By James W. Loewen Over the last few years, I have asked hundreds of college students, "When was the country we now know as the United States first settled?" I had hoped that students would suggest 30,000 BC, or some other pre-Columbian date. They did not. Their consensus answer was "1620."
Part of the problem is the word "settle." "Settlers" were white. Indians did not settle. Nor are students the only people misled by "settle." One recent Thanksgiving weekend, I listened as a guide at the Statue of Liberty told about European immigrants "populating a wild East Coast." As we shall see, however, if Indians had not already settled New England, Europeans would have had a much tougher job of it.
The mythic origin of "the country we now know as the United States" is at Plymouth Rock, and the year is 1620. My students are not at fault. The myth is what their textbooks and their culture have offered them. I examined how twelve textbooks used in high school American history classes teach Thanksgiving. Here is the version in one high school history book, THE AMERICAN TRADITION:
After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth Harbor for their settlement. Unfortunately, they had arrived in December and were not prepared for the New England winter. However, they were aided by friendly Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow corn. When warm weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and prepared themselves for the next winter. After harvesting their first crop, they and their Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving.
My students also learned that the Pilgrims were persecuted in England for their religion, so they moved to Holland. They sailed on the Mayflower to America and wrote the Mayflower Compact. Times were rough, until they met Squanto. He taught them how to put fish in each corn hill, so they had a bountiful harvest.
Our schoolbooks present the story of the Pilgrims as a heroic myth. Referring to "the little party" in their "small, storm-battered English vessel," their story line follows Perry Miller's use of a Puritan sermon title, ERRAND INTO THE WILDERNESS. AMERICAN ADVENTURES even titles its chapter about British settlement in North America "Opening the Wilderness." The imagery is right out of Star Trek: "to go boldly where none dared go before."
The Pilgrims had intended to go to Virginia, where there already was a British settlement, according to the texts, but "violent storms blew their ship off course," according to some texts, or else an "error in navigation" caused them to end up hundreds of miles to the north. In fact, we are not sure where the Pilgrims planned to go. According to George Willison, Pilgrim leaders never intended to settle in Virginia. They had debated the relative merits of Guiana versus Massachusetts precisely because they wanted to be far from Anglican control in Virginia. They knew quite a bit about Massachusetts, from Cape Cod's fine fishing to that "wonderful plague." They brought with them maps drawn by Samuel Champlain when he toured the area in 1605 and a guidebook by John Smith, who had named it "New England" when he visited in 1614. One text, LAND OF PROMISE, follows Willison, pointing out that Pilgrims numbered only about thirty-five of the 102 settlers aboard the Mayflower. The rest were ordinary folk seeking their fortunes in the new Virginia colony. "The New England landing came as a rude surprise for the bedraggled and tired [non-Pilgrim] majority on board the Mayflower," says Promise. "Rumors of mutiny spread quickly." Promise then ties this unrest to the Mayflower Compact, giving its readers a uniquely fresh interpretation as to why the colonists adopted it.
High school textbooks offers just one of three reasons---storm, pilot error, or managerial hijacking--to explain how the Pilgrims ended up in Massachusetts. Neither here nor in any other historical controversy after 1620 can any of the twelve bear to admit that it does not know the answer---that studying history is not just learning answers--that history contains debates.