10 Misconceptions About the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock

10 Misconceptions About the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock
10 Misconceptions About the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock

10 Misconceptions About the Pilgrims and Their Settlement in Plymouth Rock


In America we all know the story about the pilgrims and their arrival in Plymouth Rock…at least we think we do. This is especially the case when talking about the first Thanksgiving in America. For the most part, the pilgrims were a group of religious dissenters sent by English merchants and investors hoping to establish a formidable business venture in the Americas. The colony of Plymouth Rock was established in 1621 by this group and it continued into 1691. The majority of the settlers themselves were actually a group of Puritans from a sect known as the Separatists. They were at odds with The Church of England and didn’t agree with its membership requirements. The decenters believed that the church didn’t follow with biblical precepts and with, what they believed to be, true Christian beliefs.  Thus, they decided to separate themselves from the church.


Before the pilgrims set sail to Plymouth, many of them migrated to additional areas in Europe to establish their faith and live by what they believed. Unfortunately, these migrations were met with opposition and put to a halt by the church, especially the Catholic movements that were sweeping across the region. The pilgrims soon decided that they needed a new home where they could be free to worship as they pleased, and it would be best to get out of Europe. The Virginia Company of London began selling its assets in America to cover an already troubled financial situation, and the pilgrims took advantage of this opportunity. They bought up lands, planned their move, and set off to the New World. However, what you think you might know about the pilgrims might not be the truth. Read on to read about the top 10 misconceptions about the pilgrims and their settlement in Plymouth Rock:

10The Pilgrims Celebrated the First Thanksgiving

Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing some chow.


Contrary to popular belief, the Thanksgiving celebration of Plymouth Rock in the fall of 1621 was not the first Thanksgiving held in America. There are, in fact, several similar celebrations that occurred in the United States during this time. About 23 years before the Thanksgiving in Plymouth Rock was a feast in 1598 in the town of San Elizario, a community near the city of El Paso, Texas. It was to commemorate the arrival of the Spanish explorer Juan de Onate.

Another great feast occurred in Virginia at the Berkeley Plantation in 1619, which was two years before the Thanksgiving in Plymouth Rock. This celebration was to commemorate the arrival of the ship named “Margaret,” which brought 38 settlers to the area. These settlers were sponsored to come to America by the London Company, and it was said that these settlers were instructed by the London Company to celebrate this event with an annual feast of Thanksgiving in remembrance. This event has been recognized and reenacted since 1958, and it was also recognized by John F. Kennedy in 1963.


Another Thanksgiving celebration took place in 1637 in the Massachusetts colony. It was a celebration of the safe return of a band of hunters and volunteers that left to Connecticut to participate in the Pequot War. The Pequot War was the first genocidal conflict in the United States, and more than 700 men, women and children were massacred. This, not the actual pilgrim feast, would be considered the first Thanksgiving in a colony located in the United States.

9The Pilgrims Landed at Plymouth Rock

Plymouth Rock. Is there really a rock?


The common story about the Pilgrims tells that they first landed at Plymouth Rock when arriving to the New World. This, in fact, isn’t true at all. When the Pilgrims set sail from England and sailed across the Atlantic on the “Mayflower,” they didn’t arrive at Plymouth Rock first. Their original landing point to the New World was in fact was on Cape Cod near the modern city of Provincetown. Their actual intention was to sail up the mouth of the Hudson River and find fertile land for crops somewhere in what would be present day New York City. Their arrival in what is now known as Provincetown Harbor in Cape Cod, occurred five weeks prior to them arriving in Plymouth Rock. The plans to settle in the New York City area were delayed due to bad weather conditions, which forced them to retreat.


During this time in Provincetown Harbor, the first written document to announce to government of the new colony, the Mayflower Compact, was drawn up and signed by 41 of the pilgrims while still aboard the ship. The pilgrims planned to try for the Hudson River again once the bad weather had cleared, but they were faced with the coming winter season, too. They also faced their dwindling supplies which wouldn’t support them for another trip. These factors convinced them to find another place to land, and they decided to cross Cape Cod Bay to what is now known as Plymouth.

8The Pilgrims Named the Area ‘Plymouth’

What’s that now?


The Pilgrims didn’t actually name the area Plymouth when they arrived. In fact, the area itself was already named by earlier bands of explorers that visited the region previously. Plymouth wasn’t “the wilderness” that many of the accounts and sermons recorded by the pilgrims once they decided to settle in Plymouth at all. In fact, the area itself was a previous settlement once occupied by natives of the area who were wiped out by an epidemic. This area was already cleared and essentially ready for occupation, which made this spot even more favorable to the pilgrims. Because of this, the pilgrims believed the area was cleared for them by God. This belief in God also aided in their choosing of Plymouth, especially since this area has already been known and marked as Plymouth. It was even present on the maps used by the pilgrims when seeking a place to establish their colony.


The pilgrims originally set sail from the English port in Southhampton with the ship called the Speedwell. Soon after they left for America, the Speedwell began leaking and caused the two ships to port in Dartmouth, England for repairs. Once repaired, the pilgrims left for the New World again. About 300 miles out to sea, the Speedwell began to leak again and they had to turn back to England. Making repairs in Plymouth, England they once again set sail for their voyage. It was only a coincidence that it was from Plymouth, England and the pilgrims ended up settling in the area of the New World, which was also Plymouth.

7All of The People on Board Were Pilgrims

Stay away from the Strangers…


There were 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower when it left Plymouth, England for the New World. These passengers were named “Pilgrims.” The word pilgrim itself is a term used to describe a person on a journey to a sacred place for religious reasons. Even though many of the passengers on the Mayflower were pilgrims, not all of them were making the voyage to America for religious reasons. On board were the “Saints,” the Puritan separatists, and the “Strangers,” the secular passengers. On the 66-day voyage to the New World, the two were at a sort of odds with each other. The two groups had very different views and ideas about the coming settlement that would soon be built in Plymouth. They had conflicts and debates with each other on the journey and soon separated themselves on the ship. This caused the journey to be even more unpleasant then it already was, and the relationship between the two groups was hanging by a thread.


The hardships of being on the ship soon took its toll on both groups, and soon they decided that it would be better to work together. This proved to be a step that would soon be beneficial once they arrived to the New World. It would turn into an alliance that would aid in their coming settlement in Plymouth for a more peaceful community.

6The Pilgrims Left England for Religious Reasons Only

Pilgrims were accepting folk and just wanted some freedom!


While it is true that the driving force for the pilgrims to come to America was about having religious liberties, it wasn’t only for this reason that they came to the New World. Even though most of the pilgrims that came here were part of the religious group known as the Puritans, they were separatists of the faith.


To the north of the Plymouth Colony, there was already a presence of the Puritans and their way of life. The Pilgrims didn’t agree with how strict they were, however, and sought the right to becoming a reformed group of the Puritans. The pilgrims themselves didn’t really look like the typical Puritan either. They wore bright colors and were less conservative in overall appearance. They were, in essence, typical farmers and business people. In spite of the plight the pilgrims faced while in search of a suitable home to build their community and their faith, they were still people who wanted to make a good living for themselves. When we think of the Puritans, we can often think of them as a strict and intolerant group, but the pilgrims themselves were actually very accepting of other faiths. They just wanted the freedom to have theirs as well. With this, they also wanted the freedom to live and work as they pleased. The confines of the Church of England once it broke away from the Catholic church in the 1500’s didn’t allow the pilgrims to practice their faith or make a good living for themselves.

5Plymouth Was a Successful Colony

It was rough going in Plymouth at first.


When the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, it was in the fall of 1620. Winter was rapidly approaching and they needed to set up a suitable homestead in preparation. The pilgrims had no shelter from the elements, and at first, they first stayed aboard the “Mayflower.”


The pilgrims broke ground on the first building built in Plymouth on Christmas day in 1620. The society that the pilgrims was a system of communal property and labor. Everyone shared in every aspect of daily life. Even though the winter season that year was considered relatively mild, the first winter the pilgrims spent in their new community was devastating. Of the 102 pilgrims that made the voyage, 45 of them died due to illnesses such as pneumonia and the issues brought on by already malnourished pilgrims. The trip across the Atlantic made the pilgrims weak from inadequate food and water, too, so they were already weak. Being in a new land with no proper shelter, no adequate source of food or crops and dwindling fresh water supply, the pilgrims were extremely vulnerable to their conditions. The captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones was set to drop off the pilgrims and leave them to fend for themselves, but was later convinced to stay until spring. The first winter in the New World was harsh, so harsh, in fact, that it almost ended the pilgrim colony at Plymouth Rock.

4Squanto Was a Native American Who Never Met a White Man

Squanto suffered from glaucoma. Or anxiety. Maybe both.


After the first winter in Plymouth, and the struggle for the pilgrims to survive, they were approached by a Patuxet man named Squanto, also known as Tisquantum, who was part of the Wamponoag Tribe. Native to the area of Plymouth, Squanto took pity on the pilgrims and became the most valuable asset to them. He spent roughly two years with the pilgrims, teaching them how to farm the area. He also gave them native corn to plant. Additionally, Squanto acted as a liaison and interpreter between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe chief, Massasoit. Without Squanto, the pilgrims never would have survived, but the story we learn in school makes it seem like he was a Native who had no knowledge of the Europeans. This, however, is far from the truth.

Before the pilgrims even thought about travelling to the New World, Squanto was captured by an earlier explorer, Captain George Weymouth, and brought back to England as a slave and viewing piece for Weymouth’s investors. Squanto spent several years in Europe and learned English along the way. He also became accustomed to the ways of Europeans. Squanto came back to North America a couple of years later, was once again captured by another explorer, Thomas Hunt. Hunt sold him into slavery in Spain, but Squanto escaped again and returned home. It was then, after living in both England and Spain, where he then met the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock.

3The Famed Feast Occurred As Soon As They Landed

The feast didn’t happen immediately.


Though our school books make it seem as if the pilgrims had their famed feast soon after landing, but in truth, it was years after. Thanks to the the help from Squanto, the pilgrims finally had a bountiful harvest and planned this feast in celebration.


What did the pilgrims and the Wampanoag eat at the feast? Of course there was an abundance of the native crops the pilgrims learned to farm thanks to Squanto. There were turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, a variety of different types of squash and pumpkins. The pilgrims also added their own dishes to the feast with the different birds and deer they hunted for the feast. The Wampannoag, which is the tribe Squanto belonged to, also brought with them many flavors from their diet as well. This included clams, mussels, a variety of fish, lobster and eel. The forest provided gooseberries, chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts. There was also an array of strawberries, raspberries and grapes that grew wild in the area. The drink of choice for the pilgrims was beer, which they brought with them on their journey to the New World. The colonists didn’t have wheat flour or even butter in that time, so there wasn’t any pie or pastries during this feast, though artwork depicts otherwise.

2The Wampanoag of Plymouth Were a Small, Meek Tribe

The Wampanoag Tribe stretched across a large geographic region.


When the pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock, the Wampanoag tribe sat and watched as they stepped foot on the land. The tribe didn’t see the pilgrims as a threat and decided to leave them alone, under watchful eyes, of course. History class tells us that the Wampanoag were a small, meek tribe, but this is far from the truth.


The Wampanoag are natives that held lands in the area of Plymouth where the pilgrims staked their claim, and they chose a spot that was earlier inhabited by another band of natives. The Wampanoag were actually a very large tribe, which was divided by different sub tribes that made up the entire Wampanoag Confederation. Squanto was part of the Wampanoag, though he belonged to a smaller sect of the tribe.


During the time of the pilgrims, the tribe was led by Massasoit, who struck a treaty with the pilgrims to coexist. The Wampanoag had already had earlier dealings with Europeans, so they were already familiar with their ways.


The Wampanoag themselves were estimated to be in the numbers of 50,000 to roughly 100,000 and occupied much of the eastern portions of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. They had about 70 villages across the region, too. However, prior to the pilgrim’s arrival, the tribe lost nearly a third of its population due to an outbreak of the plague, which was brought by earlier explorers to the area. Though the tribe watched the pilgrims from afar, they did not approach their new neighbors for several months after they landed.

1Our Idea of Thanksgiving Is What It Has Always Been About

The meaning of Thanksgiving has evolved.


When the Wampanoag and the pilgrims began their relationship, it took a lot of negotiation and talk from both sides. The majority of the Wampanoag didn’t want to end up in conflict with the pilgrims, and the pilgrims were not strong enough to engage in any form of battle.  All along their journey to the New World, they heard horror stories and rumors about the savagery of the natives, and they did not want to suffer this same fate.


The Thanksgiving feast itself wasn’t just a quaint gathering of pilgrim and native. The feast was a mass community gathering as a gesture of good faith towards the Wampanoag Nation. This gathering was more of a thank you towards the friendship the pilgrims had with Squanto and to honor the Wampanoag for helping them survive the first year in the New World.


The feast as we know it today still holds the idea of community and gathering in good faith with friends. However, the idea that Thanksgiving is solely about family and distant relatives isn’t entirely true. If the pilgrims held a feast among themselves to celebrate their survival in Plymouth, inviting the Wampanoag would not have ever occurred. Thanksgiving was essentially a political invitation towards peace with a potentially dangerous enemy and to thank them for helping their colony survive. Thanksgiving as we know it today has a rather different feel and meaning then it did for the pilgrims.




When we think about the pilgrims and their settlement in Plymouth Rock, we can’t help but to wonder about their journey. This small group of Puritan separatists and simple people who sold all of their processions to charter a ship is indeed an amazing story. From a decade in Holland and persecution in England, to the shores of a new world with the hopes of being able to live and worship freely, the Pilgrims survived against many odds and a near failure.


Before their first year, they lost more than half of their members. They managed to live peacefully with the natives around them, and the small group even negotiated a peace treaty. The Wampanoag showed compassion to the pilgrims and taught them how to farm the native plants and forage for food to help them survive.


Though we all learned about the story of the pilgrims sailing from England on the Mayflower, the actual truth is far from the tale we read in our history books. Though much of our history is filled with misconceptions, the real story of the pilgrims who sailed across the sea on the Mayflower is far different from the story a school boy would tell.