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On the Mayflower

Monday December 16, 2013

On November 21, 1620, the Mayflower Ship, carrying around 150 persons on board, including 102 passengers, dropped anchor at the tip of Cape Cod after a long and wretched voyage from England. Before disembarking any passengers, the settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.  Over the next few winter months, over half of the passengers and crew who stayed on board died from what was described as a “general sickness” of coughs, colds and fever.  Finally in March of 1621, the 53 remaining passengers (known to us as “Pilgrims”) built a permanent settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The event that Americans think of as the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the 53 Pilgrims and 90 members of the native tribes after their first harvest in the New World in 1621.


In the week prior to the Thanksgiving break, rather than study the history of Thanksgiving, all the students at our children’s school were involved in some capacity with the school Thanksgiving food drive.  On Tuesday, November 26, my sixth grader spent the greater part of the morning packing up the food for donation.  The emphasis at the school is Thanksgiving as a day of service rather than as a historical event or understanding how it came to be a national holiday.

I understand that for many the history of the Mayflower and the Plymouth settlement, is controversial, since it preceded further settlement of Europeans which ultimately resulted in the death of untold thousands of members of the native tribes of North America.  It is history nevertheless, and it should be taught, without demonizing the settlers or sanctifying the native peoples.  All of history holds uncomfortable truths, but in our efforts to acknowledge historic wrongs we should not fall prey to the mistake of failing to teach that which is good and honorable in our history. 

While the details of the story of the Mayflower and the Plymouth Colony are complex, the basic outline is clear.  The settlers came for two reasons: religious freedom and economic opportunity.  When they arrived, they organized themselves into a civil society, where they agreed to enact such laws as were necessary for the general good of their colony, which laws they promised to obey.  In this, the story of the Mayflower is the story of the United States, for it explains why people came and are still coming to this country, and how, having arrived, they established a democratic form of government to which we still adhere.

It is also important to learn that the settlers, at least initially, treated the native peoples they encountered with respect and deference, and that many of the native tribes, in spite of some previous bad experiences with English captains and fishermen, were interested in getting to know the settlers and to trade with them.  By March of 1621, the Plymouth Colony Governors had negotiated a peace treaty with Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoags, and established trading relations.  In this they were greatly aided by Tisquantum, better known as “Squanto”, a native of Patuxet who had acquired his English while living in England (having somehow gotten passage to England from Malaga, Spain, where he had been transported against his will by a treacherous English captain).  In fact, the settlers and Massasoit developed a true friendship that lasted during all of Massasoit’s lifetime.

For an excellent account of the Mayflower, if somewhat exhaustive, I recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower. There are many good children’s books, but I would start with Ann McGovern’s If you Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.  Next Thanksgiving, in the midst of food drives and clothing donations, brining turkeys and organizing travel schedules, please take some time with your family to study the history of the Mayflower. 

About the Author

Caroline Pillsbury Oliver is married to Drew Oliver, and is the mother of four children.  Caroline and her family live in Greenwich, Connecticut.  When not driving her children around, supervising homework, tracking down lost articles of clothing, grocery shopping and making dinner, Caroline works part time as a trusts and estates attorney.

Caroline is a graduate of the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, Brown University and Columbia Law School.  Caroline grew up living abroad as the daughter of an American Foreign Service Officer, and was born in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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