Native History: Mayflower Sets Sail, Starts the Long Assault of Indian Country
This Date in Native History: History.com says the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, on September 16, 1620, but is that accurate? According to Wampanoag history, the Mayflower sailed with 102 passengers 10 days earlier—on September 6, 1620—after two failed attempts to leave England.
Accounts vary of the voyage that forever changed America for its first inhabitants.
History.com says the Mayflower completed its 66-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean on November 21, 1620. Other sources, including experts at Plimoth Plantation, a nonprofit living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, say the journey ended November 11, 1620, when colonists disembarked at Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod.
The Mayflower, which weighed 180 tons and was about 100 feet long and 20 feet wide, departed with another ship, the Speedwell, twice in August 1620. Both ships returned to dock when the Speedwell was found to be unseaworthy, according to the written history of William Bradford, a separatist, leader of the voyage to the New World and first governor of the settlement. The Mayflower then made the journey on its own.
Bradford’s history states that the successful voyage began September 6 when the colonists “put to sea.” They landed in Provincetown on November 11, Bradford wrote. It was a Monday.
The ship was headed for Virginia, where colonists were authorized by the British crown to settle. Some of the colonists sought religious freedom while many others were dissatisfied with economic opportunities. Stormy weather and navigation errors forced the Mayflower 500 miles off course and colonists landed on Cape Cod.
Upon landing, Bradford wrote this: “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”
By December, the colonists had moved across the bay to Plymouth, establishing the first permanent white settlement in America.
For thousands of years before that, however, the Wampanoag village of Patuxet had flourished on the same land, said Darius Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation.
“At the time, that was a Wampanoag community,” said Coombs, who is one of about 25 Wampanoag people who work at Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite. “We had trade ships coming for 100 years before that, but the ships, the people, didn’t stay. So this wasn’t our first encounter with outsiders.”
When settlers arrived in Plymouth, they found cleared fields and fresh water. Despite this, colonial leaders like Bradford claimed the land was “unpeopled.” According to English tradition, lands without clear title were available to the first people to permanently inhabit it.
But the Wampanoag had simply moved to their winter homes away from the coast, having buried their food supply in Patuxet to store it, Coombs said.
“When the early settlers came, it was winter, so they came after we left the summer homes for the season,” he said. “They found Native burial grounds, which were disturbed, and they dug up our buried food.”
According to Coombs, the settlers actually were lucky that they arrived in 1620 instead of five years before that. A plague, most likely carried by Europeans, spread across New England from 1616 to 1618, wiping out as many as 70 to 90 percent of the tribe’s population.
“There were more than 70 Wampanoag communities at one time,” he said. “The Mayflower changed history for our people.”
Coombs for the last 25 years has worked at the Wampanoag Homesite, where tribal members live present-day culture and tell the truth about history. That history includes loss of land, slavery, rape and genocide, he said.
“This is present-day Wampanoag, but I’ll tell you, not everyone can do this,” he said. “Not everyone can talk about what happened because it still hurts down to the core.”
Regardless of the exact dates the Mayflower sailed, the voyage was a game-changer for American Indians. Activist and author Vine Deloria Jr., in his famous book Custer Died for your Sins, commentated on the Mayflower and the Pilgrims.
“Many Indians, of course, believe it would have been better if Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims than the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock,” he wrote. “Nothing was more destructive of man than the early settlements on this continent.”
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