How the Pilgrims' Image Evolved

What if the Pilgrims hadn't invited the Indians to a Thanksgiving feast, but instead took them out to the local tavern and regaled them with boastful tales and lewd jokes?

Well, there weren't any bars in the tiny Plymouth settlement in 1621, so it couldn't have happened that way. But our image of the hosts of the first Thanksgiving as somber, gray-clad men wearing hats with buckles took some time to evolve. And it certainly wasn't the way most of their contemporaries thought of them.

Religious separatists like the Pilgrims — often called Puritans because they believed the Church of England needed to be "purified" of all Roman Catholic influences — were mocked and vilified in the literature of the day, says Kristin Poole, an associate professor of English at the University of Delaware.

"The way people were imagining the Puritans in England was almost 180 degrees opposite" to the way they are seen today, says Poole, author of Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton. "They were being portrayed as drunken gluttons and routinely accused of being sexually promiscuous."

Reputation Goes From Drunken to Dour

This stereotype predominated from the 1590s to the 1640s, as evidenced by plays of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton, says Poole.

"Probably the most famous character is Falstaff," she says. "The character of Falstaff — probably the most drunken, irreverent character in the Shakespeare canon — is based on a religious figure."

Indeed, Sir John Falstaff, the fat, boisterous, roistering knight who appears in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor, was originally called Sir John Oldcastle — after a religious reformer martyred for his faith in 1417.

"There are some very cruel jokes Falstaff makes about this," says Poole. "The original Oldcastle was hung in chains and burned alive. Falstaff makes jokes about being roasted."

Contemporary audiences thought this was uproariously funny, but Oldcastle's descendants were not amused. They protested, and eventually the character's name was altered.

But the image persisted, says Poole. It wasn't until the Restoration, when Charles II became king in 1660 and established a very licentious court, that the religious reformers' image changed, at least in literature.

"At that point, to be drunken and sexually lascivious was a good thing," Poole says. So when it comes to mocking the Puritans, "the characters become really dour and repressive."

Glossing Over History

The real Pilgrims who came to the New World in 1620, and the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony 10 years later, were certainly not a debauched bunch, but they weren't universally dour, either.

"The image we have of the Pilgrims is a caricature," says Bryan LeBeau, an American studies professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. "I think elementary school textbooks, the media, children's films all painted a picture."

Since most Americans' study of the Pilgrims begins and ends in grade school, their story is simplified.

"It's mostly a glossing-over of history," says Carolyn Travers, research manager at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass., that includes a recreation of life in 1627 Plymouth and a replica of the Mayflower.

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."

The Pilgrims' memory faded, and New England developed a name for being rather puritanical. Before the Civil War, says Pasley, there was a fierce cultural rivalry between New England and the South. And from outsiders' point of view, the New Englanders didn't have a very good reputation.

"They look good during the American Revolution, but [after that and] up until the 1820s or so they were seen as reactionaries," says Pasley.

They were particularly resented for what was seen as a tendency to foist their religious beliefs and morals on other people.

"Massachusetts had tax-supported churches," says Pasley. "There were people out of New England who considered Massachusetts and Connecticut to be the Taliban. The president of Yale was called the pope of New England because of this idea that they had this theocracy that was un-American."

In Thomas Jefferson's time, he says, "the Salem witch trials would have been much more well-known" than the story of the first Thanksgiving. And stories like this, says Pasley, "made them look terrible."

The New Englanders might have been down, but they weren't out. They still had a salvo or two left to fire in the PR war.

A Literary Renaissance

In the mid-19th century, the South's refusal to end slavery, while Boston became an abolitionist center, turned the tables somewhat. And New England also produced a crop of writers who took an interest in their ancestors. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and Young Goodman Brown helped bring the early Massachusetts residents back into the public's consciousness. And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow scored a hit with The Courtship of Miles Standish.

Longfellow was a descendant of Mayflower maiden Priscilla Mullins. In the poem, Standish wants to marry her, but fears he won't be able to summon up the right words to ask her. So he gets his friend John Alden to act as a go-between. Priscilla, unimpressed by this proposal by proxy, suggests, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" John takes the hint and poor Standish is left out in the cold.

"It's a family story," says Plimoth Plantation's Travers. She says "it could have happened" — but not exactly the way Longfellow describes it.

And with all due respect to Priscilla, says Travers, having rival suitors wasn't that much to boast of, considering that many of the available women had died during the first winter in New England. "There were a lot of single men and not a lot of choices."

And would any guy really ask his friend to propose for him? "He might have," says Travers. "Who knows? There's no way to tell."

Whatever the truth of the story, Pasley says such popular works of literature helped bring about a renaissance for the Pilgrims and the Puritans.

"The mid-19th-century New Englander, with education and publishing, can kind of reclaim New England and recast New England as America's heritage."

And that brings us to another myth of the Pilgrim story: Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims actually first landed on Cape Cod, near what is now Provincetown. After some exploring, they decided to settle in what would become the town of Plymouth. But whether they actually landed on a rock is anyone's guess.

"They never mention a rock," says Travers.

She says the story dates to about 1741, when an elderly man, hearing that a wharf was going to be built over a boulder in the area, claimed that his grandfather had told him that was the very rock where the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. "His grandfather was alive in time to have talked to these people," says Travers. "It's certainly possible."

And apocryphal or not, she says, the story of Plymouth Rock certainly struck a chord for 18th-century Americans. "Build your nation upon a rock — it's the cornerstone of the nation. It meets the need."