I was taught the Pilgrims were the first American colonists who arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Pfft! The first colonists arrived in America waaaay before that. Be prepared. This is not the warm and fuzzy story we learned in school.
In 1587, John White set sail to Roanoke Island, North Carolina and became the governor of the first colony. After struggling for several months, he left his wife, daughter and infant granddaughter and sailed back to England for supplies. A major war broke out between Spain and England and he couldn’t wrangle a ship. He waited three long years. When he returned to his family and the 112 other colonists, they had disappeared without a trace. His crew could not find any sign that they had ever existed. They did find a wooden post carved with the name “Croatoan.”
Historian’s theories include being killed by Native Americans or taken to another island, Spanish executions, or they may have moved inland and were accepted into a friendly tribe. When we took the tour several years ago, our guide mentioned, “It could have been an alien abduction.” Who knows?
King James organized The London Company to find gold, a new shortcut to the Orient or south seas, and those vanished colonists. In 1606, they set sail for Virginia. They were ill-prepared for the harsh winters, hot summers and insects. Of the original 104, only 38 survived at the Jamestown Fort.
Captain John Smith wrote that he found paradise, but scientists believe they arrived during a drought resulting in famine which continued for the next 15 years. He bolted back to England in the fall of 1609. That winter is known as ‘starving time’ for Jamestown. Hundreds of colonists died. A few survived by the mercy of the Powhatan Native Americans who provided food.
In the first 15 years, 10,000 settlers arrived in Jamestown. Only 20% survived.
The novelty of being the first in a New World attracted many of the well-to-do who’d never raised a finger to take care of themselves. They had a staff which did all the work in the household including meal preparation, stoking furnaces, the wash, and cleaning. They bought whatever they needed. I bet they were shocked when they arrived assuming someone else would hunt and fish, build shelters and plant seed. Instead of working, they starved to death.
In the summer of 2012, archaeologists made a discovery buried during those first years of starvation in a Jamestown cellar. A human skeleton was found underneath a pile of trash and animal bones. They reconstructed her face and called her Jane. Their findings may prove that some of the early settlers resorted to cannibalism including one that was later executed for eating his pregnant wife. According to the article, they had been rumored to eat about anything to survive including shoe leather.
Reconstructing Jane – AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1621 with a great work ethic. They survived and thrived. But according to this article, there are several myths surrounding them.
There is no mention of Plymouth Rock in historical documents. The rock isn’t much to look at and they probably weren’t even aware of the boulder on the beach.
The Pilgrims settled in Holland first and enjoyed freedom from religious persecution. Obviously, they didn’t come to America for that reason. In the article, Robert Tracy McKenzie says they had a hard time finding work and wanted to keep their English culture, traditions, and live alone.
The Pilgrims were not the first to celebrate Thanksgiving. The Native Americans held autumn traditions. Many of the earlier settlers gave thanks. I guess the warm fuzzy idea of the Pilgrims being the ideal immigrants stood out from the other starving colonist’s stories. Shoe leather. Blah!
We think of the Pilgrims as wearing black and never cracking a smile, but they rocked out, drank beer, and had barbecues, played games and wore colorful outfits. Governor Bradford owned colorful hats, a red suit and a purple cloak. Sheesh!
Do you see his purple cape hiding under the documents? The Pilgrims look bored. They’re ready for some beer and a barbecue!
The Pilgrims have always been the symbol of democracy, but in their Compact with King James I, they expressed their loyalty to the sovereignty. McKenzie states they were supposed to settle 200 miles north of Plymouth and disobeyed orders so they wrote the document to show their allegiance and to keep the King off their backs.
So this year when you give thanks, clear the warm fuzz from the room and toast the early colonists of Roanoke and Jamestown. Maybe someday we’ll find those early settler’s DNA in bones discovered on Mars next to a post that says, “Croatoan.”
Did you know these facts about our early settlers?
What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?
National Humanities Center – First arrivals
First permanent British settlers in America were cannibals who even ate a 14-year-old girl to survive deadly 1609 winter
The Washington Post – Five Myths about the Pilgrims
Fascinating sidebars to our white-washed history. I was trying to explain religious freedom and economic opportunity to two Chinese ladies today – tough concepts to understand, and even more difficult to live up to.
Thanks for the lesson and Happy Thanksgiving, Susie!
So great to see you Peg!
I had heard some of these stories from our kids, but visiting Roanoke blew my mind. It was like some big secret!!!
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation…Happy Thanksgiving!
Knew about most of these…thanks for taking the time to write a great article giving us all a lot to think about this Thanksgiving!
Thanks so much! I really enjoyed researching it. I kept saying, “Oh My God!”
Love these facts! I knew most of them, but it is so easy to lean on the old stories because they are so ingrained in us. Happy Thanksgiving!
I wasn’t taught any of this. I guess my age is showing!! Happy Thanksgiving!
Great post and for me very apt. It’s amazing how much history mythology gains credence & is taught in schools as true. Dealing with this stuff has been one main thrust of my professional career as a historian. Part of the issue comes from the way we keep re-framing the past through the lens of the present. Here in NZ the notion that Maori all arrived in a single heroic canoe migration gained ground in the 1890s as part of New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as a great child of Britain. It became ‘true’, and I was taught it at school in the late 1960s. Actually it was rubbish, but dislodging the myth was a very difficult task – and the funny thing was that the fact that it was rubbish was well known BEFORE the 1890s, but the data was forgotten.
Every nation has these sorts of re-inventions and clearly the US is no exception!
When I told my mom about my findings she said, “You’re ruining Thanksgiving for me!” The Pilgrims were known as our first colonists and yet there were 10,000 settlers in the first 15 years and the Pilgrims didn’t come to America until 33 years after the first!
It would be cool to read a book that included all these misinterpreted facts.
Thanks for this very interesting history lesson, Susie! Glad to know they were partiers! 🙂 I wish you a wonderful day with your family tomorrow filled with love and health. ps. I dedicated one of my last posts to you and some of my relatives. 🙂
I my gosh! You are so sweet! I have been so absorbed with getting ready for the holidays, I haven’t had time to read. Thank you my friend! I hope your holiday was wonderful too!
Well, as I like to say . . history ain’t for sissies.
It sure wasn’t easy for them. Nothing like our Brookstone catalog living. Are they still in business???
An interesting trip down the historical trail, for sure, Susie!
It sure was! I kept gasping as I uncovered these facts.
Well, now I feel educated! It’s amazing how any of them survived at all back then. Hope you had a terrific Thanksgiving!
I don’t thinki they realized how hard it would be. It didn’t help that they arrived during a drought!
Tanks Phil! We had a great time. I hope yours was mahvelous!!!!
I remember hearing a podcast about the Roanoke colonists. (Stuff You Missed in History Class — great podcast if you love history!)
Talk about “roughing it.” I wouldn’t have lasted three days.
I don’t think many of them grew up camping, but even then they had to find enough food for over 100 colonists and no grocery store in sight!!! That sounds like a great series!
Such a well written article.. I live like 2 miles ( as the crow flies) from Croatan National Forest. In fact my grandmother was part Coharie Indian, which descended from the Neusiok. ( Both recognized today as descendants of the Croatan) I wrote an article about the Lost Colony on my site you would probably enjoy reading, as its a little comical in its presentation. A sad reality, but hard to do the research without getting ironically dizzied… “Colony, Lost from the start”… is the title, but, you can access it easily by clicking the Nautical Tales Tab, and then the link : Lost Colony
Hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and thanks for stopping by my site earlier.. I have been ( as my ma always says ) “busier than a one legged man in a butt kicking contest” lately..
This is really interesting.
I didn’t know any of this…all those poor souls that starved when they first arrived. It is so, so sad.
Anyway it is nearly thanks giving time again. I hope you have fun celebrating and wishing them well on Mars.
Wow! I had no idea there was so much behind the scenes in these stories. It does go to show how we “create”
History through predominating myths versus facts—or simply that the real story is really STORIES. Thanks for this!
Thank you, Angela! It was eye opening research. We visited Roanoke and learned about the early pilgrims which blew my mind! It makes me wonder why they were still so unprepared years later.
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