In 1620, a ship, the Mayflower, transported 102 passengers from Plymouth, England, to what was to become the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, New England. A majority of the people on-board were “Puritans,” members of a strict Protestant denomination who were persecuted in Europe. Yet they arrived too late in the season to plant crops and, the story goes, they survived only because of the help they received from the natives. The following year, after their own first harvest, they held a “thanksgiving,” a ritual meal which is commemorated by Americans to this day.
The reason they survived the first winter, it turns out, was not that they were given food by the natives but that they stole it. One of the Puritans, William Bradford, who chronicled the event, describes how they ransacked houses and dug up native burial mounds looking for buried stashes of corn. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn, for else we know not how we should have done.”
A far greater devastation was caused by European diseases. It is estimated that some 90 percent of the indigenous population of New England was wiped out by measles and smallpox. Indeed, the Puritans themselves got sick with pneumonia and tuberculosis and about half of them died as a result. Yet by this time the natives had already been infected by other Europeans. The hand of God, Thomas Morgan, another early settler, recalled, “fell heavily upon them, with such a mortall stroake that they died on heapes as they lay in their houses.” Yet this too, the settlers decided, was a result of the foresight of the Christian God who had made the land “so wondrously empty.” After their many trials and tribulations the Pilgrims were now ready to start life in the new world which God had given them.
People in the United States think of the passengers on the Mayflower as the first Americans, and those who can claim descent from one of them consider themselves as uniquely American. There are today some ten million people who can make that claim.
History of the World in 100 Objects: “North American Buck Skin Map”