Why The Pilgrims Were Ruthless Jerks

Published November 22, 2016
Updated November 25, 2019
Published November 22, 2016
Updated November 25, 2019

All the dark facts left out of the standard Mayflower myth reveal the pilgrims to be deceitful, abusive, and just plain reprehensible.

Thanksgiving Between Pilgrims And Native Americans

Wikimedia CommonsThe First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914.

Although the Pilgrims are revered in U.S. history, they were, in fact, huge assholes. Here’s why:

1. Plymouth Wasn’t Theirs For The Taking

First of all, when the Pilgrims made their protest voyage, they weren’t supposed to colonize Plymouth. Their sponsor, the London Virginia Company, told them to land near the mouth of the Hudson, i.e. New York City, but they got stuck in Cape Cod Bay, i.e. near Boston. The bad weather spooked them, so instead of sucking it up and sailing down to their designated real estate, they stayed where they were.

Considering that they had no legal authority to establish a colony, some Pilgrims rightfully questioned the decision to do so. Thus they motioned to draft and ratify Plymouth’s first governing document, the Mayflower Compact, to quell those fears.

That would later prove to be problematic — so much so that it helped another colony absorb Plymouth in 1691.

2. They Only Left Holland Because They Didn’t Want To Play Nice

Before heading to the so-called New World, they went to Holland, where they were treated very, very well. They gained the freedom to worship as they chose, but because they had fled from a rural community to an urban one, they had trouble adjusting to the change of pace.

Even though the Pilgrims tried keeping their community close-knit, their children began adopting the Dutch language, much to the chagrin of the elders. The final straw came when a few of the congregation’s younger members decided to give back to Holland and join the Dutch army.

To be fair, the English Crown was still persecuting the Pilgrims from afar, but even so, the Pilgrims simply didn’t appreciate being part of a larger community in Holland, so they took their toys and decided to sail halfway around the world to make a new home.

3. They Were Grave Robbers And Thieves

The first thing that the Pilgrims did when they got to America was go ashore, find a Native American burial site, and disturb it. And it gets worse from there.

The Pilgrims’ initial exploratory missions plundered two grave sites, one of which was full of Native Americans and the other full of Europeans. Because yes, that land had been colonized before, but due to the terrible conditions, it had been abandoned. The Pilgrims took that foreshadowing in stride.

After disturbing the grave sites, the Pilgrims also stole a corn cache hidden nearby. Surprisingly, this would work out in their favor.

When a child from the colony later got kidnapped by the Native Americans whose corn they had stolen, the Native Americans offered to trade the child for the corn. The Pilgrims got the child back but refused to return the corn and instead responded with a violent show of strength, sending men with guns against the Native Americans.


Library of CongressThe landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

4. They Sabotaged Their Own Housing

The Pilgrims only built seven of the 19 planned residences during the first winter. As a result, a lot of people died.

And this wasn’t merely due to harsh conditions in the New World, but also due to sabotage and inexcusably poor planning. For starters, there were originally two ships set to sail, each carrying essential supplies. However, the first ship’s crew sabotaged their own vessel in order to get out of making the arduous journey.

Because of that, the other ship was delayed in leaving England, giving the Pilgrims inadequate time to build residences before winter.

Thus, the majority of the Pilgrims spent the first winter stuck on the Mayflower under miserable conditions. Women, children and the sick stayed on board the Mayflower, a cargo ship not at all outfitted to house people long-term, for a full six months.

5. Their Planning Led To Many Deaths

Due to their exceedingly bad planning, 45 out of 102 Pilgrims died from starvation and sickness during the building of Plymouth. By “The First Thanksgiving” in 1621, seven more had joined the departed.

Thus, only 53 Pilgrims were alive to enjoy the harvest feast that Americans celebrate today with beer, football, and turkey.

Of those 53, only four of them were women; 13 of the 18 adult women who traveled to America with the Pilgrims died in the first winter, and the 14th died the following May.

6. They Made Squanto Do All The Work

Before the Pilgrims arrived, the now well-known Native American Squanto was abducted by an English explorer who took him from America to Europe against his will. There, Squanto spent several years largely as a prisoner trained to serve as an interpreter between Europeans and Native Americans.

While in Europe, Squanto was also forcibly converted to Christianity. That is, before he caught a ride back to America, where he taught the out-of-their-depth Pilgrims everything they needed to know.

For example, Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to grow crops in the harsh New England climate. The secret? Burying dead fish in the soil to fertilize the crops.

And for all his efforts, Squanto was likely poisoned to death by a Native American tribe who didn’t like the Pilgrims.


Library of CongressThe Pilgrims signing the Mayflower Compact.

7. They Couldn’t Pay Back Their Debt

The Pilgrims lived in general peace with the surrounding Native Americans until, after hearing about a supposed attack on white settlers, they decided to launch a poorly thought-through pre-emptive strike against them.

Worse yet is how the Pilgrims carried out that strike: They invited two prominent Native Americans military leaders to negotiate over a meal, and then stabbed and killed them before their guests suspected anything.

After word of the murders got out, other tribes wanted nothing to do with the Pilgrims. This ruined their fur trade and essentially bankrupted the colony. Because of this, they couldn’t pay back the London Virginia Company, their sponsor to whom they owed money for their boats and other supplies.

8. They Were Misogynists

Pilgrims considered women to be the “weaker vessel,” according to John Robinson, an influential pastor for the Pilgrims. He also said that it was the man’s role to educate women, to “guide and go before” them.

Puritans thus expected women to take up the “feminine” occupations, such as child-rearing or maintaining a household. Single women of marrying age were not a common sight in Plymouth. Most widows remarried within six months to a year.

To be fair, however, women in Plymouth had more legal and social rights than most 17th-century European women.

9. They Beat Their Children

Growing up as a Pilgrim did not make for a great childhood. Robinson, the aforementioned pastor, also advocated strict upbringings for children, with a strong emphasis on corporal punishment to fix behavioral issues.

In fact, thanks to him, the Pilgrims thought a child’s natural rebellious inclination was a manifestation of original sin — and thus, something to beat out of them.

It wasn’t enough to belt the original sin out of kids; the Pilgrims ripped children away from their parents, too. Mothers would take care of their child until he or she was about eight years old. At this point, the community would place the child in the foster care of another family.

This was because Pilgrims thought that a child’s parents would love them too much, making them incapable of properly disciplining them. By making someone else raise them, they thought the kid wouldn’t grow up to be spoiled.

There you have it. Happy Thanksgiving.

Next, check out the evolution of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in pictures, before learning how the rest of the world celebrates Thanksgiving.

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