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

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




Comments () | Archives (9)

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berkley palmer

The reason is simple. The Pilgrims (and the Puritans which followed in far greater numbers) were an entire society transplanted in the New World. Virginia was essentially a business affair, sponsered by Lords, populated by adventurous men (aka ne'er-do-wells). Virginia built a colony, Bay colony built a nation.


Thanksgiving is an Anglo holiday. To Native Americans across this nation Thanksgiving is a "Day of Mourning".


Was it?

St. Augustine Fl 1st French, then Spaniards

Jamestown Va English

Plymouth Rock area English

But the Norse were in North America 400 years before that !(this may explain the large number of blue-eyed "INDIANS"

Bill Morris

The answer is simple. Folks in New England wrote the first history books. Who writes history is more important than who lives it. Even today in history books the Middle Passage is taught in the section on New England, but the horror and evils of slavery are not taught until two chapters later, The Southern Colonies.
By the way, Plymouth Rock? Based on the recollection of a 90+ year old man and that took place well over 100 years after the landing. He was recalling what the "first comers" told him.
First Pilgrim landing? Provincetown on Cape Cod, a site now memorialized by a small obelisk (about waist high) and a marker in the parking lot of a motel.
First act in the New World? Rob Native American graves of corn.
Why was Squanto available to help the Pilgrims? His tribe was wiped out by either the plague or smallpox (historians differ).
Where were the Pilgrims granted a charter to land? Virginia
Looking for religious freedom? They had that in Holland,(where they had been living before coming to the New World) but were afraid that their children would take up with other religions. What they wanted was religious freedom for them, AND NO ONE ELSE.
Do not confuse the Pilgrims with the Puritans. Pilgrims were separatists who wanted to leave the Church of England. The Puritans thought they could purify the Church of its "Popeist" tendencies. About the only thing they agreed upon was "Lets kill the natives and take their land."


Simple. The Pilgrims won the Civil War. (Massachusetts, not Virginia.) Winners define history. I'm not saying it's right, just saying it's true.


It's the religous aspect. Unlike all other English settlers, the Pilgrims came here because they believed in something, and were ready to risk everything for their faith. That is why they have struck a deeper chord in history.

amit ghosh

the number,religious overtone and relatively more humble origin of pilgrims naturally triumphed over wealthy colonialists in the quest for nation's idealistic psyche. Native Americans paid the price at the end anyway!!!!!

Tucano Fulano

The Norse, of course, landed in the New World 400 years before any other Europeans. They reached at least as far inland as what is now Minnesota. Apparently their bloodlines were assimilated into the bloodlines of "native american". Perhaps that explained why so many blue-eyed 'native americans" were here to greet the French, then Spanish, then Dutch, then English "settlers" when they arrived.


I still find it so amusing that the myth of Pilgrims = religious freedom continues to exist in this country.

It is true that the Pilgrims left England in search of religious freedom. They went to the Netherlands. They found religious freedom. The story of the search for religious freedom ends right there.

They found that they could not maintain absolute control of their children, who had the freedom to turn to a different religion in the Netherlands. To prevent their young people from having the freedom of religious conscience, they subsequently moved to Massachusetts where their young were not exposed to alternative ideas.

So, to prevent religious freedom, they set up their religious intolerance experiment in the New World. And remember the freedom witches had to practice their faith (if in fact there were any witches at all? Very doubtful there were any witches in Salem.)



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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