How the Pilgrims' Image Evolved

To begin with, the Pilgrims wouldn't have thought of themselves as Pilgrims, but as godly folk who wanted to worship in their own way. For example, they did not celebrate Christmas, and they believed that no hymns — only psalms — should be sung in church.

"They were a pretty serious group," says LeBeau, who hosts a weekly radio program, Talking History.

"They were a small sect; they never became a very large group. They did demand a strong allegiance to a code of rules. They were a democratic people committed to religious freedom … but that religious freedom was their own religious freedom," he says. "Anyone who did not believe what the Pilgrims believed would not have been welcome."

As for their sober manner of dress, says Travers, our picture is "vastly simplified. Gray was a color — it was hardly the color." She says the Pilgrims would have also worn reds and yellows and blues and greens, with dress varying according to the wearer's station in life and the occasion. "Dark clothes tend be the ones you wear for your best."

As for the hats, "those great square things are more 18th century," she says. The Pilgrims wouldn't have been sporting buckles, either, she says — "they became fashionable later on."

Saw Indians as Allies, Not Friends

The Pilgrims did hold a day of Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, but their reasons for inviting the Indians weren't purely altruistic, says Jeffrey L. Pasley, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.

"It wasn't just 'we're going to be friendly.' It was a military alliance," he says.

The idea that the Pilgrims were "sort of frontier hippies living in peace and harmony, making friends and sharing food" just isn't accurate, Pasley says. "They were there to live and to some degree to conquer or establish and transplant European culture."

The Pilgrims developed a relationship with the Wampanoag people, led by the sachem Massassoit, because they needed help adjusting to the new land and protection against other bands of Indians. As for the Wampanoag, they wanted military allies in their battles against enemy tribes, and they were quick to observe that the colonists had guns.

"They tended to see the whites as an opportunity," Pasley says.

This alliance didn't last too long. A generation later, the colonists would wage a bloody war against the Wampanoag, who were led by Massassoit's son, Metacom, also known as King Philip. It ended, Pasley says, with the Indian population decimated and "Metacom's head on a pike in Plymouth."

Pilgrims' Influence Wanes

The Pilgrims themselves were not a political force in the New World for long, Pasley says. "The thing the average American doesn't understand is that they are, in some respects, the losers."

In 1630, another group of English settlers founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston. Although they shared many of the same religious beliefs, "the Pilgrims were quite different from the group we now call the Puritans," says Creighton's LeBeau. "They were a smaller group, poorer, less well-educated."

The Pilgrims in the small Plymouth colony were quickly subsumed by the new settlement. "Boston is the main settlement, that's the one that becomes the dominant one," says Pasley. "They're bigger, they're wealthier and they're better armed. They're more imperialistic than the Pilgrims were."

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