Early 20th-century memory of amicable contact.
Burning an Indian town in early Virginia, a 17th-century engraving.
But on a grander scale, the Pilgrims can symbolically represent all Europeans arriving in the New World to grab land and oppress the peaceful inhabitants. Michael Zuckerman, for example, expressed a common view when he proclaimed in 1977 that “almost the only relations with the Indians that New Englanders could even imagine were the antagonistic ones of war and captivity.” As for the Pilgrims particularly, Neal Salisbury in 1982 echoed Zuckerman: “Having left Holland and England, the colonists left behind any notions of approaching the Indians on any but a coercive basis. […] By convincing themselves that their own lives were at stake, the English found the motivation and justification for a policy of terror.” Such Imagery, soaring high away from the restrictions of historical evidence, reflects again from the sentiments expressed in the National Day of Mourning recently invented to gain publicity on Thanksgiving Day.
Debunking authors disingenuously claim to tell the true truth at last. Concluding the Pilgrims were unimportant is ultimately not enough. Patriotic nostalgia of Victorian romantics succumbs to an assumption of recurrent routine. The dull lives of farmers followed the seasons far from the issues that shook minds elsewhere. If not merely boring, these settlers were evil, and, in any case, not America’s first anything. They did not invent democracy. The Pilgrims stole corn and land from the Indians. They committed the modern sin of habitually disrespecting the Natives – at best inadvertently destroying an ancient, pristine culture of innocence and ecological sensitivity, at worst ruthlessly and maliciously using germ warfare to annihilate a superior civilization. The Pilgrims held no Thanksgiving except perhaps to celebrate their genocide against peace-loving Natives. They did not wear black clothes and buckled hats. They didn’t even call themselves “Pilgrims.” Such is the stereotype of negation that has replaced the vacuity of attributing all imaginable virtue to these few migrants.
Nonetheless, the Image of courageous pioneers who made friends with the Indians persists undiminished in the annual celebration of Thanksgiving Day. For Bradford, however, the Pilgrims’ survival and accomplishments revealed no strength of their own, instead proclaiming the triumph of divine purpose. “May not & ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto ye Lord, and he heard their voice, and looked on their adversitie. Let them therefore praise ye Lord, because […] he hath delivered them from ye hand of ye oppressour. When they wandered in ye deserte wilderness out of ye way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie, & thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before ye Lord his loving kindness, and his wonderfull works before ye sons of men.”