Some see irony in virus’ impact on Mayflower commemoration

The year 2020 was to be a great year for pilgrims.

Dozens of events were planned to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of religious separatists in what we now know as Plymouth, Massachusetts. But many of these activities have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Historian Elizabeth Fenn finds this deeply ironic.

“New infections did MOST of the dirty work of colonization,” says Fenn, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has studied disease in colonial America.

Diseases introduced by traders and settlers — by chance or intentionally — played an important role in the “conquest” of Aboriginal people. And this inconvenient fact, well known to Native American descendants, is contrary to the traditional “New World” narrative.

This narrative has come under attack in recent months, as statues of Pilgrim’s predecessors Christopher Columbus, Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate and other “colonizers” have been toppled and defaced. The counter-narrative sees people like the Pilgrims not as hardy pioneers and adventurers, but as part of a slow-motion genocide.

“The Mayflower came and the settlers came, and they’re considered FOUNDERS,” says historian and journalist Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “But in fact, they were takers.”

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Plymouth has taken a disproportionate place in American history.

“Regardless of anything that came before or after, Plymouth is the ‘once upon a time’ in United States history – the symbolic, if not literal, birthplace of our nation,” states the Plimoth website. Plantation, a reconstructed Pilgrim exhibition on colonization and living history.

But the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower did not cross the Atlantic to establish a democratic society. When they left Plymouth, England on September 16, 1620, they were fleeing religious persecution and seeking a place where they could prosper.

When they disembarked from the fetid and fleeing carrack, they set foot on a land already cleared by the scythe of death.

In the years before the Pilgrims arrived, the native inhabitants of southern New England had been ravaged by what some scientists call a “virgin soil” epidemic. The unidentified disease, possibly brought by European fishermen who plied Maine waters at Narragansett Bay, burned village after village, killing up to 90% of some tribes.

“I passed along the coast where I found old (indigenous) plantations recently settled, now completely empty; in other places a remnant remains, but not free from disease,” Captain Thomas Dermer wrote in a 1619 letter to a friend back in London.

Dermer’s guide was Tsquantum – the native interpreter better known as Squanto, who had been among 20 Wampanoags kidnapped by English explorers in 1614 and sold as slaves.

Dermer wrote that “the land of my savage” was once home to around 2,000 souls.

“All dead,” he said.

Most American children grow up with the Pilgrims’ feel-good story: how Pokanoket sachem Massasoit extended a hand of friendship to English settlers, helping them survive their first winter on these shores, then joining them for the first Thanksgiving holiday.

But there is a darker side to this story, as Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow recounted in his 1624 tract, “Good Newes From New England.”

According to Winslow, Tsquantum spread a rumor that the Pilgrims kept barrels of plague buried in their storehouse, “which, as we pleased, we could send to whatever place or people we chose, and destroy them with it”.

When Hobbamock, one of the warriors of Massasoit, asked them if they indeed possessed such a weapon, a colonist replied: “No, but the God of the English had it in reserve and could send it at will to the destruction of his and our enemies.”


In an article that appeared last winter in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Dr. John Booss of Yale University School of Medicine argued that the “perfect timing” of the arrival of pilgrims following he deadly epidemic was one of the key factors in the colony’s survival. Success.

But there is a heated debate on the ground about the significance of the role the disease played in European domination of the continent.

In his groundbreaking 1972 book, “The Columbian Exchange”, Alfred W. Crosby argued that the introduction of European germs among the “biologically helpless Indians” caused the collapse of the Aztec and Inca empires. His later writings helped cement the “virgin soil thesis” in academic and popular culture.

Paul Kelton thinks focusing too much on disease gives the colonizers a free pass.

In an article for the June edition of the Journal of American History, Kelton and co-author Tai S. Edwards argue that through war, legal maneuvering and debt, “colonizers bear the responsibility for creating conditions that made the natives vulnerable to infection, increased mortality, and hampered population recovery.

“Let’s not give disease sole power to allow Europeans to take over,” Kelton said in a recent interview.


In August, Aboriginal descendants from across New England and beyond were expected to converge on Plymouth to dance and drum around a ceremonial fire, parade through the city and make offerings of tobacco and sage in tribute to their ancestors. . The Walk of the Ancestors has been listed as a “flagship event” on the Plymouth 400 calendar.

“We were looking forward to it so we could actually speak our truth,” says Troy Currence, a powwow or healer from the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe of Cape Cod.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus — which has disproportionately affected Indigenous communities across the country — has also put those plans on hold until at least next spring. Meanwhile, they are sharing their story online.

Currence sees the pandemic as a sign that the country and the world need a fix.

“Ultimately, if you don’t take care of Mother Earth and live in balance,” he says, “natural law will always win out.”


AP National Writer Allen G. Breed is a Massachusetts native and direct descendant of Resolved White, who was 5 when he and his parents, William and Susannah White, arrived in Patuxet on the Mayflower.

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