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 rather 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. 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.” “Why then should we stand starving here for places of habitation … and in the mean time suffer whole countries, as profitable for the use of man, to lie waste without any improvement?”
People in the United States think of the passengers on the Mayflower as the first Americans. 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.