I was watching a rerun of the History Channel’s “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower” the other day, and it is more or less aboveboard in its depiction of the Pilgrims, at least insofar that it tried not to whitewash certain realities too much. One reality was that many of passengers were not, in fact, the persecuted religious faction of popular lore, but secular types going along for the ride for their own purposes, and who did not cater to the strict religious fervor of their Puritan shipmates. There was a near mutiny aboard ship until the leaders of the two parties compromised on how to govern the colony once it made landfall.
I was listening to radio program some months back when the host praised the Pilgrims for being morally and ethically the “ideal” of what Americans ought to be. A caller who wanted to correct that perception noted that the Pilgrims were not entirely the epitome of righteousness; in the early years they obtained ample assistance from the Native Americans in the region—and when that wasn’t enough, they stole grain that was stored in Indian grave sites to assist the deceased in the next world. The host refused to believe any of this, and subtly demeaned the caller by asking her if she believed everything she read on the Internet (she wasn’t allowed to respond).
So what does the historical record show? It shows that Plymouth chroniclers freely admit to finding “abandoned” corn fields and “freshly buried” baskets of corn in “abandoned” settlements as well as grave sites, the latter perhaps as food for the next world just as the ancient Egyptians buried food with their dead. It is admitted that even the devout Pilgrims in their extremity proved no more adverse to theft and desecration than the non-religious counterparts. They freely helped themselves to these comestibles without asking the owners, who stored corn not merely for immediate food needs, but for seed the coming year. The Indian grave robbing charge goes somewhat beyond petty theft, which is why such claims are bound to excite adverse reactions from both the accused and accuser. Commentators from the right and defenders of America’s “heritage” prefer to think that people who point out that white America’s cherished myths are precisely that are engaging in “revisionist” history to appease the “multicultural” element. They would point to Edward Winslow’s account of the settlers who landed at Plymouth Rock (there is some dispute about where they actually landed) as “respecting” one Indian grave site out of fear of sacrilege. Unfortunately for this perspective, there is nothing to revise, since we also have Winslow’s fellow Puritan William Bradford’s contemporary account of presumably a subsequent discovery:
“When we had marched five or six myles into the Woods and could find no signes of any people, we returned againe another way, and as we came into the plaine ground, wee found a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any we had yet seene. It was also covered with boords, so as we mused what it should be, and resolved to digge it up; where we found first a Matt, and under that a fayre Bow, and there another Matt, and under that a boord about three quarters long finely carved and paynted, with three tynes or broches on the top, like a Crowne; also betweene the Matts we found Boules, Trayes, Dishes, and such like Trinkets.”
Yes, they were engaged in grave robbing. We can thus assume that Bradford and his men were of a more sacrilegious bent that what Winslow would suggest. Bradford also mentions encountering an even larger grave site, which they assumed contained even greater “treasure.” He claims they found a corpse with fair hair, and the assumption was that he was a “Christian man.” However, this didn’t stop them from plundering this grave as well.
Another contemporary account notes that the men of Plymouth defaced the monument of the dead at a site called Passonagesset, robbing the hearse cloth (“two great bearskins”) that was put over the grave of the mother of a local chief named Chickataubut. The chronicler notes that this action upset Chickataubut; after he gave an “oration re vision of mother and appeal re desecration.” He gathered together a band of warriors to wreak vengeance; the chronicler describes the subsequent confrontation as such: “To arms! Plymouth boat landing – ‘battle’ forced them to leave. Chickataubut shot in elbow and fled. All followed.”
Would we not expect Bradford and Winslow to prefer to put themselves in the best light by being parsimonious with details concerning their activities and motives in regard to the Native Americans, given their belief in their own “Godliness?” It would stand to reason—except that even the Puritans rationalized their actions as “God’s will.” Historians note that Winslow’s religious superstitions in regard to their first encounter with an Indian grave site are the only example in their accounts that suggest that the Pilgrims had any moral or ethical reservations about their dealings with the native inhabitants. Robbing Indian grave sites has had a rather long and sordid history in the U.S., so why wouldn’t the Pilgrims be the first to involve themselves in it? Defenders of the European invasion like to critique the Native American response as being “unfriendly,” so they had to treat them in a “like manner.” Of course the question then is how would they respond if their lands were invaded by a unknown people from far across the sea, their food stocks stolen, their sacred sites ransacked? Why shouldn’t they have had the right to defend what was theirs?