Monthly Archives: November 2015


SIX days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday this month I have been posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I am doing my best to sketch the context of the “First Thanksgiving” celebration of 1621. Yesterday I focused on the Pilgrim hosts; today let’s turn to their Native American guests.


“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work  suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests.  In reality,  there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Arguably one of the most famous depictions of the event, Brownscombe’s work suggests that the Pilgrims outnumbered their Native American guests. In reality, there were likely at least twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims at the feast.

The presence of the Wampanoag has for a long time loomed large in popular memory of the First Thanksgiving. A bit of context is necessary. The Pilgrims chose Plymouth as the site for their colony for several reasons. At its center was a tall hill which would be readily defensible. There was a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor. The coast was alive with “innumerable fowl,” the shore boasted an abundance of mussels (“the greatest and best that ever we saw”), and the harbor was teeming with lobsters and crabs. What is more, there were several small brooks and numerous springs blessed with “the best water that ever we drank.”

But the clincher was that much of the adjacent land had already been cleared for planting, which would save them incalculable labor. The Pilgrims unknowingly had landed in a region of present-day Massachusetts that had once been teeming with Native Americans, but sometime after 1617 the entire region had been devastated by disease, possibly bubonic plague or viral hepatitis contracted from European fishermen. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands had died in the epidemic, whole villages being wiped out so suddenly that there was no time to bury the dead.

On a journey inland during the summer of 1621, Edward Winslow was puzzled by the combination of “many goodly fields” but few inhabitants. The paradox was solved when he came across “skulls and bones . . . still lying above the ground where their houses and dwellings had been.” A few years later, another English settler related that all through the coastal forest the Indians “had died on heapes, as they lay in their houses,” the gruesome remains reminding the observer of “a new found Golgotha.”

The new home the Pilgrims would call Plymouth was actually the abandoned village of a tribe called the Patuxet, where as many as two thousand individuals may have lived scarcely five years before. There were remnants of other peoples nearby—chiefly the Wampanoag (the closest), Massachusetts, Nausets, and Narragansetts—but with the exception of the last, these also had been recently decimated.

That the Pilgrims survived, humanly speaking, was due to the assistance of nearby Indians, although some of that assistance was, shall we say, inadvertent. When the first landing party was exploring the coastline back in November, they had stumbled on an underground cache of dried Indian corn (which they had never seen before) and promptly appropriated it, purposing to give the owners “full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them.” When spring came it proved invaluable as seed, and in fact nearly four-fifths of the acreage that they planted in 1621 was sown from this unexpected supply. Without it, William Bradford admitted, the entire settlement “might have starved.”

That they knew how to make good use of the seed was—as every schoolchild knows—also courtesy of the Indians, in particular a surviving Patuxet named Tisquantum, or Squanto for short. Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain around 1614 and sold as a slave in Spain. He then escaped, made his way to England, spent some time in Newfoundland, and eventually returned to the New England coast with an English explorer sometime after 1617, only to learn that his people were no more. The combination of Squanto’s extraordinary past and his invaluable service to the Pilgrims prompted William Bradford to declare Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for their good.”

It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their cornfields with shad from nearby streams and to add beans and squash (to climb the corn stalks) once the corn shoots had broken the ground. Equally valuable in the short run, it was Squanto who taught them how to catch eels from the creek and river beds. In an impressive display, Squanto dug them out with his feet and caught them with his bare hands, and in a few hours had as many as he could lift. To the hungry Pilgrims they were a delicacy; a visitor two years later described them as “passing sweet, fat and wholesome, having no taste at all of the mud.”

Perhaps of greatest importance, it was Squanto who served as the Pilgrims’ interpreter and facilitated peaceful, if often tense, relations with the nearby Wampanoag. Since first landing at Cape Cod, the Pilgrims had repeatedly sighted Indians at a distance, and even traded shots with a group of Nausets, but except for the message they conveyed when they discharged their weapons, they had not as yet actually communicated with any of the native peoples in the area. With Squanto’s aid, in March of 1621 the Pilgrims agreed to a kind of mutual-defense pact with the Wampanoag sachem (or chief) Massasoit, one that both sides honored, incidentally, for more than fifty years.

All of this makes it plausible to believe that, when God granted the Pilgrims a good harvest, they would have invited their Native American neighbors to join them in their 1621 harvest celebration. Perhaps they did. Yet it bears emphasizing: four centuries after the fact, we still don’t know for sure how the Wampanoag came to be at the Pilgrims’ feast. The belief that the Pilgrims invited them as a gesture of good will is sheer conjecture.  No direct evidence survives to prove it.

In fairness, according to an English merchant who visited Plymouth in 1623, when William Bradford remarried in the summer of that year, the Pilgrims invited Massasoit and the Wampanoag to the wedding celebration. That they did something comparable two years earlier for their harvest feast is not implausible.
And yet, Edward Winslow’s ambiguous reference to “Indians coming amongst us” leaves open the possibility that they simply showed up, uninvited, expecting hospitality.

This, too, is plausible, for they had a track record of doing precisely that. According to Winslow, the very day after the Pilgrims concluded a peace treaty with the Wampanoag the previous March, “divers of their people came over to us, hoping to get some victuals as we imagined.” This initiated a pattern the Pilgrims would come to know well. In the coming weeks, the Wampanoag “came very often” and in force, bringing their wives and children with them.

By late spring the problem had gotten so bad that Governor Bradford sent a delegation to the Wampanoag settlement to “prevent abuses in their disorderly coming unto us.” Traveling to Massasoit’s home in present-day Rhode Island, a commission of Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins first presented the sachem with a handsome red “horseman’s coat” trimmed in lace. Then, as diplomatically as possible, they explained to the Wampanoag leader that, while his people were welcome to visit, the Pilgrims “could no longer give them such entertainment as [they] had done.” Translation: don’t plan on staying for dinner every time you pay us a visit.

Even if Massasoit and his men were invited, we err when we remember the First Thanksgiving as some kind of idyllic multicultural celebration. It was likely tense at best. The Pilgrims had been schooled to see the Native Americans they encountered as bloodthirsty “savages”; even after the feast one of the Pilgrim writers would describe the Wampanoag as naturally “cruel and treacherous people.” The Wampanoag had learned to view Europeans in much the same way, for more than once European sailors or fishermen visiting Cape Cod had kidnapped or murdered unsuspecting natives.

If the Pilgrims had arrived just a few years earlier, before the great epidemic had ravaged the Wampanoag, Massasoit’s first inclination would likely have been to drive the newcomers into the ocean. Now with but a shadow of his former strength—and possibly in awe of the Pilgrims’ muskets—the sachem opted for warfare of a different kind: he commanded his powwows to curse the new arrivals. According to William Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, for three days the Wampanoag medicine men convened “in a dark and dismal swamp” and “in a horrid and devilish manner did curse and execrate them with their conjurations.” This is a part of the Thanksgiving story we tend not to emphasize.

If Morton’s information was accurate, it was only after this covert operation failed that Massasoit turned to diplomacy. It is possible that he was encouraged to do so by the English-speaking Squanto, who saw in this alternative strategy an opportunity to improve his status among the Wampanoag, who had essentially been holding the Patuxet Indian prisoner since his appearance the previous year. Although Squanto figures prominently in children’s books as the Pilgrims’ friend, the Pilgrims soon concluded that he “sought his own ends and played his own game,” as William Bradford recalled.

As Bradford and Edward Winslow both told the story, Squanto tried to play the Pilgrims and Wampanoag off against each other, in one case orchestrating false reports of an impending attack on Plymouth, at other times telling Massasoit that the Pilgrims kept the plague under their storehouse and would soon unleash it unless he could persuade them to desist. In both instances Squanto was apparently striving to enhance his own influence as an intermediary and peacemaker, making the Wampanoag “believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would.” When Massasoit learned of this duplicity, he sent his own knife to the Pilgrims through messengers and requested that they cut off Squanto’s head and hands. When the Pilgrims declined to do so—they needed Squanto even if they no longer trusted him—the Wampanoag were “mad with rage.”

If the Pilgrims’ association with the Wampanoag was often strained, their relations with other native peoples in the area were often worse. Not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a threat from the Narragansett Indians and began to construct a palisade for self-defense. Fear pushed them to a prodigious pace, for by the end of February 1622 a log fence eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long ringed the entire settlement. That spring they began construction of a fort inside the palisade to render their position even stronger, and after ten months of tedious labor they had completed a citadel at the top of the hill complete with six cannon.

About that time they briefly went to war against the Massachusetts Indians. Having reason to believe that the Massachusetts were planning a surprise attack, the Pilgrims initiated a preemptive strike, sending Myles Standish and eight men to ambush a contingent of Massachusetts warriors. Upon hearing of the bloodshed, their beloved Pastor Robinson wrote plaintively from Holland, “Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any!”

As we imagine the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests sharing a meal at the First Thanksgiving, it will serve as an antidote to over-sentimentality if we remember that less than two years later the head of a Massachusetts Indian decorated the Pilgrims’ fort. Governor Bradford explained to the Merchant Adventurers that they kept it there “for a terror unto others.” The “others” likely included Massasoit and the Wampanoag, for when they arrived for the governor’s marriage feast a couple of weeks later, they would have seen the gruesome trophy displayed prominently, along with “a piece of linen cloth dyed in the same Indian’s blood.”


SEVEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday this month I have been posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I am doing my best to sketch the context of the “First Thanksgiving” celebration of 1621. Today’s essay focuses on the fifty-one English folk who hosted the meal.


The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

While a lot more evidence survives concerning the Pilgrims than we might expect, almost none survives concerning the episode for which we remember them best. The Pilgrims’ historian and long-time governor, William Bradford, never mentioned a 1621 thanksgiving celebration in Of Plymouth Plantation.

Bradford began writing his history in 1630, quickly bringing his narrative up to the landing of the Mayflower, but he then set the work aside and did not resume it until the mid-1640s. From that vantage point (perhaps referring to a journal long since lost), he still recalled vividly the “sad and lamentable” details of the first winter, the particulars of their negotiations with the Wampanoag, the facts of Squanto’s personal history, even the fine points of corn planting. He also noted happily that the Pilgrims began to recover their health and strength in the spring of 1621, reaped an adequate harvest that fall, and enjoyed “good plenty” as winter approached.

What he failed to mention was a celebration of any kind. This should give us pause. It would seem that the episode so indelibly imprinted in our historical memory was not memorable at all to the Pilgrims’ long-time governor.

As it turns out, the only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in 1621 comes from the pen of Edward Winslow, Bradford’s younger assistant. Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany the reports to be sent back to the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ venture. In his letter—the main purpose of which was to convince the investors that they weren’t throwing their money away—Winslow described the houses the Pilgrims had built, listed the crops they had planted, and emphasized the success they had been blessed with. To underscore the latter, he added five sentences describing the abundance they now enjoyed.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms; many of the Indians coming amongst us. “And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, with some ninety men; whom, for three days, we entertained and feasted. And they went out, and killed five deer: which they brought to the Plantation; and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.”

These 115 words constitute the sum total of contemporary evidence regarding the First Thanksgiving. It’s a brief, ambiguous account. If we wanted to, we could compile a whole list of details commonly taken for granted about the occasion which we could never prove from Winslow’s brief description. What do we know with any confidence about this iconic event?

Let’s start with some basic details. By William Bradford’s reckoning, the Mayflower had sailed from England in September 1620 with 102 passengers, divided more or less equally between “saints” (members of the Pilgrim congregation of Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the voyage). Thanks to the “general sickness” that had devastated the colony during its first winter, it seems likely that there were fifty-one members of the Plymouth settlement at the time of the celebration—fifty survivors of the Mayflower’s voyage plus toddler Peregrine White, who had been born aboard ship after the Pilgrims reached Cape Cod. (The little colony’s other baby, Oceanus Hopkins, had not survived his first year.)

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As we try to imagine the gathering, it would be great if we had a better sense of what the Pilgrims actually looked like, but of course there are no photographs, and the only Pilgrim known to have had his portrait painted was Edward Winslow, but that was not until three decades later. Enough evidence survives for some informed speculation, however. If we could take a time machine back to the occasion, the first thing we might notice about the Pilgrims is how small they were. Europeans in the 17th-century weren’t exactly Hobbits, but they were noticeably shorter and dramatically lighter than we are today. Historians of Elizabethan England estimate that the average adult male stood 5’6”, the average female 5’½ ”, and even as late as the American Civil War, the typical soldier weighed in at less than 140 pounds. With regard to the Pilgrims’ stature, think junior high.

We might also be struck by how the Pilgrims were dressed. We have been conditioned to picture the Pilgrims as if they were headed to a funeral, the somber black of their outfits interrupted only by the occasional white collar and the silver buckles mandatory on all shoes, belts, and hats. In reality, this quaint image of the Pilgrims dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century and was pretty much conjured out of thin air. For one thing, buckles were all but unheard of among common folk for at least another half-century, and even had they been available we may doubt whether the Pilgrims would have worn them, as they tended to frown on anything that remotely resembled jewelry. (Their wives did not even wear wedding rings.)

On the other hand, the Pilgrims definitely had a taste for bright colors. Plymouth Colony estate inventories contain countless references to red, blue, green, yellow, and “russet” (orange-brown) garments. To cite but two examples, upon his death, carpenter Will Wright left among other items a Bible, a psalm book, a blue coat, and two vests, one white, the other red. The inventory of William Bradford’s estate showed that the long-term governor did, in fact, own a black hat and a “sad colored” (dark) suit, but he also sported a “colored” hat, a red suit, and a violet cloak. If the Pilgrims genuinely viewed their autumn gathering as a time of rejoicing, then they probably left the “sad-colored” clothing at home.

We might also be surprised at how young the Pilgrims were and at how few women there were among them. The mortality of the first winter had struck the “saints” and “strangers” in similar proportions, so that the saints from Leiden remained approximately half of the depleted company at the time of the First Thanksgiving. In other ways, however, the “general sickness” had affected the Pilgrims unevenly. The death rate was higher among wives than among husbands, higher among the married than among the unmarried, higher among adults than among children.

By autumn only three of the fifty-one survivors were definitely older than forty—elder William Brewster, his wife Mary, and a wool comber named Francis Cooke. The colony’s new governor, William Bradford, was only thirty-one. Among the adults, males now outnumbered females five to one. (The ratio had been about three to one at the time of their departure from England.) The higher death toll among adults also meant that children and teenagers now accounted for roughly half of the entire group (up from approximately one-third before the general sickness). These latter included the wonderfully named Remember Allerton, Resolved White, Humility Cooper, and the two Brewster boys, Love and Wrestling.

Death had surely left its mark in other ways, as well. In the four sentences that he devoted to the 1621 celebration, Edward Winslow left no clue about the Pilgrims’ state of mind. The devout among them had been schooled to see God’s loving hand in every trial, to believe, by faith, “that in all their afflictions the justice and mercy of God meet together,” as the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson expressed it. Late in his life, William Bradford preached this gospel to himself in verse:

“Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust / fear not the things thou suffer must / for, whom he loves he doth chastise / and then all tears wipes from their eyes.”

And yet, in the autumn of 1621 the wounds were still so fresh. It would be no stain on the Pilgrims’ faith if their rejoicing was leavened with a lingering heartache. Widowers and orphans abounded. Fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished during the winter. There were now only four married couples, and one of these consisted of Edward and Susannah (White) Winslow, who had married that May shortly after both had lost their spouses. Mary Chilton, Samuel Fuller, Priscilla Mullins, and Elizabeth Tilley each had lost both parents, and young Richard More, who had been torn from his parents before sailing, had since lost the three siblings who sailed with him. That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope.

Yet celebrate they did.


EIGHT days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I want to contextualize the First Thanksgiving as accurately as I can. Today we’ll discuss two episodes from the winter of 1620-1621: one that is mostly imaginary, on that was all too real. 


“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

After sighting land in early December, the Pilgrims spent the next six weeks exploring the coast of Massachusetts before settling on a location for their future home. Finally, on the 23rd of December all who were able went ashore about thirty miles south of present-day Boston and set to work. More than a century later (but still more than a century before Bradford’s history was discovered in London), the descendants of the Pilgrims would come to believe that they knew exactly where their ancestors had landed when they first set foot on the site. Specifically, they had it on good authority that the Pilgrims had touched ground at a distinctive rock still embedded in the sandy beach—what we know today as “Plymouth Rock.”

The Pilgrims’ descendants knew about this landmark because in 1741—121 years after the landing—a fifteen-year-old boy overheard ninety-five-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, had told him that he had been told by unnamed persons that the landing had occurred there. (No, it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, but if you visit Plymouth today you’ll find a rock about the size of your living-room couch sheltered by a classical Greek portico, before a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which proclaims, “Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.”)

“Plymouth Rock.” Today nearly a million people visit Pilgrim Memorial State Park each year in order to view this boulder.

“Plymouth Rock.” Today nearly a million people visit Pilgrim Memorial State Park each year in order to view this boulder.

Curiously, Bradford never mentioned such a rock in his narrative, and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed. Other features did attract the group’s attention, however. When they returned to the Mayflower, they told the other passengers of a tall hill which would be readily defensible, sloping gradually down to a decent, if somewhat shallow harbor.

With eyes of faith, the Pilgrims envisioned a fort at the top of a 165-foot hill, the six cannon they had brought with them commanding the landscape in every direction. From the fort—which would double as a meeting house on Sundays—they saw descending toward the water a double row of snug houses. (Nineteen would suffice, they calculated, with every single male assigned to live with a family.) There would also be storehouses, stables, and gardens, and around the entire village a reassuring palisade.

Half of the Mayflower’s passengers would live to see this vision a reality, but during their horrific first winter they struggled to erect a handful of crude structures, likely little more than frameworks of saplings slathered in mud and topped with thatched roofs. (High winds sometimes blew away the daubing, and sparks from the chimneyless fireplaces always threatened to set the roofs on fire.) The cruel weather was their constant enemy, preventing them from working more than half of any week, but above all they were plagued by sickness.

Although historian Samuel Eliot Morison designated the period from January through March the Pilgrims’ “starving time,” the Pilgrims themselves recalled it as the time of the “general sickness” or the “common infection.” They sometimes spoke of “scurvy” as the source of their suffering, but the most likely culprit was pneumonia brought on by prolonged exposure to the elements.

For the first six weeks after their arrival, the ship’s longboat had been mostly unavailable for general service, either because it was undergoing repairs or being used by various expeditions. This meant that whenever the passengers wished to go ashore they had to wade through frigid waters up to their thighs, and because the harbor was so shallow, the Mayflower was often anchored more than a mile from the beach. Late in life, William Bradford compiled a list of the passengers with information of their “deceasings and increasings,” and it is no coincidence that the phrase “died soon after they came ashore” was a common epitaph.

At its worst, the epidemic claimed two or three victims a day, and there was a time when scarcely a half dozen of the Pilgrims were well enough to tend to the rest. Bradford, who himself hovered near death for a time, later particularly praised elder William Brewster and the company’s military leader, Myles Standish, for their heroic efforts on behalf of the ill. These “spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health . . . did all the homely and necessary offices” for the sick “which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named.”

The toll was staggering. Within weeks, fifty-two of the 102 passengers who had reached Cape Cod were dead, including fourteen of the twenty-six heads of families and the colony’s recently elected governor, John Carver. All but four families had lost at least one member. Of the eighteen married couples who had sailed from England, only three had survived intact. “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God,” Paul and Barnabas had instructed the churches of Asia Minor (Acts 14:22). The Pilgrims understood this well.


NINE days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. At the outset I concentrated mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I want to contextualize the First Thanksgiving as accurately as I can. Yesterday’s post focused on the voyage of the Mayflower. Today let’s talk about the Mayflower Compact.


The distinguished Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison once observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.” A case in point would be the popular belief that the Pilgrims brought with them a commitment to republican self-government, or even democracy. That we might think so is almost entirely due to the so-called “Mayflower Compact,” a document that we have loaded with far more significance than it should be made to shoulder.

On the same day that the Mayflower first dropped anchor near Cape Cod in November of 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the ship’s great cabin and affixed their signatures to a 153-word statement. The text was set forth in an obscure 1622 pamphlet known as Mourt’s Relation, and although it was little thought of or referred to for the next century and a half, the day would come when many Americans would remember it as one of the nation’s founding documents, almost in the same category as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It read as follows:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland Kind, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859. Shortly after dropping anchor in Cape Cod in November 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the great cabin of the Mayflower to sign the statement we now remember as the Mayflower Compact.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859. Shortly after dropping anchor in Cape Cod in November 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the great cabin of the Mayflower to sign the statement we now remember as the Mayflower Compact.

We have tended to read this pledge selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” Having recognized what looks to be a familiar feature in the Compact, we then often extrapolate with abandon, imputing to the Pilgrims values that belong in our world, not theirs. In reality, there appear to have been at least three motives behind the creation of the Compact, none of which involved a philosophical commitment to the right of self-government.

To begin with, there is reason to believe that the Pilgrims always expected that they would need to choose their own leaders in the initial stage of their colonial venture. At the same time, it also appears that they understood that this practice might be temporary—an aberration more than a right. In a letter that he wrote to his congregants just before their departure from England, the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, seemed to take for granted that the passengers of the Mayflower would soon “become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government.” He exhorted his departing friends to show their civil governors “all due honor and obedience,” given that the magistrate bears “the image of the Lord’s power and authority.” They should be able to do this all the more willingly, he concluded, “because you are at least for the present to have only them [as your civil officers] which yourselves shall make choice of for that work.” The time might come, in other words, when the king would exercise his lawful prerogative to appoint governors over them.

A second factor stemmed from the simple fact that the Pilgrims would be settling outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. King James had granted to that company the authority to coordinate colonial ventures along a portion of the Atlantic seaboard, and the Virginia Company, in turn, had granted to the Pilgrims a patent to settle in a particular portion of their recognized domain. By choosing a location beyond the boundaries of the company’s authority, it was quite possible that they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. Hence it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” They were covering themselves, in other words, by assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. Furthermore, it is worth noting that they identify James as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

Finally, both Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation make clear that a third factor prompting the creation of the Compact was a potential revolt brewing among a subset of the passengers. Bradford frankly admitted that the Compact was “occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship.” These dissidents were saying that they would do whatever they pleased when they arrived, as the Pilgrims’ patent applied only to Virginia, not to New England.

Picking up on Bradford’s candid admission, some historians have reduced the Mayflower Compact to little more than a power grab by the Leiden saints, a calculated effort to keep the non-Separatist “strangers” in line. This goes too far, in my opinion, but so does the insistence of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum that the Mayflower Compact is “an early example of democracy in America” that has “remained an inspiration since 1620.” If so, it curiously left little mark on Plymouth itself. An early voting list from 1643 shows that less than half of the colony’s adult males were eligible to vote. (All women were excluded, of course, “as both reason and nature teacheth they should be.”)

In truth, the widespread acceptance of democracy—the unchallenged right of the people to rule—was still a good two centuries away, and to credit the Pilgrims with a democratic ethos is anachronistic in the extreme. The men and women who celebrated a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621 had many virtues: they were devout, courageous, and determined. They just weren’t democratic.


TEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. So far I’ve focused mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I want to contextualize the First Thanksgiving as accurately as I can, beginning with the storied voyage of the Mayflower.


This nearly exact replica of the original Mayflower is permanently docked in Plymouth Harbor, not far from where the original vessel first dropped anchor in December 1621.

This nearly exact replica of the original Mayflower is permanently docked in Plymouth Harbor, not far from where the original vessel first dropped anchor in December 1621.

Although the legendary “voyage of the Mayflower” is now enshrined in national lore, we actually don’t know much about it. William Bradford summarized the voyage in a couple of pages in his History of Plymouth Plantation, and almost everything we know about it comes from that brief account. We do know that the voyage of the Mayflower began as the voyage of the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Whereas the 180-ton Mayflower had been chartered by the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ undertaking, the 60-ton Speedwell actually belonged to the Pilgrims, who had purchased it with an eye to using it for a fishing boat once they had relocated to America.

On August 5, 1620 the Speedwell and Mayflower weighed anchor and headed west from Southampton, England. They carried perhaps as many as 150 passengers, a combination of “saints” (mostly Puritan Separatists from northern England who had relocated years earlier to Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the journey). In one of history’s great anticlimaxes, the Speedwell began to leak “as a sieve” almost before clearing the harbor, and within a few days both vessels were forced to put in at Dartmouth, a mere seventy-five miles along the coast.

After some minor mending they again put out to sea, but after sailing two hundred miles or so beyond the westernmost tip of England, the Speedwell sprouted leaks so severe that her master swore that they must return to port or go to the bottom. This time they put in at Plymouth, some fifty miles west of Dartmouth, where they wasted several more days scrutinizing the hull for leaks. Finding none, her master, a Captain Reynolds, concluded that the culprit was “the general weakness of the ship” and that continuing with the vessel was out of the question.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, there is reason to suspect that the Pilgrims were being dealt with falsely by pretended friends. According to William Bradford, members of the crew later confessed that Speedwell had been sabotaged—by order of its own captain, no less. In refitting the ship before leaving Holland, they had supplied her intentionally with masts that were too large. Whenever these were “too much pressed with sail” the stress on the hull was more than it could withstand and the ship would leak; reduce sail, and the leaking would immediately cease.

Bradford attributed this “cunning and deceit” to the captain’s desire to get out of his commitment. Seeing that the ship was poorly provisioned and fearing that the “victuals” would run out before his contract did, the captain had “forgot all duty” and ordered every inch of sail unfurled, with the result that he soon had the excuse for turning back that he wanted. Years later, Bradford’s nephew would hear rumors of a different motive, namely that the Dutch, who wished to undermine English efforts to settle near the Hudson River, had “fraudulently hired” the captain to effect “delays while they were in England.

Whatever Captain Reynolds’s motive, this much is sure: his duplicity, if duplicity it was, had enormous consequences. By wasting a month of fair weather and delaying the Pilgrims’ final departure until the end of summer, he had multiplied the dangers they would face, both during the voyage and after their arrival. He had also greatly reduced the size of the exodus, for his sabotage of the Speedwell forced between a fourth and a third of the intended passengers to turn back. Actually, “forced” is not the right word. Bradford reported that “those that went back were for the most part such as were willing so to do.” According to Pilgrim deacon Robert Cushman—who would be among those waving goodbye from the dock—a number of the passengers had already begged to abandon the voyage when the ships had been at Dartmouth.

It was not just the dangers of the voyage ahead. With every day of delay they were eating up provisions intended to sustain them after they arrived. The postponement was reducing their already slim chances of erecting shelters before the onset of winter, and it was also affording them ample time to realize just how divided and disheartened they really were. “If ever we make a plantation,” Cushman wrote to a friend, “God works a miracle.”

And so “they made another sad parting,” as Bradford pithily put it, and on September 6th the Mayflower sailed away alone, after first taking on board as many of the Speedwell’s passengers and as much of her stores as they could cram in. Although Bradford was stingy with details, we can be sure that the journey was miserable. By modern standards the ship was tiny, an estimated 113 feet long from the rear of the poop deck to the bowsprit. (For context, that’s less than the distance from home plate to second base). It was only sixty-four feet long at the keel (barely home plate to the pitcher’s mound), and no more than twenty-five feet across at her widest point. In the best case scenario, the crew of twenty or so may have given up a portion of their space, but then that was minimal to begin with. This means that for the next sixty-five days the vast majority of the 102 passengers—including eighteen married couples and thirty-five children and teenagers—would have made their “quarters” in the “tweendecks” area just above the hold.

Mayflower II at Sea

Mayflower II at Sea

At first the weather was fair, but after “a season” they encountered adverse winds, followed by a series of storms so severe that they tossed the Mayflower like driftwood and cracked one of her main beams. Often “the winds were so high and the seas so fierce” that the crew was forced to strike the sails and let the storm carry the vessel where it would; a good barometer of the horrific conditions is the fact that the Mayflower averaged but two miles per hour over the entire voyage.

In such violent tempests a “landlubber” took his life in his hands in venturing above deck. Indeed, a servant named John Howland was swept overboard when he came topside, although he was miraculously saved when “it pleased God” for him to catch hold of a topsail rope that had worked loose and was trailing in the water. The moral was clear—stay below if you would stay alive—with the result that the passengers spent the preponderance of the voyage in the close confines below deck.

For the better part of two months, in other words, the 102 passengers ate, slept, worshipped, and played in an area scarcely larger than a good-sized school bus. (Elizabeth Hopkins even gave birth there, presenting her husband with a son he appropriately named Oceanus.) What the conditions were like we can only begin to imagine. No privacy. No privies. No baths. Minimal ventilation. Plenty of foul odors—from each other and from the chickens, pigs, and goats on board. And seasickness, lots of it, with all of its consequences. No wonder the Pilgrim writers preferred to skip over the voyage.

Nor should we marvel that they “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven” when they finally sighted land near daybreak on the 9th of November. Not only had God delivered them from the angry North Atlantic, but He had also spared them from the deadly diseases that so commonly ravaged such voyages. Only two individuals had perished during the crossing, a servant named William Button and “a proud and very profane” sailor who had taunted the passengers when they had first become seasick.

But this, too, was an anticlimactic moment. The land on the horizon was not their intended destination near the mouth of the Hudson River, but rather the coast of Cape Cod, some 220 miles to the north. And so, after a brief deliberation, they tacked about and headed south until treacherous shoals along the eastern shore of the Cape blocked their path. At this point they reversed course yet again and sailed back around the northern tip of the Cape into Cape Cod Bay. From there they commenced six agonizing weeks of frigid exploration, as various landing parties combed up and down the shore of present-day Massachusetts in search of a viable location for settlement.

To compound their discouragement, the land they had reached was nothing like they had anticipated. Massachusetts is actually more than six hundred miles south of London, on the same line of latitude as Madrid, Spain. Furthermore, the European explorers and fisherman who had visited the area—and there were many before the Pilgrims—had typically visited during the summertime. These facts had led to the belief, as one English explorer proclaimed as late as 1622, that New England’s climate was similar to that “of Italy and France, the gardens of Europe.” Thus the travelers had been dreaming of a lush landscape and a temperate climate, only to encounter “a hideous and desolate wilderness” at the onset of a “sharp and violent winter.”

Making matters more dismal, “scarce any” of them “were free from vehement coughs,” thanks to the “cold and wet lodging” on the Mayflower, and in an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, four more of the party would die before they had settled on a location. One of these was William Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, although the cause in her case was no “vehement cough.” Dorothy Bradford drowned in the harbor while her husband was exploring the coastline, and the fact that she fell overboard from a ship anchored in shallow water has caused speculation ever since that she might have committed suicide. What Bradford felt at the news about his “dearest consort” can only be imagined. Writing ten years after the tragedy, he could not bring himself even to mention it.


This weekend and next I am sharing a series of posts on how  Americans have remembered the First Thanksgiving over the last four centuries.  Yesterday I began a quick sketch of how American memory of the First Thanksgiving has changed over time. And it definitely has changed, and changed dramatically.  Today let’s pick up the thread and focus on the period up through the Civil War.


In every class that I teach here at Wheaton College, one of the first principles that I try to drive home to my students is the fundamental distinction between history and the past. The past is everything that has been said and thought and done until now. God knows the past perfectly and exhaustively. We don’t. Indeed, a great deal of the past has been lost to us. What we call history is best defined as that portion of the past that we remember, thanks to insights from historical documents, material artifacts, and oral tradition.

I mention this now because, for most of the first 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no Americans remembered it. There had never been but a handful of American copies of Mourt’s Relation, the 1622 pamphlet that contained the sole description of the event, and memory of the celebration gradually faded. As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was not a part of American memory. By that time Thanksgiving had come to be a much loved holiday in New England, but New Englanders didn’t think of the holiday as perpetuating a tradition begun by the Pilgrims in 1621. Celebrating Thanksgiving was just what New England folk did every autumn. As far as anyone knew, it was what they had always done.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe's famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe’s famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

This began to change around 1841, when Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s 115-word account of the 1621 feast was discovered and reprinted in a history book titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next weekend.


Some time ago an interviewer asked me to identify the most surprising thing I had learned in my study of the “First Thanksgiving.” I replied that the discoveries that interested me most had less to do with the actual 1621 celebration than with the way that American memory of the event had changed over time.  Although when I began this Countdown to Thanksgiving I said I would only  post on weekdays, I’ve decided to share some “bonus” reflections on how Americans have remembered the First Thanksgiving over the last four centuries.  Look for two posts this weekend, with two more on the topic a week from now. 


In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.  In the next few posts I thought I’d show you what I mean, drawing from research that I conducted for my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

"Landing of the Pilgrims," Henry A. Bacon, 1877

“Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

Even though Americans now were aware of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, it would be a long time—generations, in fact—before the American people widely credited the Pilgrims as the founders of their Thanksgiving tradition.  In my next post I will explain why that was so.


THIRTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. In my last two posts I offered an extended review of one popular Christian assessment of the Pilgrims’ world view: Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary Monumental.  Before moving on, I thought I should offer my own take on the monument that the documentary centers on: The National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

I had the privilege of visiting the monument when I was doing research on the Pilgrims several years ago, and I walked away with a very different set of reflections than those of Cameron and his co-producer, “Dr.” Marshall Foster.  Rather than try to paraphrase them now, I offer below an excerpt from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:


In 1889, the townspeople of Plymouth dedicated a memorial to the “forefathers” who had settled there two hundred and sixty-nine years earlier. I sought it out when I visited Plymouth a few years ago. It stands a bit off the beaten track, in the midst of a residential area perhaps a mile northwest of the tourist district around Plymouth Rock. Known as the National Monument to the Forefathers, the memorial rises eight stories above the surrounding neighborhood.

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

Sculpted from three hundred tons of New England granite, it features a massive octagonal pedestal surmounted by a thirty-six-foot tall female figure labeled “Faith.” Reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, she faces Plymouth Harbor with a Bible in her left hand, her right hand pointing skyward to symbolize the Pilgrims’ hope of heaven. Seated in a circle around the pedestal are four other immense figures, each classically draped (think “togas”) and bearing the names Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality.

[The sculpture] is an impressive artistic feat, and in its own way, inspiring. Yet, as a historian, as I stood there I couldn’t help thinking of the monument as a metaphor for how we sometimes approach the past. We prefer our heroes larger than life, uncomplicated and unflawed. Thus, without ever doing so consciously, we often refashion the real but flawed heroes we encounter into the very embodiment of the virtues we seek to uphold. When we’re finished, “sons of Adam” have become Greek gods.

In truth, there is much to admire about the “company of plain Englishmen” who disembarked from the Mayflower almost four centuries ago. They were men and women of deep conviction, uneasily daunted, willing to suffer for principle’s sake. They exhibited enormous courage, and they persevered in the face of unspeakable hardship and loss. They loved their children, they loved the body of Christ, and they abandoned everything that was familiar to them in order to serve both.

There is an expression of sacrificial love here that both humbles and inspires. If in a sense the Pilgrims are our adopted ancestors, then they have bequeathed to us an invaluable Christian example of belief, action, and endurance, and we do well to remember it.

And yet the human frailty that [Pilgrim Deacon] Robert Cushman alluded to is an important part of the Pilgrims’ story as well. They argued among themselves. They were too trusting, frequently duped both by strangers and purported friends. They were ethnocentric and sometimes self-righteous.

They struggled with their finances. (It took them twenty-eight years to repay the London merchants who bankrolled their venture.) They came to America as “tenderfeet,” unprepared to succeed as fishermen, expecting a climate like that of the French Riviera, and thinking that they had settled on an island for more than a year after their arrival. They were frightened by wolves. They got lost in the woods. (Shortly after first going ashore, William Bradford was caught by an Indian deer trap and dangled helplessly upside down, but to my knowledge there is no monument commemorating that.)

In years to come, they would have a hard time keeping a pastor, their elder’s son-in-law would embezzle from them, and many of their number would move away in search of larger farms, prompting William Bradford to speak of the Plymouth church as “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

But why mention these latter things? Why not just concentrate on the positive? Years ago I spoke at a luncheon sponsored by a national patriotic organization, and during the meal my host, who was himself a Christian, asked me just that. I wasn’t prepared for his question and I stumbled in my reply. If we could repeat that conversation today I would offer three reasons why a balanced approach is preferable.

The first is a simple commitment to honesty. As Christian scholar Ronald Wells points out, honest history “means more than merely telling the truth in factual terms but also telling the truth in all its complexity and ambiguity.”

Second, in acknowledging the frailties of history’s heroes we’re also conveying a more accurate representation of human nature. “Monumental” history—history that glosses over human weaknesses and shortcomings—is not just inaccurate. It teaches bad theology, leaving no room for the lingering effects of sin in the hearts of the figures we admire. It’s particularly ironic when applied to the Pilgrims, for they were steeped in a Reformed Protestant worldview that mocked all pretensions to perfectibility.

“Can those who are converted to God perfectly keep [His] commandments?” asked the Heidelberg Catechism, a Protestant confession popular in Holland when the Pilgrims were in Leiden. “No,” came back the answer; “but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.” In even stronger language, John Calvin had insisted that Christians carry the “remains of imperfection” to the grave. Let the “holy servant of God” ponder the action in his life “which he deems most excellent,” Calvin wrote in the Institutes, and “he will doubtless find in it something that savors of the rottenness of the flesh.”

When Paul and Barnabas learned that the pagans at Lystra wanted to offer sacrifices to them, they tore their clothes and cried out, “Why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you” (Acts 14:15). I think many of the Pilgrims would have reacted similarly to the National Monument to the Forefathers.

Third and finally, when we make room for our heroes’ frailties in our narratives of the past, we at the same time make greater room for God’s glory. Remember the Lord’s words to Paul: “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). As one contemporary Christian author has commented, it is not our weakness that inhibits God’s working in us so much as our “delusions of strength.”

The Pilgrims had no such delusions. “Our voyage . . . hath been as full of crosses as ourselves have been of crookedness,” Deacon Robert Cushman confessed, “but God can do much.” “How few, weak, and raw were we at our first beginning,” Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, “and yet God preserved us.” “What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?” Governor William Bradford asked in wonder. Throughout his history [Of Plymouth Plantation] Bradford seems to glory in the Pilgrims’ weakness, but his object in doing so is clear:

 . . . that their children may see with what difficulties their fathers wrestled in going through these things in their first beginnings; and how God brought them along, notwithstanding all their weaknesses and infirmities.

First Thanksgiving


FOURTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory.  We have often remembered both the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving inaccurately, with the result being that we learn almost nothing from this iconic episode in the American past. A case in point would be Kirk Cameron’s well-intended but misguided documentary Monumental, which I began to review yesterday.  Here are some concluding thoughts.


As we strive to study the past Christianly, one of our goals should be to identify heroes without manufacturing idols.

We all need heroes, individuals to look up to who model the character and accomplishments we aspire to.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact we have biblical warrant for it.  In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul taught and admonished the fellowship there regarding a number of topics and then offered the audacious suggestion, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1).  It is as if Paul was saying, “Look, I realize that this teaching can be difficult, so if you’re having a hard time, just follow my example as I try to live it out before you.”  He even promised to send his “son in the faith” Timothy to “remind you of my ways in Christ” (I Corinthians 4:17).

But note the constant qualifiers: the Corinthians were to follow Paul’s example because he was following Christ’s; they were to study Paul’s ways because his ways were “in Christ.”  Heroes are fine, in other words—the great “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is full of them—but the traits that we admire them for should be traits consistent with the example of Christ and the teaching of scripture.

Needless to say, this is not the pattern we find in contemporary American culture.  There are admirable exceptions, but a quick glance at who we reward with fame and imitation suggests that character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Like gushing Miss America candidates, we may claim to desire world peace and a cure for cancer, but what we really value is entertainment.

Before this turns into a self-righteous rant, let me add that we who name the name of Christ bear our fair share of responsibility for this cultural shallowness.  What is more, when with the best of intentions we turn to history to resist this superficiality, we are often lured into a pattern of thinking that comes close to idolatry.

Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary Monumental comes perilously near to crossing this line.  As I mentioned in my last post, I share many of Cameron’s values and I don’t doubt that his motives are honorable.  In this sense I want to stand with him as he strives to uphold biblical principles in our fallen world.  But I have to stand against him in his approach to American history.


The message of Monumental will resonate with evangelicals who are distressed by the amorality and immorality of contemporary American culture.  It will inspire many who are looking for a better way, and it will probably persuade many with its message that we can only move forward by looking backward.  In a certain sense I agree.  But before embarking on this project, Cameron would have done well to remember John Calvin’s centuries-old warning (in his Institutes of the Christian Religion) that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  Had Cameron taken that warning seriously, his documentary might have conveyed a very different message.

The propensity to forge idols that Calvin warned against is something that we fallen humans carry with us at all times, including during our excursions “into” the past.  This means that one snare that awaits us when we study non-Biblical history is the temptation to fashion idols out of the admirable figures we encounter.

But what would that look like, specifically?  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but that’s clearly not the pitfall that concerns us here.  Other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  That’s always a valid concern, but again not what I have in mind.

In my experience, if we would keep from forging idols in history, there are two related responses that we must especially guard against, both of which effectively clothe the humans that we study with divine attributes.  First, we must beware of describing any figures from the past other than Christ Himself as if they were above reproach—or to put it another way, as if they were without sin.

None of us would ever come right out and say this of a historical figure, and yet there is a subtle temptation to gloss over the flaws in our heroes that their virtues may shine the more brightly.  To take even a single step down this path is to begin the gradual descent from history to hagiography, from the admiration of heroes to the worship of ancestors.

Second, we must be careful never to act as if we are morally bound to follow the example of figures from the past, for this is to impute authority where God has not granted it.  Trust me, Christians fall into this trap all the time.

To give but one example, we strain to prove that the Founding Fathers were predominantly Christians, as if that is somehow supposed to matter to our unbelieving contemporaries.  They’re entirely justified in replying, “Why should we care?”  Why should they, indeed?  If the United States needs to foster religion as an “indispensable support” of the republic, it is not because George Washington told us so in his farewell address (although he did, by the way).

Remember the proviso in Paul’s exhortation: “Imitate me,” he told the Corinthians, “as I also imitate Christ.”  Anytime we forget that stipulation, acting as if a non-canonical figure from the past intrinsically deserves to be followed, we take a long step toward erecting an idol.

Monumental violates both of these strictures.

The heart of the documentary’s argument comes in a fifteen-minute segment in which co-producer Dr. Marshall Foster and Cameron stand at the foot of the little known National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  (You can view the segment here.)  The monument is undeniably impressive.  Carved from three hundred tons of granite and rising eight stories above the earth, it features a massive octagonal pedestal surmounted by a thirty-six-foot tall female figure labeled “Faith.”  Seated in a circle around the pedestal are four other immense figures, each classically draped and bearing the names Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality.

As they walk around the massive sculpture, Cameron plays the role of the zealous Christian eager to learn how to turn America back to God, while Foster plays the historian ready to unlock the secrets of America’s hidden Christian past.

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

(And to be clear, Foster is “playing” at being a historian.  He has no formal training in history at all.  Despite his impressive sounding title of founder of the “World History Institute,” all of his graduate study is in theology, and even in that sphere his credentials are questionable.  According to his organization’s website, Foster is “Dr. Foster” because he holds a Doctorate in Divinity from Cathedral Bible College, a tiny open-enrollment school currently located in Marion, South Carolina.  In May of last year, the school’s founder and president pleaded guilty to federal charges that he systematically forced international students to work for a fraction of minimum wage or face deportation.)

Before going to the Forefather’s Monument, however, Foster takes Cameron to the top of Burial Hill in Plymouth, the site overlooking the harbor where the Pilgrims built their original meeting house and fort.  “There’s nothing like bones to remind you of your heritage,” Foster ruminates.  “That’s why I like bringing people up here, because it reminds us of our own mortality.  It reminds us that we are in a relay race. We are in a generational relay race.  And they understood that.”

They are the Pilgrims, of course.  Here the documentary is a bit misleading, as most of the graves on Burial Hill belong to later generations of Plymouth colonists, not the original passengers of the Mayflower, but no matter.  Foster’s point is that the Pilgrims took seriously their responsibility to bequeath their faith and their identity as Christ followers to their descendants, and there is no doubt that he is right.  In large measure, their determination to risk their lives to come to America was with their children and their children’s children in mind.

Cameron’s job in this segment is primarily to serve as Foster’s set-up man, posing questions to guide what is essentially a lecture from the director of the “World History Institute.”  “I wish they had left us some kind of a training manual,” the former teenage star of Growing Pains says wistfully, “some kind of secret sauce recipe card that we could pick up and go, ‘Here’s what it is!  Here’s what we do!’”

The good news (gospel?) at the core of Monumental is that there is such a “training manual” or “secret sauce recipe card” (what an awful metaphor), and that it is hidden in plain sight near the spot where America was “founded.”

Before taking Cameron to the National Monument to the Forefathers, Foster sets the stage with an allusion to scripture.  “When the children of Israel are going into the Promised Land,” Foster reminds Cameron, “they cross the Jordan River and God stood it on end and they walked across.  And before the waters stopped parting, God told them to take twelve stones from the bottom of the river and put them up on the top of Mt. Gilgal and make a monument so that when your children ask, ‘What are these stones?’ you will be able to tell them, ‘This is where God parted the sea.’”  This is a mostly accurate re-telling of an episode in the history of Israel recounted in the book of Joshua, chapter four.

Now comes the segue.  “And that’s what the Pilgrims left us,” Foster explains.  They left us a monument that not only gives tribute to what was accomplished here, but it gives us a specific strategy, a breakout of a blueprint [so that] if we would ever forget what made America great, what made us free, we can go back and follow that strategy—and it’s right up on a hill a half mile from here.”  At this point the scene shifts several hundred yards to the northwest, to the site of the National Monument to the Forefathers.

I cannot overstate how deeply flawed this comparison is.  To begin with, the monument described to us in the book of Joshua calls attention to the work of God on behalf of His people.  When the Israelites’ children asked them what the twelve stone stones meant, they were to explain to them what God had done, “that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty” (Joshua 4:24).

The National Monument to the Forefathers, in contrast, calls attention not to God but to the PilgrimsGranted, the monument implies that the Pilgrims were people of faith, but they also had the wisdom to recognize the four other indispensable pillars of a great and free nation and the purity of character necessary to model them rightly for us.  Both the monument and the documentary have the same message: Want to be a great, free, and prosperous nation?  Look to the Pilgrims.

Implicit in the comparison is also the suggestion that ancient Israel and the United States are analogous.  Think about it: Foster begins by alluding to a monument erected by God’s chosen nation of old at the point at which they entered their Promised Land.  He then likens it to a monument erected supposedly by the Pilgrims near the point where they entered the future United States.  Lurking in the comparison is a portrayal of the United States as God’s “New Israel,” a theologically disastrous conclusion that well meaning Americans have too frequently embraced.  (To cite one example, this was the message of The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, the book that remains the single most popular Christian interpretation of American history ever written.  For my review of that book, click here.)

Finally, as a historian, I cringe at Foster’s nonsensical statement that “the Pilgrims” were the ones who “left us” the monument at Plymouth.  The National Monument to the Forefathers was dedicated in 1889, two hundred sixty-nine years after the voyage of the Mayflower.  Completed the same year as Jane G. Austin’s fabulously popular and romanticized account of the Pilgrims, Standish of Standish (see my prior post on this novel), the monument primarily tells us how Victorian America wanted to remember the Pilgrims a quarter of a millennium after they passed from the scene.

Writing at the height of the Pilgrim’s popularity during the early years of the Cold War, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison wryly observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.”  The National Monument to the Forefathers reveals much more about the values of the late-nineteenth century than it does about the worldview of the Pilgrims, just as Foster’s interpretation of the monument primarily reveals to us the values of Marshall Foster and Kirk Cameron.

I am convinced that the Pilgrims would be distraught if they could view the National Monument erected in their honor.  In my next post I will explain why I think so.



When I started this blog, I promised to deliver essays that explored the intersection of Christian faith, the life of the mind, and the study of history—and for the most part I think that I have kept that promise. But what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write about more personal things from time to time? Today is Veteran’s Day, and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my father, Edwin McKenzie.

Dad graduated from high school in the spring of 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the following December. After a few weeks of basic training in San Diego, he was assigned to the destroyer U. S. S. Mahan as an electrician’s mate and headed for the South Pacific. For the next two years he served constantly in the theater of war, taking part in the campaign for Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, and a variety of smaller operations around New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands.

USS Mahan DD-364

USS Mahan DD-364

In early 1944 Mahan was ordered back to California for overhaul and Dad was granted a thirty-day leave upon arrival. He took the train from San Diego to our little home town of Athens, Tennessee, arriving on a Sunday evening, where he was met by a host of family, friends, and Margaret Lee Hale, the woman he had proposed to countless times since leaving Athens.

My parents had met for the first time in the summer of 1937, shortly after my father’s family moved to town from California. My mom, all of thirteen years old at the time, was in despair (as she told the story), because there was not a single boy in all of Athens that she was interested in marrying. That changed when she met Ed at a town baseball game, and although she protested, she was secretly glad when her girlfriends invited him to her upcoming birthday party. Ed arrived bearing gifts—a handkerchief and Evening in Paris perfume—and won Margaret Lee’s heart.

The couple became sweethearts, and they might have gotten really serious had not war intervened. They were coming out of a movie in Chattanooga on a Sunday afternoon when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Mom felt guilty about going to the picture show on a Sunday and feared that something bad might come of it, but she didn’t expect World War Two.) Within a few months Dad was halfway around the world in a global conflagration. Over the next two years the couple exchanged more than 400 love letters. As my dad’s leave drew near he regularly raised the prospect of marriage and my mom just as regularly ignored him. He renewed his plea almost as soon as he stepped down from the train, however, and my mom couldn’t resist. Less than a week later they were married.  Two weeks after that Dad was headed back overseas.

Ed and Margaret Lee, 1944

Ed and Margaret Lee, 1944

In the fall of 1944 Mahan was operating off the coast of the Philippines, patrolling for submarines and assisting with an amphibious landing near Ormoc Bay. On December 7, 1944—three years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor—three Japanese kamikaze bombers crashed into Mahan, and in short order the destroyer was in flames, one of the magazines had exploded, and a plume of black smoke was rising hundreds of yards into the air. Years later, a sailor on the U.S.S. Walke recalled the aftermath in these words:

We were heading for Mahan at high speed from about 1-2 miles away. Our Captain thought to lay us alongside to help fight fires. She was dead in the water under a huge column of black smoke. We could see flames in her bridge area. As we got closer we could see fire hoses in action. At this time our guns were firing so we did not hear, but we saw what appeared to be an explosion forward of the bridge. We were coming in on her port side when we saw her men beginning to abandon. At the same time a big raid developed and we had to pull away. During a lull in the battle, we returned to the area and began to pick up survivors. Twice we had to pull away to fight off raids, returning to pick up her people. Another destroyer was aiding in this. Some of the survivors were horribly burned and many were otherwise wounded. There was heavy fuel oil in the water and a lot of the men were sick and vomiting. I believe we got them all. . . .

Praise be to God, Dad survived the attack. In a heart-wrenching “snafu,” the Navy Department inadvertently released the news of the sinking of Mahan before all of the crewmembers’ families could be notified, so my mother heard on the radio that Dad’s ship had gone down before she heard from Dad that he was OK. I cannot imagine the extremes of emotion she must have felt, although Mom always insisted that she knew in her heart that Dad would come back to her. And so he did.

My mom passed away on Christmas Eve 2011, but by that time she and Dad had enjoyed sixty-seven years as husband and wife. Below is the last picture I have of them together. It’s not great quality, but if you look closely, you may be able to tell that my dad is wearing a ball cap commemorating the Mahan (DD-364). Next to his family, Dad’s service to his country has long been his greatest source of pride.

Mom and Dad in 2010.

Mom and Dad in 2010.

Dad isn’t in good health now. He is woefully weak, and he suffers from mild dementia. He won’t be able to read this tribute. But I will still be able to call him today and tell him that I am proud of him. Thanks for letting me tell you his story.