Four hundred years ago, in the fall of 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in what is now Massachusetts. One of their first acts in the New World was to disturb an Indian grave and steal some corn; apparently not enough because about half of the original 100 or so colonists died that first winter.
To be fair, Plymouth fared much better than the first English settlement in Virginia; from 1607-1610, 90 percent of some 600 arriving at Jamestown perished. This is not the stuff of national myth, not the part of the story we emphasize with school children. When we do mention it—if the typical American history textbook is to be relied upon—we focus more on the courage and sacrifice than the failed leadership, the religious zealotry, and the malicious attitude toward Native Americans.
Yet, we are a nation of myths. For example, despite quite a bit of primary source documentation regarding the Plymouth Colony, there is no mention of a rock in the written record until 1741. As far as an actual Plymouth Rock, it was miraculously uncovered in 1774; just in time for a revolution.
Given our current circumstances, perhaps it is fitting that an American origin story featuring a rock doesn’t really need a rock. Worrying whether or not Plymouth Rock exists lacks the optimism that the myth is meant to invoke. Optimism is an essential part of all good American stories and, as a not-yet-so-famous historian, I probably shouldn’t go out of my way to stir up trouble on something as trivial as a rock. Some might even see the mere suggestion of it as un-American.
Our nation’s history is supposed to be a great story of triumph over tyranny; the flourishing of liberty; the god-given and eternal right to pursue happiness; all the stories lined up neatly in a row marching towards liberty.
This may be why minorities have such a hard time pointing out, as they so often do, all the bad things that have happened to them. Like Malcolm X, for instance, who, tapping artfully into the nation’s mythology, said in 1964, “Our forefathers weren’t the Pilgrims. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.” To prove the point, he was assassinated less than a year later.
One of the oddest things to me is that the Pilgrims are often celebrated as stalwarts of religious freedom and that their story is integral to the American origins of representative democracy. Yes, these early settlers were fleeing religious persecution and there is no denying the significance of the Mayflower Compact.
However, and this is not often highlighted within traditional American history instruction, the Puritan majority in the Plymouth Colony had very little tolerance for non-Puritan religious views and, when looking closely, it is hard to find democratic principles within a society that likes to strap their women into a chair and dunk them in the river.
Public shaming in Colonial America was meant to keep women in their place. For instance, women who committed prostitution or gave birth to an illegitimate child were called out as threats to public order and decency. The record is rather light on this, but it seems that hiring a prostitute and fathering an illegitimate child were considered less serious offenses. As women faced the consequences for sexual misconduct, the men were shamed as well by being shackled in the public square, pilloried on the “neck-stretcher” and, in some cases, branded with the letter of their transgression; T for thief, R for rogue, F for forger, and so on. A century later, when the Framers of the Constitution prohibited “cruel and unusual punishment,” they were all familiar with the variety of ways a community might deploy to keep everyone in line.
In an environment like this, it’s no shock to learn that Massachusetts was also the site of a series of witch trials in 1692-1693. (Perhaps you’ve heard mention of “witch hunts” recently. That is simply rhetoric; nothing like the original.) The record shows that hundreds were accused and 24 were executed. While some of the condemned were men, it is clear that accusations of sorcery were directed largely at outspoken women; or, in some cases, women with moles and birthmarks. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.
It wasn’t all bad. Demonstrating a vein of seventeenth-century progressivism, the colonial justice system refrained from burning these witches at the stake, as was the rather pervasive custom in Europe at the time. Indeed, some scholars believe that between 1500 and 1700, tens of thousands of accused witches were executed in Europe. Americans, on the other hand, had a much more enlightened view of crime and punishment; Massachusetts witches were hanged instead, or sometimes just dunked in the river.
Part of the problem may have been that the women of Massachusetts in the 1600s had very few rights that were not overseen by male members of the family. The Framers, by the way, did little to address this one. By the middle of the 1800s, it was still generally accepted that a man had the freedom to punish his wife, just so long as the rod he chose was no thicker than his thumb—the original “rule of thumb.”
Oddly, the lone exception to this limited observance of women’s rights was the widow, who by virtue of having no man to control her, was free to own property, to sue in the courts, and to discipline children. It makes one wonder just how many women of Massachusetts may have actively pondered the various methods by which widowhood might be achieved. Of course, this is just the sort of thinking that must have gotten them into so much trouble in the first place; imagining, as they did, a wholly different role for themselves… sort of like today.
Be careful out there, ladies.