by Smith. In consultation with Prince Charles, son of King James, Smith changed ‘Accomack’ to New Plymouth. A map published in his 1616 work, A Description of New England, clearly shows the site of the future Pilgrim settlement named ‘New Plimouth.'”
3) The Pilgrims were not the Puritans, but the Separatists.
Puritans and Pilgrims (Separatists) both thought the Anglican Church (of England) had become as corrupt as the Catholic Church (of Europe), and both were considered religious dissenters. However, the Puritans believed that the Anglican Church could be reformed, while the Separatists did not. The latter were booted from England for their religious rebellion, landing in Holland for a while, but eventually setting their sights on a New World (a New Jerusalem) in the west.
Encyclopedia.com explained it this way: “Though theologically very similar to the Puritans who later founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Pilgrims believed that the Church of England could not be reformed. Rather than attempting to purify the church, the Pilgrims desired a total separation.”
4) The original Protestant Separatists didn’t proclaim themselves Pilgrims at first but “saints.”
The roughly 40 Mayflower passengers who were Protestant Separatists called themselves “saints,” who hoped to establish a new church in the New World. They would have reasoned that “saints” is a term used in the Bible (New Testament) for all Christians, rather than referring to an elite few as in the Catholic Church.
Separatists called their non-church-attending neighbors “strangers,” as documented in a National Geographic article on the colony talking about both. However, it didn’t take long for “pilgrim” to become a term referring to all the colonists, as the official Plimoth Plantation website explained:
- After the Mayflower arrived, the first baby born was a boy. His parents (William and Susannah White) named him Peregrine – a word that means traveling from far away and also means pilgrim.
- The writer of “Mourt’s Relation”in 1622 refers to the Plymouth Colonists as pilgrims.
- William Bradford calls the Plymouth settlers pilgrims when he writes about their departure from Leiden, Holland to come to America: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.” Gov. Bradford also wrote a poem in which he refers to himself as a pilgrim.
- “Pilgrim” became (by the early 1800s at least) the popular term applied to all the Mayflower passengers – and even to other people arriving in Plymouth in those early years.
5) There originally could have been many more Separatists voyaging to the New World.
Though Separatists represented roughly 40 percent of those on the Mayflower, another half of the remaining were sympathizers to their cause. As a matter of fact, the Plimoth Plantation again explained that there could have been a far greater number of Separatists traveling to the New World then.
The official website states: “The entire congregation could not come to America together. Those who could settle their affairs in Leiden went first while the greater number, including their pastor John Robinson, remained behind. The congregation purchased a small ship, Speedwell, to transport them across the sea and to use for fishing and trading in America. At Southampton, a port in England, they were joined by a group of English colonists who had been gathered by the investors. Speedwell and Mayflower – a ship rented by the investors – departed for America together. After twice turning back to England because Speedwell leaked, they were forced to leave the ship. As a result, many families were divided when some passengers had to be turned back for lack of space. [Eleven people from Speedwell boarded Mayflower, leaving 20 people to return to London.] A month after first leaving England, on September 6, 1620, Mayflower set out alone with 102 passengers.”
When it comes to history, and particularly American history, I’ll take it just as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday used to put it in “Dragnet”: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
For more information on those amazing first settlers, I recommend the Plimoth Plantation website’s many resources.
From my wife, Gena, and myself to you and your family, we wish you a very happy, Pilgrim-spirited Thanksgiving!