Each units explore one or more key themes:
People of the Dawn Land
The 17th-century North Atlantic was a bridge that connected Europeans and Indigenous Americans for more than a century before 1620. Southern New England’s coastal Native peoples still live on or near the fields, forests and waters where their ancestors settled thousands of years ago. They are known as People of the Dawn or People of the First Light, because the sun rises in the east to make the region among the first on the North American continent to see daylight. The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans they encountered. Around 1500, French, Dutch and English fishermen and adventurers began trading along New England’s shores.
The Legend and Legacy of Mayflower
Events that occurred in Nauset (Cape Cod) and Patuxet (Plymouth) in the winter of 1620 changed the course of New England’s history and became the basis of the creation story of a new nation. Mayflower arrived at Nauset (Cape Cod) in November 1620 with 102 colonists. The ship’s male passengers signed an agreement on November 11 (a proto-constitution now known as the Mayflower Compact) promising allegiance to their fledgling government and cooperation within their community. At the time of the American Revolution, there was need for symbolic support of United States independence, and the Pilgrims became leading protagonists in the creation story of the new nation.
First Families: New Worlds and Everyday Lives
While creating a New England society, 17th-century colonial and Native families lived through times of increasingly complex collaboration and conflict. Plymouth colonists enjoyed modest prosperity as farmers and fishermen, and dozens of Native communities throughout Wampanoag territory responded to cultural and economic change and its impact on their traditional lifeways.
Communities in Collaboration and Conflict
Native communities existed in a distinct geopolitical network, and Plymouth Colony formed within that matrix which developed long before Europeans arrived. These Native and colonial communities responded and reacted to one another in peaceful and antagonistic ways in the dynamic tension of a new world order. Native communities along the southern New England coast interacted among themselves for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived. The presence of colonists and traders motivated sachems to compete with one another for the most advantageous trade in fur and other natural materials. A treaty between Plymouth and eight surrounding Native communities lasted from 1621 through the outbreak of King Philip’s War in 1675. Eventually the peace could not withstand population pressures and land use controversies. The presence of Dutch, French and other English traders and settlers further complicated diplomatic relations.
Manitou and Providence: New England’s Dual Spiritual Realms
The world in which the Pilgrims arrived already had belief systems, and although we think of the Pilgrims as the paragons of religious freedom, their community valued orthodoxy, and religious diversity was looked on with suspicion. The image of Pilgrims going to church is so ingrained in American consciousness that Native spirituality and the experience of dissenters from Puritan orthodoxy are often overlooked. 17th-century Plymouth Colony was both a place of Christian Providence (the will of God) and Native Manitou (indwelling spirit being), and these vital spiritual concepts shaped community encounters. They influenced how the expansion of Reformed churches, the arrival of Quakers, and Christian missionaries’ work among the Natives affected life in the visible and invisible worlds.
Plymouth and America’s Holiday
Thanksgiving is the country’s protean holiday, a feast on which new meanings can be layered and new participants added, depending on the national climate. Although harvest feasts were part of New England culture from its earliest days, documentary knowledge of the Pilgrims and Natives’ 1621 Harvest Feast was uncovered in the 1830s and the event was identified as the First Thanksgiving because it resembled holiday celebrations throughout Jacksonian America. From that moment, Pilgrims, Natives and Thanksgiving were linked, and sentimentally they became the founders of America’s most popular holiday. Thanksgiving is the country’s celebration, a feast that always has room at the table for new Americans and traditions.
Along the way, you may also consider the following:
Risk occurs when there is the possibility that something of value will be lost, but there is perhaps greater potential that something will be gained. How can the decision to take a risk create the impetus for change?
Community, whether defined by geography, or by other characteristics such as ethnicity, cultural, political or religious affiliations, shifted as the demographics of the landscape changed. What does it mean to be part of a community?
The history of these communities tells a story of the transformation of the ecological and cultural landscape, from a place of small, loosely-allied Native sachemships to one increasingly populated by European communities in conflict with Indigenous communities and one another. How did these communities transform over time? How did transformation impact relationships within and between communities?