The Pilgrims were brave Christians who risked everything to gain religious freedom in the New World. Or they were fanatical European interlopers, guilty of “genocide” against American Indians. Multiculturalism has taken its toll on the reputation of the small band of Protestant separatists who landed at Plymouth Rock in November 1620.
Only 51 of the 102 who arrived aboard the Mayflower survived the first harsh New England winter. Now the question is whether the Pilgrims can survive political correctness in the 21st century.
As Americans prepare for their annual commemoration of the first Thanksgiving feast — actually held in October 1621 to celebrate a bountiful harvest — the Pilgrims are persona non grata in Plymouth, Mass.
Two years ago, the city’s Board of Selectmen erected plaques at Plymouth Rock declaring: “Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.”
The anti-Pilgrim agenda is now national policy. Schools that celebrate Thanksgiving with classroom skits about Pilgrims and Indians do so in violation of federal curriculum guidelines.
“At Thanksgiving, shift the focus away from re-enacting the first Thanksgiving,” teachers were warned in an instructional guide published by the Department of Education in 1996.
Schools should avoid “classroom role playing of the events of the first Thanksgiving,” Pueblo Indian teacher Debbie Reese wrote in the guide, “Teaching Young Children about Native Americans.” The guide explains that the “conception of Native Americans gained from such early exposure is both inaccurate and potentially damaging to others.”
What most Americans call Thanksgiving, Moonanum James, leader of United American Indians of New England, calls a day of mourning.
“The Pilgrims did not come here seeking religious freedom. They already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture,” Mr. James declared in a 1999 protest in Plymouth.
Mr. James said the Pilgrims “introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails and the class system to these shores. About the only true thing in the whole mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in ‘New England’ were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people.”
“What native people got in return for this help was genocide, theft of our lands and never-ending repression.”
The Pilgrims hoped to make their Christian settlement “a city upon a hill,” in the famous words of William Bradford, second governor of the Plymouth Colony. But their initial reaction to America wasn’t exactly a vision of milk and honey. It was “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” Bradford wrote.
The Pilgrims are “not as politically incorrect as Columbus, but they are less politically correct than many Indians would like,” said historian Rick Shenkman, author of “Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History,” and founder of the History News Network (www.hnn.us).
“The Indians and the Pilgrims actually got along pretty well for about 40 years, then they had a falling out,” Mr. Shenkman said.
It was “inevitable that there was going to be some kind of conflict,” he said, “because these two civilizations were occupying the same piece of property.”
If grade-school re-enactments of Thanksgiving stereotype the Indians, they also stereotype the Pilgrims, Mr. Shenkman says.
“We fabricate an image for the Pilgrims the same way we fabricate an image for the Indians. I hope, in the 21st century, we’re no longer perpetuating stereotypes about either group.”
The Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth have often been confused — by Ronald Reagan, among others — with the Puritans, a separate group who established the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630.
One myth about both the Pilgrims and Puritans is that they were against sex, Mr. Shenkman says.
“Actually, it was the Victorians who were puritanical, not the Puritans,” he says. “Back in the 17th century, the Puritans had a much more matter-of-fact attitude about sex.”
In fact, Puritan minister Cotton Mather condemned the “blind zeal” of a married couple who sought to obtain higher spirituality by abstaining from sex.
“As long as we’re talking about sex between a married couple, [the Puritans] had no problem with that,” Mr. Shenkman said. “They believed that God intended man and woman to derive pleasure from sex.”
Nor, he said, did the Pilgrims and Puritans “believe that sex was solely for the purpose of procreation” — although there was plenty of procreating among the early colonists, who tended to marry young and have lots of babies. Priscilla Mullins, immortalized in “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” was 20 when she married John Alden. The couple had 10 children.
Another persistent myth surrounding the first Thanksgiving is that the Indians and Pilgrims dined on turkey. Actually, said Mr. Shenkman, the main course was venison.
Discouraging schools from re-enacting the first Thanksgiving is “ridiculous,” Mr. Shenkman said.
“Thanksgiving’s one of the festivals that I think Indians and white people could rightly celebrate,” he said. “You can indict any people anywhere for any number of offenses, and that’s not the purpose of history. … The purpose of history is to understand why people did things, not to reduce the past to a series of moral lessons, because I don’t think that gets us very far. It just gets people angry.”