Sometimes, Telling Us More About the Pilgrims Actually Tells Us Less

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A new study touches on many factors that shaped life in Plymouth Colony. But the most important one gets lost in the laundry list.

This December marks 400 years since the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, and for the past 200 years the story of its passengers has loomed large in American memory. Generations of schoolchildren have learned its basic plot: how a tiny band of plain men and women, desperate for a better life, crossed the stormy Atlantic and endured unimaginable hardships in a strange land where, with the help of their Native American neighbors, they managed to endure and even to flourish.

But how well do we know this group that the 19th century would christen “the Pilgrims”? Not well at all, as it turns out. With her new book The World of Plymouth Plantation, UCLA historian Carla Gardina Pestana joins a long line of scholars who have tried to set the record straight over the years, seeking to challenge, complicate, and enrich our understanding of the story we think we already know. The result is a book that is generally informative and interesting but rarely edifying.

A Little Bit About a Lot of Things

Pestana rightly laments that we condense the history of the Pilgrim colony into a series of discrete, still-life vignettes: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the landing at Plymouth Rock, the celebration of the first Thanksgiving. She is correct in noting that Americans have mythologized each of those historic moments. If later generations insisted that the Mayflower Compact was “an early expression of democratic striving,” the Pilgrims in reality gave “no indication of wanting to escape their status as subjects of a king.” Although more than a million tourists flock to Plymouth annually to file past a shrine erected over the Pilgrims’ supposed landing site, “those who designated …

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