THOSE DAMNED PILGRIMS—European Invasion of North America Continued at Plymouth Rock

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart


the-pilgrimsAs the old pickup truck bumped its way down the rocky trail beneath the spectacular New Mexico skies, the blazing sunset turning the red rock cliffs to glorious gold, my Navaho friend Gene asked, “So, did you have a good time today?”

We had experienced a wonderful day, catching our limits of scrappy rainbows from an icy lake in the Chuska Mountains and eating fresh trout cooked over a campfire, beneath a lashing hailstorm.

“This was the best day of my whole life,” I answered.

Gene smiled quietly to himself. “That’s the way it used to be all of the time, before you guys came over here and ruined it for us. If I had been at Plymouth Rock, I would have handed those damned Pilgrims visas and told them how long they could stay and when they were going back to where they came from.”

While we may owe a debt to the Pilgrims, we owe a greater one to the Native Americans. The traditional Thanksgiving dinner consists of turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and cranberries, none of which were familiar to Europeans before their contact with Native Americans. Thanksgiving did not begin with the Pilgrims. Algonquian speaking Native Americans traditionally had celebrated the Green Corn Festival each autumn, a time of celebration and feasting, to show gratitude to the Great Spirit for a bountiful harvest.

The so-called “Pilgrims” arrived uninvited in 1620 after surviving a harrowing 65 day voyage across the wintery Atlantic, 102 men, women and children stuffed into the middle deck of a the Mayflower, surviving on spoiled food and contaminated water, surrounded by festering chamber pots. Seasickness was continual. Three of the women were pregnant, one giving birth during the voyage. Later, half would succumb to sickness and starvation. They were Separatists, their religious zealotry fueled by animosity toward the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. Recalcitrant and intolerant, they had thus far failed to get along anywhere.

Spaniards and others had already staked their claims to large swaths of the new continents, and Englishmen had previously established a colony on nearby Cuttyhunk Island in 1602 to harvest sassafras, thought to be a cure for syphilis.

Upon learning that the Patuxet people had earlier been decimated by an epidemic, the Pilgrims thanked their God for ridding the region of “savages” so that they might have their lands. The first Native American they met was Samoset, who immediately asked for a beer. The great Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, they believed, had been sent by God to assist in their undertaking. To their credit, the first generation of Pilgrims wanted to maintain friendly relations with their hosts.  

Not so the succeeding generation and the wave of Puritan “strangers” who flocked to New England during the years leading up to the English Civil War. Tensions would build, leading to King Philip’s War, proportionally the bloodiest and cruelest conflict ever fought upon North American soil. The causes involved Pilgrim/Puritan encroachment upon Native lands. Puritan towns denuded nearby forests for firewood and destroyed habitat for game animals. Native Americans were being marginalized in their own country.

There were religious conflicts as well. The new people preached freedom of religion, but generally failed to extend the concept to those outside their own cult. Native Americans were prosecuted in Puritan courts for hunting on the Sabbath or practicing their ancestral forms of medicine, often more effective than European efforts to combat illness. Native Americans could even expect the death sentence for denying the Christian faith.

The war lasted from 1675 to 1678. Metacomet, known as King Philip, the son of the late Massasoit, commanded Native American forces. Six hundred colonials and 3000 Native Americans would die before it ended, some burned live in their wigwams, and twelve New England towns would be destroyed. With the full approval of their religious leaders, who proclaimed that slavery existed in the Old Testament, Pilgrims and Puritans sold Native Americans of all ages and genders off into lives of drudgery and despair in the Caribbean. Even Philip’s wife and son were sold off to Bermuda.

In 1676, the British ship Seaflower, less exalted by folklorists than the more famous Mayflower, transported 180 Native American slaves to the Caribbean. Plymouth alone shipped over 500 slaves south. Philip was shot to death, beheaded, drawn and quartered, his head displayed on a pole in Plymouth for the next twenty years.

Underlying the myth of homeless strangers seeking sanctuary in a hostile land and storybook portrayals of the first Thanksgiving lurks an arrogance originating with the Aristotelian view that there exist those less than human, who can be robbed of their ancestral lands and livelihood, enslaved and even murdered in the most gruesome manner in order to foster a program of territorial expansion, contributing to the enduring delusion of American exceptionalism. Those who so solemnly professed Christian ideals in the high sounding phrases of the Mayflower Compact and the City on a Hill speech, in reality, fostered a tradition of greed, cruelty, bigotry, intolerance and destruction.


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