If I’m still around in November 2020 I’ll celebrate my 80th birthday, which will also be the anniversary of the arrival of my forebears in America.
Like many immigrants, they didn’t know much about the country they were bound for. They loved their homeland, but war, crime, religious clashes and predatory militias had long wracked it. So they formed a caravan with their friends and neighbors, and pooled their resources to get to America.
Eighty men, women and children embarked in a broken-down merchant ship for an unknown destination. They fled, trusting the ship’s captain and crew to get them across the sea. They had no idea how they would endure the hardship and privation that surely awaited them, but they knew how they would confront them: with hard work, ingenuity, entrepreneurial savvy and family/community loyalty.
After two months at sea, the Mayflower dropped anchor on Nov. 9, 1620 in a broad bay rimmed with forests, a place where whales played in the water and great flocks of ducks and geese soared above. Almost 400 years later, hundreds of millions of Americans can claim descent from those intrepid voyagers or subsequent immigrants.
This is a time when some reject and demonize much of our history. Ours is not the “sweet land of liberty” that Samuel Francis Smith celebrated in the 1831 song, but rather a shameful narrative of slavery, genocide, land grabbing and deeply embedded racism. “Land of the pilgrim’s pride?” What’s to be proud of? They were just the first plunderers!
I’d always been proud of those fearless migrants, and I found it hard to believe that they were thieving, remorseless racists. To me, they seemed more like our friends who emigrated from Thailand a couple of decades ago — decent, hardworking people who came here with nothing, put together a successful family business and have become modestly prosperous. Their story is that of many immigrants, who recreate and sustain the American dream — work hard, work together, play fair and you’ll be fine.
So I tried to figure out what actually happened between that ragtag band of pilgrims and the Native Americans of the new world.
The records are necessarily incomplete and one-sided. Native American voices are largely unheard except as interpreted by the English newcomers.
The most authoritative contemporary account comes from Edward Winslow’s 1622 “Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.”
In it Winslow describes the land, their attempts to contact the “Indians” who lived there, the weather, the tides, the sickness that befell the community when they ate the enormous “mussels” they found in the shallows (clearly, oysters didn’t agree with their fragile English digestions!) and their eventual formal contact with their neighbors.
The pilgrims sought peace, safety and mutual respect, as did their neighbors. One side brought tools and technology, while the other brought knowledge and experience.
So Winslow (representing the pilgrims) and Wampanoag Chief Massasoit made this peace treaty.
1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.
2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.
3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people are at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the likewise to them.
4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.
5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.
Winslow and Massasoit became lifelong friends, and the peace they had brokered endured for half a century. It was practical, respectful, egalitarian and businesslike.
It was the first iteration of our country at its best, as two leaders headed off future conflicts and forged new ties. Nearly 400 years later, their vision endures.
Come Nov. 9, 2020, I’ll honor them with a dozen oysters at Bonny and Read — luckily, I didn’t inherit Edward Winslow’s fragile English stomach!