PILGRIMS AND INDIANS: Ten Common Misbeliefs

What do Jennifer Lawrence, John Quincy Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Gere, Sally Field, Ulysses S. Grant, Christopher Reeve, Clint Eastwood, Sarah Palin, Alec Baldwin, Bing Crosby, Dan Quayle, Benjamin Spock, Orson Welles, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George W. Bush and 20 – 30 million other Americans have in common?

1. They are all descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims, and
2. Their Mayflower ancestors have been dishonored, maligned, vilified, and disparaged by widespread misinformation.

How? ‘Politically correct’ falsehoods have been spread about the Pilgrims by people as diverse as Hollywood actress Cher (in her 2013 Thanksgiving ‘smallpox blankets’ Twitter post to her 2 million followers,) revisionist historian Howard Zinn (in his bestseller A Peoples’ History of the United States,) the United Native Americans of New England, and many others.

Countless Americans believe these untruths, many of which are now deeply imbedded in the national psyche. Google the ‘Real Story of Thanksgiving’ for examples. The Pilgrim/Indian relationship has been confused and conflated with Columbus, the Puritans, the Pequot War, the French and Indian Wars, and virtually every other indigenous/European conflict throughout history. The Pilgrim/Indian relationship was much more positive than is currently believed.

Let’s look at some of the erroneous current assumptions about the Mayflower Pilgrim/ Indian relationship. This is America’s primary origin story, and it has a profound influence upon the national psyche.

Fiction vs Fact

1. Fiction: The Mayflower Pilgrims gave the Indians smallpox-infected blankets, wiping out 90% of the indigenous people of New England.

Fact: This scenario is chronologically impossible. The Mayflower landed in November 1620, two to four years AFTER the epidemic that had decimated the New England tribes in 1616-1618. There is no historical evidence of smallpox aboard the Mayflower, nor on any of the French and English vessels that had visited the area earlier. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in New England occurred in Boston in 1633.

Contemporary reports called the epidemic that decimated New England’s coastal tribes between 1616 and 1618 ‘the plague.’ Europeans of the time knew the difference between smallpox and plague.  The disease, similar to the Black Death epidemic that killed 6 out of 10 Londoners in the mid-1300s, most likely originated from French fur traders in Nova Scotia and Eastern Canada,

2. Fiction: The Pilgrims were welcomed with open arms by the Indians of Cape Cod.

Fact: At the ‘first encounter’ on December 6, 1620, Nauset warriors attacked a group of Pilgrims exploring the shoreline. They fired some 30 arrows at them, before being driven off by musket fire. Fortunately, no one was killed or even injured. Two years earlier, two French fishing vessels had been attacked, burned, and their crews enslaved and killed by the natives. While Plymouth Plantation was under construction, the Pilgrims were under constant threat of attack and annihilation by the neighboring tribes, with the notable exception of Massasoit’s Pokanoket band and a few other friendly groups.

3. Fiction: The Pilgrims would have died of starvation during the first winter if the Indians had not taken them in and fed them.

Fact: The Mayflower anchored at Provincetown Nov 11, 1620. Other than one violent encounter, they did not meet any Indians for over 4 months, during which time half of the passengers died of the ‘general sickness’ (probably scurvy) not of starvation. The Pilgrims met their first Indian, Samoset, on March 16, 1621, then Squanto, Massasoit, and the Pokanokets on March 22, 1621. On that date, the Pilgrims and Massasoit signed a peace treaty that both sides honored for over fifty years. The Pilgrims had adequate food, and in fact fed their Indian visitors on numerous occasions.

4. Fiction: The Indians lived in universal peace and harmony before the coming of the Europeans.

Fact: There are numerous first-hand reports showing many Indian tribes were in a state of perpetual war, building federations and empires, competing for territory, exterminating trading competitors, taking slaves, sacrificing humans, and torturing captives. The forgotten Tarratines War (1607 – 1619) – which had a profound impact on the situation the Mayflower encountered in 1620 – is a well-documented example.

5. Fiction: Indigenous American society was completely egalitarian.

Fact: Like the Europeans, the Indians recognized royal and noble bloodlines, such as those of Nanapashimet, Massasoit, Powhatan and hundreds of others. Only persons of royal lineage could marry one another or succeed a sachem or sagamore. In Virginia, Powhatan was an Emperor, Pocahontas was a royal princess. In New England, ‘Squaw Sachem’ and Weetamoo were queens, and King Philip was a royal prince. Philip declared that he was the equal of King Charles II of England, which is why the settlers nicknamed him ‘King’ Philip.

6. Fiction: The Pilgrims came ashore in 1620 as an invading army, raping and pillaging. They massacred the first 700 Indians they encountered, then sat down for a Thanksgiving feast with the survivors.

Fact: The 52 Pilgrims (14 adult men, 4 adult women, and 34 children) who survived the first winter made friends with the Pokanoket Indians they met in the spring of 1621. The Pilgrims and the Pokanokets lived in peace and harmony with each other until 1675, over half a century. In 1675, the Indians declared all-out war on the settlers, in one of the bloodiest conflicts, per capita, in American history.

7. Fiction: The Pilgrims and the Puritans were one and the same, and both were religious fanatics.

Fact: The Pilgrim Separatists were quite different from the Puritans. They were remarkably open-minded, having spent 12 years in liberal Holland before crossing the Atlantic. They had much in common, spiritually, with the Indians, did not attempt to convert them to Christianity, and were much more sympathetic to the Indians than were the Puritans, who began arriving in 1630, ten years after the landing of the Mayflower. Once Massasoit declared himself to be ‘King James his man’ his people became subject to all the rights and protections of English law.

8. Fiction: The Pilgrims were incompetent, ignorant convicts who were expelled from England. Once they landed, they had no idea how to fend for themselves.

Fact: The Pilgrims were educated English farmers and tradesmen. Their leaders were Cambridge-educated. They were religious dissidents, which was illegal in England at the time. That was their only crime. They knew the land. It was very similar to England. During their first year in Plymouth they constructed a village and a fort from scratch, saved Massasoit’s life with an English remedy, and planted and reaped a successful harvest, with help from Squanto’s corn-planting advice.

9. Fiction: The Indians never harmed anyone. The Europeans came to North America and massacred the peace-loving inhabitants.

Fact: It went both ways. There is no question that Europeans and Indians massacred one another from time to time, but the Mayflower Pilgrims were never involved in a massacre. Research shows that throughout the entire contact period (1600-1850) Indians carried out approximately 500 massacres against Europeans, and Europeans committed about 450 massacres against Indians. A total of approximately 9,000 settlers were massacred by Indians, compared with roughly 7,000 Indians massacred by Europeans.

10. Fiction: The Plymouth colonists wrongfully murdered Massasoit’s innocent son Metacom (known to history as ‘King Philip.’)

Fact: After years of preparation, selling land and buying weapons with the money, Metacom (Philip) declared all-out war on the settlers in June, 1675, bringing to an end 54 years of peace and friendship between the Pilgrims and the Indians. Philip’s well-armed warriors killed an estimated 2,500 English men, women and children throughout New England. King Philip’s War was the bloodiest conflict, per capita, in recorded American history. The war might have gone against the English, had not the Mohawk come in on their side. The war ended when Metacom was killed (by an Indian) on August 6th, 1676.

There are many positive and uplifting facts about the 50 years of friendship at Plymouth Plantation 1621-1675, as the two cultures laid the foundation for the evolution of American democracy and the American mind and spirit, an important step in humanity’s progress toward realizing the essence of the American Dream – Liberty, Justice and Abundance for all.

Researched and compiled by Andrew C. Bailey for the documentary/book/screenplay project: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS: Freedom and Friendship at Plymouth Plantation.

For Primary Source Verification go to:

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