In the interest of making sense of my trip to Plymouth Rock, learning more of the origins of Thanksgiving as well as exploring my own roots, I found myself doing a bit research into the Pilgrims. I turned up facts that frankly surprised me: my family on my mother’s side could be traced all the way back to 1633 on the Mary and John ship from England, turkey was not served at the first (or even subsequent) Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims, who only became referred to as Pilgrims in the 1820s, were not exactly the first settlers to arrive in the New World. So what makes the Pilgrims so celebrated in the US?
The Jamestown Settlement
It turns out that the very first permanent settlement was closer to my hometown of Baltimore than I had realized. It dates back to 1607 when 100 English men arrived in current day Virginia and founded Jamestown. They were met by the Powhatan tribe. Consequently, I attended Powhatan Elementary School just north of Virginia in the state of Maryland.
So what makes this settlement go largely unnoticed by today’s US-Americans? Unlike the passengers of the Mayflower, these Englishmen did not come to the New World for any other reason than business. In fact, the original 100 men were sent by King James I with the intention of furthering English national goals, such as keeping up with other European nations expansions abroad and securing a northwest passage to the Orient. Some had the expressed interest of converting the Powhatan natives to the Anglican religion. So it seems to be safe to say that those who came to Jamestown felt a strong connection to the monarch of England.
The Pilgrims Leave Plymouth, England
Unlike the businessmen of Jamestown, the Pilgrims of the Mayflower were not so much interested in the New World as they were in leaving England. They were Separatists after all and I discovered that the Act of Uniformity of 1559 made their rejection of the Church of England illegal. In fact, many of them had already fled England to Holland. Their subsequent hiring of the Mayflower, a cargo ship, to the New World had very little to do with where they were going and very much to do with where they were leaving. It turns out that the Mayflower was actually headed towards Jamestown, but, due to bad weather, was forced to dock much farther north.
While every American knows of Plymouth as the “landing place of the Pilgrims”, I was surprised to learn that it actually was not their very first stop. Driving along Cape Cod, Massachusetts’ pennisula that juts out and curves north running parallel to the state, we realized this would have been impossible as Plymouth is tucked away from the massive Atlantic Ocean. There are several towns along this route and at the very end is Provincetown, which is reportedly the very first New World ground on which the Pilgrims stepped foot. After over two months at sea, I can only imagine how more than eager the settlers were to feel solid ground again. They stayed in Provincetown for five weeks, during which time a child was born, the very first English child born in the New World, a claim that would have belonged to the Jamestown settlement if they had made it. Ah, now we are getting somewhere; the birth of what could be later referred to as “the first American child” sets them apart from the businessmen of Jamestown.
Standing at Plymouth Rock I kept all this in mind. I was hoping to understand what was so special about this part of the Pilgrims’ journey in particular, a place that has become iconic in US-American history. So much in fact that many have chiseled away pieces of it as souvenirs causing the now-enshrined rock to have shrunk considerably over the past several hundred years. It was, therefore, much smaller than I had anticipated. I climbed over the bank and got onto the sand wanting to see the land from the perspective of the Pilgrims.
I also thought of one of my favorite poems, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims Point” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which takes place at Plymouth Rock. This poem powerfully tells the life of an African slave who has run away and ends her life at this point, finally getting the freedom she desires.
Just across the street from Plymouth Rock is Monument Hill, which we climbed eagerly to get a nice view as well as learn more about this time in our history. There is a monument up their dedicated to the Forefathers of our nation, but next to that was what caught my eye. A large statue of Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe, of which there are approximately 5000 members living today, stood proudly on the hill facing the sea. I found myself feeling embarrassed that I had never heard of him or the Wampanoag tribe for that matter. Isn’t this something I should know?
I was eager to learn more. According to Wampanoag historians, the Pilgrims were not the first Europeans the tribe had encountered, as white fishermen and traders had come through the area. Apparently, because of the presence of women and children among the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag did not see the arriving Pilgrims as a threat. I also learned that the Pilgrims moved into a Wampanoag village left abandoned due to the plague, that was brought by a European trader in 1616.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. At my house Thanksgiving meant making a three-bean salad that seemed to gain an extra bean each year, delicious mashed potatoes, pickled beets, my Mom’s homemade sweet potato pie and so much more! It also meant watching rented movies all weekend long, usually while still snacking on the huge feast and staying up past my bedtime. I loved Thanksgiving!
Day of Mourning Plaque
We found a Day of Mourning Plaque at the top of the hill. In 1970, the Wampanoag declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning, claiming that Massasoit’s actions to make a peace treaty with the Pilgrims in order to secure themselves in the wake of the plague against an opposing tribe may have been their biggest mistake. I had no idea that every year hundreds of Native Americans (of many tribes) gather together every Thanksgiving day at noon for the purpose of mourning the enslavement and genocide of so many peoples. While Plymouth Rock, our beloved and celebrated rock, means the beginning of our nation, it signifies the beginning of the end for the Native American populations who have survived.
Learning about the Wampanoag people both at Monument Hill and in subsequent research took my desire to learn more about the Pilgrims in a new direction, realizing that I was simply telling the story yet again from the Pilgrims’ perspective… the white perspective. My desire to learn more about why the Pilgrims are so celebrated seemed less important somehow in the wake of millions of people being slaughtered and enslaved. I had often been quoted as saying, “Thanksgiving is actually the biggest holiday in the US. Christmas is big but not everyone celebrates Christmas as not everyone is Christian, but everyone celebrates Thanksgiving”. I realize now how both inaccurate and insensitive this statement is, especially by using the word celebrate. Despite the peace between the Pilgrims and “Indians” surrounding Thanksgiving that gets taught in school, not everyone celebrates this holiday, some actually mourn it.
I have decided that Thanksgiving is wrapped up in my childhood memories as well as my identity and so I will continue to enjoy eating my favorite foods. I will, however, at noon every year, pause for a moment of silence as I think about the Native Americans gathering on Cole’s Hill for the Day of Mourning.
So while I began my historical journey to document the ways in which the Pilgrims deserve our recognition and stood out from the other Europeans who took the perilous journey from the old to the new world, I find myself being more interested in learning more about a group of people I was largely unaware of and the injustice against them and Native Americans in general, that continues to this day.