PILGRIMS AND INDIANS – Ten Common Misbeliefs


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What do Jennifer Lawrence, John Quincy Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Gere, Sally Field, Ulysses S. Grant, Clint Eastwood, Sarah Palin, Alec Baldwin, Orson Welles, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Humphrey Bogart, George W. Bush and 20 – 30 million other Americans have in common?

1. They are descendants of the 1620 Mayflower Pilgrims.
2. Their Mayflower forefathers and mothers have been dishonored, maligned, vilified, and disparaged by widespread misinformation in the guise of “setting the historical record straight.”

How? “Politically correct” falsehoods have been spread about the Pilgrims, by people as diverse as Hollywood actress Cher in her Thanksgiving 2013 “smallpox blankets” Tweet, revisionist historian Howard Zinn in his bestseller A Peoples’ History of the United States, and many other influential but misinformed people. Countless Americans believe the untruths, which are now in the national psyche through our school and college textbooks and curricula. Google “The Real Story of Thanksgiving” for more…

Let’s look at some of the current assumptions about the Mayflower Pilgrims and the Indians. An assumption is a belief that we take to be true without question. Our assumptions color our perceptions and our attitudes, and false assumptions distort our lives and communities.

Fiction vs Fact

1. Fiction: The Pilgrims gave the Indians smallpox-infected blankets, wiping out 90% of the indigenous people of New England.

Fact: The Mayflower landed in November 1620, several years after the war and epidemic that decimated the New England tribes in 1616-1618. There is no historical evidence of smallpox aboard the Mayflower. The first recorded smallpox epidemic in New England occurred in Boston in 1633.

The epidemic that decimated the New England coastal tribes in 1616-1618 was almost certainly not smallpox. It was most likely either measles or bubonic plague from French fur traders in Nova Scotia and present-day Maine. The epidemic was probably brought from the north by seafaring Tarratine (Mi’kMaq) warriors, who destroyed a large percentage of the coastal native communities from Maine to Cape Cod during the Tarratines War (1615-1619.)

2. Fiction: The Pilgrims were welcomed with open arms by the Indians.

Fact: At the “first encounter” on December 6, 1620, Nauset warriors attacked a group of Pilgrims exploring the shoreline. They fired some 30 arrows at them, before being driven off by musket fire. Fortunately, no one was killed or even injured. Two years earlier, a French fishing vessel had been attacked, burned, and its crew killed by the Nauset. While Plymouth Plantation was under construction, the Pilgrims were under constant threat of attack and annihilation by the neighboring tribes, with the notable exception of Massasoit’s Pokanoket band and a few other friendly groups.

3. Fiction: The Pilgrims would have died of starvation during the first winter if the Indians had not taken them in and fed them.

Fact: The Mayflower anchored at Provincetown Nov 11, 1620. Other than one violent encounter, they did not meet any Indians for over 4 months, during which time half of the passengers died of the “general sickness” (probably scurvy and pneumonia) not of starvation. The Pilgrims met their first Indian, Samoset, on March 16, 1621, then Squanto, Massasoit, and the Pokanokets on March 22, 1621. On that date the Pilgrims and Massasoit signed a peace treaty that both sides honored for over fifty years. The Pilgrims had adequate food, and in fact fed their Indian visitors on numerous occasions.

4. Fiction: The Indians lived in universal peace and harmony before the coming of the Europeans.

Fact: There are numerous first-hand reports showing many Indians were in a state of constant inter-tribal war, building federations and empires, competing for territory, exterminating trading competitors, taking slaves, sacrificing humans, and torturing captives.

5. Fiction: Indian society was completely egalitarian.

Fact: Like the Europeans, the Indians recognized royal and noble bloodlines, such as those of Nanapashimet, Massasoit, Powhatan and hundreds of others. Only persons of royal lineage could marry one another or succeed a sachem or sagamore. In Virginia, Powhatan was an Emperor, Pocahontas was a royal princess. In New England, “Squaw Sachem” and Weetamoo were queens, and King Philip was a royal prince. Philip declared that he was the equal of King Charles II of England, which is why the settlers nicknamed him “King” Philip.

6. Fiction: The Pilgrims came ashore in 1620 as an invading army, raping and pillaging. They massacred the Indians they encountered, then sat down for a Thanksgiving feast with the survivors.

Fact: The 52 Pilgrims (14 adult men, 4 adult women, 34 children) who survived the first winter were peace-loving people who made friends with the Pokanoket Indians they met in the spring of 1621. The Pilgrims and the Pokanokets lived in peace and harmony with each other until 1675, over half a century.

7. Fiction: The Pilgrims and the Puritans were one and the same, and both were religious fanatics.

Fact: The Pilgrim Separatists were quite different from the Puritans. They were remarkably open-minded, having spent 12 years in liberal Holland before crossing the Atlantic. They had much in common, spiritually, with the Indians, made no attempt to convert them to Christianity, and were much more sympathetic to the Indians than were the Puritans, who began arriving in 1630, ten years after the landing of the Mayflower. Once Massasoit declared himself to be “King James’ man” the Pilgrims considered the Indians subject to all the rights and protections of English law.

8. Fiction: The Pilgrims were incompetent, ignorant convicts who were expelled from England. Once they landed, they had no idea how to fend for themselves.

Fact: The Pilgrims were English farmers and tradesmen. Their leaders were Cambridge-educated. They were religious dissidents seeking the separation of church and state, meeting privately, which was illegal in England at the time. They knew the land. It was very similar to England. During their first year in Plymouth they constructed a village and a fort from scratch, and planted and reaped a successful harvest, using Squanto’s corn-planting advice.

9. Fiction: The Indians never harmed anyone. The Europeans came to North America and massacred the peace-loving inhabitants.

Fact: It went both ways. There is no question that Europeans and Indians massacred one another from time to time, but the Mayflower Pilgrims were never involved in a massacre. Research shows that throughout the entire contact period (1600-1850) Indians carried out approximately 500 massacres against Europeans, and Europeans committed about 450 massacres against Indians. A total of approximately 9,000 settlers were massacred by Indians, compared with roughly 7,000 Indians massacred by Europeans.

10. Fiction: The Plymouth colonists wrongfully murdered Massasoit’s innocent son Metacom (known as “King Philip.”)

Fact: After years of preparation, selling land and buying weapons with the money, Metacom declared all-out war on the settlers in June, 1675, bringing to an end 54 years of peace and friendship. His well-armed warriors killed an estimated 2,500 English men, women and children throughout New England. King Philip’s War was the bloodiest conflict, per capita, in recorded American history. The war might have gone against the English, had not the Mohawks and many other Indian tribes come in on their side. The war ended when Metacom was killed by an Indian on August 6th, 1676.

There are many positive and uplifting facts about the 50 years of friendship at Plymouth Plantation 1621-1675, as the two cultures laid the foundation for the evolution of American democracy and the American mind and spirit, an important step in humanity’s progress toward realizing the American Dream – Liberty, Justice and Abundance for all.

Researched and compiled by Andrew C. Bailey for the documentary/book/screenplay project: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS: Freedom and Friendship at Plymouth Plantation.

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