2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims sailing from England to the New World. How important was the freedom of conscience to those men and women?
Consider the risks: They set off into the unknown with no means of communication, limited supplies and even less knowledge of the challenges they would face.
Whatever they expected, their first winter was far more exacting than they could have anticipated.
Heading for the coast of Virginia where they would join the Jamestown Colony, they arrived more than 600 miles north in Massachusetts in November without the provisions to take them through their first hostile winter. Disease and privation took the lives of nearly half of the Pilgrims in the first six months in their new home.
The dark side of the Pilgram story that is not taught in school
There is a darker side to the classic version of the first Thanksgiving.
An article in National Geographic describes how the settlers established their “foothold in the ruins of [a Native American] village emptied by the ravages of a plague.” The Mayflower arrived in November 1620 with 102 passengers. By March, about half of them had died (estimates vary but somewhere between 45 and 52 were buried before the spring.
“Then, on March 16, a Native American strode boldly through the gate … raised his hand and greeted them in English,” according to the article. “His name was Samoset, and he’d learned the foreigners’ language from traders. He returned with another Native American named Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto. This man not only spoke perfect English, but years earlier he’d been kidnapped and taken to Europe as a slave.”
Details of Tisquantum’s life vary, but it is thought that he was the sole survivor of the Patuxet tribe—the plague victims on whose village the Pilgrims built their own.
“With Squanto serving as translator, the Pilgrims negotiated a peace treaty with Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag—a loose confederation of several area tribes, including the now-extinct Patuxet...It was that treaty, in fact, that led to the fabled first Thanksgiving.”
According to a University of Michigan article, Tisquantum “knew the language and the customs of the English settlers, and he wanted to help them…He taught them how to plant corn. He taught them how to catch fish. He taught them where to find nuts and berries. He taught them how to prepare for the winter.”
Theirs was a journey fraught with peril to secure religious freedom. But that freedom did not extend to others. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff wrote in her New York Times opinion piece, “No matter that they sailed to these shores in search of religious freedom. Once established, they pulled up the gangplank behind them.”
The arrival of the Mayflower does not hold the significance for Native Americans that is taught to children in American schools each year. In fact, on its 350th anniversary in 1972, it was renamed the National Day of Mourning by the United American Indians of New England.
That year, the governor of Massachusetts asked Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder and Native American activist, to speak on the anniversary. But the invitation was withdrawn when the contents of his proposed speech were revealed.
“We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end, that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people,” Jame wrote.
If there is any moral to this story, perhaps it is that human rights are universal—all of them. One group or individual or culture or race’s rights cannot supersede the rights of others.
This is a message that is resonating throughout America in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in this year of the coronavirus.
From its beginnings, the Church of Scientology has recognized that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. In a world where conflicts are often traceable to intolerance of others’ religious beliefs and practices, the Church has, for more than 50 years, made the preservation of religious liberty an overriding concern.
The Church publishes this blog to help create a better understanding of the freedom of religion and belief and provide news on religious freedom and issues affecting this freedom around the world.