Pilgrims have become a staple of American life and culture. We hear them referenced in political speeches by both Republicans and Democrats and see them depicted in artwork in museums across the country. Wildly historically inaccurate (and often risqué) Pilgrim costumes usually crop up at Halloween parties. Television programs, from WGN’s Salem to Sky One’s Jamestown, feature Pilgrims, Puritans, and other sources of early American drama.

Of course, with Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, op-eds concerning the good, the bad, and the ugly side of the Pilgrims’ arrival in America will be shared all across social media. Already this year, they have been enlisted as part of the pushback against the New York Times’s much-debated 1619 Project, with the National Association of Scholars launching the 1620 Project to invoke “the year in which the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Compact was signed.”

Historian John G. Turner enters into this much-contested territory with his latest book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty. Published in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Plymouth Colony, the book centers on the concept of liberty: how the colonists pursued it and exercised it, even as they differed in their understanding of what it entailed.

Invention and Reinvention

Debates over the meaning of Christian liberty, as well as the boundaries of liberty of conscience, are a common feature of early American history, and in Turner’s narrative, groups such as Catholics, Quakers, the Wampanoag community, and other Native Americans bring these disputes into sharp (and often violent) focus.

At the same time, Turner demonstrates how the quest for liberty took on many new forms during this period, like the liberty to garner wealth and change one’s lot in life, the liberty to dispossess Indians of their land, and the liberty to experiment with different models of societal governance and church organization. He is quick to emphasize the ironies in these competing ideas of liberty, illustrating how Plymouth’s band of religious separatists went from being the persecuted to the persecutors. Put another way, many of his book’s central figures seem to embody the adage “Liberty for me but not for thee.”

But even as these same figures took advantage of the opportunities for invention and reinvention afforded by their newfound liberty, they were plagued by a sense of insecurity. They Knew They Were Pilgrims contains many scenes of uncertainty and anxiety toward the future. In addition to stressing over the preservation of their liberty, the Pilgrims were fearful of the indigenous population, nervous about the political climate in England, suspicious of Satanic influence behind their hardships, and worried for the state of their own souls and the health of Christ’s earthly church.

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Alongside this angst, Turner’s narrative showcases a high amount of drama, ranging from land disputes to debates over proper baptismal practices to instances of sexual assault. Brawls occasionally broke out when certain individuals refused to remove their hats in deference to colonial authority figures.

Readers may be familiar with some of Turner’s central characters and storylines, like Roger Williams and his religiously tolerant Rhode Island colony, Thomas Morton and his infamous maypole, and Anne Hutchinson, whose battles with church authorities got her banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in what came to be known as the Antinomian Controversy. But the book also gives extended attention to other notable and lesser-known figures, including the rebellious dissenter Samuel Gorton; the long-aggrieved Joanna Cotton, the wife of a serially adulterous minister; and Awashonks, a female Native American tribal chief who aided the English during King Philip’s War. Such an interesting array of historical figures makes for engrossing reading, as do the many tensions, clashes, and tragedies in which they were embroiled.

In mapping the multifaceted contests for liberty among the Pilgrim generation, Turner does an excellent job situating Plymouth Colony within the larger context of British colonization in the New World and theological disputes among English Protestants. Highlighting the volume of letters the colonists wrote and received, he shows that they were aware of and actively involved in the happenings of other English settlements as well as the mother country. For example, following the expulsion of Anne Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the church in Scituate, a Plymouth Colony town just down the coast from Boston, prayed that her theological views would not bring heresy into their own domain. And Plymouth sent representatives to a synod at present-day Newton, Massachusetts, where they condemned Hutchinson’s influence.

This web of connections between the colonies also manifested itself in the various pacts made with each other and with the indigenous peoples, not to mention the numerous conflicts with Native Americans, particularly King Philip’s War (1675–1678), that affected the entire population. It also shows up in the many examples Turner gives of various men and women traveling from one colony to another, either landing in, passing through, or being banished from Plymouth Colony.

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In sum, Turner shows conclusively that Plymouth was not the backwater colony depicted by some earlier historians but rather a vibrant theological, economic, political, and cultural community that was actively engaged in the struggle for dominance within the New World.

Correcting Myths

They Knew They Were Pilgrims is particularly helpful in how it positions itself relative to previous accounts of Plymouth Colony. Turner details where he disagrees with older scholarship, explaining why some sources cannot be trusted. And he dispels certain legends that have taken root within the American consciousness, mostly thanks to pop culture.

But one occasionally gets the sense that Turner is exaggerating the extent to which his own work represents a departure from earlier interpretations. After all, plenty of recent books on the New World separatists have corrected many of the myths concerning Plymouth Colony and the Puritan tradition, including Michael P. Winship’s Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America and David D. Hall’s The Puritans: A Transatlantic History. Neither book takes Plymouth as its main focus, but both give it considerable attention and fit it within the wider history of English Protestantism and colonialism. Likewise, Lisa Tanya Brooks’s Bancroft Prize-winning Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War closely examines the involvement of Plymouth and its occupants in that conflict. As a detailed study of Plymouth Colony, Turner’s work cannot be matched, but he overstates the matter in presenting it as a pioneering intervention.

This is not to diminish the book’s corrective aspects. Readers with heroic images drawn from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and the like will quickly be sobered by the sheer volume of violence and enslavement the Native Americans suffered at the Pilgrims’ hands. Turner also takes aim at the claim that Plymouth Colony planted the seeds of the American Revolution and laid the groundwork for American democracy and freedom of religion. He argues, instead, that we should study the Pilgrims’ 17th-century debates about liberty on their own terms and in their proper context.

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All the same, Turner clearly wishes to push back against simplistic portrayals of the Pilgrims as little more than religious fanatics hell-bent on stealing land from Native Americans by any means necessary. He tells an often fraught but always nuanced story of early America and its inhabitants, weaving together their convictions, motives, hopes, and fears. Informative, accessible, and compelling, They Knew They Were Pilgrims is a welcome invitation to rediscover the Mayflower voyage and the founding of Plymouth Colony at a distance of four centuries.

Daniel N. Gullotta is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Stanford University.

They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty
Yale University Press
Release Date
April 7, 2020
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