Creepy Things about the Pilgrims

The truth about the Pilgrim Fathers, those quaint characters Americans celebrate on Thanksgiving Day, is creepy.

The Pilgrims were a group of radical English Protestant political and religious refugees who settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. The Pilgrims left England because they refused to join the official Anglican Church.

To explain in 1620s England, King James I was the head of the Anglican Church. Hence, many English people viewed non-Anglicans as traitors and enemies of the Crown. Notably, the penalty for treason in the 17th Century was death.

Thus, the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. However, the Pilgrims did not found America; or lead the settlement of New England, as some Americans believe.

To explain, most historians regard the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, as the founding of what we consider America. In addition, the principal base for the Puritan conquest of New England was the Massachusetts Bay Colony (modern Boston), not Plymouth Plantation. The Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628.

The basic facts about the Puritans are innocuous. However, the Pilgrims’ experiences; and the stories modern Americans tell about them are rather creepy.

Why the Pilgrims are Creepy

Plymouth Plantation only survived because a Pandemic depopulated New England

When the Pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth Bay, they found themselves in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.

Instead of Indians with platters of food, as generations of elementary school pageants teach. The Pilgrims found ghost villages, empty fields, and heaps of dead bodies. They did not bury the dead because disease left nobody left alive to bury them.

The Pilgrims found no people in Massachusetts because they were dead. A pandemic; natives call the Great Dying of 1616-1619, killed most of the Wampanoag, Massachusetts, Pennacook, Nauset, Permaquid, and Abenaki peoples.

The mysterious plague (probably smallpox) was one of many pandemics that killed most of the indigenous population of the Americas. To elaborate, the Americans; unlike European settlers and African slaves, had no immunity to old world diseases such as smallpox.

The pandemic ensured the Pilgrims’ survival because Wampanoag, Massachusetts, Pennacook, Nauset, Permaquid, and Abenaki warriors would have probably killed them. The natives outnumbered the Pilgrims, who had few guns and a handful of soldiers.

The Pilgrims lacked the soldiery and firepower to fight off a large native attack. Moreover, it is doubtful that King James I would have sent military aid to people he regarded as traitors to his crown. Thus, the Puritans could have faced a native army instead of empty fields.  

There was no Native Army and no attack because the pandemic had killed the indigenous soldiery. Hence, the indigenous people could not prevent the Puritan invasion of New England.

Without the pandemic, Plymouth Plantation could have become another lost colony such as Roanoke Colony, instead of a major event in American history.

The Pilgrims were thankful for the Pandemic that depopulated New England

Interestingly, the Pilgrims understood how the pandemic cleared the way for them. Horrifically, the real “First Thanksgiving” was the Pilgrims thanking God for the diseases that killed most of the native population.

Most Pilgrims and later Puritan settlers regarded the pandemics as a “miraculous pestilence” that made their colonies possible, CVLT Nation notes. For instance, early colonial merchant Thomas Morton wrote the pandemics made New England “much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”

“In a short time after, the hand of God fell heavily upon the Nausets with such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses,” 17th Century ecclesiastic Cotton Mather wrote in an early history of New England.*

To be fair, the Pilgrims were not responsible for the pandemic. The scientific knowledge and technology needed to wage germ warfare did not exist until the late 19th Century. Instead, the Pilgrims being Calvinists thought everything; including the Natives’ misfortunes, was part of God’s plan.

The Traditional Thanksgiving Story is an effort to Deny Slavery

Strangely, many Americans believe Plymouth was the first English settlement in America. Indeed, generations of Americans believed the first English settlers came to America on The Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ ship.

In reality, there was a thriving English colony with a growing economy and English-speaking America’s first elected legislature at Jamestown, Virginia, when the Mayflower set sail for New England. The London Company founded the Jamestown Colony in 1607.

The first legislature the Jamestown colonists convened in July 1619; the House of Burgesses still exists as part of Virginia’s state legislature. Thus, America’s democratic and republican traditions began at Jamestown, not Plymouth.

Americans ignore the Jamestown story because of another key event that occurred in 1619. On 20 August 1619, the first African slaves arrived in Virginia, just a month after the first legislature met in July.

The introduction of slaves to Virginia was accidental. The Portuguese ship San Juan Bautista was hauling the Angolan slaves to Mexico when privateers attacked. The crew of the privateer ship White Lion took the slaves to Point Comfort, Virginia, and traded them for food.

I regard the traditional Thanksgiving story as an effort to deny America’s history of slavery and racism. The story of brave Pilgrims seeking freedom is far nobler and more appealing than American planters trading food to pirates for slaves.

To elaborate, privateers were pirates who received a letter of marquee; a license to practice piracy from a government. Until the 19th Century, governments issued letters of marquee as a cheap means of expanding their navies in wartime. A letter of marquee authorized sailors to attack and pillage the enemy’s ships.

The true origins of America’s traditional Thanksgiving Story lie in 19th and 20th Century education. Many 19th and 20th Centuries, educators believed history needed to be simplified and cleansed of all complexity and ugliness in order to teach patriotism to citizens.

In particular, Progressive Era reformers wanted to instill “American values”; read white protestant values here, in immigrants and their children. Stories about slavery and privateers do a poor job of teaching American values. Stories about brave Pilgrims and friendly Indians can teach such values.

Admitting slavery’s existence destroys the myth of America as a pure and noble land or a city on a hill. Denying slavery’s existence; however, erases the struggle and sacrifice of thousands of Americans who fought to eradicate that evil from our history.

Something to remember here is that the debate over slavery has nothing to do with the Pilgrims. The Thanksgiving mythology Americans venerate today is a 20th Century invention. In fact, there was no legal Thanksgiving holiday until 1941, before then Congress and the president declared national days of Thanksgiving.

Holding people who died in the 17th Century responsible for modern political debates is ridiculous. Therefore, nobody should blame the Pilgrims for Thanksgiving.

Thus, the traditional American Thanksgiving has some creepy overtones. I have to wonder if the odd tradition of gathering to eat turkey and watch football in order to commemorate fictional history will survive the 21st Century.

* Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: or, The ecclesiastical history of New-England from its first planting in the year 1620 unto the year of Our Lord 1698 , Page 49.