As always, this week in November, with its turkeys, cranberry sauce, and expressions of thanks has Americans thinking not just of food or Christmas shopping, but of the little town in Massachusetts we all learned about every year as schoolchildren: Plimouth (or Plymouth) Plantation, where the first Thanksgiving was held amid starvation, fear, cold, and the unexpected generosity of the original Pilgrims’ native Wampanoag neighbors.
I wrote about visiting the living museum village of Plymouth last year in Thanksgiving Myth and Legend at Plymouth Plantation. This year I’m reminded of the journey that brought the Pilgrims to the New World, and the ship they sailed: the Mayflower.
If you’re not American, you can have no idea of the level of national myth that surrounds that name: Mayflower. Almost every schoolchild has been taught that this one moment, the bumping of the Mayflower against the New World’s shore and the first step onto Plymouth Rock is, frankly, when America was born. In the past 20 years, perhaps, this awareness has changed to acknowledge that other people had claim to the land first, and that “America,” like any other country, is only an idea that has little to do with the soil over which its borders are spread. And the Pilgrims certainly weren’t paragons. Their own society could be oppressive and narrow-minded.
None of this changes the fact that the Pilgrims do still seem, in this day and age of comfort travel, incredibly brave, setting out on a journey in a wimpy little vessel in the name of religious freedom. Passengers numbered 102, with a crew of 25-30, set sail from Southampton, England, in September 1620, aiming for the Hudson River. Wiggling off course, they ended up in Cape Cod Bay in November, not a great place to spend the winter even now, at least not without central heating. The passengers remained aboard ship for the winter, where half of them and half the crew perished largely due to contagious diseases. In the spring, the 53 remaining passengers began to build their new homes in the new — to them — world.
The original Mayflower was broken up and sold for scrap within the next few years. But the Mayflower II was commissioned a few decades ago to mimic the feel and experience of the original ship the Pilgrims lived and died on. It sits anchored at Plymouth, near the little rock marking the 1620 landing site, where two carefully maintained footprints represent those supposed first steps in their new home.
It’s a lovely ship to scramble over, with both role players and modern-day guides mixing to give visitors a sense of the Pilgrims’ experience, and to answer historical and nautical questions. My English in-laws were delighted with the tour, although we all grumbled at bit at the admission price of $10 each for adults. To them, it was worth it.
Oddly, for me, it was not the knowledgeable guides but those same English in-laws who managed to make the Mayflower II visit into something that opened my eyes and changed my perspective. When she got off the ship, my mother-in-law’s first comment was, “It’s amazing how much room they had, for each family.” Room? Those cramped spaces? “It’s absolutely spacious,” she said, “when I think about the potato famine boats we visited in Ireland, and how everyone was just stacked up one against another with no room at all.”
Yet another reason getting a different perspective from someone in another country is so vital to our human experience: in all the years of learning American history and making idiotic paper turkeys and Indian Chief headdresses in elementary school, and learning about that first horrible winter and the hungry faces at the first Thanksgiving, nobody ever emphasized the idea that those original Pilgrims were, for their time, financially well off.