The Bones of Plymouth

July 24, 2022
HLAS Newsletter

My dearest dissenters:

Happy Summer!

Are you enjoying your allotment of one week of va/stay-cation? Did you pay $800 for a tank of gas to drive into the wilderness and roast hot dogs over a fire, or did you pay $8000 for a Southwest flight to the theme park of your choice and eat a different meat on a stick?

I took my vacation at the birthplace of American colonialism and religious identity - Massachusetts. I spent time on the Cape and in Boston and I racked up quite a few excellent ghost and graveyard stories. For this newsletter I want to tell you about the absolutely fucking wildest one - the story of the Pilgrims and their dead.

A postcard from the 1930s depicting an illustration of two dozen pilgrim men, women and children huddled on a grassy beach looking mournfully out at the ocean. The mood is somber and some appear to be crying into their hands or leaning on others. The postcard is captioned, “Pilgrim Exiles, Plymouth, Mass.”
If these vibes feel funereal, just wait

We all know that the Pilgrims came on the Mayflower in 1620, right? The people we call the Pilgrims were actually radical fundamentalists called separatists by the English (they called themselves dissenters). They were early Protestants who thought the Church of England was corrupt and too closely aligned with the Catholic Church. They believed in a direct relationship with God, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. If this sounds familiar, it is - these folks are the original Evangelicals, and we’re still dealing with their bullshit in the US today.

Part of the separatist belief system was designed in opposition to Catholic practice: they considered the pageantry and symbolism of Rome to be superstitious. Pilgrims and Puritans eschewed religious ornamentation, even in death. The dead were to be buried without ceremony, even without a minister. They were buried with no marker, and praying at the graveside was discouraged. The separatists believed that their dead were on to their heavenly reward, and thus need not be mourned. I mean - that’s not possible but to show faith they had to be publicly stoic.

The Pilgrims also believed in divine providence, that God would clear the way for them if they were sufficiently obedient. They believed in predestination - that God had already chosen who was getting into Heaven, and acting like it was a sign that you were among the chosen few. So when they arrived at Plymouth to a chaotic and horrifying shitshow, they thanked God instead of running the other way.

At what we now call Plymouth, the Pilgrims found the abandoned Wampanoag village of Patuxet, still full of skeletons from a plague that wiped it out several years prior. According to scholars, the site was littered with the bleached bones of the prior inhabitants - that’s because the plague took them so quickly and thoroughly that there was no one left to bury them when they died. This happened during the Black Death in Europe, too. Approximately 2000 Wampanoag lived in Patuxet before it was abandoned. Of the area nations, the Wampanoag were hit the hardest by the epidemic. They considered the site untouchable, and must have been thoroughly shocked to see white people trying to live there.

A pale rock inside the fenced enclosure of the Plymouth Rock Monument. The numerals “1620” have been etched onto its surface.
How did they land a whole ship on such a small rock?

The fact that they overlooked this grisly portent gives us some real insight into the Puritan brain. Imagine rolling up on the New World as a brutal winter is underway. Trees are bare, the wind is howling, and the site you plan to make home is LITTERED WITH BLEACHED BONES. The Pilgrims were so committed to being the chosen people that instead of seeing a bad omen or a warning, they saw GOD CLEARING THE WAY FOR THEM. They saw this is a GOOD OMEN of God’s PROVIDENCE. HAHHAHAHAHAAA JUST WAIT, MASTER BRADFORD.

Because in reality, it WAS a bad omen. Of the 102 who made it to the New World on the Mayflower, half died that winter. They died of dysentery, tuberculosis, pneumonia, exposure, and probably starvation. William Bradford, writing the story of their landing and settement, speaks of the many who nursed the sick and tended to them as they died. He speaks of the trial of it all, but he never specifically talks about their burial. AND THAT IS WHERE OUR STORY TAKES US, DEAR READERS.

Convention tells us that Bradford’s flock are buried at Cole’s Hill, which is straight uphill of the famous Plymouth Rock - a large stone sarcophagus inscribed with the names of fifty Mayflower passengers who died upon arrival. According to the monument, these men and women were buried in the area, their graves lost to time, until storms and construction turned them up. They were assumed to be the remains of the 50 or so Pilgrims who died that first winter in Plymouth, but we don’t know exactly whose bones they are.

And guess what? Those bones are probably not the dead of the winter of 1620-21. Scholars tell us that instead of burying the dead in the usual way, the Pilgrims used them to scare away the Wampanoag. They didn’t PUT THEM IN A GRAVEYARD, they propped them up like MANNEQUINS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE to MAKE IT LOOK like they had a FUCKING MILITIA. That’s right! They posed dead men, women, and children with muskets pointed out at the forest like the world’s worst three percenter themed fun house. And then they. . . went about their lives, with semi-frozen corpse guards posted up in a state of arrested decay. These, the people who WON’T EVEN GIVE THE DEAD A TOMBSTONE.

Two images showing the side and front of a large stone sarcophagus on Cole’s Hill. On the wide front is inscribed, “Of the one hungred and four passengers these died in Plymouth during the first year,” and in smaller letters underneath are a running list of names. On the shorter side is the inscription: “The bones of the pilgrims found at various times in and near this enclosure and preserved for many years in the canopy over the rock were returned at the time of the tercentenary celebration and are deposited within this monument. Erected by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants A.D. 1920.”
new monument, who dis

I mean, I guess in some ways it’s consistent with the dogma, right? The soul has left the body and it’s superstitious to treat it otherwise, so why not just put them to work???? They don’t call it the Puritan work ethic for nothin, babes. Before I get into why this is such an enormously gothic, extremely American story, I need to tell you that it actually gets worse. Kathleen Donegan, who studies the colony and its history, says that they actually dragged sick and dying folks out to the woods. They weren’t dead yet, my dudes. They died alone in the forest, sitting sentry. Kathleen doesn’t think they were actually ever buried, but simply left to die and rot in the woods. THIS IS VERY DARK. EVEN FOR ME.

The official narrative, as crafted by later politicians and colonial propagandists, is that the Pilgrims buried their dead under cover of night, and grew corn on top of the graves, to hide their losses from the Wampanoag. “Night burials” became the version of the lore that explains part of the story of mass death and loss, in a much less transgressive manner. Interestingly, this version is told along with the one about the militia mannequins at the Plymouth historical sites.

There is so much to unpack in this story. It’s hard not to see this scene side by side with the deserted Wampanoag village. In the case of those dead, God took them out so that His chosen could have the site. But then the chosen used their own dead in a profane and potentially murderous way to assert their claim on the land. They covered it up with a story about night burials and the planting of corn. Is that the behavior of folks predestined to Heaven? No, dude, it’s what desperate, starving people do. But there’s no way they could let History see that.

A closeup of the plaque describing the National Day of Mourning. The inscription reads, “Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assualt on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience. Erected by the Town of Plymouth on behalf of the United American Indians of New England.”
There's no witty caption for this one

Look, few societies tell honest stories about their creation. The founding myths of America are highly sanitized versions of our violent birth. Manifest destiny was one long bloody march to bring the land under control, to tame the wilderness, to exterminate the original inhabitants. It’s not a surprise that we tell ourselves fairy tale versions of this history. Who wants to think about frozen corpses with muskets when we can use a beautiful metaphor about corn sprouting from the graves of martyrs????

I guess what I want to say is this - isn’t the real story so much more interesting? Doesn’t it tell us SO MUCH MORE about the first English colonists in America? Cole’s Hill is cool but the true story of hubris, desperation, and suffering is much, much better suited to describe the real struggle of this country. America is built on a centuries long sacrifice of blood and treasure in service to ideals that we are STILL trying to embody AND that makes for a hell of story. That’s why I tell them, and that’s why you read them.

Xo,
Court


SOURCES:
Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800
by Erik R. Seeman
American Experience: The Pilgrims on PBS

FUN PILGRIM READING:
Beheld by Tarashea Nesbit
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Court

Ghostess with the Mostess

HLAS has a Newsletter!

Sign up to get in on the fun!
(We won't sell or spam you, we promise!!)

Related Posts

Connect with Us