'Landing of the Pilgrims,' a 19th century illustration of the landing at Plymouth Rock. From "Our Country: a Household History for All Readers, from the Discovery of America to the Present Time," by Benson J. Lossing.
The Print Collector/Getty Images
December 17, 2020 11:00 AM EST

This autumn marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of a hardy band of English religious dissenters at the Wampanoag town of Patuxet. The Pilgrims renamed it as Plymouth. They believed that this was the place to launch their new England, a refuge for persecuted Protestants. But Plymouth never became popular. It attracted few English migrants before Massachusetts absorbed it in 1691.

More than a century would pass between that landing—on what was recorded as Dec. 16, 1620, though accounts of the exact date differ—and the creation of the Plymouth idea that is still familiar to many Americans. Before 1776, few commentators made much of that bit of history. But after the establishment of the United States, historians and politicians cemented Plymouth in the script of American nationalism, minimizing its well-documented problems and magnifying its alleged wonders. In the centuries that followed, that trend continued, even as the form of that nationalism changed. The word “Plymouth” may today conjure up visions of Pilgrims in search of religious freedom, but that vision did not reflect the circumstances on the ground in the early 17th century.

The link between Plymouth’s experiences and America’s political culture began with William Bradford, the most prominent politician in the colony’s first decade. From 1630 to 1650, he wrote a lengthy history, now known as Of Plymouth Plantation. Like many of his Pilgrim brethren, Bradford had earlier fled from England to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to escape religious persecution. He then joined about 100 others on the Mayflower. After a tumultuous sea journey, they arrived at Patuxet.

Bradford’s version of events emphasized the Pilgrim’s struggles, which he interpreted through a biblical lens. They landed in a wilderness, he wrote, surrounded by enemies who would not provide them succor, unlike the treatment of Paul among the barbarians (Acts 28). The woods were so thick that they could not see the promised land because, unlike Moses, they could not climb a mountain (Deuteronomy 34). They executed a teenage boy for bestiality, following guidance from Leviticus.

Bradford concentrated on the Pilgrims’ struggle to create their godly community. He wrote that they exiled other colonists who held different religious views, and he chastised Indigenous enemies. His peers did more than just chastise: The Pilgrims sent an Anglican lawyer named Thomas Morton to England after they caught him cavorting with and selling arms to local Natives. During a war in 1637, the English colonizers, with Narragansett allies, surrounded a Pequot village, set it alight and murdered those fleeing the flames. The Pilgrims thanked their God for the downfall of a “proud and insulting” enemy. The victors sold some of the captured Pequots into slavery. Religious and political freedom existed for the Pilgrims, but not for Native Americans—and other colonists—who disagreed with them.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

In the 19th century, Plymouth resurfaced when historians and politicians in New England claimed it was the birthplace of the nation. (Virginians, by contrast, celebrated Jamestown instead.) Their argument hinged on two claims. First, the Mayflower Compact, the 200-word document written and signed on the journey, introduced the idea of self-rule maintained with a constitutional government. Second, Plymouth stood for the religious freedom sought by its founders.

By that point, the ends for which Plymouth would be useful had changed. What had once been a story about religious obedience became a story about religious freedom. In 1820, on the town’s bicentennial, the statesman Daniel Webster venerated Plymouth in the racialist language of his age. Here, he declared, was “where Christianity, and civilization” took hold in a vast wilderness “peopled by roving barbarians.” The town, its 19th-century celebrants declared, launched a system that produced representative government and religious freedom, two hallowed tenets of America enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Yet when Webster made his statement, many Americans could not enjoy these privileges. Slavery remained widespread and the federal government in the 1830s forcibly relocated thousands of Natives from the Southeast. Webster and others across New England condemned slavery, but most politicians echoed Plymouth’s past: they touted grand principles that many could not enjoy.

Of course, not everyone bought the positive spin. Writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to H.L. Mencken mocked the Pilgrims’ self-righteous piety. William Apess, a Pequot historian, condemned the treatment of his ancestors. Nonetheless, the Pilgrims became stock figures in the American pageant and in elementary-school classrooms. Illustrators depicted them weighed down by heavy woolens, trudging through wintry woods, seemingly always on their way to church. Such figures have long populated stories about Thanksgiving, which became a federal holiday in 1863.

Orators remembered Plymouth and its founders well into the 20th century, again shaping the story to fit their needs. Speaking at Plymouth in 1920, on its 300th anniversary, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge saw in the Pilgrims’ experiences the “foundations upon which the great fabric of the United States has been built up,” a telling statement as the world recovered from the influenza pandemic and a world war. In 1952, with a Red Scare rising, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison edited Bradford’s book. In 1623, Bradford had noted that the Pilgrims abandoned an economic model in which individuals would work for the common good, and instead tended their own farms. Morison’s running head for that chapter included the word “communism,” which appeared 12 times in his edition even though the term did not exist when the Pilgrims lived. With this addition, Morrison made the Pilgrims, who rejected communal ownership, into exemplars of an individualist American ethos. In 1970, in a different political moment, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder named Wamsutta (Frank James) walked out of a public commemoration of Plymouth to draw attention to crimes colonists committed against Indigenous peoples.

Plymouth’s experience reminds us that anniversaries often tell us more about the celebrants (or mourners) than actual events in the distant past. What happened there had significance for those at the time. But its history has mattered because it served later political goals.

Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present

Peter Mancall is a professor of the humanities, history and anthropology at the University of Southern California, and author of Nature and Culture in the Early Modern Atlantic.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories

EDIT POST