397 years ago today, the “Mayflower” left England for the new world. They were 102 religious separatists that wanted freedom, and needed to find a place that would allow it to them. They had already unsuccessfully tried Holland a decade earlier, but were given only low wage and menial jobs, often treated as social outcasts. They returned to England and struck a deal with the King to go to a far away land, so they could practice their religion peacefully. Fear must have been the traveling partner for those who bravely boarded that ship on that late summer day. In all likelihood, sadness would also accompany them. Even though the passengers were leaving what they thought was an unbearable situation, they were still saying goodbye to friends, neighbors, family, customs, and the life they had grown accustomed to.
The group originally started out with two ships, The Mayflower and The Speedwell. Unfortunately, the Speedwell began leaking immediately. Both ships returned to shore, and the passengers were forced to cramp themselves and their belongings on to one boat. Because of the delay, they were now traveling in the middle of the Atlantic storm season. Because of the high winds of the storms, they were blown off course by over 500 miles. It took 65 scary and difficult days to reach North America.
Then the hard part started. They had to work to create a life in a land where they had only each other. Local culture and the land itself must have been intimidating and difficult to understand. They didn’t speak the local tongue. They were outsiders, unwelcome and perceived as a threat. They had no time to worry or complain about any of this, as survival would be at the core of every action they took and decision they made. Their lives would not be fun, or in reality all that much better than where they came from. It was those who followed them that would benefit. The children, grandchildren, and descendants down the road who they would never meet would be the ones to collect the true rewards.
Does this story sound like other ones you have heard or maybe experienced? It should. It has been repeated millions of times in the last four centuries, likely by someone with the same blood as you and I. The Pilgrims began the tradition of coming to America for freedom, opportunity, and improvement. They also began the American tradition of forgetting their history very quickly. They came here for Religious tolerance, but were not very good about granting it to the groups that followed them. It wasn’t long before they were hanging people who disagreed with them.
Like much of American history, the Pilgrims are a complicated matter. Either way, learning about them should help better understand the America of today. Here are three takeaways we should remember:
1. For 400 Years, People have been coming to America for the same reasons:
When things are going well for you, you don’t leave where you are, and you don’t take huge and potentially life ending risks to leave. Those that come here are usually doing so because they have no other reasonable choice. Countless people have died in the pursuit of America. The pilgrims had to take huge chances, as have those who followed, including the ancestors of you and I (unless you are 100 percent native.) The bottoms of seas, rivers, and deserts are filled with those who didn’t make it. They came for opportunity, freedom, and a chance to make their lives and their descendants better. Understand that and be compassionate towards people who just doing the same thing that someone in your own family did.
2. We owe them:
I’m not entirely sure on my family’s background, but I can probably safely say that they were not amongst the wealthy and ruling class of Europe. I’ve heard that one of my Great Grandfathers who immigrated in 1916 from what was at the time Russia, was a farmer in an area that suffered from a lengthy drought, and it was impossible to grow food. He took a huge chance to leave everything behind and get on a boat to go to a place where he would not know the language, people, or customs. He would have to do lousy, difficult jobs for low wages. I’m thankful he did. It is because of him that my life is easy, filled with freedom and opportunity, and the mistakes I pay for are my own. I owe him my best effort at being a good person, and taking advantages of the opportunities he sacrificed for. Chances are almost certain that you have someone similar in your past that you owe the same debt to. Someone took a huge risk and endured incredible hardship to give you the opportunity you have. Pay them back.
3. Don’t be hypocrites:
This country was founded upon freedom religious and otherwise. The Pilgrims lose a lot of their luster when you consider how they treated those who disagreed with them. The idea of choosing your own beliefs and attitudes was a new concept in the world. Far too many embrace these freedoms themselves, but don’t want to extend them to others. Sometimes we don’t agree with how someone else chooses to express their freedom, but we must always remember and protect their rights to make their own choices, especially when they don’t really have any effect on our own.
If could go back in time to when my family arrived, I would hope to see kindness and compassion extended towards them. I would hope that people sought ways to help them prosper, and shared their good fortune with them. We can’t do that, so we should behave in a way that we would have wanted our own families to be treated.
The Importance of history:
There is an old saying that makes my skin crawl, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” I think this is bunk. There are things that have been done well which we want to repeat. The study of history is to remind us of the good and bad in our past, and help us determine which we want to repeat, and which we want to prevent. The people wanting to immigrate to America today are just like the Pilgrims of four centuries ago, and the people that brought you here, remember that when dealing with them.