Thanksgiving isn't just an opportunity for kids to discover they can draw turkey outlines with their hands. It's a time for history buffs to ponder the Pilgrims, those complicated characters who left an ever-confounding American legacy.
British author Rebecca Fraser brings the Pilgrims to vivid life in her new book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America.
In an interview, Fraser – the daughter of famed historian Lady Antonia Fraser – talks about the immigrant status of the Pilgrims, their civic dreams, and their surprisingly friendly relationships with Native Americans. "However clichéd," she says, "there is a good deal of truth in the Mayflower legend!"
Q: You describe how many of the Pilgrims were treated in Holland with the disrespect that immigrants so often encounter today – forced to live in hovels and take low-level jobs that nobody else wants. Do you connect them to immigrants of our time?
As I was writing this book, the plight of refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa began to be very visible in Europe.
The parallel for me was that a lot of these people are like the Pilgrims – many had professional qualifications in their own countries.
Today’s refugees are surgeons and doctors and lawyers who have nothing to show their status in their home country. One of the most important Pilgrim leaders was an ex-diplomat who descended from a long line of members of Parliament, and many others came from wealthy families.
The Pilgrims had to leave England because there was a clampdown by King James I. To practice their religion, they had to live in Holland, which was in favor of all Protestants, and in the town of Leiden, whose town government gave financial support to all reformed foreign churches that sought sanctuary within its walls.
But the downside of Leiden was that the Pilgrims had to abandon their homes and work for Dutch cloth manufacturers who exploited them. Spending 12 hours at their looms was normal.
And like most refugees, they were living in pretty unpleasant circumstances because they had very little money.
Q: What did the Pilgrims hope to find in America?
Freedom to worship and also to be English, not Dutch. They were patriotic!
In a famous sermon, Robert Cushman, a church leader, said emigration was a solution if there was nowhere for people to exercise their talents, which he called “that knowledge, wisdom, humanity, reason, strength, skill, faculty, &c. which God hath given them." Therefore they should see whether there was another country where they could “do good and have use towards others."
They were also fed up with their children working. Another leader, William Bradford, said they were becoming “decrepit in their early youth; the vigor of nature being consumed in the very bud as it were."
Q: What surprised you?
I didn't realize how awful the Pilgrim experiences were, that 50 percent died on arrival in New England. I didn't know that their pastor John Robinson believed that women had an important role to play in the church.
I didn't know how good their relations with their neighbors, the Native Americans, were originally, nor about the vogue there was for the Native Americans in the late 16th century.
Intellectuals and government policy makers tried to fit them into a Eurocentric Christian chronology: Had they survived Noah’s Flood? Were they some of the Lost Tribes of Israel?
Q: Were the Pilgrims as strict and intolerant as Puritans are often portrayed?
Some 19th-century writers descended from Puritans, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, were aghast at the views of their ancestors and portrayed them as against any kind of enjoyment. But I don't think that the Puritans at Plymouth were very cruel, and I also think they were very open-minded.
Their punishments do sound harsh, but punishments were harsh in 17th-century England as well. People were branded in the hand there as well as in New England.
Perhaps things like scarlet letters would not have been seen in Old England, but the harsher sides of Puritanism, like whipping, begin to be replaced with fines quite early on.
And although capital punishment was on the statute books, it was probably used less than in England because of worries about the small populations of the colonies. The authorities did not execute if there was a way around it.
Q: What should we be thinking about the first Thanksgiving as we chow down on turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce in a few days?
However clichéd, there is a good deal of truth in the Mayflower legend!
You can't attribute the abuse of native peoples for centuries to the Pilgrims. The first generation of colonists were very respectful of their new neighbors and also very dependent on them.
The evidence of great friendship between two peoples – Plymouth and the Wampanoags – is very strong for at least 15 or 16 years. That is, until thousands of settlers start pouring into New England – 20,000 between 1630 and 1640.
Q: What are you working on next?
I am thinking of various subjects. But my fascination with 17th century America is not going to go away soon.