OK, so I'm rarely in jeopardy, but I write woman-in-jeopardy novels—otherwise called "Modern Gothics"—and this is my blog. It will probably have lots of time between posts, but I'll try not to bore you. Welcome.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Gifts of My Mayflower Ancestors


As a former museum curator, I’m very aware of the ways in which we “curate” history—choosing which facts to preserve and glorify, and which to overlook or cast away.

When I first wrote the post below, in 2012, I hadn’t ever actually sat down and read the first-year journals of the settlers at Plymouth. And when I finally did, this year, I realized I’d perpetuated that curation here—repeating the details most commonly shared, and ignoring the rest. Telling half of the story.

So I’d like to fix that. 

Karl Jacoby, in this excellent article in the L.A. Times, touches on the moment in 1621 when the surviving Plymouth colonists and their Indigenous neighbours “feasted” together in what is traditionally viewed as the first Thanksgiving.

But he also reminds us that “American holidays…sometimes reveal more about what we have forgotten about the past than what we remember.”

And here’s what we’ve “forgotten”—what I left out of my first post. Here’s what the Pilgrim Fathers (with my ancestors among them) did in November 1620, a year before that “first Thanksgiving”, as recorded in their own words in A Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the Plantation Settled at Plymouth in New England, printed in London in 1622.

On first arriving in America, they went ashore at Cape Cod. Finding spots where the “Indians” had buried something, they dug and found a kettle full of corn, and after some discussion took the kettle and its contents for themselves.

A short while later they went back to that same spot and dug again and found more corn, “two or three baskets full of Indian wheat, and a bag of beans, with a good many of fair wheat ears.” They took it all.

Venturing further along the paths, they found “a place like a grave…and resolved to dig it up”. It was indeed a grave, carefully prepared with mats and painted boards, containing “bowls, trays, dishes, and such like trinkets” and “two bundles, the one bigger, the other less.” The bigger bundle contained “the bones and skull of a man”, so they “opened the less bundle likewise, and found…the bones and head of a little child, about the legs, and other parts of it was bound strings, and bracelets of fine white beads; there was also by it a little bow, about three quarters long, and some other knacks; we brought sundry of the prettiest things away with us, and covered the corpse up again.” After this bit of grave robbery, they went back to digging in hopes of finding more buried food.

They also found “two houses, which had been lately dwelt in, but the people were gone”. Gone so quickly, in fact, they’d left food and belongings behind them (they were probably hiding in the safety of the trees, watching the settlers steal their hard-earned winter food stores and desecrate their loved ones’ graves). 

The Englishmen rifled the contents of the houses. “Some of the best things we took away with us,” the journal notes.

My ancestors were part of that.

This past year here in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—charged with acknowledging and recording the voices of those bearing witness to the harm done across seven generations by our brutal residential school system—presented its report and set out its calls to action aimed at “establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future” between Canadians and those of the Indigenous nations upon whose lands we settled.

Reconciliation is a process, and a long one, but it starts with truth. 

While I admire the courage and resourcefulness of my Mayflower ancestors, I’m not proud of all of their actions. For those who were living here when they arrived, their arrival was nothing to celebrate.

So when I tell the story of the “first Thanksgiving” to my children, I believe I ought to tell the whole of it—the good parts and the bad. Not only the “feast” of 1621, but the events of the November before that, when my ancestors stole “trinkets” from a child’s grave, helped themselves to whatever they wanted from somebody’s house, and dug up all the food someone else had worked hard to grow, harvest, and store, without caring what hardships that great theft might cause. I’ll always wonder just how many people sickened from starvation, and how many died, because my ancestors had carried off that food. 

It’s still my family in that painting. I still honour them, and part of who and what they were has travelled down to me. But truth is truth. I couldn’t, in good conscience, let this post stand without telling it.


"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe Wikimedia Commons

One of the advantages of having been born into a family of amateur genealogists (apart from the travel this inevitably requiresmuch of it to reading rooms and graveyards, to be sure, but still, it's travel) is the fact that "history" isn't something chronicled in books, to me. It's something that once happened to my family.

The Battle of Waterloo? A member of my family was there, with the British Army. The American Revolution? I had family on both sides of that one, in New York and Boston, the conflict dividing our family enough that some members moved north into Canada. And in 1215, when King John put his signature to Magna Carta in front of the barons, his half-brother (also my ancestor) William Longespée was most likely nearby, being one of the powerful few in the realm who stayed loyal to John.

So today, on American Thanksgiving (which is what we here in Canada call it, to keep it distinct from our country's own Thanksgiving Day in October) I'm thinking, as usual, not of the history books, but of my family.

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor,"
by William Halsall Wikimedia Commons
I'm descended from three of the Pilgrims who set sail from Plymouth on the Mayflower in search of a new life: John Tilley, his wife, and their daughter. And of the servants who went with the Pilgrims, two men were my ancestors: John Howland and Edward Doty. Which means, when I think of the Mayflower's voyage, I think of those five family members of mine, and the hardships they suffered, the risks they were taking, the lives they were leaving behind.

I also like to think of what they've given me, those distant men and women; not only what they might have passed down to me in my genes, but what examples they have left me by their actions.

John Howland, for instance, fell right off the Mayflower. During the crossing, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, the Pilgrims encountered a fierce storm that went on for days, and John Howland, on deck, was swept overboard. George F. Willison, in his book Saints and Strangers, uses passages from the contemporary account of Governor William Bradford to tell the tale:  
"The ship happened to be trailing some of the topsail halyards and Howland managed to get hold of these and hang on ‘though he was sundrie fadoms under water’ till he was pulled in with a boat hook.  He was ‘something ill with it, yet he lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church & commone wealthe.’”  
To me, he's always stood as an example of tenacitya useful trait for writers. Whenever things seem difficult and I feel at the end of my rope, I think of young John Howland literally at the end of his, "sundrie fadoms under water" in the middle of the ocean, never letting go. If I've inherited anything at all from him, it may be that ability to just hang on, and not give up, which through the years has stood me in good stead.

Photo by
Wikimedia Commons
Edward Doty left a different sort of legacy. The General Society of Mayflower Descendents, writing of Doty in Mayflower Families Through Five Generations, states bluntly:

"Edward Doty was noted for his belligerence. On 18 June 1621, he fought the first—and only—duel in Plymouth Colony. His opponent was his fellow-servant, Edward Leister; and their weapons were swords and daggers. "

The men wounded one another before being separated and punished by their fellow colonists, and Doty went on to face numerous lawsuits for varied offences from slander to assault, although that same book does also say:

"Nevertheless, by the time of his death, Edward Doty had achieved a substantial measure of material success. He left to his family an estate that compared favorably with those of men who had more to begin with than the one-time servant..."

Well, OK. I am stubborn, and nothing if not argumentative. Maybe those traits have come down to me from Edward Doty. But stubbornness can be a positive trait, if it's turned to a drive to succeed. And although I don't think I'll be throwing a gauntlet down anytime soon, I do fight when I need to, for what I believe in, and maybe that's what he did, too.

All three of my male Mayflower ancestorsJohn Howland, Edward Doty, and John Tilleywere part of the small group of passengers who volunteered, on their arrival in the New World, to go explore the bay and settle on a landing-place. This they did in winter, in a small boat, in cold so brutal that one of the other men fainted from it. Being servants, there's always the chance that John Howland and Edward Doty might not have had much say in whether they joined that exploring party, but I like to think that they put up their hands and volunteered when they were needed; that they didn't run from danger and adventure, but charged headlong to meet it, and I know I could do worse in life than try to match that selflessness and courage.

John Tilley and his wife both died not long after the Pilgrims came to shore at Plymouth, but their young daughter Elizabeth Tilley, and her future husband John Howland, and the "belligerent" Edward Doty all survived.

“The First Thanksgiving”,
by J.L.G. Ferris Wikimedia Commons
All three are recorded as having been at that very first Thanksgiving dinner the following year, in 1621.

So today, when I look at a painting like this one, I don't see the history, or faces of strangers in strange-looking hats. All I see is my family, and I feel the force of their thankfulness touch me through time. And perhaps, that's what Thanksgiving's really about.