Why did the Pilgrims journey from England to Plymouth Rock? And more to the point, how did Americans get from Plymouth Rock to ribbed cranberry sauce thwocked onto a plate straight from the can? These are questions I hope to address one day in a thoughtful essay on the topic. Meanwhile, I hope you’ve brought an appetite for extravagant history as I serve up the rich saga of the Pilgrim’s progress featuring healthy dollops of mashed truths and stuffed with agonizing analogies. Note: For those readers on a on a sodium restricted diet I’ve written this version with the salty language removed.
Some say the Pilgrims were a splinter group offering only slivers of truth. And yet the thin wooden truths they occupied so superbly were suffused with fervent hope, careful determination and, in the end, selfless expressions of love. They got after it in the way they saw fit; flouting convention and inaugurating their own “Occupy Plymouth Rock” movement. Very courageous really. Persecution these days usually means having a devastating Op-Ed piece written about your group by a snarky antagonist. Persecution in early 17th century England meant twisting in the wind or burning at the stake. Our intrepid little Pilgrims risked it all – for the love of God. And you can understand why. Sometimes our craving for spiritual rediscovery sparks an epiphany. Like when you’re finishing up and you suddenly realize, “Oh my God! I had asparagus earlier?” This is all by way of remembering the ancestral religious zeal that still clings to our collective melons like the netting on a cantaloupe.
In the grand scheme of things (of which no human is truly qualified to write about) it seems we are all omniscient souls; placed in these bodies and (for reasons unclear even to me) dumbed down by the trappings of earth and required to submit to the law of the realm. But within this sweet illusion exists some very satisfying nougat we can all gobble, gobble. So prepare yourself for a farcical yet grim journey through the devoted mind of the Pilgrims as we try to gain insight into why they would risk both boot and buckle to cross the Atlantic Ocean on their perilous journey…No that’s not right. Their perilous…, oh, I don’t know what to call it, umm…. their perilous pilgrimage – that’s it. The Pilgrim’s pilgrimage. We’ll explore everything from succotash to turducken, and we’ll unbuckle it all as we strip away layers of shoddy history and expose the naked truth. Of course when I say “naked truth,” I mean what I conclude to be the naked truth based on scanty research and strong biases. But even interpretations are subject to interpretation. For example the Bible has been used to justify everything from the sublime (loving your fellow man) to the obscene (loving your fellow man). If we learned anything from “The Crying Game” it’s that all is not as it seems.
What is a Pilgrim?
Pilgrims are not Puritans. Pilgrims are more than just a square peg in a square hole. They’re more like a faith-based neighborhood watch group banded together to move to a more enlightened neighborhood. They were Amish before Amish was cool. They were a monolithic people marching in examined lockstep with one another for the greater glory of the Lord. Within the clan however they enjoyed some measure of freedom. After all, they were allowed to blink and swallow as they chose. What differentiated them from their Christian brethren was an ardent quest for experiencing God directly; as opposed to the cowed laity of the Anglican Church whose notions of Christianity were less exploratory and more informed by their clergy. The Pilgrims wanted derelict clerics made relics. Not an easy thing to do…or say, for that matter. Holy Spirit was not something to be dispensed by others, but rather to be experienced by your self. And not to put too fine a point on it, but Pilgrims were not Puritans in the sense they wanted to cleanse or purify the Anglican Church. Rather they sought more or less to remove the symbolic trappings of the Church (vestments, purgatory, indulgences even crosses) in order to promote a more direct and joyous experience of God. My life coach teaches me the same exalted principle – when he’s not drinking. One surprising fact is that the Pilgrims believed the dissolution of a bad marriage (divorce) was a good thing, reasoning that one bad divorce could lead to two good marriages.
In one sense the Pilgrims were heretics from the Anglican Church. You’re all familiar with the Anglican Church aren’t you? This is the one started by King Hank the 8th in the 1530’s when Pope Clement VII refused to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. If Catherine bears King Hank a son, history is forever altered and perhaps we’re all driving on the left hand side of the altar. The Pilgrims believed the Church had lost its way and resolved to worship God in a more collegial and participatory way. They saw no need for a self-selected church hierarchy to interpret the newly printed and widely distributed Bible for them, based on political considerations and strong biases. No, that’s what I do. The Bible however, was God’s word, not some politically connected bishop’s word. God’s dazzling kingdom was not the province of stuporous clerics to proffer piecemeal. No, Pilgrims believed there was a certain relativism and personal relationship with God that each soul had to broker for themselves.
That a 17th century central authority would contrive to maintain its power by contorting scripture and revising Biblical myths was absolutely galling to the Pilgrims. The second governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, from whose diary I’ll quote later, referred to this dynamic as “the gross darkness of Popery.” They were vehemently against Popery in all its forms. Their indignation was so passionate that many became confused on this matter, and were not only against Popery, but were also against potpourri. Consequently their walk-in closets were virtually uninhabitable.
Except for the Jokes this is All True
By 17th century standards Pilgrims were an intellectually studious lot. For example on the Sabbath (his day and their only day off) they completely gave themselves to his pleasure. Services were generally from 8 to12 with a break for a forenoon meal of wool and buckles. Afternoon services were from about 2 to 5 and followed by a heavier meal of felt and peat. Wow. That’s a full day of God, not to mention textiles. My generation would wilt at such a prospect. I wouldn’t even want to do something that feels good for that length of time. Their services were not clergy dominated. Rather, Bible passages were read aloud and discussed in an open and interactive way. Sometimes someone would prepare a lecture on the importance of obeying the 10 Commandments. Another might propose a late supper of Linens-N-Things. Either way everything was on the table – from piety to burlap.
What was the Character of a Pilgrim?
Quite simply, when they passed out character and buckles, the Pilgrims got in line twice. They just naturally accrued cubits of character and this may account for the absence of a sexual position known as “The Pilgrim.” Their stolid demeanor and surety of conviction could make Mother Theresa look like a sassy broad. Their reputation for trustworthiness preceded them to New Netherlands and that’s why long before Equifax had any say in the matter, credit was extended to them by businesses and individuals alike. They scrupulously paid their debts.
As with most Homo sapiens (literally “the thinking homo”), the Pilgrims endeavored to transcend their various desires and press on towards the truth. And this was all well and good. But it was their supposed unorthodox methodology that caused them to run afoul of English law. Unorthodox is a relative term. Let’s not forget at one time heliocentrism and vaccinations were considered either blaspheme or lunacy. In other words the Pilgrims weren’t doing it like everybody else was and the authorities (King James I and the clergy) viewed this as a threat. Nothing new there.
In an effort to bridge the aching gap between faith and truth the Pilgrims resolved to buckle down everything – hats, shoes, genitals. They wanted things to move more predictably. They were a grim lot. A Pil-grim lot. There’s was the original buttoned-down mind except in those days it was buckled down. As most seekers do, they listened intently to their God until he told them exactly what they wanted to hear. They were stout and fearless zealots. Who else would leave Pier 1 and travel 3200 miles across a roiling ocean just so they could pray in peace without having to hear some over wrought Anglican minister declare, “Dominus Nabisco. Hallelujah, I love her so?”
In some sense Pilgrims are the forebears of today’s American strain of self-reliant unilateralism. How these stalwart souls got by in primitive America without Vanilla Coke or freshness dated batteries I’ll never know. Take away the Pilgrim’s prayer book and they’re inconsolable. Take away my iPhone and I’m wandering in the dark. Looking back at these 17th Century anachronisms through a 21st century telescope forces me to ask – “I understand how the telescope makes distant images near, but how does it actually look back into time?”
Why did the Pilgrims leave England?
Generally, principled people suck, unless you’re one of them. These Pilgrims were mighty principled and generally they became a persecuted irritant to the status quo in England. So in 1610 they removed to Leyden in New Netherlands where they worked making both Crate and Barrel. They worked at various handicrafts storing much of their inventory in a Pottery Barn. Eventually tensions rose over religious practices and this set the stage for removal to North America; then known as Terra Incognita.
The Pilgrims evacuated from Pier 1 in England in order to enjoy a greater range of spiritual expression in the new world. They paid for their journey on a Cost Plus basis. The Pilgrims wanted to be more connected to God than the hoary state-polluted Anglican Church allowed them and they thought it better to starve, half-naked on the infertile rocky coast of Massachusetts than to remain in England and sing a few of the King’s favorite hymns with their fingers crossed. Instead they wound up in an inhospitable land whistling hymns with their eyes crossed. And when their puritanical streak emerged, they sang with their legs crossed.
It was Real for Them
Except for this excerpt, expertly excerpted from William Bradford’s diary, I’ve given you little sense of the unalloyed fervency burning in the breast of most Pilgrims. Bradford’s heartfelt scene describes the Mayflower’s poignant shipboard farewell of friends as the bonds of Christian Fellowship would soon be stretched across an ocean:
“where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to see what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them, what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each heart ; that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the quay as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide, which stays for no man, calling them away that were thus loath to depart, their reverend pastor falling down on his knees (and they all with him) with watery cheeks commended them with most fervent prayers to the Lord and His blessing. And with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves of one another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.”
And you thought 1620 was some dull, black and white still life painting. It turns out passion predates Brad and Angelina. The Pilgrims really had no choice but to separate themselves. Since it was the Church of England’s ball, the Pilgrim’s couldn’t take it with them and go home. So they made their own ball and took it to the New World. The Pilgrims sought freedom of religious persecution in order to achieve freedom of religious expression. And all who came to the colony could freely practice any kind of religion they chose as long as it was what the Pilgrims practiced.
What was their journey like?
As every school kid knows the Pilgrims originally attempted to cross the ocean on the Queen Mary, but being a rather compact 5’ 2” queen of questionable buoyancy and very little ballast, she was hardly seaworthy. So instead they boarded the 180-ton Mayflower that had all the modern comforts one could possibly imagine – if you were a barnacle. This was no Love Boat. The metronomic tedium was broken only by fits of sheer boredom. But as befits the Pilgrim’s buckle down mind, they experienced either tedium or boredom. At no time did the two co-exist or overlap. They made a very dull game of this which further contributed to their gloom.
There were no ports of call on this cruise. There was no dining at the Captain’s table – he didn’t have one. Instead they “dressed them meats” on dangerous little shipboard braziers. There were no 1st Class, 2nd Class or Steerage accommodations. Everyone traveled Ballast Class, but even this was better than Flotsam Class which had all the modern conveniences of life – if you were a sea horse. Eventually the Mayflower passengers became cruise-hardened veterans by virtue of being constantly pickled in oceanic brine.
There were no backseat DVD players showing “Pocahantas” on this voyage – she was still in Jamestown bemoaning the loss of John Smith. The children on the Mayflower amused themselves by playing “Shoots and Buckles,” “Tiddly Oats” or “Pin the Tail on the Mizzen Mast.” It was a grueling and harrowing journey although no worse than Bruce Jenner’s latest face lift. As befits the Pilgrim’s buckle down mind, the journey was grueling first and then harrowing. At no time did the two co-exist or overlap. By all accounts the journey was initially grueling until the tipping point on Day 38 and then became harrowing as their only supply of fresh water began to spontaneously carbonate.
The ever-stout William Bradford, inventor of “Silver-dollar” pancakes, was the leader of the 103 passengers (43 Pilgrims and 60 less pious Adventurers) and was eventually elected Plymouth’s governor. For decades he kept a diary that was later made into a minor literary classic called “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The diary included detailed descriptions of the journey to, and life in the Plymouth Plantation. There were accounts of various shipboard events like these:
Day 10: A grueling day of passenger complaints. John Alden gripes that “This is not the cruise advertised in the brochure Brother Bradford. All we do is rearrange deck chairs. And another thing, algae is not ‘fresh produce.’ Neither is seaweed. And why does the cook always seem so startled when we say ‘What’s for lunch?’ Did you get him from the Bedlam District? Didn’t you find it telling that the ship’s dog wouldn’t eat last night’s stew and instead jumped overboard? I don’t want to say the boat is leaky, but I share my ‘private berth’ with a school of krill. I literally sleep with the fishes.”
He is not wrong and yet I feel great guilt over coveting his wife’s buckles. I think she’s had a buckle augmentation, but I’ll never ask.
Day 32: Another grueling day. It came close to harrowing without actually getting into harrowing territory. I keep having the same peculiar premonition whereby a great bird takes some beetles from Liverpool to a place called New-Yorke and all the young girls are in a frenzy. What could it mean? John Rigby’s wife Eleanor keeps massaging her shoe. Over and over she rubs its bottom. Rubs her sole. Rub her soul. That’s it – Rubber Soul!
Day 38: Another grueling day till about the time I shot my sextant and then whence the water began to gurgle, all was harrowing.
Day 64: Another harrowing day. Sixty-four days at sea Dear Lord and all but two spent heaving hardtack over the gunwales. Did the concept of Dramamine ever come up or must the hardtack always come up instead? At least 58 of the 64 days spent soaked to the skin with chilled brine. And yet I’ve made great friendships on this noble journey. For example, I’ll never forget the pod of oysters that share my spongy bunk. Lord, for sure you have tested us and although we would’ve preferred a written, we will do your work in this New World, just as soon as we decide what it is. Dear All Wise Creator:
Deliver Us Unto Someplace –Quickly
Oh Lord in your impotent wisdom
Please hear our upchucks
Why are there so many truths?
It’s difficult to know which virgin to believe
Additionally, and while not exactly related to the poem,
A few basics about germs would’ve saved us a whole lot of misery.
I’m not blaming anyone, mind you.
I’m just saying.
I’d never question the divine originator who brilliantly decided to place our Earth at the exact center of the universe.
Day 65: Land Ho. Yippee. We are saved. Hmmm. On second thought it’s rather barren and windswept here. I guess we weren’t expected Lord, although, you knew we were planning this for a long time and I’ll remind you we are here to do your work. It’s not like you didn’t know we were coming. A lamp, some cookies – anything would’ve been nice. There’s a lot less here than meets the eye. A lot less. We’ll all have to buckle down to survive. That’s all we do around here is buckle, buckle, buckle. But thank you almighty for delivering us safely to this land, which I think we all agree, would make a great spot for a parking garage. Y’know depending on the zoning and whether or not there are any pre-existing owners. If there are any preexisting owners, we’ll be sure to respect their native rights.
Who’s your Daddy?
At the dawn of European exploration of North America, Spain launched many ships towards the New World and her captains, upon alighting on these foreign shores, boldly proclaimed all they surveyed for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Now the existing natives of these lands, 75% of whom caught European colds and died, were regarded with the same sense of disregard as epitomized by the slogan of a popular button of about 40 years ago – “It’s Sinatra’s world, We just live in it.” In other words Columbus might as well have presented the natives with a Spanish Royal coin stating – “It’s Spain’s world. You just live in it.”
In reaction to this European imperialist hubris and not to be outdone, in 1673 a group of Indian chiefs charted their own boat, sailed across the Atlantic and landed in Spain where they boldly proclaimed all of it for the Great Sky God Howyadoin. Their dominion over Spain never quite took hold. In 1677 they were released from a Barcelona prison into the protective custody of a traveling circus.
Might (the noun) might (the verb) not be right. Again, might might not be right, but it sure is convenient to possess.
What they Found. AKA Boy Did I Get a Wrong Number
In the winter of 1620, after exploring the tip of Cape Cod in present day Massachusetts (then known as Northern Virginia), the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Years later black slaves used to say, “The Pilgrims didn’t land at Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” But in 1620 the Red Sox had just completed building Fenway Park that had all the conveniences of a modern stadium – if you were a moth. And apart from a few primitive Starbucks serving something called warmed chicory, the land was very inhospitable. The Pilgrims had hoped for a land grant in Virginia and when that fell through, they sought one in Perpetuity. They had all hoped to live in Perpetuity. Who wouldn’t want to live in Perpetuity? They decided against it, because it takes an eternity to get to Perpetuity.
If it weren’t for the generosity of the native Indians, particularly an English speaking Indian named Squanto, in providing agricultural mentoring and acting as tour guide extraordinaire, the Pilgrims surely would’ve perished that first winter As it was, of the 103 souls who made the trip, 4 died en route and only about 50 were alive by the spring of 1621. It’s one thing to write this, but it’s quite another to live it. To be delivered unto a forbidding unimproved landscape in the dead of winter whose welcoming party are variously wolves, wind and noble savages is madness: “How do you do madam? May I take your scalp?” Oh yeah, that and half of all your friends debilitate and die within 3 months. God was watching over them. Imagine if he wasn’t – something really bad might have happened. I can’t appropriately describe my respect for their intrepidity. That’s not enough. I can only honor their dauntless courage.
During that wretched winter, the Pilgrims unfailingly cared for their sick. As quoted from Bradford’s diary (seriously):
“…in time of most distress, there were but 6 or 7 sound persons who to their great commendations, be it spoken, spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered.”
Those who categorically knock Christianity would do well to reflect on this fine example of Christian fellowship.
Upon discovering their original patent for the land was defective because they had landed outside the bounds of its jurisdiction, they deemed it wise to devise their own rules of peaceable governance to which they all subscribed. It was in the form of a covenant that bound them all together and is considered a forerunner of our Constitution in that it derived its power from the consent of the governed. This famous document became known as the Mayflower Compact. Few realize that the original Mayflower Compact contained lipstick and eyeliner. Few realize it because it’s not true.
Was the colony a success?
If the success of the Plymouth Plantation Colony is measured by how much I enjoyed writing this piece on the fortitudinous exploits of the Pilgrims, well then yes; the colony was a huge success. But if you ask this question from the perspective of the Pilgrims (the ones who actually experienced it) the answer is probably a qualified yes. At a titanic cost they did achieve their objective of worshiping God as they saw fit. They also managed to govern themselves (through the framework of the Mayflower Compact) in an efficient and exemplary way. But, of course the attendant hardships in this start-up colony were outrageously onerous. Death, privation and fearsome Indians all served to make their hard earned gains very dear. They lived hard bitten lives of endless toil broken only by more urgent and immediate struggles. Remember, venture capital in those days was labor and flint. I mean if worshipping God 8 hours a day is your thing, boy did they have a colony for you. But if you like whittling or spending a lazy 45 minutes reclining in the hayloft, I’d wait for something to open up in Sodom. Considering that whether we like it or not, God is with us 24/7 anyway, I don’t know how much worship he requires to begin with.
The Plymouth Plantation contained all the conveniences of modern life – if you were a gopher. They scratched out hovels with shovels. It was novel. I don’t know how they did it. Take away my gravitas and I immediately feel “the gross darkness of Jokery.” I presume the Pilgrims enjoyed sex. Historically this act has translated well in any era across all life forms. It unifies us and perpetuates us. It allows us to live in perpetuity if only for a moment. Although suffering from a variety of respiratory illnesses, the Pilgrims did not yet have the iron lung to heal them. Archaeological excavations do seems to indicate they had developed a primitive kind of pewter lung.
The Plantation itself was set up in a grid pattern, as in grid your teeth and bear it. Its two intersecting streets provided a neighborly nexus and were laid out in a cross pattern, I presume so that birds flying by would know who they were dealing with. Digital historians were astonished to discover that the entire colony was completely wireless until they realized it was wireless because it was wireless.
By the 1630’s the larger and more prosperous Massachusetts Bay Colony (Boston) led by John Winthrop began to absorb and redirect some of the Pilgrims energies. Over time the Pilgrims began blending into a more puritanical and homogeneous Protestantism. The Plymouth venture was a noble and dangerous endeavor whose place in the annals of American history is forever assured. What they accomplished with the Mayflower Compact and their principled adventure will long endure. Let us also not forget the debt of gratitude we owe them for Thanksgiving, without which there would be no cans of ribbed jellied cranberry sauce that satisfyingly “thwock” out onto the serving dish leaving a perfect imprint of the can’s interior on its gelatinous exterior. And to the friendly Indians who taught them the rudiments of survival in the flinty soil. Without the aid and the comfort of the resourceful Indians, Thanksgiving would just be a Thursday in late November when the Cowboys and Lions played.
Imagine having next to nothing and giving thanks for it. There is, without a doubt, a great truth there. Especially when we have so much.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is Open to Interpretation, but Convention Dictates I Try to Sum it Up Anyway.
I think the colony served its purpose and gave those ardent souls seeking this experience exactly what they wanted – an awareness that God was with them and that they were sweetly reflecting his will. Of course this is how innumerable dastardly things have been justified and perpetrated. So pick your poison and make sure it feels right down deep otherwise your group might provide you a nasty splinter. In the paraphrased lyrics of Hal David: What the world needs now, is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
Now there’s a philosophy worth sacrificing for. Happy Thanksgiving Pilgrim!
 It should be noted that the Reformation was primarily in reaction to an imperious and unresponsive Catholic Church. The Reformation was a major European event dovetailing with the Enlightenment, the Renaissance and all those fabulous French pastries. Imagine that; the entire Reformation reduced to a footnote in mystory.
 Thank you very much Herr Gutenberg.
 I don’t mean to impugn the Anglican Church. After all, its formation or, more correctly, its reformation was in reaction to a domineering and high-handed Catholic Church whose authoritative Pope miserly dispensed the Church’s trove of God’s treasures.
 Squanto was the last survivor of the Patuxet tribe who died out as a result of pestilence from exposure to the English. Kidnapped and brought to England where he was crudely educated, upon being returned to the New World, he jumped Captain Dermer’s ship in 1618 and eventually made his way to Plymouth. A dauntless and civilized Indian, for many years he acted as liaison and interpreter between the Pilgrims and the surrounding tribes. If he were alive today no doubt he’d be assisting Stephen Hawking.
 They were supposed to have landed in the New York City area then known as Dutch Crunch.