The Pilgrims Gave Us More Than Thanksgiving

By Dr. Robert Jennings Heinsohn, PhD

The Signing of the Compact in the Cabin of the Mayflower By Edward Percy Moran. Image: Pilgrim Hall     


As a Mayflower descendant, I have had the longstanding interest in learning more about the Pilgrims, the native people they found when they landed, and how they managed to live together in acceptable harmony. Unless we learned about those days in our schoolrooms, or we had some other source of learning, we may know little about two important contributions to America's heritage: self government and a tolerant relationship with the Wampanoag native people of southeastern Massachusetts. These achievements produced peace that lasted longer than other English settlers enjoyed elsewhere in the colonies.


In the area of self-government, the separatist congregations in England chose their leaders and conducted their collective lives by mutual consent. They brought these practices with them when they fled to Holland in 1607/08 and refined them with practices adopted from the Dutch Reformed Church. These beliefs became the covenant they affirmed when they left Holland in 1620, and sustained them during the ordeal of the Atlantic voyage and the horrific winter of 1621 when half of those in Plymouth died. The covenant was extended to both members of the Leiden congregation and the newcomers that joined them in England to travel to America. The Mayflower passengers reaffirmed these beliefs in the Mayflower Compact signed in Cape Cod Harbor in November 1620.

" the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together in a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation..."

"enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices from time to time as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the general good..."

These seventeenth-century words are among the most important ever written about the cause of human freedom and quest for self-government. These concepts in the Compact became the foundational stones upon which constitutions of democracies everywhere were written, including our own constitution adopted 169 years later. Self-government is something Americans take for granted today, but in the early seventeenth century it was not practiced anywhere. The Jamestown Colony was aristocratic and royalist; New Amsterdam was a commercial enterprise in which citizens were employees of the Dutch West India Company.


Tolerance shown the separatists by the Dutch when they lived in Holland was reciprocated in their relationship with the Wampanoags. The impetus for tolerance began with the chance encounter with Samoset, an Abenaki Indian from Maine who learned rudimentary English from fishermen who visited Monhegan Island each year. Unannounced, Samoset walked into Plymouth in March 1621, greeted the Pilgrims in broken English, earned their trust and arranged a meeting with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag nation. Plymouth's Governor John Carver signed a peace treaty with Massasoit containing only essential only essential and enforceable elements.

"Indians and Pilgrims vowed not to injure each other, and if it occurred the leader of one group would surrender the instigator to the other for punishment."

"Indians and Pilgrims would not steal from one another."

"If either party was engaged in an unjust war, the other party would aid them."

"All the Wampanoag tribes would honor the peace treaty."

Carver needed the Indians' friendship for trade and Massasoit needed the Pilgrims' friendship to protect his nation from attack by neighboring nations. Squanto, a Wampanoag, took up residence near the Pilgrims to act as guide and interpreter on trading expeditions. He also taught the Pilgrims native farming practices needed for their survival. In 1606, Squanto had been kidnapped, taken to England, taught English and returned to Plymouth by traders in 1619. John Carver died in April 1621, and was succeeded by William Bradford. Squanto died in November 1622, and a high-ranking member of Massasoit's council, Hobbamock and his family took up residence near Plymouth to become their guide and interpreter. While these fortunate encounters with Indians led to an early peace treaty, diplomatic skills established practices that maintained peace long after they died. The Pilgrim and Wampanoag cultures were vastly different, but Bradford and Massasoit took actions to accommodate each other and then persuaded their colleagues to maintain the treaty.

While sharing similar religious beliefs and a desire to purify the Established Church of England, the Pilgrims and Puritans had significant differences. Puritans were roughly a generation younger than Pilgrims and settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony after 1630; the Pilgrims escaped to Holland in 1607/08. Pilgrims wished to separate themselves from the Established Church because they were persecuted for beliefs and practices that were disapproved by the Established Church. Pilgrims faced imprisonment and loss of property for even attempting to leave England without permission. Pilgrims immigrated to New England in 1620 under a contract (but no patent) to produce goods for sale in England for profit of the businessmen who financed their voyage. By 1630 the Established Church accepted Puritan reforms and Puritans were a dominate voice in the English Parliament. Puritans brought a patent to Massachusetts Colony that enabled them to pass laws backed by the crown. With the exception of William Brewster, Pilgrims had been yoemen farmers in England but found employment in the textile trades in Holland. For the most part, Puritans were a large group, among which were educated, politically-connected gentlemen and wealthy merchants who emigrated with the consent of the Puritan Parliament. By 1640 there were five times as many Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony as there were Pilgrims in Plymouth.

Plymouth's prominence in New England was short-lived and after 1630 Pilgrims were gradually assimilated into the larger and more powerful Puritan community in the Bay Colony. The Pequot War of 1636/7 involved Puritans in the Hartford and Massachusetts Colonies and Indians in Connecticut. The Pilgrim-Wampanoag peace survived until 1676/7 when a war (called, ironically, King Philip's War) erupted in New England from difficulties between colonists and Indians occurring outside Plymouth.

The Pilgrims' contribution of self-government and their unique tolerant relationship with the Wampanoags are noteworthy and warrant remembering as part of our joyful celebration of Thanksgiving.