Nov. 11 was the 403rd anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor. For at least the last 120 years, the people of Provincetown have worked to correct a grave historical injustice: even the dullest kid in class could tell you that the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.
Outrageous! So, our forefathers built the Monument, named their streets after Pilgrims, and generally tried to get into the public relations game. Overall, there was a feeling of pride regarding that gutsy band of refugees.
Over the past few decades, however, there has been a belated and much-warranted shift in attention to the original inhabitants of this continent and their ill treatment at the hands of European colonists. The sins of Columbus led to the downgrading of his “discovery” of America, and he is only the most notable of the legion of offenders, from our country’s leaders to average citizens, regarding their genocidal treatment of Native Americans. In the glacial turning of public opinion, “Indians” now get our consideration and colonists our censure.
Where does that leave our poor Pilgrims? I am daring to speak up for them and base my defense on facts found in Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent Mayflower (2006). They had their faults, but in terms of their relations with the original inhabitants they encountered they did much better than those who came after them.
Yes, they stole some corn at Corn Hill, but they were fairly desperate, it being November, and they told themselves they would compensate the owners at some point. They also discovered a Native burial site but, out of respect, did not disturb it. And yes, they did fire at the Indians at First Encounter Beach, but, in fairness, they were fired upon first — a barrage of arrows. And certainly, by the time they got to Plymouth, they had established friendly (and necessary) relations with their neighbors.
What comes later is another story — a terrible one — but I want to focus right now on the Pilgrims in Provincetown in 1620. First of all, they were an odd bunch. Only about half of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower were actual Pilgrims, or “Saints”; the others, the “Strangers,” were just regular folks who took the voyage not with religious motives but for practical reasons. That was the reason for the Compact — to work for “the general good” of these two disparate groups.
The actual Pilgrims could fairly be considered a sect, “Separatists” from the predominant English society and religion. They were basically clueless and ill prepared, with few skills: generally “all to learn but none to teach,” as one of them described the group. But they were brave. Think of it: journeying 3,000 miles from home, over a sea that they were sure held monsters, to a place they could barely imagine. After a 65-day journey in very cramped conditions, they were prevented from reaching their destination — the mouth of the Hudson River — and landed in what William Bradford described as “a hideous and desolate wilderness.” Who comes to Provincetown in November? Their bravery was rooted in their faith, which was strong in the face of all adversity.
What do the Pilgrims have to teach us today? So removed from their conditions, can we possibly relate to them? Have we ever been that cold, hungry, exhausted, terrified — and determined? I think not. But there are thousands of people now, men, women, and children, streaming across our southern border, who could give us insight into these states of mind.
Were the Pilgrims migrants or refugees? They thought of themselves as exiles; the “Strangers” on board were perhaps adventurers. It is fair to say that neither group felt the desperation that our current refugees do.
I can look at my own ancestors: my mother’s people were from Germany, part of William Penn’s project in the late 17th century. What induced them to leave their homes to come to a new world? I suspect it was hope for a better life. In their case, opportunity played a role, as it did for the “Strangers.” I know what drove my father’s people to leave Lithuania in the late 19th century: prejudice and hatred. In their case, religion played a role, as it did for the “Saints.”
Anyone reading this, unless you are a Native American or descended from African slaves, must explore the motivation of your ancestors. The issue of our southern border is a complex one. There are no easy answers. But it is a fact that the current refugees show courage and tenacity to match the Pilgrims of four centuries ago. And there are more coming.