Hey there friends, I’m Yvonne Page Illustrates and this is Facts to Relax, the show where I research topics I find interesting and want to learn more about and then share what I learn with you while we chill out and color a picture on the screen. If you want to color along with me, this picture is available to print on my website, yvonnepage.com/youtube or you can use the link listed in the description below.
Today we’re going to do a deep dive into who the Pilgrims really were. If you grew up in the United States I’m sure you know as much as I did before I started researching-we were all fed the same standard white-washed grade-school rhetoric, of course- that the Pilgrims were brave British pioneers seeking religious freedom on a newly discovered continent; noble people whose conspicuous black and white outfits and top hats so starkly contrasted with the bare chested, feather-wearing Native Americans they shared their first Thanksgiving with; settlers whose arrival on the Mayflower to helped make this great nation what it is today.
But that all just seems so superficial to me now that I’m an adult and I wanted to know more. If I’ve learned anything in the past decade or so since finishing my formal education, it’s that what we were taught in history class is almost never really the full story and so I wanted to dig deeper and really get to know know the Pilgrims…It turns out that the true story involves a lot more betrayal, death, heartache, illness, and fighting than we were taught as kids, so if you want to hear a bit about that, let’s jump right in.
First of all, to truly understand where the Pilgrims-seemingly normal, everyday people, not traders or explorers looking to fuel their lives with excitement and new conquests, were coming from in their decision to cross dangerous seas and start a brand new colony in uncharted territories, we have to go back to England in the early 1600s. This was the reign of King James I, the guy we have to thank for the King James version of the bible. At this time in England, Christianity was the rule, both in day-to-day life and in politics, but just like today, there was disagreement among different Christian groups and this caused quite a bit of strife in the country. We could do an entire episode on just this brief period in British history but right now we’ll just focus on the Puritans. The Puritans were a branch of Protestants who wanted to “purify” the Church of England and remove all Catholic elements from it. I should note that they didn’t call themselves Puritans, they called themselves “Separatists” or “Nonseparating Congregationalists.” “Puritans” was more of a derogatory name given to them by their opposers who saw them as holier-than-thou, hypocritical bible thumpers who couldn’t stand to let others live their lives as they saw fit and wanted to force their beliefs on others. Needless to say, the nickname stuck.
Some basic Puritan beliefs included that humans are naturally sinful and that living religious lives is a must in order to get into heaven, although it wasn’t a guarantee. You see, they also believed that God had preemptively chosen who was getting into heaven and they had no idea who those chosen ones would be but to be safe, they devoted themselves to living highly religious lives so they’d be ready in case they were one of the predestined ones. Any sort of excesses, whether in food, dress, or entertainment were strictly forbidden. Men were the head of the household and women were required to be submissive and humble before their husbands and God. They were devoted churchgoers and services could sometimes last upwards of three hours. They also believed that God called on them to reform the Church of England. All in all, they felt that the Protestant Church of England and the Catholics were too lenient, a concept that may feel completely insane to many of us now-a-days in a time when overarching Western views on religion and spirituality are trending towards less stringent practices and beliefs.
It’s important however, to understand that this was a time of great change in Europe. Trade and agriculture were overhauling the economy, resulting in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Religious wars between Protestants and Catholics had been raging for centuries and tensions were high. The rigid Puritan beliefs helped to quell some of the fears and discomfort that believers had to face in this quickly changing world full of upheaval and strife. And much in the same way we may declare ourselves ready to up and move to a different country after the election of a president we don’t like, one small group of Puritans, saw the newly discovered continent of America as somewhat of a fantasy island, a utopia where they could effectively escape the Church of England and build a community of like-minded believers.
And when I say like-minded believers, that’s exactly what I mean. It’s often said that the Pilgrims went to America in search of “Religious Freedom” but that in no way meant that they were looking to start a society where any and all religions could be freely practiced. They simply wanted the freedom to practice their religion and their religion alone. This would be evidenced, not only in their attempts to convert American Indians to Puritanism but also, decades later when English Quakers began emigrating to New England, they were shunned, brutalized, and essentially tortured by local Puritans for their beliefs.
But we’re not there yet. Back to England. Puritans were being persecuted, although it doesn’t so much seem to be that they were being persecuted for practicing their beliefs as much as they were being persecuted for trying to force their beliefs onto the Church of England. They wanted the Church to do away with kneeling for Communion, priests wearing elaborate robes, and the Book of Common Prayer, among other things. Because of this, they were persecuted for treason-for challenging the king’s authority to dictate forms of worship. In 1607, a group of Puritans known as the English Separatist Church decided that they’d had enough and settled in the Netherlands where they lived for about a decade. Unfortunately, they found several things, including the lenient Dutch laws, culture, and language to be even more unsuitable to their personal belief systems than England had been and they began to set their sights on the “New World” as it was called at the time, instead.
King James saw a double opportunity here. Not only could he be free from some of those pesky Puritans but he could colonize North America at the same time! For this reason he was thrilled to let this group of English Separatists set sail to Jamestown, Virginia to join other English settlers there and form a colony of their own. The journey was financed by investors from the Plymouth Company who expected the travelers to send furs and other goods back to England as payment for their ship fare. The Mayflower officially set sail from Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620 for a 65 day journey. 102 settlers were on the boat, including two baby boys born on the ship during the voyage. Of these 102, only 35 were actual Puritans or Separatists. The rest of the colonists on board were non-separatists hired by the Plymouth Company to help form the new settlement.
The journey was, by all accounts, a miserable affair filled with rough seas, storms which blew them off course, broken ship beams, and illnesses that would have resulted from both malnourishment and the stress of almost constantly being wet from waves breaking over the ship decks, and just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse, the ship began to run low on beer. This seems like a funny problem to have but it was, in fact, a serious one as there were no other safe beverages to consume on board and it wasn’t like they could just call in another ship or plane to drop off replenishments. The Mayflower never made it to Jamestown and they ended up landing on the first piece of dry land they saw, an area in Massachusetts on modern-day Cape Cod. Though it was undoubtedly a relief to find land at all, it would certainly have been a disappointment to realize there would be no fellow settlers there to greet and assist them. At first they landed in Provincetown on November 10 at the outermost tip of the Cape but they only stayed there for about five weeks before running into the Nauset Indian tribe and deciding it would be best to find a new location to call home. They left Provincetown and on December 16, 1620 they landed at a mainland spot about an hour and a half boat ride across the bay from Provincetown. This move would prove to be serendipitous as there they found an abandoned Patuxet village, which had been wiped out a few years earlier by European disease brought by traders. Despite the fact that some of the huts still housed corpses, the Pilgrims were thankful to God for providing them with this sheltered spot, on a hillside next to a stream, with still growing cornfields nearby. Though they had no legal right to establish a colony there, the passengers quickly drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, a document, while swearing allegiance to the English king, also created a political body with laws and elected officials all their own. This would become the first document establishing self-government in the New World and would set the stage for future settlers looking for independence from Britain.
John Carver, a prominent Puritan aboard the Mayflower was the first signer of the Mayflower Compact, likely in fact to have been the author of the compact, and he became the first governor of Plymouth Colony. While still in Provincetown, it was Carver who sent out an expedition to scout for a more suitable location for their settlement. The 16 men who traveled around the bay in a small boat on rough, freezing waters found the new settlement spot which they would call “New Plymouth” in honor of the Plymouth they’d set sail from in England. During their expedition, they were attacked by Nauset tribesmen who’d had interactions with English traders before that had ended with their people being both kidnapped and inadvertently killed by new European-borne diseases. The Nausets were quite reasonably on the offensive when they noticed new white people in their land and though no one on either side of the scuffle was hurt, the incident is still known to this day as “The First Encounter” and caused an understandable wariness on the part of the Pilgrims towards the inhabitants of their new home.
The women and children quickly began to desperately forage for food and water in their new location, which caused food poisoning amongst them, while men set about building a common house but they weren’t able to get much further than that one structure before the frigid winter set in. The Pilgrims spent that first winter aboard the Mayflower, which quickly turned into a deathbed as much as a shelter. Perhaps if they’d landed in spring or summer the story of their first few months in America would have been different but as it stands, during that first winter, at least 50 of the 102 settlers that had arrived died from disease and starvation. Though some shipmates did their best to help the sick, others were less kind, dragging the dying into the woods and forcing them to drink water so the remaining beer onboard could be saved for the healthy. Dead were buried in unmarked graves on Cole Hill. The surviving passengers were a mix of widows, widowers, and orphans alike who emerged from the ship in the spring, weakened and devastated from their losses. On April 5, the remaining settlers were left to their own devices when the Mayflower and its remaining crew set sail back to England. Luckily for them, they received a bit of help from the local people already living in the area…without their assistance, it’s almost certain that none of them would have survived the rest of that first year.
The Wampanoag Indians, which was the name for a loose confederation of several local tribes, had watched the Pilgrims struggle from a distance over the winter but none had approached them directly until March 16, 1621, when a man named Samoset, who’d learned English from traders, made contact. Samoset was an Abenaki chief who was being held by the Wampanoags. Massasoit, who was the leader of the Wampanoags offered Samoset his freedom in exchange for acting as a diplomat between the indigenous people and the Pilgrims. He later returned with another man named Tisquantum, or Squanto as he’s commonly known to us now. Tisquantum had been a member of the Patuxet tribe whose village the Pilgrims had stumbled upon the previous December, and was in fact the only surviving member since he had been kidnapped and taken to Europe as a slave years earlier. He’d since gained his freedom and returned to his home, now speaking perfect English but having no tribe to welcome him back. Whether he was considered a prisoner or a guest of Massasoit is a bit unclear but either way, Tisquantum was sent alongside Samoset back to the new colony since his English was better than Samoset’s. Eventually the men brought governor John Carver to meet with Massasoit and helped the two leaders negotiate and sign the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty on April 1. This treaty stipulated that no members of either group would harm or steal from members of the other group, that they would aid each other in war, and that members from both groups would leave all weapons behind when meeting with one another. This treaty was upheld by both sides on several occasions, including one noted occurrence in which Pilgrim leaders lured two rival tribesmen to a private dinner and then stabbed them both to death on behalf of the Wampanoags. History often paints indigenous people of any place as savages in attempts to justify violence against them but if that was the case here, the same could be said of the Pilgrims. Recent archeological finds show that the two groups literally lived side-by-side and the entrances to either village or colony would have been frequently littered with severed body parts and decapitated heads.
After the treaty was signed, Tisquantum remained with the Pilgrims, teaching them to plant crops, fish, and hunt, and interpreted between them and other tribes. This is also when he was given the nickname “Squanto” by his new Pilgrim friend, William Bradford, who would become the second governor of Plymouth Colony after John Carver unexpectedly died soon after the treaty was signed. It is undoubtedly with the assistance of Tisquantum and the Wampanoag people that the Pilgrims were able to survive and eventually thrive in this new land.
Come autumn, a Thanksgiving feast was indeed held, although it was quite different from both what we celebrate now and what we imagine the celebration was like in elementary school pageants. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the first Thanksgiving, I did another video about what they ate at the feast that I’ve linked to in the description below.
Meanwhile, the Pilgrims were still indebted to their creditors back in London who’d funded their trip. The Wampanoags traded animal skins with the Pilgrims which helped them settle their debt. Over the next six years, more English colonists arrived, including family members of the original settlers. By 1627, Plymouth Colony was thriving with growing families and crops and the population had grown from about 50 to about 160. The alliance between the Pilgrims and Wampanoags remained strong for about 50 years, until after Massasoit’s death when his son, known as King Phillip began to wage war against European settlers and colonists formed an armed militia to fight back, the first of its kind. This would begin another chapter in the history of European conquest over the indigenous people of the Americas.
It’s true that the Pilgrims were an important part of American history and that the country would probably be quite different today if they’d never decided to make that fateful trip across the ocean in 1621, though whether things would be better or worse is up for debate. The effect European settlers had on Indigenous people remains one of the most painful parts of the country’s history but is one that must be fully faced head on and accepted, if not embraced, before we can ever hope to fully move forward. Likewise, the effects of the religious views brought by the Pilgrims and subsequent Puritan immigrants certainly have influenced religion, politics, and cultural viewpoints in the country and this can all be traced back to that little colony in Massachusetts settled hundreds of years ago.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Facts to Relax and if you have any important points that I might have missed, please feel free to share them in the comments. If you’d like to learn more with me in the future, please subscribe to the channel and come back soon to color, chill and learn some more with me again. Bye.
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