The Pilgrims Wore Black and Other Tall Tales

The Pilgrims Wore Black and Other Tall Tales. Click for the truth about America's first settlers! Thanksgiving, stories, American history, travel North America, Travel United States #History #Thanksgiving #Pilgrims #Stories #Travel

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.

Victorian Thanksgiving card

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?

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

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.

Plymouth Rock

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!

Governor Bradford and the Pilgrims

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.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Did you know these facts about our early settlers?

Related articles:

What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke?

Captain John Smith

Totally History – Jamestown

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

83 thoughts on “The Pilgrims Wore Black and Other Tall Tales

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  1. US History is part of the state curriculum for 5th grade here in Illinois, so I love revisiting these stories year after year with students. Our text does a much better job of presenting the real facts. Nothing like the watered down versions of history we learned in school.

    My husband and I visited the archaeological sight at Jamestown last summer. Since I’m a history buff, it was fascinating to see firsthand what I’d only read about for years. If you ever have the opportunity (or interest) to see it, I highly recommend it. Great post.


    1. We drove by Jamestown, but had spent the day in Williamsburg and were done. I would love to go back. I am curious about the huts they made. Do you know anything about them? They were so primitive for the English.

      My kids came home with these stories and that’s what motivated me to check out the facts yesterday.I loved their history books since they always included artifacts. written letters and a short summary about what it was like to live during that period. My American History lessons were ridiculous in comparison. Isn’t it great how we can go to our computers and find
      information on anything?
      Thanks so much!
      Happy Thanksgiving!!!


      1. Archaeologists have discovered the post holes that once held the palisades of some of the huts I think you’re referring to above. They’ve reconstructed the skeletons of a couple of them. Primitive structures, yes, but I think they were erected in a hurry because the settlers did not intend to make it a permanent settlement. Their idea was more to exploit the land for riches (gold & spices), and head back to England with their newly found wealth.


  2. Okay, we did learn about American history in our Canadian school system but I learned more about the Colonists on some PBS specials..:) I read all your other links too– as I love history. Well done Susie and HAPPY THANKSGIVING. Canada has theirs the first Monday in October as our harvest was sooner and the cold weather is here at this time.. and yes.. there is snow outside. Unlike you I hibernate..:)
    Love you!!


    1. You are so smart to have your Thanksgiving earlier. They must have picked this later date for some reason. I’ll have to research it. Now it is the kick off to Midnight Madness and Christmas! My son has to work at 6:00 on Thanksgiving!!!!

      Love you too Linda!


  3. Thanks for the history lesson, Susie. I’m fascinated by stories of how those early adventurers struggled to survive and always am reminded of all we have to be thankful for. No shoe leather on the table this week! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!


    1. Once I started to delve into the history, I was so fascinated! How were we not taught about Roanoke? The focus was always on the Pilgrims who arrived 33 years later!!!!
      Preparing for this Thanksgiving has really been put into perspective! Thanks so much Pat! Are you in Canada?


  4. I did know about Roanoke, and the whole idea of those people vanishing is just fascinating. This is the first I’ve heard of possible cannibalism – can you imagine being reduced to making such a horrible decision? On our trip East, we made it to Williamsburg, but ran out of time and couldn’t make it to Jamestown. Our East Coast is a wonderful historical treasure!


    1. I always think about those stories of starvation after plane crashes and think I’d rather starve.
      I love traveling back east! We’ve been to Williamsburg, Roanoke, the Outer banks, DC and went on a ghost tour in Richmond, Boston was a blast since everywhere we went we felt like we were tiptoeing on our forefather’s grave!,So much of the past is still shrouded in mystery.
      Happy Thanksgiving DMS!


  5. I looked hard for a good history curriculum for our kids because of nonsense like what you were taught as a kid. I did a little better, but there was still this sense of the Pilgrims being these strict, always-wear-black kind of people. Maybe, over time, people got them confused with Puritans? Then again, Puritans weren’t exactly as we were taught, either.

    History is so much richer than some realize. Thank you for the wonderful Thanksgiving post.


    1. Thanks so much Amy! I remember my kids coming home from school and telling me the reason why the earliest settlers died was because they wouldn’t work. Part of it was because they didn’t know how and the other because their neighbors weren’t working. Wouldn’t that have been frustrating to watch?????


  6. Just to add a little fuel to your fire, in my last blog a I explained how the first “Thanksgiving” in North America predates even the ones you mentioned. “The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an English explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been futilely attempting to find a northern passage to the Orient. He did, however, establish a settlement in Canada. In the year 1578, Frobisher held a formal ceremony in what is now the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, to give thanks for surviving the long journey. This event is widely considered to be the first Canadian Thanksgiving, and the first official Thanksgiving to occur in North America.”


    1. I read about that and there were French and other groups who celebrated. You gotta believe these folks were very thankful after just barely surviving in those first years! Sure makes going to the grocery store and fighting elbows seem like a breeze in comparison.
      Thanks for reading!


  7. Great post. I’m a history nut so found this fascinating. Being a Canadian, I’m more familiar with the Martin Frobisher story mentioned in the comments above than the Pilgrims who get barely a mention in our schools on Thanksgiving – although truly the yearly tradition of giving thanks through feasts and celebrations was a staple of the court of Elizabeth I.

    What’s interesting is that Frobisher was simply celebrating survival, and that tradition was carried on through the Canadian colonies and carried across the territory by the Loyalists.

    The reason Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on a different day than American’s is because “in 1957 Canadian Parliament proclaimed ‘a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed,’ to be observed on the second Monday in October.”
    I love history!


    1. That is so cool Lisa! I was not taught anything about our wonderful neighbors to the north. That has changed since I was a girl. I had not heard about Frobisher and will look him up. I find this period in history so fascinating!! We adopted the pilgrims as our first colonists because of their story and their clothing. Historians obviously made some parts up like escaping religious persecution. They came 33 years later and were better prepared than the first. We imagine them sitting down to a fabulous feast! Sheesh! That first year was hard for them too!
      Thanks so much for your information Lisa!


  8. As a Child I was proud to have memorized many of the ‘facts’ about pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Imagine my chagrin when I found out I memorized a bunch of bullshit! Did you know, for instance, there was no such individual as “Squanto,” the native american who supposedly taught the pilgrims how to care for themselves?
    I guess it was some kind of warped Promethius myth for America. Left a bad taste in my mouth, but I like it when people tell it like it was!
    Thanks, Suzie!


    1. I can so relate Ensis!
      I had no idea until we traveled to the Outer Banks and visited Roanoke. Then my kids brought home the stories about the pampered colonists who had no idea how to provide for themselves. It makes me wonder how many other “facts” I’ve been taught!!!
      Happy Thanksgiving!


  9. It must have been incredibly difficult to be one of the first settlers, unprepared for winter or for trying to make a living off the land. Like a bad camping trip without any hope of rescue in sight. You’d only make it if you were really tough and resourceful. And apparently the surviving pioneers were just that!


    1. And they had Native American friends. There was a drought that didn’t help matters. I can only imagine the heat during the summer. I overheard a guy say that some of the settlers were so afraid to drink the water, they distilled acorns! Hahaha! Can you imagine how awful that tasted and how long it took??? It’s a wonder anyone survived.


  10. My mother taught American History back when it was sanitized. She always said that there was so much more to each story. Your informative post proves that. Fascinating… in a sad, but believable, way.


    1. And if you dragged your laces, there’s no telling what extra additives a person could get. I had so much fun researching this yesterday. I think these earlier settlers have a much more interesting story than the Pilgrims that came 33 years later.


  11. Well now I am officially ready for Thanksgiving. Had I known all I needed were a pregnant lady and some shoe leather I could have saved a bunch of money at the grocery store, though. There’s always next year.

    Thanks for sharing the fun history lesson.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt


  12. It had to be alien abductions! (Call Congress. Now we have to have a rocket to Mars) As a kid I always thought surely one child was rescued and went to live with the Native Americans. When I was there, there was very little that showed people had lived there – just dark green forest. It may be different now…but then, very mysterious out the car windows
    I never understood while Jamestown was built in that swamp. The mosquitoes will carry you off.
    The whole settling of the “New World” is pretty much hard scrabble miracle. Certainly not what they expected.
    Plymouth Rock was a disappointment – in the book pictures it looked like a huge boulder as the Pilgrims stepped over to land…in reality (when we visited) it was a sad little rock deep in a protective well.
    (My mom taught US history and she dragged us everywhere…we used to put our hands over our ears in the car and went “Lalalalala” while she read history of what ever area we were visiting. We were such charming children)


    1. Hahaha! That is funny.
      I Loved the living history tour of Williamsburg and have always felt the energy of all that history back east.
      There was not one tiny shread of evidence left by those settlers.In 2007, archeologists took DNA samples of people around the surrounding area to see if any of those first settlers survived, but they didn’t find anyone.
      Plymouth Rock had to be a joke. I have bigger rocks in my yard!!!
      I’m sure you were a very charming child…. 🙂
      Happy Thanksgiving Phil!


      1. There were suggestions about the Native Americans with blue eyes…but now that’s Viking heritage… until they decide it’s blue-eye Native American recessive genes?
        We lived in Williamsburg for a while…knew all the tour doubt we were charming. Happy!


  13. Great post, Susie! Lots of fun facts. Originally Capt. John Smith was discussed as leading the voyage of the Mayflower, but that didn’t work out. Interesting to think that two such historical groups of people could’ve been united. The Mayflower was supposed to sail to Virginia, where the original colony had been established, but bad storms blew the ship much farther north and they didn’t have the navigational equipment we do now to know just far north they’d drifted.

    And you’re spot on about the early settlers starving. About half of the original Mayflower passengers died the first winter. One of the things that initially saved them was stumbling upon Native burial mounds. Some mounds were housing corn and other crop goods, which the pilgrims stole and ate. Other mounds were in fact burial mounds. They landed on the native city of Patuxet, where the tribe had been wiped out by european disease. That is why the pilgrims had to make amends to the native peoples because they had raided their sacred grounds and food supply! They gifted the natives with cookware and one of the items that’s noted is a red military jacket which they gave to Chief Massasoit, and he is said to have worn it with pride.

    I could keep going, but I’ll stop. LOL Thanks for a fun post! Happy Thanksgiving!


    1. Thanks for stopping by! As a descendent, this must be a fun time of year for you!
      I was so surprised to hear that in the first 15 year 10,000 colonists arrived in America and the Pilgrims didn’t come until 33 years after the first!!!
      Happy Thanksgiving!


  14. Read a loot of history. In CT we had are own bunch of religious nuts. They got tossed out of Massachusetts, moved to Ct and the real nut-jobs wound up in Rhode Island.. Happy Thanksgiving Susie!


  15. I dread to think how sweaty that shoe leather is. I never remember exact dates but I do remember the truth is way further back.than is widely known. Maybe Mike Allegra could write a book on that next. I’ll tell him! Happy Thanksgiving, Susie!


    1. I was talking to my dad on the phone last night and he said I should fly out there, do some research and write the story. It would be a fun historical fiction!!
      Thanks Catherine!


  16. I was not aware of the cannibalism Susie but it doesn’t surprise me. Desperate people do desperate things in desperate times. Just ask the Donner Party or any contestant that’s ever appeared on “Survivor”.


  17. Susie Lindau, you’re a terrible person. You’ve just gone and destroyed all my childhood notions of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. Everybody knows they always wore black and ate turkey and stuffing with the Indians on Thanksgiving Day. Shame on you !!! 🙂 🙂 😉
    On a serious note…, thanks for sharing a bit of history with us. It was a fun and interesting read. Hope you and yours have a great holiday.


  18. I’d heard some of these, in general terms but the Jane story was a new one! That’s her face, all bashed in? That’s sad, very sad. But… I’m also very very curious about this whole cannibalism thing. A guy ate his pregnant wife? I’m glad he was executed, what a bastard.


    1. Thank God he was executed. Click on the link for more info. I LOVED the Washington Post article about the Pilgrims written by a history teacher. History is being taught a lot differently now, but I would think anyone over 35 was taught only about the Pilgrims and they arrived 33 years later!!!!
      It is such a fascinating history. I don’t think historians wanted anyone to know about those early failures.
      Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving!


  19. Love this! When I was growing up, I was SO into the early settlers and spent so much time researching Roanoake, Jamestown, etc. I’ve visited a whole bunch settlement sites and read so many books. What a nerd, I know! This is great – the real truth is not quite as shiny & happy, huh?! Happy Thanksgiving, Susie Q! xoxoxo


    1. See you’re younger and taught the actual history. I would love to know when they started teaching the truth. Next time we go back east, I’ll have to stop at Jamestown. It is so amazing. As Americans, we descended from risk takers through good old survival of the fittest!
      Happy Thanksgiving!


      1. I think I just learned it from my mom b/c we’re a family of history geeks…we still got the glossed over version in school! You need to take this lesson to the schools & tell ’em what’s up!


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