We’re All Pilgrims

We’re All Pilgrims

It’s been 387 years since the Pilgrims and the Pokanoket came together for a feast in the fall of 1621. But Americans still celebrate that crucial moment in history. We celebrate it because we are what the Pilgrims were.

Unlike innumerable other settlers who arrived in the New World before the Pilgrims — some a hundredone small candle years before — the people who came to Plymouth came to stay. They came as families. They had no intention of getting rich quick on gold, tobacco or slave labor and taking their fortune back to Europe. They came for the long haul.

This is not to say that they didn’t come for the money. It was a business venture. Investors in England put up money for the project. They were known as adventurers, in a sense because their money was going on a little adventure. The people we call the Pilgrims were then called the Planters. Their investment was the sweat they would plant in the ground.

This is not to say they didn’t come for reasons of belief. Though fewer than half the 102 Mayflower passengers were the devout separatists who had abandoned the Church of England, they were the prime movers of the project. Guilty of the felony of unapproved belief, they insisted on choosing their own ministers and praying their own prayers. They were ready to die for that right.

These were just plain people — blue collar, lower middle class. There wasn’t a rich man among them, no aristocrats paying others to do the work, no one expecting to end the day with clean fingernails, no bankers, no clergy, no artists, no philosophers. And no slaves.

They dreamed the American dream long before they saw the place. They wanted to own their own land and houses, an impossibility in England. They sought individual independence, but they would achieve it through cooperation. They would help build each other’s houses, share food, provide for the common defense and worship in a single meetinghouse that doubled as a fort.

Before they came ashore, all adult males signed an agreement. They would stick together and honor their debt. They would remain subjects of their distant king but make their own laws as necessary. Between the lines of that “Association and Agreement,” which today we call the Mayflower Compact, we can almost hear whispers of “We the People.”

Their first encounter with the local Americans was an exchange of shouts, arrows and lead shot. But at the second encounter, when the Pokanoket chief Massasoit and his entourage came to meet the immigrants, Miles Standish, the Pilgrims’ security chief, did not suggest a pre-emptory volley of musketry to send a message of strength. He and a few men walked outside Plymouth’s palisade without weapons. It was a daring demonstration of goodwill, in effect a turning of the cheek, a gesture risking death in the hope of peace.

Massasoit, too, took a chance. He and a few men came forward unarmed. The Americans and immigrants then sat down together, shared food, exchanged gifts, passed the pipe and talked as best they could.

Those were the cultural seeds that the Pilgrims planted: the insistence on following the heart rather than the law; the audacity to demand authority over authorities; the wisdom of working together for mutual benefit and personal profit; the courage to pursue a better life no matter how much worse it might be. They would stick with their families. They would turn the other cheek and stand strong.

Those values took hold in New England, and they predominate today. The American people often drift from those values, but they always drift back. Americans are and always will be what the Pilgrims were.

• Glenn Alan Cheney, a resident of Hanover, Conn., is the author of “Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims’ First Year in America.” You can read excerpts at

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
We’re all pilgrims
Spirit, determination of first Thanksgiving lives
Thursday, November 27, 2008


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