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The History and Mythology of the Mayflower Arrival in 1620

The Mayflower and its ‘Pilgrims’ reminds us of an event which has entered into the cultural DNA of the United States. This is so, despite the fact that those who sailed and settled did so as English citizens and subjects of the British crown. As with many such formational national epics, myths jostle with realities as events are remembered and celebrated. Three particularly stand out from this epic story.

The myth of Plymouth Rock and Mary Chilton’s bold leap ashore has reverberated through art and popular accounts of the Mayflower. It was a 17th-century event which might be summed up as: “One small step for a woman; one giant leap for the USA.”

The problem is that this story only emerged in 1741 when a project to build a new wharf at Plymouth, Massachusetts, prompted a ninety-five-year-old local resident - Elder Faunce - to claim that a particular rock (about to be buried in the construction process) had received the first step taken onto the shore. Elder Faunce had been born in about 1646, but he had heard of the rock’s ‘history’ from his father, who had arrived in Plymouth in 1623 (three years after the Mayflower). However, no account which is contemporary with the landing in 1620 substantiates this claim. Neither William Bradford nor Edward Winslow made any reference to the ‘rock’ in their records relating to the momentous arrival.

Despite this, the rest, as they say, is ‘history’. Or rather, ‘mythology’. But today that potent myth is enshrined (literally) on the sea shore under its classically-inspired canopy. The rock itself is now much reduced in size, having been broken by various attempts to move it and by the actions of souvenir hunters. Nevertheless, it is a reminder of the power of such symbols to engage with personal and community imaginations.

Then there is the myth of Thanksgiving. As with Plymouth Rock, the image of this event is vivid. And yet the reality is that nobody in the fall of 1621 would have described what occurred as  ‘Thanksgiving’. This was because ‘Thanksgivings’ were solemn observances, with long services, preaching, prayer and praise. They did not officially have one of these until July 1623.

What occurred in 1621 was a ‘Harvest Home’ celebration. We do not even know exactly when it happened; but it probably took place in late October or early November. Native Americans were definitely there. However, whether they were invited in gratitude for their assistance or simply arrived because food was available we cannot know. What is strange is that when William Bradford later compiled the record known as Of Plymouth Plantation he failed to mention the event at all. He just said that the Pilgrims enjoyed “good plenty” after the harvest of 1621. He had clearly forgotten the event!

If it was not for the 115 words preserved in another document, called Mourt’s Relation, we would know nothing about it whatsoever. This account, probably written by Edward Winslow, says that after the harvest was safely brought in, four men were sent off on a day of duck hunting to provision a special celebration. This celebration included marching and the firing off of muskets, viewed by both Pilgrims and Native Americans. This was then followed by a feast that lasted three days. To this feast the Native Americans added a contribution of five deer. No turkey or cranberry sauce was present.

The myth of virgin territory is rather less specific but it tends to color much of how we view the matter of the Pilgrims’ arrival and settlement. In this construct we imagine the arrival of the Mayflower as the first footfall of Europeans on a territory hitherto untouched by such arrivals. Nothing seems to convey the sense of their epic voyage as much as the impression of ‘first contact’ between the emigrants and a landscape and native community that had no previous connection with Europeans. From this perspective, the First Encounter with the Nauset people, on Cape Cod in December 1620, seems to reveal a native community whose first reaction to the newcomers was inexplicably hostile.

The reality was much more complex and reveals both the remarkably connected nature of the northern Atlantic communities by the 1620s and the reasons why the Nauset were so unwelcoming in their reaction to the exploratory party of Pilgrims. French and English fishermen and Basque whalers had been landing on the New England coast for over a generation. This helps explain why the Pilgrims were later assisted by Native Americans (Samoset and Tisquantum) who could speak English. As a result, alien diseases had cleared coastal communities before anyone’s foot was placed on the legendary ‘Plymouth Rock’.   

As early as 1616, perhaps as many as ninety per cent of the people living in the vicinity of what would become Plymouth had died in an epidemic. This was why the Pilgrims found cleared fields but no native inhabitants there. And the reason for the hostility shown by the Nauset was because they had lost members to English ‘traders’, who had kidnapped them as slaves. It was a slaving expedition that had taken Tisquantum to England, via Málaga in Spain, and then back to his (now devastated) North American home, with the ability to speak English.  

When writing Mayflower Lives (published by Pegasus Books, New York), and exploring the contrasting lives of 14 ‘Saints’ and ‘Strangers’, the interplay between myth and reality was apparent. This is not to disparage the impact of the Mayflower voyage and settlement through a reductionist revisionism. It is simply to reaffirm the central nature of disentangling myth from reality in any historical exploration of this momentous time. That is the very nature of historical enquiry and we should not fear it, even when applying it to an iconic event.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it is a testimony to the remarkable potency of the Mayflower and its legacy, that it has become the stuff of mythology as well as of history. I think that the original Pilgrims would have understood, for they believed that what they had embarked on was not a run-of-the-mill activity. They believed that they walked hand-in-hand with providence and this was the foundation of their mindset and outlook. They always believed that what they were doing was of greater significance than it might outwardly appear.

In the 21st century we may agree or disagree with their perspective on life, but what is undeniable is the fact that what they achieved has inspired the imaginations of huge numbers of people and still challenges us, as we seek to understand it today. It is both history and myth intertwined to a remarkable extent.