Founding Fiction

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Ferris (1863-1930)

Everyone knows the story of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, who were fleeing religious persecution in England and cultural assimilation in Holland, landed at Plymouth Rock in order to found a colony where they could experience religious freedom. Although half their number died that first winter, friendly Indians like Squanto and Massasoit brought them food and taught them how to grow corn and catch fish. A year after they arrived, the Pilgrims hosted a thanksgiving celebration with Indians and Englishmen feasting and frolicking together. And so goes one of our most popular founding myths.

There are many details of the story that have been added or deleted. The Pilgrims first landed at Cape Cod, not Plymouth. It took them a month to find the site of their permanent settlement, and early accounts never mention setting foot on Plymouth Rock. Their first encounter with Indians was hostile, not friendly. And although they were fleeing religious persecution in England, the Pilgrims themselves were hardly poster children for religious toleration. Squanto was named after a Native American spirit the English later identified with the devil, so you have the irony that the Christian Pilgrims survived with the help of an Indian named Satan. And the saints were not always so saintly. William Bradford and his wife Dorothy left their young son back in the Netherlands, and she died in an apparent suicide shortly after arriving in the New World. Plymouth was never the kind of godly community Pastor John Robinson and others had envisioned. And from the first there were always so-called “strangers” among them—people who did not share the Pilgrims’ beliefs.

More than factual errors, however, the Pilgrim story represents mythmaking on a larger scale. One contemporary definition of history is “stories well tell ourselves about ourselves.” By focusing on the story of the founding of Plymouth Colony, Americans in the 19th and 20th century were saying something important about how they saw themselves: Americans are white, Anglo, hardworking, family-oriented, and Christian—that is, Protestant Christian—people. And there is certainly some truth to this image. However, there is much that this myth ignores.

For the past generation or so, historians have become more aware of the “constructedness” of history and the crucial role the historian plays in the process. As educational opportunities have expanded for women and minorities, the story of America’s founding has been changing—not because the facts have changed, but because historians have changed. A more recent generation of historians has decided to focus on different facts and tell other stories—ones that had been previously downplayed, neglected, or ignored altogether.

In his book American Colonies, Alan Taylor explains this trend:

Indians have come back into the story as central and persistent protagonists. Instead of dismissing slavery as peripheral, recent historians have restored its centrality to the economy, culture, and political thought of the colonists. And new scholarship illuminates the essential role of women in building colonial societies. With the expanded cast has come a broader stage that includes attention to New France, New Spain, and New Netherlands.

Growing up in Florida, I was often confused about how the Pilgrim story related to the one about of Ponce de Leon and the founding of St. Augustine, which came a full century earlier. Who founded America anyway? Was it the English Separatists we call Pilgrims or Spanish Catholics—or was it the Indians? The answer is (d)—all of the above . . . and then some. In colonial times there came Spanish, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, and African people to these shores, where they met dozens of Native American groups, some fearsome and hostile, others friendly and docile.

America was then, and remains today, a multicultural land of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity—though that was hardly what anyone saw as ideal at the time and tensions among competing groups occasionally erupted in violence. Like the Pilgrims, we never live up to our own ideals, and we all practice mythmaking with ourselves.

We are never quite the people we tell others we are. Sometimes we’re not even the people we think we are. Growing up, I always thought of myself as a “true American.” By this I meant a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Christian. And there’s some truth to this image. My father’s family arrived from England in the 17th century. They were both white and Protestant. Yet my mother is a German immigrant and my first cousins are half German, half Filipino Catholics. Neither of their parents was born in North America. And neither my aunt nor my uncle spoke English growing up. Yet the diversity of my own family is more authentically American that the stereotype I had in my mind as a child.

The Apostle Paul says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).

As America grows more mature, many of her citizens have become more aware of what we were really like during our county’s infancy. As we grow older, we too can recognize the folly of our childhood self-image: whether we thought we were going to be president one day or believed that we were losers who could do nothing right. As we mature, we become more self-aware. We were never quite as good, or as bad, as brave, or as cowardly as we once saw ourselves.

As the Plymouth Colony grew into its adolescence in the 1640s, a revolution was taking place back in England. Parliamentarians defeated the Royalists and executed King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England—a Puritan king of sorts who had more power than the monarch he replaced. Although he was a religious fanatic, and some would say a tyrant, one thing he was not was vain. He had unsightly warts on his face. Once an artist painted a flattering portrait of him. When he showed it to Cromwell, the Lord Protector was not pleased. He told the artist that he would not pay a farthing for the likeness unless it portrayed him faithfully—warts and all.

Are we willing to see ourselves, our families, and our country warts and all? That’s exactly how God sees us. And that’s how He loves us—warts and all.

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3 Comments

Filed under devotionals, holidays

3 responses to “Founding Fiction

  1. Kristi May

    Thanks for that – very refreshing and thought-provoking at the same time.

  2. Abby Mullen

    Travis, thanks for your post. I’ve been thinking a lot about mythmaking and identity recently, in context of the early republic more than the founding of America, but I think some of the same observations apply.

  3. CAPT Ron

    Travis:
    excellent, you have framed our reality well, and provided a clear lens to look through to find the real. . . me.
    God’s richest blessings to you and your family this Thanksgiving. I am thankful for friends like you.
    I am thankful you are teaching our best and brightest. Sometimes the higher ups do get it right.
    GH

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