Sometimes, Telling Us More About the Pilgrims Actually Tells Us Less

Written by on November 25, 2020

This December marks 400 years since the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, and for the past 200 years the story of its passengers has loomed large in American memory. Generations of schoolchildren have learned its basic plot: how a tiny band of plain men and women, desperate for a better life, crossed the stormy Atlantic and endured unimaginable hardships in a strange land where, with the help of their Native American neighbors, they managed to endure and even to flourish.

But how well do we know this group that the 19th century would christen “the Pilgrims”? Not well at all, as it turns out. With her new book The World of Plymouth Plantation, UCLA historian Carla Gardina Pestana joins a long line of scholars who have tried to set the record straight over the years, seeking to challenge, complicate, and enrich our understanding of the story we think we already know. The result is a book that is generally informative and interesting but rarely edifying.

A Little Bit About a Lot of Things

Pestana rightly laments that we condense the history of the Pilgrim colony into a series of discrete, still-life vignettes: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the landing at Plymouth Rock, the celebration of the first Thanksgiving. She is correct in noting that Americans have mythologized each of those historic moments. If later generations insisted that the Mayflower Compact was “an early expression of democratic striving,” the Pilgrims in reality gave “no indication of wanting to escape their status as subjects of a king.” Although more than a million tourists flock to Plymouth annually to file past a shrine erected over the Pilgrims’ supposed landing site, “those who designated a rock as the landing site … conveyed an astonishing ignorance about sailing.” And the 1621 celebration we remember as the first Thanksgiving was not what the Pilgrims would have considered a true Thanksgiving holy day but rather an English harvest festival devoid of religious overtones.

Pestana offers these corrections without dwelling on them. Her goal is less to debunk our understanding of these iconic moments than to draw our attention away from them—not because they are unimportant but because they “limit our insight.” By wrenching these events from their context, we not only predictably misunderstand them; we perpetuate our tendency to make the Pilgrims into two-dimensional symbols rather than complex human beings. Pestana’s objective is to reconstruct the Pilgrims’ “world”—to reintegrate “the plantation into its own time and place.”

Toward this end, she tells us a little bit about a lot of things. She begins with the critical contribution of women to the colony’s survival; for all the commemoration of the “Forefathers,” it was “in fact the women, as wives and mothers, who made the plantation a lasting presence in southern New England.” From there she discusses the Pilgrims’ clothing, houses, and diet; their patterns of land use and labor practices; their guns, books, livestock, trading activities, forms of governance, and religious beliefs.

Much of this is brief, vague, and colorless. Her favorite adjective is English, a descriptor that Pestana evidently thinks will convey more to her readers than it probably does. One of her main points is that the Pilgrims sought to recreate the Old World in the New, that they aspired to build a familiar home in a strange land by transplanting English rural culture to North America. And so they brought “English” foods, built “English-style houses,” wore “English clothes.” Her description of what “English” meant in these cases is thin at best, unfortunately. This is not a book that helps readers see its subject.

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Pestana’s discussion of the Pilgrims’ religious faith is similarly disappointing. There’s not much of it, for starters, a trait in keeping with the author’s judgment that “a myriad of factors shaped Plymouth, not just the religious experiences of some of the first migrants.” Among these other influences, Pestana includes the colony’s climate, agricultural potential, accessibility to fishing grounds, and its distance from Spanish colonies and the military threat they entailed. She is surely correct that multiple factors shaped the lives of the colonists—this is always and everywhere a truism—but the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs tend to get lost in the laundry list of circumstances that she explores. What Pestana may have viewed as a healthy corrective—paying attention to nonreligious factors that have often been slighted in popular memory—may come across to christian readers as a secular scholar’s trivialization of beliefs she finds unintelligible.

Pestana insists that the religious radicalism of the Pilgrims “has been over-emphasized,” and she is surely right that one could find English separatists in the 17th century who were even more extreme in their repudiation of the Church of England. But she makes little attempt to understand what propelled these supposedly moderate Protestants to risk their liberty, their possessions, and their very lives to migrate to a strange and forbidding land. When she does try to capture their beliefs, her descriptions fall flat.

At times, the Pilgrims come across as 21st-century consumers. (Many of the Pilgrims had first migrated to Holland because of “the availability of religious options beyond that offered by the English church.”) At other times the author describes the Pilgrims’ convictions as if they are patently bizarre. Upon noting that the Pilgrims were convinced that God punishes sins, she feels constrained to add that they were “far from alone” at the time, as this “represented a common way to think about how God interacted with the world.” After observing that the Pilgrims believed that “God busied himself” with the particulars of their lives, she explains that a belief in divine providence was actually common among “seventeenth-century English people.” While such beliefs are undoubtedly rare among academic historians, they are not quite as exotic in the 21st century as Pestana seems to think.

The Missing Elements

There are two points, above all, that Pestana would have us understand about the Plymouth Colony. The first is that it was more typical than unique for its moment in history. Its existence was shaped by the same categories of factors that shaped all of the Americas from the arrival of Columbus onward. The second is that it was never isolated from the larger Atlantic world. The Pilgrims traded with their neighbors, received a stream of new settlers, welcomed (and then sometimes expelled) visitors, imported books from abroad, and followed political and religious currents in Europe with interest. “Neither first nor unique,” the colony “participated in a growing network of people, ideas, and things.”

Pestana tells us that she is writing with general readers in mind, but the historian who would reach an audience beyond the academy must do two things: She must offer a coherent story, and she must persuade her readers that the story matters to them. The World of Plymouth Plantation falls short on both counts. The author avoids narrative entirely, opting instead for a series of disjointed observations. Nor does she ever meditate on their meaning to the present. Missing from the book is the sense that history can help us see our own time and place more clearly. Absent is the awareness that it can draw us into life-changing conversations with the dead.

This is a shame. Pestana is correct that many factors in addition to the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs contributed to the development of the colony, but among the host of variables that she considers, their religious beliefs—unlike their location and climate, for example—were by far the most readily transferrable and the most relevant to us today. Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving this year amid the most serious health crisis in a century. In the throes of this trial, it might comfort us to

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