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Plymouth Adventure -- Fact or Fiction?

By Elsie Hamel


[1] At the conclusion of the film Plymouth Adventure, the Pilgrims, physically and mentally, have withstood the rigors of persecution in their homeland, of the long and difficult voyage, and of their first year in the wild, desolate New World. Ultimately, this paradigm becomes the emblem of the founding of our nation and the beginning of a whole panorama of different versions each time the story is retold--some of them factual and some of them mythical. The purpose of this essay is to: 1) survey the scope of the Pilgrim mystique; 2) sort myth from fact in the story; 3) pinpoint the sources of the information we have about these settlers; 4) establish why this group was chosen rather than any of a myriad of settlers who came to the New World, both before and after the Pilgrims; and 5) finally, and most importantly, determine whether the facts about the Pilgrims have been misrepresented, distorted, or simply omitted in the film based on Gebler's book, The Plymouth Adventure: A Chronicle Novel of the Voyage of the Mayflower, and the two most reliable accounts we have of the Pilgrims' story, William Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation and Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

Scope of the Pilgrim Mystique

[2] If one were to ask the man on the street to recite the story of the Pilgrims, it would go something like this: these religious people wanted to worship as they pleased, so they left England and came to America; the voyage was hard and many of them died, but with the help of Squanto they were able to raise crops the next spring and summer. They had a bountiful harvest, and in the fall they invited the Indians to join them in a thanksgiving feast where they served roasted wild turkey. Their strong religious faith and trust in God's providence were the main reasons they prospered in the New World. Quite likely these two facts would not be mentioned: the Pilgrims were a separate group from the Puritans, and the Plymouth Colony failed to obtain a charter and ultimately became a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. Also absent from the recital would be the fact that Plymouth, the poor but proud capital of the Pilgrim Colony, sank to the status of a not-very-important county seat, its interests shrinking to a radius of a few miles and the scale of its affairs lessening accordingly (Willison 408).

[3] The image of a shipload of humble Pilgrims in 1620 desiring only the freedom to worship as they please has been replaced by our visions of the Departure, the Landing, and the Signing, "a sacred triad of tableaux that would have as their equivalents the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution" (Seelye 17). Similarly, Plymouth Rock holds the same privileged status as the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of our national pride. However, in later years the First Thanksgiving has displaced these events as our dominant Pilgrim icon and occasion for celebration. But there was no such connection before the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until well after the Civil War, Thanksgiving was a religious observance for New England families and had no direct link to the Pilgrim settlers. With the renewed interest in colonial America during the late nineteenth century, the Pilgrims were incorporated into the holiday celebration as history and regional folklore united Forefathers' Day with Thanksgiving. In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt designated the third Thursday in November as the official date (Abrams 10-11).

{4] Forefathers' Day was the only holiday officially dedicated to the Pilgrims' memory. The first of its annual meetings in December 1769 commemorating the Pilgrims' landing began with a parade, followed by a banquet in subsequent years, at which well-known orators or clergymen were invited to speak; e.g., the bicentenary in 1820 and the tricentenary in 1920. These addresses had a familiar theme--the landing at Plymouth was directly related to the fate of the nation. The Fathers not only anticipated the Constitution but also laid the groundwork for the conquest of the continent. The Pilgrims thus braved the "wintry sea" to spread their doctrines from coast to coast (Abrams 43). The list of their supposed accomplishments is astonishing: the Pilgrims were the first successful asserters of the free and liberal principles of modern times; they were the first champions of religious and political freedom (Seelye 224,633); the energy and wealth of the United States is the harvest of that seed-sowing by the hands of the Pilgrim Fathers; the English roots of the Plymouth settlement influenced and shaped the commercial development of America (Abrams 185).

[5] In 1820 Daniel Webster delivered an eloquent speech at Plymouth in which he noted that whatever natural objects are associated with interesting scenes and high efforts will obtain a hold on human feelings and will demand from the heart a sort of recognition and regard (Webster 85). This same patriotism is apparent in Henry Cabot Lodge's address in 1920: "I shall not attempt to rehearse the story of the little band of men and women who landed here on a December day three hundred years ago. It is as familiar to our ears as a twice-told tale, as ready on our lips as household words. It has awakened the imagination of poet and painter and novelist. It has engaged the attention and the research of antiquarians and writers of history. Societies have been formed to trace out the descendants of the Pilgrims, and those who can claim them as ancestors would not change their lineage for any that could be furnished by the compilers of peerages" (Lodge 6). This emphasis on ancestral pride was responsible for the formation of numerous elite social groups, among them the Pilgrim Society and the Old Colony Club.

[6] Founded in 1769 by the descendants of the Pilgrims, the Old Colony Club (a social organization dedicated to civic and self-improvement and commemorations honoring the accomplishments of their ancestors) was opened only to "respectable" young Mayflower offspring; the organization added a clause to its bylaws forbidding members to mix with the company of the town's taverns, and the roster soon included an impressive number of descendants. A century later Oliver Wendell Holmes commented on the exclusive pedigree; a New Englander claims his descent from the Pilgrims of Plymouth, either literally or virtually, so it is obvious they have an intimate communion even closer than common citizenship (Abrams 13).

[7] The Pilgrim Society was formed in 1820 to commemorate the bicentenary of the Mayflower's landing, and several of the projects undertaken by this group are noteworthy--the construction of Pilgrim Hall, the oldest ancestral memorial in the United States, and the preservation of Plymouth Rock--both events were responsible for turning Plymouth into a popular tourist attraction. In 1774 the rock split in two pieces when some Plymouth residents tried to move it from the wharf to the town square. Instead of admitting they had destroyed a "sacred" relic, the men devised a brilliant alibi--the fracture was an act of fate that symbolized America's need to sever its attachment to Britain. The upper half was moved while the lower portion remained in the bay. In 1880 the Society took the upper piece back to the waterfront, carved the "1620" date on it, and built a canopy over it to curtail visitors from chipping off parts for souvenirs (Abrams 6,45-46).

Separating Myth from Fact

[8] It is clear that the Pilgrim mystique has been taken up and promoted in American folklore. Much of the impetus for the myths surrounding the Pilgrims was motivated by the political agendas of New Englanders such as Daniel Webster and Henry Cabot Lodge. However, beginning with the Revolutionary War, national union was emphasized over regional leadership; by 1800 Pilgrim icons such as the Landing emerged as a political symbol with a very tight regional base which focused on the differences within the new nation, not revolutionary ardor. Longfellow's Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), with its juxtaposition of love and war, was viewed as a critique of American politics in this era (Abrams 212).

[9] Then too there was an ever-expanding portfolio of mythmaking imagery that revamped the Pilgrim legend to conform with the issues of the 1830s and 1840s, such as missionary goals, the opposition to the poor immigrants flooding urban areas, westward expansion, Protestant leadership over Catholics--this combination engendered a younger New England generation scrambling to reshape the Pilgrim legacy into a weapon targeted against perceived social and political evils. In the years just before the Civil War, the Pilgrims were cited as moral examples by the abolitionists to highlight the evils of slavery (Seelye 4). Confronted with this vast network of half-truths and actual reality, how then do we separate myth from fact?

[10] One critical reality in the separation of historical fact from myth is the fine line that divides them. "Origin" myths narrate and justify a "new situation" (new in the sense that it did not exist from the beginning of the world); they tell how the world was changed; i.e., made richer or poorer. Therefore, the child is taught what was done for the first time by ancestors, in mythical times. Descendants of the Pilgrims and various interest groups in the last four centuries have taken a few basic facts about their English ancestors and expanded the original myth by drawing from the ongoing tide of history, refiguring the myths according to predominant ideology. The Pilgrim migration centered on a patriarchal hierarchy; the heroes were men leading a biblical-style mission; they maintained a strict, unbending set of rules to reinforce their religious convictions. Mythical Plymouth shines as a harmonious utopia populated by like-minded, high-principled individuals working together to produce a perfect society. The Pilgrim myth exalted the educational and cultural refinements of Western cilivization. If these stories were perceived as having happened, they must be regarded as historical evidence that affected attitudes and produced verifiable consequences; e.g., on the eve of the American Revolution, residents of Plymouth turned the Pilgrims' exile into the perfect metaphor for American independence. The myths invented filled the cultural and historical void created by the separation from the English motherland (Abrams 4).

[11] A number of rites and rituals became traditions which inspired regional loyalties. The term "Pilgrim" was first used in 1793 to describe the Plymouth settlers; the Congregational Church was losing its identity in Massachusetts, and its ministers were frantically trying to unite their straying parishioners. The Pilgrims were regarded as biblical partriarchs who came to America to spread their doctrine in a pagan wilderness and to lay the foundations for a civil freedom that formed the nucleus of future law and education (Abrams 5).

[12] The problem with the Pilgrim story is that we really have two stories--a true historical one and a romantic one. We need to recognize the genuine history of Plymouth Colony, but the cultural importance of the romance of the Pilgrim Fathers must be acknowledged as well because without the Pilgrim, our Thanksgiving holiday would not be recognizable. Stories of the Landing on Plymouth Rock, the Five Kernels of Parched Corn, the romantic triangle of John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and Miles Standish, or the First Thanksgiving have exerted too strong an influence on our national culture to be ignored. While based on real traditions and actual events, the famous myths or fictions do not reflect what actually happened in the past (Baker). (for more on the Indians)

[13] For generations the Plymouth settlers were known to their descendants as the Forefathers. Made up of a number of different national origins (Dutch, English, French) and split even by religious differences, they had no name for themselves as a group; the name "the Pilgrims," was given them in 1840. The blame for these years of obscurity can be placed in large measure on the Pilgrims themselves. Careless of their fame, these simple and humble folk of plebian origin saw no earth-shaking importance in their activities. They erected no monuments to themselves and their accomplishments; and they left few memorials either on paper or in stone. Accustomed to hardship and toil, many of them illiterate, they performed their day-to-day tasks with little thought to the history which would succeed them. They did not even bother to keep town records until 1632 (Willison 2).

[14] A plethora of paintings depicting the landing of the Pilgrims has emerged, and in many instances the settlers are falling upon their knees in gratitude to God, with a band of welcoming Indians in the periphery; this event illustrates the way myths become tradition. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, the landing of the Pilgrim fathers became a powerful legend for New England which was commemorated annually on Forefathers' Day. However, despite Bradford's statement in Of Plimoth Plantation, "Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the periles and miseries therof, againe to set their feete on the firme and stable earth, their proper elemente" (69), there is no record of any such event. The day-to-day record of Mourt's Relation makes it clear there was no room for such a stirring and symbolic act. Landing procedures were made difficult and troublesome by shallow water: "People going on shore were forced to wade a bow shot or two in going a land, which caused many to get colds and coughs, for it was nigh times freezing cold weather." The journal entry reports that at first only small groups of passengers were sent on land to reconnoiter or search for food, while the bulk of the settlers remained on board until shelter and houses had been built (Brumm 31). In addition, there was no Indian welcoming committee at Plymouth; the Great Plague of 1616-1617 had wiped out the Patuxet band of Wampanoags who lived in the area.

[15] The myth surrounding Plymouth Rock is even more preposterous; i.e., distinguishing between the Rock itself and the "fame" surrounding it. Except for the chiseled date, 1620, it is no different from any other rock, and visitors to present-day Plymouth are disappointed with its smallness (Seelye 6). Bradford does not mention it in his account, and it was unnoticed during the colonial period; in 1741 a descendant of the early colonists designated it as the spot where the Pilgrims had landed. By mid-nineteenth century, the rock had acquired an aura of sanctity--the perfect icon to embody the Pilgrims' mission. In 1920, it was the locale for an elaborate tercentenary pageant, The Pilgrim Spirit, written and directed by Harvard professor George Pierce Baker.

[16] The fictive history and ideological manipulation of the Mayflower Compact is equally as interesting. It was ignored by orators until 1802 when it was venerated as a repudiation of English domination and the inauguration of American government. Before 1830 few historians mentioned the Compact even though it had long been known through Mourt's Relation; it is now regarded as a milestone in the growth of social order and cohesion. Bradford's original intent was that the Separatist leaders would maintain control of their flock by forestalling the intervention of non-believers, legitimizing the authority of the Separatist minority over a recalcitrant group of "Strangers." The contract was first referred to as a "convenant" to give it religious overtones, but this designation was changed in the early 1800s when it became a tool of politicians. John Adams used the Compact to justify separation from Britain and the creation of an independent American nation, ignoring the clauses about swearing allegiance to King James I. New England from 1820 onward claimed the Compact was the bedrock upon which both the U.S. Constitution and New England's legal, social, and religious structure rested (Abrams 157).

[17] Daniel Webster expanded the myth in 1820 by stating that, at the moment of their landing, the Pilgrims possessed institutions of government and religion which became the guiding principle of the first Massachusetts settlement. The Compact had not only brought representative republican government to America but had inspired the congenial institutions and sentiments of the entire nation. It was the fountainhead for the "germs of progress" that spurred the economy and contained the great doctrine that all men are born equal and free. It was responsible for the birth of constitutional liberty through which humanity recovered its rights; it instituted government on the basis of equal laws for the general good (Abrams 157). New England missionaries claimed the Pilgrim Fathers devised the pact as a republican constitution and submitted it to all the Mayflower passengers for approval by mutual consent. But they tended to ignore the fact that the agreement included "submission and obedience" to King James; instead they emphasized the portion that empowered the settlers to frame just and equal laws for the good of the colony.

Sources of Information

[18] Although visitors to Plymouth Plantation today scarcely know Bradford's name, for the most part, historians have relied on Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation for their information about the Pilgrims. But "the scrupulous historian who wants to find out what really happened when the Pilgrims reached America turns to the more detailed information of Mourt's Relation, very likely written largely by Bradford [and Winslow]" (Brumm 31). Few historians and literary critics have worried about the discrepancies between the two accounts.

[19] From the beginning, the founders of Plymouth gave historians very little historical information. Mourt's Relation was shaped and edited by the authors to achieve certain effects, and Bradford's history (Of Plimoth Plantation) is a lengthy legal brief on the Saints' behalf whose moral integrity is intensified by the grim particulars of those who transgressed against them. The settlers from Scrooby warranted the praise-worthiness of their endeavor from the moment they arrived and drew up a document certifying their community (Seelye 21). Most of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century clergymen who read and used portions of Bradford's manuscript described the Pilgrims' voyage from Europe to America as if it had been a religious hegira (Abrams 24).

[20] Bradford's writings are "an American classic" as a source of national mythology. Our first great piece of literature, it is the most important work of the seventeenth century. But it is not a reliable historical document (Howard 241). The great eighteenth-century historians were all new Englanders who wrote abundantly about the first settlers in Massachusettts. New England literary greats such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Frost, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Russell Lowell contributed a wealth of facts and fiction about the Pilgrims. Also, New England has a vast concentration of universities that turned out students interested in exploring regional beginnings (Abrams xvi).

[21] Bradford's manuscript was not published until 1856 and may be one of the reasons why the history of the Pilgrims given in most history books begins with the departure from Southampton, England (rarely from Leyden, Holland) and ends with the celebration of the first Thanksgiving feast. Gebler's fictional account in The Plymouth Adventure follows this pattern, as does the movie, Plymouth Adventure. The eventual decline of Plymouth Colony is virtually never mentioned, nor are the Pilgrims' feelings of failure to hold their religious group together.

[22] The chief difference between the film, Plymouth Adventure, and Gebler's book, The Plymouth Adventure, is the addition of the romance between Captain Jones and Dorothy Bradford; Priscilla Mullins is the recipient of his sexual advances in the book. Minor changes include the absence of the Pilgrims' interactions with the Native American tribes in the area and the characterization of William Bradford.

Why the Pilgrims Were Chosen

[23] The quest for religious freedom was shared by many immigrants in that period--the Pennsylvania Germans (late 1600s), the Quakers (1680s), the Puritans (1630s)--and Plymouth Colony was neither the first permanent settlement in the New World nor the most successful. Although most historical accounts ignore this fact (Robert Bartlett, Ernest Gebler, Roland Usher, Daniel Webster, to name a few), under the leadership of Captain John Smith, Jamestown, Virginia was established in 1607. "It was a long uphill struggle but [Plymouth] became the first English Colony in North America" (Gill 52). Choosing a yardstick to measure the material success of these colonies in the New World is difficult, but, compared to their contemporary groups, the Pilgrims were lacking: they were poor business men with a minimum of survival techniques, and they were very gullible in dealing with the dishonorable members of their own group. So how then did the Pilgrims become one of the symbols of American patriotism? The answer to this question is two-fold: literary history was written by New England professors and published nationwide, giving these settlers more exposure; and the public identified with the Pilgrims' persistence in the face of almost impossible odds.

[24] American literary history and the choice of the texts commissioned by publishers for school use brought New England literature to the forefront. These histories were written for the most part by professors of New England origin employed at elite colleges; the texts were coordinated with an array of handbooks, anthologies, memoirs, and biographies (a number of them put together by the same professors) to create the academic field. Constructing history in a shape to further the purposes of schooling, the textbook writers made literary work and authors display the virtues and achievements of an Anglo-Saxon United States founded by New England Pilgrims and Puritans. In the face of numerous obstacles, a literary culture had developed in New England among groups of Cambridge and Concord authors, where a powerful publishing and critical apparatus supported them and circulated their writings around the nation (Baym 456). By means of the press, pulpit, and the public school system, the native-born and scattered generations of New England descendants were able for the first century and a half of this nation's history to maintain a calculated grip on the national interest (Seelye 3). By the outbreak of the Civil War, the Pilgrims were fully prepared for sainthood, not only in New England but in Old England and much of the United States as well, and by the 1920 Tercentenary, the settlers of Plymouth had become so popular that the entire nation was inundated with Pilgrim novels and histories, including an early Thomas Edison film depicting the Pilgrim story, and an array of Pilgrim paintings, illustrations, and statues (Abrams 191,276).

[25] Since both the Pilgrims and the Puritans settled in New England, why did the Puritans lose favor? With the wave of immigrants to New England in 1620 and 1630, it is easy to jumble the two groups into one, either a stern but strong figure of religious freedom and peaceful coexistence or a stark, superstitious, grim-faced symbol of oppression and fatalism; i.e., the Pilgrims and Plymouth rock, the blunderbuss and the turkey versus the commonly held "dark side" in the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans with their witch-hunts, elitism, narrow minded zealotry (Atkins). Before the mid-1940s, most writers and orators used the words "Pilgrim" and "Puritan" interchangeably, thereby suggesting that they saw little difference between them. But during the time when Congregationalists and Unitarians were split into two competing religions and immigrants were changing New England's demographics, the exclusive and highly regulated Puritan society suddenly seemed riddled with defects. New England missionaries were touting the Pilgrims of Plymouth as national ancestors; everyone in the region wanted to claim them as their own. Liberal New England politicians were also seeking to champion the Pilgrims and downgrade the Puritans. The Separatists had exhibited courage and dedication through repeated self-sacrifices to establish a self-governing community; in contrast, the Puritans had created a highly structured society predicated on strict regulations and the rewards of worldly success. Nathaniel Hawthorne painted a picture of a society controlled by dour and relentless oppressors who thwarted human development and imposed an iron-fisted jurisdiction on an intimidated population (Abrams 179,180).

[26] Certainly the Pilgrims differed from the Puritans in theory, politics, and temperament. But perhaps the esteem the Pilgrims gained in America can be attributed to their tenacious persistence in the face of almost insurmountable odds; i.e., admiration for the force that drove the Pilgrims to leave England for Holland and Holland for America, a commitment that enabled them not only to survive and endure, but to prevail. Through the years, in the eyes of the American public, they have emerged as English rustics, not men of ideas, but simple folk whose lot, as they saw it, was to do their best on earth and to make it, as far as they could in their short existence, a better place for their fellowmen (Seelye 10). The final reward for their dedication was a guarantee of an afterlife.

History Misrepresented, Distorted, and/or Omitted in the Film

[27] The final message at the end of Plymouth Adventure is that the Pilgrims have come through their difficult times and are on their way to achieving their goals--a success story of the highest order. But Scriptwriter Helen Deutsch subscribed to the same mistake many historians have made in the Pilgrim saga; i.e., the years between 1621 and 1691 are ignored. If one reads Bradford's account carefully, it is evident these settlers had their faults: they were poorly equipped for life in the New World; they knew little about farming, fishing, trading, or how to conduct a business venture. Even their faith in God's providence faltered at times; Bradford is described as "obsessed" in his later years with the decline in piety, "shattered" by "the failure of [the Pilgrims'] mission," "disappointed in his expectations for his community." Consequently, the "elegaic" tone of the last book of Of Plimoth Plantation dominates; "in the twenty years it took him to write his history, his customary gravity deepened into melancholy," and his writings "turn at the end into elegy" (Wenska 152).

[28] In William Bradford's narration of the "starving time," he contrasts the actions of his settlers (the healthy members of the group care selflessly for the sick) and the callous attitude of the Mayflower crew; later, selfishness was to become the main threat within Plymouth itself, and abandonment was Bradford's final theme. The structure which defines Of Plimoth Plantation is one of counterpoint between the ideal and the real, what is striven for and what is attained. It is only at the end of his text that Bradford recognizes the ideal has evaporated; his response is a meaningful silence, an abandonment of the record itself. Before that time, he attempts by the form of his writing to exclude any figure representing that threat of deflected purpose which eventually dispersed the Pilgrims. So too Bradford's sharp uncertain humor develops from a felt weakness rather than obvious strength (Franklin 150).

[29] Following the Civil War, the mystic reverence for the Pilgrims faded as a new generation emerged in the United States whose origins were not New England or Old England, but other places. New England is now a diminished and fractured entity, no longer the bastion of Protestant purity; the political dynasty of John Adams was replaced by the Kennedys (Seelye xv,629). Yet the Pilgrims are one of America's great national symbols, and in November their universally recognizable images are seen throughout our nation as the embodiment of that particularly American holiday, Thanksgiving. Generations of our schoolchildren have been introduced to these images each Fall as cut-outs and illustrations, while the familiar Pilgrim figures with steepled hats, dark cloaks, white collars, and huge buckles appear on cards and table decorations. Every year the old legends are repeated--of courage in the face of adversity; of the Mayflower's perilous voyage and that first hard winter; and finally of the glorious triumph of survival, celebrated by the Pilgrims with their supportive Indian allies at the First Thanksgiving.

[30] Clearly, in his later writings, Bradford reveals his despair over (and finally his stoic acceptance of) the loss of the original spirit of the Colony as Christian idealism was replaced by commercial considerations (Seelye 9). But it seems to me it is these failures and the humanness of the Pilgrims that appeal to our national pride. Surely their courage and endurance when they stood alone in the wilderness are sufficient justification for the honor now given their name; in addition, they were hard-working, decent, and pious but not dull (Dillon 223). They are also remembered for formulating some civilized ideas, such as the town meeting and self-government with free elections to choose a colonial governor for their own group. They were steadfast in their belief in God's Providence regarding their welfare in this life and in preparing them for an afterlife. Their goals are exemplary: seek the guidance of God; be of good behavior; be charitable to strangers with whom they were to mingle; work for the common good; elect a civil government from among themselves; be fair in their treatment of the Indians; and be honest in trade (Heaton 75). They were very successful in these endeavors.

[31] Thus, it is clear that myth, fiction, and factual history are extremely difficult to divide and isolate, particularly in the case of the Pilgrims where there is such a large volume and magnitude of history surrounding them. The American public does not want to read about or view the less honorable facts about their heroes; i.e., idols with clay feet are not very appealing to our national pride. Consequently, the traditions and myths created about this group of settlers have grown through the years. A new burst of patriotism brings forth another film; e.g., the release of Mayflower: The Pilgrims' Adventure in 1979 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival in the New World. Perhaps it is time to re-write the history of the Pilgrims so we can see and admire them as they really were.

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