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The Pilgrims: Stuff of Myths

In Jennie Brownscombe’s popular painting of the First Thanksgiving, somber Pilgrims in Victorian clothes sit down to pray with half-naked Indians.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty, says Laurence Pizer, director of Pilgrim Hall.

“America’s perceptions of the First Thanksgiving are historically inaccurate,” said Pizer, 44, as he looked at Brownscombe’s 1914 interpretation of that first holiday. “This painting is a symbol of Thanksgiving for most Americans,” but it’s based more on whimsy than fact, he said.

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“Pilgrims didn’t wear black-and-white Victorian clothing. They dressed in the conventional style of that day, in trousers, shirts and dresses of various colors. We know Elder William Brewster (who, in the painting, leads the group in prayer) had a red vest and a purple vest. And, the Indians certainly didn’t go around in the chilly New England autumn half-naked.”

Hanging from the walls here in Pilgrim Hall, one of the nation’s oldest museums, are other paintings that give misleading pictures of Pilgrims and the way they lived. There are paintings that show the Pilgrims embarking for the New World from Delfthaven, Holland, the Mayflower crossing the Atlantic, the landing at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 21, 1620, and the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth the following fall.

“These paintings make up the American myth about the Pilgrims,” said Pizer. “We all grew up with the story illustrated in these depictions. (But) the paintings are better known for their romantic charm, rather than historical accuracy.”

Most of the paintings are 19th Century, the earliest, “The Landing of the Pilgrims” by Michael Felice Corne, from 1803. He was among the first artists to interpret the story of the Pilgrims. Corne shows Pilgrims stepping off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock.

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“The rugged coastline, feather-headdressed natives on shore and the variously garbed Pilgrims, some in British naval uniforms and others in French Revolution caps, are all products of Corne’s imagination,” said Pizer.

Some paintings show Pilgrims disembarking from the Mayflower wearing breast plates. “Hardly believable. Breastplates were incredibly heavy,” said Pizer. “Indians are pictured greeting Pilgrims when they arrived at Plymouth Rock. Not true. It was three months before Indians came out to visit.”

Pizer said popular books have always had accounts much like the paintings, what writers fancied, inconsistent with history. Nowhere is there mention in Pilgrims’ journals of turkey being eaten at the harvest feast.

“At that time of the year, geese would have been plentiful. They probably ate goose. They also ate deer provided by the Indians,” Pizer added.

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Pizer walked a visitor through the stately Greek Revival granite mansion that is Pilgrim Hall. “This was the cradle that rocked Peregrine White, who was born on the Mayflower shortly after the ship anchored in Provincetown harbor,” he said. In his journal “Of Plimoth Plantation,” William Bradford describes Peregrine White as the “first of the English that was borne in these parts.”

It was in 1820, the bicentennial of the landing at Plymouth Rock, that the Pilgrim Society was organized in Plymouth “to exhibit and interpret the history of the Pilgrims and the colony and town they founded.” The museum opened to the public in 1824.

“Our aim as a scholarly institution is seeking anything that reveals the situation of the Pilgrims--pieces of furniture, books, manuscripts, anything they owned, telling us what life was like, what they were like,” said Pizer.

The only known likeness of any of the Mayflower passengers hangs in Pilgrim Hall. It is a portrait of Edward Winslow, painted when he visited England in 1651. No one knows what the other Pilgrims looked like.

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Pizer lifted a huge iron cooking pot off the museum floor. “This came over on the Mayflower. In all likelihood, it was used at the First Thanksgiving,” he said.

In one exhibit case is a sampler made by Myles Standish’s daughter, Loara, when she was a teen-ager in 1653. It is the earliest known American sampler. Her verse reads:

“Loara Standish is my name Lorde guide my hart that I may doe thy will, also My hands with such Convenient skill as may Conduce virtue void of Shame and I will give The Glory to thy name.”

Myles Standish’s razor and sword are here, as are John Alden’s and Gov. William Bradford’s Bibles. There are chairs, dinnerware, tables, pewter, a cloak, a bead purse, a slipper and tools--a hoe, an ax, a hand saw--that belonged to Pilgrims.

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There is a model of the Mayflower here, made in England in 1925, but it does little to answer any of the Mayflower mysteries. “There are so many mysteries about the Pilgrims. The Mayflower is one of them,” said Pizer. “We do not know what the Mayflower looked like. We can only guess.

“We know that it was an old ship, that it was 90 feet long and was like a taxi, hired by the Pilgrims for the voyage to the New World.”

Pilgrim Hall also has on display the remains of a 17th-Century vessel that carried transatlantic passengers from Europe to the New World, the 40-foot Sparrow-Hawk.

The Sparrow-Hawk carried 20 passengers and crew. It sank in 1626 at Orleans, 50 miles southeast of Plymouth on Cape Cod. A great storm uncovered the wreck in 1862. The Pilgrim Society acquired the ribs, floor pieces and sides of the Sparrow-Hawk in 1889.

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“We are still collecting Pilgrim items from descendants, purchased through dealers and at auctions. One of our most recent acquisitions is a silver wine cup that belonged to William Bradford,” said Pizer.

Pilgrim Hall, which is on Court Street in downtown Plymouth (population 41,000), has the largest collection of books, manuscripts and other written material about the Pilgrims.

This museum of Pilgrim treasures is three blocks from Plymouth Rock, the 5-foot-long, 2-foot-tall rock the Pilgrims stepped on from their small boat when they first came ashore here. Today, the rock is protected by a portico of granite.

“The story of the Pilgrims is just as fascinating today as it was in the past. They were a band of brave pioneers who accomplished incredible things, including the mere fact of survival,” said Pizer.

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Of the 104 who made the voyage to Plymouth, 53 perished the first winter from exposure, starvation, and disease. It was the 51 who made it through that first cruel winter who held the harvest festival in the fall of 1621 that became this nation’s First Thanksgiving.


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