On Dec. 11, 1620, precisely 400 years ago today, battered, beleaguered, and greatly diminished by a horrifying passage, an exploratory group of Pilgrims in their tiny shallop arrived at Plymouth. After the Mayflower first landed at the harsh tip of Cape Cod one month earlier, this smaller contingent, launched from the larger ship, could hardly believe their good luck. 

The virtues of the land before them were apparent: fresh-water streams and springs; soaring hardwood ready for harvesting; a high hill to build upon a protective fortress; wild game and an abundant fishery; and evidence of successful planting in fertile, cleared soil. What was also readily apparent: rampant and unrelenting death.

In the village the native Wampanoag called Patuxet, everyone was dead. In fact, unbridled death was destroying native settlements up and down the east-facing New England coast. So many were dead in Patuxet, it appeared no one was left to recommence burying the dead. Skeletal remains were everywhere above ground. 

Disease, probably smallpox, leptospirosis, or other fatal afflictions, had consumed the Native Americans with much efficiency. It was a plague from which they had no resistance, brought to them just a few years earlier by the Pilgrims’ predecessors: European explorers, slave hunters, fisherman and trappers, plying the New World coast for up to 100 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims.

In Of Plimoth Plantation, Governor William Bradford of Plimoth Colony, with scant empathy and somewhat dichotomous religiosity, wrote about the situation as “a special providence of God,” benefitting the Pilgrims. In other words, the land was there for the taking.

In his seminal, award-winning book, Mayflower, historian Nathaniel Philbrick said, “No native dwellings remained in Plymouth in the winter of 1620. . .It was here, on the bone-whitened hills of Plymouth, that the Pilgrims hoped to begin a new life.”

In our current day, 2020 being the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in a cruelly ironic coincidence, disease and death are once again upon us, cancelling this year a broad swath of commemorative Pilgrim events in the midst of our own 21st Century plague, the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 1620, Wampanoag settlements included as many as 69 villages throughout coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The leader of all the Wampanoag and his own tribe of Pokanokets, Massasoit Ousamwequin, or Great Sachem, made his home in Sowams, now Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island, some 40 miles from Plymouth. For reasons unknown, the Narragansett Native Americans, not far away on the west side of Narragansett Bay, were seemingly untouched by disease. Sickness would bore down on the Wampanoag for years to come. Not to mention the land grab, as thousands of Europeans followed the Pilgrims.

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and one who advocated adequately compensating the indigenous tribes for their land, was witness to the toll that disease took. Quoted in Of Plymouth Plantation, Williams wrote, “I have seen a poor house left alone in the wild woods. . . so terrible is the apprehension of an infectious disease, that not only persons, but the [native] houses and the whole town, take flight.”

Notions of preternatural revenge put aside, it’s been a difficult year to properly commemorate the 400th anniversary in 2020, an opportunity for Wampanoag descendants who wanted to give more voice to the plight of their forebears, largely denied in the past. And frustrating for all of the Plymouth 400 organizers. 

Other than the successful docking of Mayflower II at Plymouth Harbor after she was refitted, not much activity has been allowed to take place this year, including full partnership events by the organizations Mayflower 400 in the UK, and Leiden 2020 in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, Plymouth 400 reported a huge amount of interest and publicity this past year in both England and the Netherlands. 

Here, select virtual and television events have taken place and, thankfully, the living-history museum of Plimoth Plantation — now called Plimoth Patuxet Museums to more accurately reflect native Americans who were in the area as long ago as 12,000 years – remained open, with some adjustments. It just closed for the season.

Paula Peters, Wampanoag historian and writer, and part of the Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400, Inc., reports that before the current pandemic, the Wampanoag had the satisfaction of mounting a special traveling exhibit, “Our Story: 400 Years of  History,” changing the theme every year since it began in 2014, and moving it online as well, thus generating much pre-pandemic visibility in partnership with Plymouth 400. 

“Our 400 years began in 1614,” she said. That was the year that the Wampanoag lost through kidnapping about two dozen Patuxet and Nauset (Cape Cod) Wampanoag to an English trader named Thomas Hunt. He took them to Spain to be sold into slavery. One captive, later called Squanto, managed to escape and traveled to England where he learned English and became a bit of a sensation in London. Incredibly, in 1619, Squanto made it back to the land of his birth in Patuxet, only to discover that everyone was dead from the great disease.

“There is a lot of critical backstory to learn,” said Peters. “If people ask, ‘How was Squanto able to speak English and help the Pilgrims in that first year?’ now they know.” This is explained in the exhibit, along with other critical themes. “It’s been displayed to thousands and thousands of people,” said Peters. Soon thereafter, in 1622 Squanto died, the last of his Patuxet people, when the disease caught up to him as well.

The Wampanoag and the Pilgrims alike could not have imagined what would happen in the 400 years henceforward after the landing at Plymouth. The Native American diaspora began not as a hurricane but a squall. Thereafter, and relatively quickly when one thinks of it through the prism of 12,000 years, the winds of change blew through an entire continent. All preceded by terrible death. And there would be more death. 

In Mayflower, Philbrick may have encapsulated the Pilgrims’ rough start best: Like the Native Americans before them, in 1620 and ’21 the Pilgrims struggled on a hillside where disease and death had become a way of life. 

What was happening as the Pilgrims landed, and the parallel to what is going on today, could be categorized as unfathomable. Indeed, the Plymouth Quadricentennial may go down in history as yet another struggle with disease, but one that has a silver lining, and hope for what comes next. “I feel disappointed we were not able to do a lot of live events this year,” said Peters, “but I do feel we did a lot of significant work.” With more to come.

In this context, to set us all straight and dispel many first-contact and grade-school Thanksgiving myths, Peters reports that the Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400 is becoming its own 501(c)(3) charitable organization and, as such, it will have a life after 2020.

Bruce E. Spitzer is a Newport-based journalist and writer at work on his second novel. His first, “Extra Innings,” about baseball legend Ted Williams returning to life through cryonics, has been optioned by Hollywood. Contact: Bruce@BruceSpitzer.com

The Latest From WUN

Bruce Spitzer

Bruce E. Spitzer is a Newport-based journalist and writer at work on his second novel. His first, “Extra Innings,” about baseball legend Ted Williams returning to life through cryonics, has been optioned by Hollywood. Contact: Bruce@BruceSpitzer.com