Native History: Mayflower Sets Sail, Starts the Long Assault of Indian Country

Wikimedia Commons / "Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall, 1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Alysa Landry

Native History: Mayflower Sets Sail, Starts the Long Assault of Indian Country

This Date in Native History: says the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, on September 16, 1620, but is that accurate? According to Wampanoag history, the Mayflower sailed with 102 passengers 10 days earlier—on September 6, 1620—after two failed attempts to leave England.

Accounts vary of the voyage that forever changed America for its first inhabitants. says the Mayflower completed its 66-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean on November 21, 1620. Other sources, including experts at Plimoth Plantation, a nonprofit living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, say the journey ended November 11, 1620, when colonists disembarked at Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod.

The Mayflower, which weighed 180 tons and was about 100 feet long and 20 feet wide, departed with another ship, the Speedwell, twice in August 1620. Both ships returned to dock when the Speedwell was found to be unseaworthy, according to the written history of William Bradford, a separatist, leader of the voyage to the New World and first governor of the settlement. The Mayflower then made the journey on its own.

Bradford’s history states that the successful voyage began September 6 when the colonists “put to sea.” They landed in Provincetown on November 11, Bradford wrote. It was a Monday.

The ship was headed for Virginia, where colonists were authorized by the British crown to settle. Some of the colonists sought religious freedom while many others were dissatisfied with economic opportunities. Stormy weather and navigation errors forced the Mayflower 500 miles off course and colonists landed on Cape Cod.

Upon landing, Bradford wrote this: “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”

By December, the colonists had moved across the bay to Plymouth, establishing the first permanent white settlement in America.

For thousands of years before that, however, the Wampanoag village of Patuxet had flourished on the same land, said Darius Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation.

“At the time, that was a Wampanoag community,” said Coombs, who is one of about 25 Wampanoag people who work at Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite. “We had trade ships coming for 100 years before that, but the ships, the people, didn’t stay. So this wasn’t our first encounter with outsiders.”

When settlers arrived in Plymouth, they found cleared fields and fresh water. Despite this, colonial leaders like Bradford claimed the land was “unpeopled.” According to English tradition, lands without clear title were available to the first people to permanently inhabit it.

But the Wampanoag had simply moved to their winter homes away from the coast, having buried their food supply in Patuxet to store it, Coombs said.

“When the early settlers came, it was winter, so they came after we left the summer homes for the season,” he said. “They found Native burial grounds, which were disturbed, and they dug up our buried food.”

According to Coombs, the settlers actually were lucky that they arrived in 1620 instead of five years before that. A plague, most likely carried by Europeans, spread across New England from 1616 to 1618, wiping out as many as 70 to 90 percent of the tribe’s population.

“There were more than 70 Wampanoag communities at one time,” he said. “The Mayflower changed history for our people.”

Coombs for the last 25 years has worked at the Wampanoag Homesite, where tribal members live present-day culture and tell the truth about history. That history includes loss of land, slavery, rape and genocide, he said.

“This is present-day Wampanoag, but I’ll tell you, not everyone can do this,” he said. “Not everyone can talk about what happened because it still hurts down to the core.”

Regardless of the exact dates the Mayflower sailed, the voyage was a game-changer for American Indians. Activist and author Vine Deloria Jr., in his famous book Custer Died for your Sins, commentated on the Mayflower and the Pilgrims.

“Many Indians, of course, believe it would have been better if Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims than the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock,” he wrote. “Nothing was more destructive of man than the early settlements on this continent.”

Comments (2)
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Peace Lover
Peace Lover

Truth is essential to Peace. Once again, an "account" of the Mayflower Pilgrims w/ selected TRUTHS only. "That history includes loss of land, slavery, rape & genocide." CORRECT. However, conveniently left out is the fact that that description ALSO fits EVERY society on the planet, at one time or another, including NATIVE AMERICAN tribes/nations who massacred & enslaved each other long before The Mayflower arrived. Humans have been INhumane to each other for centuries. It's NOT right; it's UGLY & unacceptable. However, no single group has a patent on it. ALSO LEFT OUT is the FACT that the Mayflower Pilgrims wanted to pay for the corn they found, and later, DID PAY IN FULL. Further, Wampanoag Massasoit Ousamequin INVITED the Mayflower Pilgrims to settle on some of their land in exchange for the Pilgrim's promise of military alliance. The neighboring Narragansetts had been invading/conquering their fellow Natives & were threatening the Wampanoag. The Pilgrims agreed; the Narragansett scouts reported the Wampanoag's allies had guns so war was averted.PILGRIMS SAVING not taking Native lives. The Pilgrims, also, shared their factory made goods, especially tools w/ the Natives. In 1623, the Mayflower Pilgrims, utilizing more advanced medical knowledge, SAVED Massasoit Ousamequin from dying due to an an infection. TWO GROUPS OF HUMANS MUTUALLY SUPPORTING EACH OTHER, LIVING IN PEACE because they CHOSE to do so. It is TRAGIC that their Peace Pact, honored by both LEADERS for 50 years(!) was broken by their own children. Today, in 2019, those who wish for JUSTICE for Native Americans are welcome to join us in both restoring & preserving Native lands, improving infrastructure, living conditions on Native reservations (where Native persons, now, choose to live) and RESPECTING everyone, everywhere. PEACE ON EARTH to ALL!

laura linellen
laura linellen

Im a direct descendent of Love Brewster the son of a man who hid under the floorboards of the Mayflower to escape English persecution for his beliefs arriving this month in 1620. That man was William Brewster the preacher at the first "Thanksgiving". If enough of my cousins die I get his sword...I used to be very proud of this. My family would say "We arrived when Love reached the shore"...ironic.
Its taken a lot of deprogramming to realize fully that Thanksgiving was not created by my family to thank the "Indians" for helping us. In fact Pilgrims were grave robbers, stealing corn from ceremonial burials. Native Americans, even after this invasion and insult, still offered their bounty. In turn, we left them starving, diseased, took their lives and all they had.

I do not celebrate Thanksgiving anymore. And I disagree with the statement above as the leptospirosis infection brought by my ancestors, the hundreds of years of genocide, the white faces blasted in the sacred Black Hills, the children in cages today, the fire hoses blasting the water warriors today: all speaks to the opposite of a any symbiotic relationship or some slight misunderstanding. Real peace comes from accepting accountability and privilege.

The Mayflower was a boil in a long history of infection by colonists. I suggest everyone research Cortes and Quetzalcoatl and then read A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome de la Casas.

For my part, on behalf of my family to all Native Americans and Black Americans: I am sorry. I am so sorry, my blood comes from spilled blood and the heart it pumps through is devoted to kindness and learning.

Minorities are being effected the most by the Covid outbreak due to a systemic, multi-generational lack of proper health care, housing and ongoing mental stress. Keep your mask on and up over your nose.