The closing song toward the end of the musical Hamilton is a profound statement about where history comes from: “Who lives, who dies and who tells your story?” Think about that for a moment.
“What we learn about history depends on who was able to write down firsthand accounts and preserve them,” says UCF Associate Professor of History Rosalind Beiler. “As we discover more information, it can change our perspective.”
Beiler teaches the history of New England, including the landing of the Mayflower, which happened on Nov. 11, 1620. Some students said they’d only learned one thing about the events in grade school: The Pilgrims sailed to the New World, made friends and enjoyed the first Thanksgiving feast.
“We’ve learned,” says Beiler, “that it wasn’t so easy.”
Here is what her research tells us:
1. The story we’re most familiar with comes from one dominant source.
William Bradford was among the Puritans who wanted to break from England’s rule over the way Christians could worship and raise their children. Bradford kept a journal documenting before, during and after the Mayflower’s Atlantic crossing.
“We have bits of information from other diaries,” says Beiler, “but for the most part, a lot of what we know has been filtered through Bradford’s accounts.”
We know what we know because he wrote it down.
2. The Pilgrims tried living in the Netherlands before coming to America.
The Puritans and the Pilgrims (a cross-section of Puritans) first traveled to the Netherlands to establish a Christian church that would be free of government influence. There, they had to learn a new language and new customs. Many of them labored as textile workers when they had been farmers at home. They also became concerned that their children were not growing up English — they were being integrated into Dutch society.
“One of my students said this part of the story helped her understand what it’s like to be an immigrant,” says Beiler. “They left behind everything they knew and had to find their way in a new place.”
After 12 years, in 1620, they decided to sail to the New World, where they could worship freely and develop an English culture.
3. The Mayflower originally was set to sail with a sister ship.
The Pilgrims initially sailed from the Netherlands back to England on a ship called the Speedwell. In England, they met up with other passengers before leaving for the long trip to North America on the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Speedwell didn’t get far before it started to take on water and all passengers had to then board the Mayflower, though some on the original passenger list stayed home.
“The Mayflower was crowded,” Beiler says of the 102 passengers and 30 crewmembers on the 100-foot ship. “But they found out later they actually could have used more people.”
4. Delays forced them to sail as winter approached.
It took nearly three months to secure supplies and manually load supplies. Instead of crossing the ocean in June, they wound up battling the storms and cold of late fall.
“We can’t imagine what it was like for them to arrive in a brutally cold and strange place, to be sick and to have loved ones dying,” says Beiler. “And remember, they had no time to rest. They had to immediately start building a community so they could survive.”
5. Many famous Americans can be traced to Mayflower
John Howland, an indentured servant on the Mayflower, almost flipped overboard during a storm, but miraculously grabbed a rope on his way into the sea. Howland lived, got married and had a number of children who continued a lineage to the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Bush (both of them). In fact, at least nine U.S. presidents could follow their genealogy to Mayflower passengers.
“There’s no telling how many people can trace their ancestry back to the few dozen passengers who survived illness and danger on the Mayflower voyage,” Beiler says.
6. Nearly half of the Pilgrims and Puritans died during the voyage.
Only 50 of the original 102 passengers survived the first winter. “They weren’t thinking about colonizing,” says Beiler. “They were simply figuring out how to eat and stay warm in this new place.”
7. An epidemic had just decimated Native Americans.
The English settlers found what they probably considered a blessing from God: an area of cleared land suitable for a village. Actually, it had already been a village known as Pautuxet. From 1616-19, an epidemic killed about 2,000 Wampanoag people who lived there. But when the Pilgrims arrived in November 1620, Tisquantum (Squanto) was the only one lone survivor in the village.
“He brought Massasoit, a Wampanoag Sachem from another village, to make an alliance with the Pilgrims,” says Beiler. “They all needed each other as allies during a time of tremendous loss for both groups.”
8. Yes, corn probably did save lives.
It’s true that Tisquantum taught the immigrants from Europe a new form of agriculture: controlled burns to clear portions of land so they could grow beans, squash and maize (corn).
“The Pilgrims and Puritans had no choice but to do what the Wampanoag Indians taught them,” says Beiler. “We’re also pretty sure they stole some seed from a Native American village during that first year and later went back to make reparations.”
9. The first Thanksgiving was held a year after the Mayflower
How could the Mayflower passengers lose more than half of their community, even entire families, and a year later set aside a day for a “harvest celebration?”
They didn’t, at least not exactly.
“The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was an expression of gratitude, but not just for an abundance of food,” says Beiler. “They were grateful to be alive while also mourning the loss of so many loved ones.”
10. The lessons of Thanksgiving were quickly forgotten.
Once the Pilgrims began to settle, they sent word back to England for others to come join them. The later arrivals, however, didn’t value the local wisdom of the Wampanoag.
“As more people arrived, tensions between the English and Native Americans grew,” says Beiler.
The new settlers brought domesticated animals to help with farming. They fenced in their crops and allowed the animals to roam outside those fences. The animals decimated the Native Americans’ fields. This would be among the early signs of English groups forcing their cultural will on Native Americans.
11. North America was really a New-ish
By the time the Mayflower arrived, French and Dutch colonies were already fishing and gathering along the East Coast. The Spanish had settled in Florida decades earlier. So, if the Mayflower’s passengers weren’t the first Europeans to arrive, why are they so prominent in our history books?
“We call where they landed ‘New England,’ in part, because guess who won the subsequent wars?” says Beiler. “The English also did something very important, thanks to William Bradford.”
They told their story.