Pilgrims 400

In three years, various communities on both sides of the Atlantic will celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the English separatist emigration from Leiden (via Southampton, Dartmouth, and Plymouth) to what became New Plymouth. The two Plymouths in particular hope and rightly anticipate that the anniversary will boost tourism. For a glimpse at the Mayflower/Plymouth 400 plans, see the American and European websites, respectively. The latter is quite useful for locating various Pilgrim sites around England.

The Mayflower Steps in Plymouth (Devon, UK)  Photo by RobertBFC at English Wikipedia
The Mayflower Steps in Plymouth (Devon, UK)
Photo by RobertBFC at English Wikipedia

It’s fascinating to me that the Pilgrim story retains considerable salience long after most academic historians at least have abandoned hagiography for more complex and often much grimmer accounts of early New England history. Even a quick glance at that history reveals that there is at least as much to mourn as there is to celebrate, as disease, warfare, and rapacity shrank native populations and land. New England maverick Thomas Morton rightly termed the region a “new found Golgotha.”

Furthermore, while most historians love seeing the places they write about, the kitschy nature of some Pilgrim sites might turn off the erudite and sophisticated among them. In old and new Plymouth, one finds guides and interpreters in period costume, gift shops, and a host of Pilgrim paraphernalia.

Finally, it’s a bit easy to roll one’s eyes at longstanding but not entirely rock-solid claims. Did the Pilgrims (who did not become “the Pilgrims” until the early nineteenth century, but who did understand themselves as Pilgrims on their way to heaven) really walk on Old Plymouth’s Mayflower Steps? Unlikely, since the steps in question were not there in 1620. Did the Pilgrims really step onto Plymouth Rock? The latter stems from a mid-eighteenth-century claim.

Despite all of the above, I am having a blast visiting Pilgrim sites in Europe this summer, while working on a history of New Plymouth due in — you guessed it — 2020. I’ve eaten at the Mayflower Pub in London’s Rotherhithe district. I had Pilgrim ice cream in Old Plymouth. In fact, the seafood in both Plymouths is top-notch. I sampled quahogs for the first time the last time I was in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and I keep it simple with fish and chips on this side of the pond. I do not allow myself to get sidetracked by the fact that the fare on the actual Mayflower was rather less abundant and exquisite. One can only have so much historical empathy.

Historians frequently complain that their contemporaries do not care about the past, only to then complain about enthusiasts who fail to comprehend the past with sufficient complexity or remorse. I think it’s rather splendid that a fair number of twenty-first century Americans remain Pilgrim fanatics. And not all of them are descendants, either.

Certainly, many historians, politicians, and others have mischaracterized the Plymouth separatists over the last two hundred years. They were not sailing to the New World for anything approaching our ideals of democracy or religious freedom. The separatist leaders sought liberty, by which they meant organizing their church according to their understanding of the Bible. They asked kings James and Charles for “liberty of conscience,” but at first only as a means of ensuring their colony’s survival. In a letter written shortly before the colony’s dissolution, Thomas Hinckley explained to officials in New England that residents of New Plymouth enjoyed religious freedom, as long as they were not “Papists” or “Quakers” (whom he defined as not Christians). Those who dissented from the established orthodoxy were left in peace, as long as they helped support the town minister from whom they dissented. One can read the correspondence of Plymouth’s Quakers for a sense of how that went.

Leaving no rock unturned in the quest for European Pilgrim sites
Leaving no rock unturned in the quest for European Pilgrim sites

In the end, even as historians question everything from landmarks to outdated interpretations, the Pilgrims have retained their importance. It helps to be associated with turkeys and football, for sure. But the Pilgrim myths created in the early nineteenth century have stuck in part because the story itself is so good. A tiny religious minority sets off for “northern Virginia” under incredibly inauspicious circumstances. They cannot finance their voyage on their own. They cannot obtain a royal patent. One of their boats proves unseaworthy. A portion of the group stays in England (a larger portion had chosen to stay in Leiden). They leave too late in the fall and show up on Cape Cod in the midst of winter. Half of them die. And yet the colony survives.

It’s a story worth its multitude of historical sites. A story worth a bit of kitsch.

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