In human history many events change the course of nations, not intentionally, certainly not at the exact time of action, but later, as events domino from each other into what becomes a mythological event captured in writing, art, popular music, and even the heritage of a nation. One such event, the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower, depositing English Separatists from Southampton, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts, is but a 66-day ocean voyage in fact. But as a symbol, and as a source of national pride, the Mayflower and resulting events took on an aura of almost mythological proportions within the confines of American historical development.
That being said, despite the legend and lore surrounding the Pilgrims, what was to become Thanksgiving, and the “retelling” of the colonization tale so many times it bears little resemblance to truth, there is a certain level of nostalgic importance to the Mayflower issue. This essay will concentrate first on the historical facts about the Mayflower voyage, then turn to a historiographical overview of the Mayflower as a symbol. The concentration, though, will be on the Mayflower and surrounding events as part of a larger mythos of American popular culture, focusing on the meaning of the Mayflower and why such meaning remains important, even in the 21st century.
The physical ship, Mayflower, was a rather typical merchant ship of the time, a 180-ton vessel with an estimated length of 90-110 feet and width of about 25 feet (Philbrick, 2006, 24). It was probably commissioned in the late 1500s, and used primarily as a cargo ship involved in trade between England and Europe. Some accounts have the Mayflower mastered by Christopher Jones between 1609 and 1622, often as a wine trading ship. After the voyage to the America’s in 1620, the Mayflower returned to England, where Captain Jones died in 1622, and the Mayflower dismantled for scrap in 1623 (Adkins, 2005).
The Voyage- Popular retelling of the Pilgrim’s voyage to America has the group fleeing religious intolerance in England for a more “passive and accepting” land. This has, however, beads of truth in that a group of Calvinists from the East Midlands of England did leave England — but for Holland. After a time, though, these colonists, led by William Bradford, realized that they were becoming too acculturated into Dutch society and, to ensure their own identity and perpetuate their religious beliefs, it would be necessary to find a place in which they could worship freely and yet establish an English colony. These people, known as “Pilgrims” were the English colonialists who ultimately saved enough money to hire steerage to America. Despite their charter of establishing a fishing colony (some of the trip was underwritten by wealthy English speculators who realized how profitable a fishing-village could be), these colonists found it far more profitable to trade with the local indigenous tribes for fur (beaver and otter pelts). By doing so, not only could the colony enrich itself, it allowed a strategic advantage to have a trading partner in the New World (“Who Were the Pilgrims,” 2008).
Despite several logistical setbacks, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England on September 6, 1616, with a crew and passenger list of 102 people. The intended destination was just north of the Hudson River, in Virginia. However, due to poor weather, they were forced considerably north of this destination, landing on the now-famous “Plymouth Rock,” Massachusetts. The colonials never did migrate to Virginia, where they already had permission to settle, and were forced, now in the midst of a harsh New England, to set up camp and begin a relationship with the native peoples (Adkins, 2005).
This initial relationship, however, was not as congenial as the tales of the First Thanksgiving would portray it. In fact, for most of the winter of 1620-21, many of the colonists remained on board the ship, only to suffer an outbreak of contagion, resulting in a 50% mortality rate by Spring 1621. Additionally, having literally robbed native graves for corn, the colonists continued to experience difficulties with the natives, causing numerous conflicts as the good citizens of the Mayflower looted roughly each village they encountered. Of course, religious tolerance was required by their own countrymen, but the natives were somehow exempt from the Biblical teachings — a least where owning land, sharing food an commercial enterprise (Bush, 2000).
2nd Mayflower — a second Mayflower brought a 35 person influx of colonists in 1629, many from the Leiden congregation that organized the initial voyage. This was not the same ship, though, and its travels were fraught with far less difficulty (sailing in May and reaching Plymouth in August). This second Mayflower also made the crossing in 1630, 1633, and 1634. 140 passengers attempted the crossing in 1642, but was never heard from again and assumed lost at sea (Arestrum, 2007).
The Mayflower as Symbol — Scholarly texts often warn the reader that so little has survived that there is a great deal of supposition surrounding both the voyage and the first months in the new world. Journals must be read with some degree of distance, since they are opinions of individuals, and likely slanted to portray a certain viewpoint. The subsequent rounds of colonists would, of course, be treated to accounts that may have exceeded either expectations or consequences in order to maintain the hegemony of the colony. and, regarding religious motivation — it was certainly in the best interests of the colonial leaders to prove that the idea of relocation was not only economically sound, but spiritually appropriate (Adkins, 2005).
Symbolically, the Mayflower represents many things: as earlier mentioned, the voyage has taken on the mythos of religious freedom and the desire to move to a new land for altruistic reasons. Second, it has become the symbol of the founding of a nation, even though it was neither the first colony nor the most indicative of the values of the new nation — one doubts that desecration of graves, theft of food, and slaughter of indigenous populations could be democratic values. The truth, though, is likely somewhere in between. Perhaps the colonists did not realize they were defiling the religious grounds by looting, and they clearly did not understand the native customs. and, in a roundabout manner, the colonists did relocate to America to escape religious intolerance, although the intolerance has now been proven to have been little more than neighborhood gossip and minor local inconvenience. Third, the overriding motive surrounding the voyage of the Mayflower was profit — the idea of owning land in a new place (regardless that it was already settled, but the indigenous peoples had no concept that anyone could “own” land; but more importantly, profit for the investors in the fishing operation. The banks around this part of the North Atlantic were teeming with fish, and simply needed a land base to amass, clean, and organize the fruits of large catches. The colonist agreed to work for 7 years in exchange for land, again, ironically, land that was being deeded by English nobility without, some might say, legal or moral entitlement to said land (Bush).
Another interesting juxtaposition of fact and legend is even the idea of Plymouth Rock — of a set of voyage weary patriots who, despite all odds placed before them, undertook an arduous journey that was fraught with difficulty. Once landed they were inspired by the rugged coastline, but more by the very beauty of the land that was soon to be theirs: “On Munday, they sounded ye harbor and found it fitt for shipping, and marched into ye land and found diverse cornfields and little running brooks, as they supposed, fit for situation” (William Bradford in Seeyle, 1998, 1). Nothing else is written, and it was not until 1769 when the story of the heroic ascension to the rock was established. However, even with this 1769 tradition, it was not until recent times, at least the mid 1800s, that the idea of Plymouth Rock being symbolic of a patriotic institution became part of the nation’s heroic mythology (Willison, 1953, 115). Ironically, though, modern students can probably give the credit to Alexis de Tocqueville, French writer and philosopher who began to truly venerate the “Rock” saying: “A few poor souls trod for an instant on this rock, and it has become famous, it is prized by a great nation; fragments are venerated, and tiny pieces distributed far and wide” (de Tocqueville in Seelye, 1998, 78).
The Mayflower and Popular Culture — Numerous references to the name Mayflower continue to arise within the rubric of popular culture, interestingly in both Britain and the United States. The Plymouth Argyle Football Club, for instance, call themselves “The Pilgrims;” the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton is named after the ship; even the Space Shuttle in Airplane II is called “The Mayflower.” The Mayflower II, a replica of the original, to the best of modern knowledge, was launched in 1956, and the name is aptly symbolic for a science-fiction series which has a type of ark called the Mayflower transporting thousands of colonists to a new land.
Why, though, is the name so popular and so utilized to mean change, evolution, choice, and really as an icon of a perilous journey to a new life? And what is the real story of the First Thanksgiving? In brief, the name has remained a popular icon because of the inherent nature of the story — lively persecuted group befriends new population and thrives. Now, let us simply revise the point-of-view by one cog; instead of viewing the story as a European colonist, imagine if you will, a land that supported numerous bands of hunter-gatherers who took only from the land what they needed, had deep traditions about their interaction with nature, and, just like other societies, had passive and aggressive cultures. New people arrive who do not know how to dress, to hunt, to fish, or even how to build the proper house to stay warm. So, you help them, and they give you the chance to become their slave and return to their far off country, take more corn than is appropriate, and also decide to fence in the land into these unusual squares that prevent the wildlife from roaming. In addition, every village these colonists visit seems to acquire a strange sickness — in fact, some villages completely die off, leaving the areas “ready” for new towns to be set up by these new colonists (East Texas Review, 2004).
Conclusions — When dealing with revisionism and post-revisionism of sacred topics in history, one can always run the risk of cynicism on a heightened level. Was there really a Noah’s Ark or Great Flood? Did Washington really chop down a cherry tree? Are the dimensions of Plymouth Rock important? Did the colonists actually arrive near Plymouth and come ashore near the rock?
Actually, the veracity of many events becomes immaterial when viewed in broader brush strokes — in terms of the 1620 colonials, it probably does not matter how much of their story is fact and how much embellishment for symbols serve culture, and Plymouth Rock as a symbol signifies the transformation of culture from Europe to the Americas — of changing the colonists as they passed over the rock, a rite of passage for the long dead that becomes important to the modern world when viewed through the needs of patriotism and national worth. Icon meanings serve to bind individuals together, to let them see something far larger, broader, and clearly more long lasting. If we combine this tolerance for embellishment in the appropriate context with the use of symbols in popular culture that are easily identifiable and shared, we find that the Mayflower had far more to say to the contemporary world that the simple historical facts of her voyage. Thus, if we are mindful that historical accuracy remains important, but that popular culture serves its purpose, too, then we have taken a rather large step in synergizing the Mayflower story and its original intent with what the Mayflower now represents (Seeyle, 634-41).
Adkins, R. (2005). “Mayflower: The Voyage That Changed the World.” Geographical.
Arenstam, P., et.al. (2007). Mayflower 1620: A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage. National Geographic Books.
Bush, S. (2000). “America’s Origin Myth: Remembering Plymouth Rock.” American Library
History. 12(4): 745.
East Texas Review. (2004). “The True History of Thanksgiving.” AANativeArts.Com. Cited in:
Nickerson, W. Sears. (1997). Land Ho! A Seaman’s Story of the Mayflower. Michigan Philbrick, N. (2007). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Penguin.
____., ed. (2007). The Mayflower Papers: Selected Writings of Colonial New
Seeyle, J. (1998). Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock. University of North
“Who Were the Pilgrims?” (2008). Plimouth Plantation. Cited in:
Willison, G. (1953). The Pilgrim Reader: The Story of the Pilgrims as Told by Themselves
and Their Contemporaries Friendly and Unfriendly. Doubleday.
See for example: Carew, M. And J. Garratt. (2004). Flight of the Mayflower. Mark Carew and Associations. “Background — Plymouth Argyle Football Club.” Cited in: http://www.pafc.co.uk?
It is not the purpose of this essay to complete revise the story of the Mayflower and its consequences, simply to posit another viewpoint. For more information on how disease, especially smallpox, “conquered” the New World, see: Crosby, a. (1972), the Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492; and McNeil, W. (1977). Plagues and Peoples.
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