The Pilgrims in Flesh and Spirit

If we want to encounter the first Thanksgiving as the Pilgrims experienced it in the fall of 1621, “we must put aside our images of great wide Puritan collars and large buckles (never worn by the godly of early Plymouth, who rejected all jewelry), roast turkey (absent from the earliest record of the event), and cranberry sauce (quite unknown in the early colony).” So writes Martyn Whittock in “Mayflower Lives,” an incisive series of biographical and historical essays on the Mayflower’s passengers.

All we know about the original Thanksgiving, Mr. Whittock explains, comes to us from 115 words in a document known as Mourt’s Relation, written to persuade London investors not to give up on the colony. We know that the original feast lasted three days and was attended by the Pilgrims and about 90 Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe. It featured a meal consisting of venison, supplied by the natives, and fowl, supplied by the English. That’s it.

As with any story of a nation’s beginning, a cloud of legends surrounds the Mayflower journey and the early years of the Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower passengers didn’t come ashore by climbing onto the rock known as Plymouth Rock or, indeed, a rock of any kind. The myth began in 1715 when town records mentioned a “great rock” that measured the town’s boundaries. In 1774 some locals got the idea of promoting it as a symbol of liberty; they tried to transport the roughly 10-ton stone to the town’s meeting house in an ox cart, but the thing tipped from the cart and split in two. The rock now on display in Plymouth, the victim of that split and probably others, and of the gougings of relic-thieves, is much diminished in size. In any case, the Pilgrims almost certainly never stepped on it.

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