This autumn marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of a hardy band of English religious dissenters at the Wampanoag town of Patuxet. The Pilgrims renamed it as Plymouth. They believed that this was the place to launch their new England, a refuge for persecuted Protestants. But Plymouth never became popular. It attracted few English migrants before Massachusetts absorbed it in 1691.
More than a century would pass between that landing—on what was recorded as Dec. 16, 1620, though accounts of the exact date differ—and the creation of the Plymouth idea that is still familiar to many Americans. Before 1776, few commentators made much of that bit of history. But after the establishment of the United States, historians and politicians cemented Plymouth in the script of American nationalism, minimizing its well-documented problems and magnifying its alleged wonders. In the centuries that followed, that trend continued, even as the form of that nationalism changed. The word “Plymouth” may today conjure up visions of Pilgrims in search of religious freedom, but that vision did not reflect the circumstances on the ground in the early 17th century.
The link between Plymouth’s experiences and America’s political culture began with William Bradford, the most prominent politician in the colony’s first decade. From 1630 to 1650, he wrote a lengthy history, now known as Of Plymouth Plantation. Like many of his Pilgrim brethren, Bradford had earlier fled from England to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to escape religious persecution. He then joined about 100 others on the Mayflower. After a tumultuous sea journey, they arrived at Patuxet.
Bradford’s version of events emphasized the Pilgrim’s struggles, which he interpreted through a biblical lens. They landed in a wilderness, he wrote, surrounded by enemies who would not provide them succor, unlike the treatment of Paul among the barbarians (Acts 28). The woods were so thick that they could not see the promised land because, unlike Moses, they could not climb a mountain (Deuteronomy 34). They executed a teenage boy for bestiality, following guidance from Leviticus.
Bradford concentrated on the Pilgrims’ struggle to create their godly community. He wrote that they exiled other colonists who held different religious views, and he chastised Indigenous enemies. His peers did more than just chastise: The Pilgrims sent an Anglican lawyer named Thomas Morton to England after they caught him cavorting with and selling arms to local Natives. During a war in 1637, the English colonizers, with Narragansett allies, surrounded a Pequot village, set it alight and murdered those fleeing the flames. The Pilgrims thanked their God for the downfall of a “proud and insulting” enemy. The victors sold some of the captured Pequots into slavery. Religious and political freedom existed for the Pilgrims, but not for Native Americans—and other colonists—who disagreed with them.
In the 19th century, Plymouth resurfaced when historians and politicians in New England claimed it was the birthplace of the nation. (Virginians, by contrast, celebrated Jamestown instead.) Their argument hinged on two claims. First, the Mayflower Compact, the 200-word document written and signed on the journey, introduced the idea of self-rule maintained with a constitutional government. Second, Plymouth stood for the religious freedom sought by its founders.