Playing Pilgrims

For me and my friends growing up on Cape Cod, the story of the Mayflower voyage took on a mythical quality. It felt significant to us to be walking the land that the Pilgrims saw after that long and perilous voyage. Our frequent field trips to Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II provided fuel for our imaginations, and through the long New England winters we played Pilgrim in our houses. My mother let us empty out a large closet, and my friends and I would gather some blankets and toys and munch on stale bread in the dark, pretending we were in cramped quarters on the Mayflower with our children. In the summer we gathered wildflowers for our forest fort – our version of a Plimoth Plantation cottage. I had no ancestral connection to the Mayflower, but I was drawn to the idea of a seafaring adventure and of reinventing oneself in a new land.

In October of 2015, the NEHGS staff visited the Mayflower II and Plimoth Plantation. I hadn’t been there in many years, and my impressions of Pilgrim life and the Mayflower voyage were very different as an adult. I was stunned by how small the Mayflower was, and how ill-equipped it was for human comfort or safety. Interpreters explained that ocean travel was the exclusive province of traders, explorers, and the military. Regular people didn’t travel by sea, so ships were not designed to carry passengers. The Pilgrims had to book ships that were equipped for carrying goods and livestock, with sleeping berths for only the crew, and settle themselves as best they could for the long, crowded voyage. Looking at it from an adult perspective, in particular from the perspective of a mother, I was horrified. I wondered how many wives and mothers, seeing the ship for the first time, wanted desperately to back out of the voyage.

Looking at it from an adult perspective, in particular from the perspective of a mother, I was horrified.

The conditions at Plimoth Plantation were far more pleasant, almost idyllic on that gorgeous autumn day. Butterflies and bees hovered over the late-season vegetables and medicinal herbs in the gardens, while the townsfolk went calmly about their business, stopping to talk to us and answer our questions. I joined a crowd of women watching John Alden chop wood and listened to him talk about the deprivations and limitations he had faced in England, and the bounty and opportunities in his new life. I had learned over the years that while the Pilgrims did flee England because of persecution, they didn’t travel directly to the “New World.” Instead, they emigrated to the Netherlands, where they were able to practice their religion without fear. The voyage to establish a new colony was prompted largely by concerns about preserving their way of life and raising their children without outside distractions and temptations. John Alden, however, offered an example of the story I’d loved as a child – a man who sailed from a place with filthy air and filthy water, where he would have been unable to marry or own property, to a new land where he could make his own fortune through hard work and dedication.[1]

In school, I was taught very little about the Wampanoag who lived in the area when the Mayflower arrived – and what I learned was taught from a colonialist perspective. Our textbooks called them Indians and claimed that they benefited a great deal from their friendship with the colonists. The dark truths of the story – the kidnappings and enslavements, the discord and breakdown of relations, and the mistreatment of the Wampanoag at the hands of European settlers – were left out. We learned only about the friendships that developed, about “Squanto” and his diplomatic efforts, and of course about that first Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until many years later, when NEHGS partnered with the Wampanog tribe and with Wampanoag media company SmokeSygnals to produce an exhibit about native life in pre- and post-colonial New England, that I began to understand the violent history behind those beloved childhood tales.

[I learned] how the tribe keeps their ancestral memories alive through tradition and practice, and how … the tribe is thriving and the old ways are still very much a part of Wampanoag culture.

When I visited the SmokeSygnals “Our”Story exhibit at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth for an article I was writing,[2] I learned about the complex history of Tisquantum (Squanto), his kidnapping and enslavement, the tragic loss of his entire Patuxet tribe, and his heroic attempts to put the Wampanoag in a bargaining position while maintaining peace with the settlers. I learned that the Mayflower landing exacerbated the suffering of the Wampanoag at the hands of white settlers, and that they commemorate it as a day of mourning. Later, when I co-authored an article[3] with Steven Peters of SmokeSygnals about the NEHGS exhibit on Wampanoag life, I learned how the tribe keeps their ancestral memories alive through tradition and practice, and how – despite outside efforts to destroy them – the tribe is thriving and the old ways are still very much a part of Wampanoag culture. The story of the Wampanoag’s resilience inspired me. I loved learning about the community spirit and reverence for nature that are woven through all their traditions, from the visual storytelling of Wampum beading, to the labor-intensive construction of the mishoon (a traditional Wampanoag boat), to the multi-generational oral and visual histories that pass their stories on through song and dance.

Though I no longer harbor my childhood fantasies about the Mayflower, my broader understanding of this pivotal event has made the stories of the Pilgrims and the Wampanog more meaningful and relevant to me than before. As a parent, I now have a new set of stories – more complicated but also more compelling – to tell my own children.

Notes

[1] Alden’s English origins are a matter of speculation and debate. See https://mayflower.americanancestors.org/john-alden-biography

[2] Jean Powers, “The ‘Our’Story Exhibit: 400 Years of Wampanoag History,” American Ancestors 19: 1 [Spring 2018]. This article is available to NEHGS members at AmericanAncestors.org/Browse/Publications/AAM-Vol-19-No-1.

[3] Jean Powers and Steven Peters, “Keeping Tradition Alive: A Portrayal of Wampanoag Life,” American Ancestors 20:  4 [Winter 2020]. This article is available to NEHGS members at AmericanAncestors.org/Browse/Publications/AAM-Vol-20-No-4.

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About Jean Powers

Jean provides editing, writing, design, illustration, and creative and strategic concepts for a variety of marketing, development, educational, and outreach projects. She assists on American Ancestors magazine, The Weekly Genealogist newsletter, the Great Migration Study Project, and our Facebook page.

4 thoughts on “Playing Pilgrims

  1. When I was about two, my family lived in Provincetown for a while My father was a writer who supported himself by working on a fishing point. I am told that every night I said good night to the Monument, “good night, moni, moni.” As it turned out I was descended from 12 people who were on board the Mayflower when it arrived.

  2. Hi Jean, This is a terrific article. Hope all’s well in your garden!
    Margaret (from Chelsea, now Florence.)

  3. This is not the optimal place for this, but I’m not sure of where else to go.

    My city was named for Moses Warren Jr. of Lyme CT.i once did research on him. I found he was descended from two unrelated Warrens on the Mayflower. I’d like to confirm that.

  4. Thanks, Jean. Great article.

    When you mention ‘exacerbation’ by the Mayflower, were you referring to their already decrease in numbers due to the dreaded smallpox passed on (recent theory) by French fisherman?

    Also, what was the source for ‘enslavement’? I’ve been doing some research on early slavery and had known about First People carried off to England, such as Squanto, but have little on slave trading in a market.

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