This Date in Native History: On December 18, 1620, the Mayflower docked at Plymouth, Massachusetts, establishing the first permanent white settlement in America and forever changing the course of Native history.
The 66-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean began in England on September 6. Originally headed for Virginia, the Mayflower, which weighed 180 tons and measured 100 feet long and 20 feet wide, got off course and landed 500 miles north of its destination.
The journey ended November 11 when the ship anchored at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod. Small scouting groups began exploring the land in search of a place to build Plymouth Colony, where settlers hoped they could enjoy religious freedom and greater economic opportunity.
Although the settlers selected an area cleared by the Wampanoag tribe, William Bradford, a separatist, leader of the voyage from England and the first governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote in his diary that it was “unpeopled.” Because it appeared unimproved, the land was considered “vacant soyle” and, according to English tradition, it was up for grabs to permanently inhabit it.
Robert Cushman, a member of the Pilgrim church and the colonists’ business agent in London, in a 1622 letter referred to the Natives as heathens and stated that “God hath a purpose to give that land as an inheritance to our nation.”
But the colony was built where the Wampanoag village of Patuxet had flourished for thousands of years, said Darius Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The land seemed unpeopled because disease had wiped out 70 percent of the Wampanoag population, Coombs said. An epidemic swept through the area between 1616 and 1618, devastating the estimated 70 different Wampanoag communities.
“We know skin turned yellow and there were open sores on the bodies,” Coombs said. “When the colonists landed in 1620, the nearest living community was about 15 miles inland.”
Europeans had traded with American Indians for 100 years before the Mayflower’s expedition, Coombs said.
“What made this different is that these people came to stay,” he said.
Relationships were strained from the beginning because earlier traders had taken Natives as slaves, Coombs said.
“A number of these traders that were coming had ruined it for the colonists because slaves were taken to Europe,” he said. “The purpose of this was to use them as exotic specimens and also teach the Native people English. If they were taught English, they could be brought back over as interpreters.”
Few of the slaves survived because of disease, Coombs said. Millions of American Indians died of disease in the years following the early settlements because they had no built-up immunity.
“The Mayflower came here in 1620, but if you had to mention one thing that affects indigenous people still today, it’s disease,” Coombs said. “On purpose or not, it happened.”
Life in the New World also was difficult for the Pilgrims, and the first winter was especially brutal. Of the 102 original passengers on the Mayflower, 50 died before spring.
The Mayflower returned to England in 1621, but a replica of the ship, called Mayflower II, is open to tourists at Plimoth Plantation. Plymouth Rock, largely recognized as the landing place of the Pilgrims, also is a tourist attraction.
Nearly half a millennium after the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, however, American Indian groups still protest colonial expansion.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1970, members of the American Indian Movement took over the Mayflower II and painted Plymouth Rock red. In November 1995, about 300 people jumped into the pit where the rock is located and buried it.