How the Pilgrims' Image Evolved

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."

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