New England History for Truth-Seeking Tourists

Of Pilgrims, Progress, Power

A statue of the sachem Iyanough, for whom Hyannis, Mass. is named. Iyanough helped arrange the return of 16-year-old John Billington, who got lost in 1621 and was taken custody by indigenous people. Iyanough died in 1621 while still in his 20s. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

A statue of the sachem Iyanough, for whom Hyannis, Mass. is named. Iyanough helped arrange the return of 16-year-old John Billington, who got lost in 1621 and was taken custody by indigenous people. Iyanough died in 1621 while still in his 20s. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

I begin reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower with the hope that the ending is going to be a slightly different one. I resist picking up this work for a long time because I know it isn’t going to end well for the indigenous people. Still, I am curious to see how much I remember about Miles Standish and his crew from my own school years.

I have the general storyline: a group leaves England in the pursuit of religious freedom. I learn from Mayflower, though, that the Pilgrims were aiming for the Hudson River when they found themselves in the vicinity of Cape Cod. They were hungry, and were stealing corn from Indians within about 10 minutes of their arrival. This pretty much foreshadows the next 270 years: they came, they saw, they conquered. So much for that 10-Commandment thing.

Some other things I learn: Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to get to the future United States, and the Pilgrims also were not farmers, which explains in part some of the hardship they experienced upon their arrival and their need for some of that Indian corn. Even as the Pilgrims needed assistance from the Indians, they were building a wall to keep them out.

It turns out that a lot of what American kids once learned in elementary school isn’t entirely historically accurate. The whole Plymouth rock thing is a bit of a myth, and there was a bit of a military-industrial complex established right from the get-go. Indians were willing to trade land for weapons. It makes sense that eventually the guns and the powder would be used.

The Indians had a numerical advantage at the outset of the arrival of European settlers, but their population was decimated by disease and by war. They might have done a bit better but for rival factions sometimes fighting one another.

I also learn that the American settlers, while criticizing natives for being uncivilized, weren’t exactly gentlemanly in their war efforts. European-Indian skirmishes involved burning homes, burning buildings with people still in them, taking captives, paying ransoms, and sometimes drawing-and-quartering someone particularly unfortunate in a conflict (which is as bad as it sounds). As if displaying an Indian’s head on a spike in Plymouth wasn’t a sufficiently bad outcome of settler-native wars, the Pilgrims went even further and sold vanquished Indians into slavery, shipping them off to the Caribbean.

It’s easy to visit Massachusetts, to admire the view of Cape Cod, but we might all be well-reminded how exactly it is that we got to this place.

—Lori Tripoli

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