It Was 400 Years Ago Today

Meister Käßner
6 min readNov 11, 2020

That the Pilgrims Signed their Lives Away.

The pilgrims signing the compact, on board the May Flower, Nov. 11th, 1620 / painted by T.H. Matteson ; engraved by Gauthier. Free for public use from the Library of Congress.

November 11, 2020 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing at Provincetown on Cape Cod. (The actual anniversary is November 21st in the Gregorian calendar) While newspapers, politicians, and historians debate the true origins of the United States. Loyal New Englanders have long traced their beginning to the arrival of the Pilgrims and the signing of the Mayflower Compact.

Far from a simple tale of intrepid voyagers in search of religious freedom, the actual pilgrims were a mixed lot who benefited from disease and their distance from England. Wampanoag homelands were devastated by a wave of epidemics between 1614 and 1620. Fishing voyages and earlier waves of exploration had introduced diseases like smallpox and plague. In 1614 Thomas Hunt, seized 10 residents of Patuxet for sale as slaves in Spain. Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, found his way back only to discover that his relatives and neighbors had succumbed to the diseases and that Pilgrims had taken over his village and renamed it Plymouth. When Squanto died in 1622 of the diseases he was remembered as the last Patuxet.

Celebrations of the Mayflower and their descendants must be balanced with accounts of the resilience of the Wampanoags and other First Nations that survived invasion, war, and pestilence. Excluding their stories from the origins of the United States and American democracy mislead students and continue the erasure of tribal stories.

Before leaving the ship Pilgrim leaders compelled all men to sign the Mayflower Compact. The document created a framework for a new legal structure. Since they had landed far North of their designated plantation in Northern Virginia, their charter was not valid. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation provides insights into the tensions aboard the ship that led to the compact.

I shall a litle returne backe and begine with a combination made by them before they came ashore, being ye first foundation of their govermente in this place; occasioned…

Meister Käßner

I have been reflecting and writing about the stories, people, and places Northwest of Boston for thirty-five years. I also teach history and manage forest land.