T’was 400 years ago this month, a shipload of Pilgrims and sailors arrived in New England waters after a voyage of 66 days aboard the Mayflower from England.
Seeking to settle near the mouth of the Hudson River, then part of Virginia, the group soon decided to remain in New England waters due to dangerous shoals and poor winds. While waiting on Cape Cod Bay, the adult Pilgrim men would agree and sign the Mayflower Compact, which became the foundation of the settlement’s government.
In the half-decade prior to the Mayflower’s arrival, the local Native Americans, the Wampanoags, had experienced an epidemic, historically believed to be smallpox, which decimated the tribal population.
While looking for a suitable settlement location, the search party found an abandoned Wampanoag village site, which had good water, a sound harbor, clear fields and was located on a hill. The Mayflower finally arrived in Plymouth Harbor on Dec. 16, 1620, and the Pilgrims settled in New Plymouth.
The location was no kinder to the immigrant Pilgrims than it had been to the natives — the Wampanoags. A total of 52 Pilgrim men, women and children would die during that first winter in New Plymouth.
The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag of the region would eventually form an alliance that would last for about 50 years and help establish and stabilize the English colony of immigrants.
For the Pilgrim descendants and most Americans, the romanticized history is remembered every Thanksgiving. However, not all that you have heard is true.
The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to visit New England. In the late 1400s and 1500s, Basques, English and French had visited parts of New England.
The prime intent of the Pilgrims was to continue their English culture and simply to make money in the New World. Seeking religious freedom was secondary. In fact, they strongly sought to convert all Native Americans to Christianity.
The Pilgrims and Wampanoags did not come together in November 1621 to celebrate the First Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were holding a harvest feast and began firing their guns in celebration, which, in turn, raised concerns among the Wampanoags. The tribe’s head sachem, Massasoit, soon traveled with 90 warriors uninvited to the settlement expecting to go to war. But seeing a celebration, the Native Americans brought five deer as a contribution and joined in the feasting with the Pilgrims.
It was a fairly peaceful existence between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, as each believed they needed each other.
The resulting Mayflower legacy still endures today. Nearly 25 million Americans descended from those Pilgrim passengers, including nine American presidents. These descendants take rightful pride in the Pilgrim legacy. The 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival was to be celebrated this year, but most anniversary events were canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet Pilgrim descendants wrestle with the complicated legacy of our Pilgrim ancestry and history. The establishment of the English culture and the development of the resulting American culture in North America also was the result of systemic racism and several centuries of warfare between new Americans and Native Americans.
This peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags lasted for about 50 years until King Phillip’s War erupted on June 20, 1675. This was the bloodiest war per capita, with several hundred colonists killed and dozens of New England settlements heavily damaged or destroyed. In turn, thousands of Native Americans were captured, killed or wounded and later sold into slavery or indentured servitude. The war decimated the Wampanoag, Narragansett and other smaller tribes in southern New England.
That conflict between Native Americans and a growing colonial nation, that became the United States, lasted for more than 200 years. A number of events would occur right here in Minnesota. The U.S.-Dakota War began in the summer of 1862 in west central Minnesota. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato. The Battle of Sugar Point, the last official battle between the U.S and Native Americans, was fought on Oct. 5, 1898, on the eastern shore of Leech Lake in northern Minnesota.
In between King Philip's War and the Battle of Sugar Point, many Native American tribes were devastated due to racial hierarchies, systemic racism and warfare. Many Native Americans still struggle today.
This Thanksgiving is the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning. It has become an annual event when indigenous people gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to honor their ancestors and their continued struggles to survive today. Part of the movement’s mission is to educate Americans on the full history of Thanksgiving and to protest the oppression and racism which Native Americans still experience today.
Now 400 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival, many Americans and Native Americans are working to better understand the history of their ancestors. Yet 2020 has been one of major challenges. The U.S. has been in the midst of a world pandemic since January. The country became embroiled in civil unrest this summer, with protestors calling for justice for George Floyd, who died while in the custody of the Minneapolis police, and other people of color killed or injured by police.
Change takes place in small steps. The living museum Plimoth Plantation, which featured the story of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims since 1947, is in the process of changing its name to be more inclusive of the region’s Native American history. The living history museum’s name is being changed to Plimoth — Patuxet. Its story is “an indigenous-colonial hybrid society that emerged here in the 17th century is the story of the United States’ complex beginning. It is a story of collaboration and conflict, of understanding and miscommunication. It is a story of diplomacy and subterfuge, of respect and of oppression, of friendship and mistrust. It is a story of ideals and profound faith. It is a story of growth and change, of triumph and loss, of compassion and cruelty. It is a story of alliances made and broken, of innovations forged of necessity. … In short, it is America,” the museum said.
As we give thanks this Thanksgiving in remembrance of our Pilgrim ancestry and history, we must also honor and remember all those who came before us.
The National Museum of the American Indian recommends this phrasing: “We gratefully acknowledge the Native peoples on whose ancestral homeland we gather, as well as the diverse and vibrant Native communities who make their home here today.”
Kelly Boldan is editor of the West Central Tribune. He is a descendant of a significant Pilgrim line that evolved from John Howland, the Mayflower passenger who fell overboard and landed on a topsail halyard and was hauled back onto the ship. Howland later married Elizabeth Tilley, who sailed upon the Mayflower with her parents, John and Joan (Hurst) Tilley, and her uncle and aunt, Edward and Ann Tilley. Elizabeth was the only Tilley to survive the Pilgrims’ first winter.