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Paper, scissors, Plymouth Rock -- how did the Pilgrims turn second place into first?

November 24, 2009 |  6:57 am

With the fuss we make over Thanksgiving, I’d bet most Americans believe the Pilgrims were the first nonnative American settlers in North America.

Put aside the putative Norse landfall, and the certainty of the Spaniards in Florida and on the Pacific Coast; it’s the Anglo-American narrative that captains a big part of early American history.

And that narrative didn’t begin at Plymouth Rock.

The first permanent English settlement was in Virginia, not Massachusetts, in Jamestown, not Plymouth – in 1607, not in 1620.

So how did the Pilgrims, and not the folk of Jamestown, manage to get top billing, even though they showed up 13 years late to the party that became the United States of America (and about 35 years after the short-lived Roanoke Colony)?

Maybe it was demographics. The Pilgrims came with women and children (and some nonbelievers); women didn’t come to the Jamestown colony until the year after it was settled.

Maybe it was class structure. The Pilgrims arrived with indentured laborers, as did the Jamestown company. But the Jamestown group seemed more class-stratified, being, at least by Captain John Smith’s account, excessively burdened with ‘’gentlemen’’ averse to labor.

Maybe it was because, at the outset anyway, the Pilgrims evidently got on better with the native Americans than the Virginia colonists did (save for the renowned story of Pocahontas saving the life of Captain John Smith, for what that’s worth).

Maybe it was the motive for coming here in the first place, at least motive through the lens of history. Plymouth and Jamestown both had feet in a couple of joint English stock companies. One of its excursions actually set up housekeeping in Maine in the same year that Jamestown was settled, but it was soon abandoned.

In Jamestown, profit was the driving force, and the Pilgrims' voyage was financed at least in part by Puritan businessmen bent on proselytizing and profit. But profit didn't cast as glorious a glow in the historical imagination as the Puritans’ ‘’religious freedom’’ motive did -- plucky, God-fearing folk seeking freedom of worship, a freedom they turned around and denied to others.

Anyway, that’s my thinking. What’s yours? How did Bay State turkey trump Virginia ham, and the Pilgrims trump the Virginians in history and imagination? 

-- Patt Morrison



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