Professor Donald Elder: The Greatest Events in American History

Oct 27, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Greatest Events in American History. 

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, in this series of interviews, we are going to look at the events that really formed, and transformed this great country of ours. We will start today with the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Obviously, this event was years after Christopher Columbus discovered what he thought was America in 1492, but can you summarize what happened between Columbus’s return to Spain, and what events led to the Pilgrims coming to Plymouth Rock?

When asked about Christopher Columbus, most Americans would tell you that the explorer was a pioneer who prompted others to emulate his voyages of discovery.

Actually, it turns out that there was another individual living in Spain at the same time as Columbus who also hoped to journey westward across the Atlantic Ocean. Known either as Giovanni Caboto or Zuan Chabotto, he was an Italian who came to believe, as Columbus did, that it was possible to sail west to reach Asia. When Columbus returned to Spain after his historic voyage to the Americas in 1492, his fellow Italian was inspired to go to England to suggest that he could accomplish the same result if that nation would finance a voyage.

Accordingly, in March of 1496 the English monarch King Henry VII gave him what were known as letters patent, granting him permission to sail west under the authority of the English crown. Unlike Columbus, Caboto chose to sail at a higher northern latitude, correctly assuming that this would result in a shorter voyage. Although historians disagree about where he actually made landfall, it is indisputable that Caboto (by now referred to by the English as John Cabot) reached the coast of North America in June of 1497.

Although the voyage of Cabot gave King Henry VII a claim to the North American coastline, the English monarch was not immediately interested in taking advantage of this opportunity. In fact, English kings and queens would never be responsible for colonial efforts in North America. Rather, it would be English citizens who would bear the financial responsibility for such ventures. The first of these came during the reign of Henry VIII’s youngest daughter Elizabeth I. In 1578, she granted Sir Humphrey Gilbert permission to establish a colony in North America. Five years later, he founded a colony in present-day Newfoundland. Unimpressed with his prospects for success in that desolate location, Gilbert abandoned the effort in the fall of that year. Two years later, Sir Walter Raleigh organized a colonizing effort on island off the coast of North Carolina.

Given the name Roanoke, this venture was quickly abandoned. English colonists returned to that location in 1587, but when a relief expedition came in 1590 to provide for their needs, they found the Roanoke Colony deserted. After this debacle, no further colonies were founded during Elizabeth’s reign. Her successor, James I, proved more amenable, giving his permission for a business consortium known as the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony. This led in 1607 to the establishment of Jamestown, the first successful English colony. It was to this company that a group of English religious dissidents applied for permission to live within the boundaries of the colony of Virginia. Called Separatists at the time, these individuals are known today as the Pilgrims. They would be the founders of the Plymouth Colony.

  1. Now, who were some of the individuals on that ship and who was the leader of that ship or captain if you will?

There were actually two ships that were to carry the Pilgrims to the Virginia Colony: the Mayflower, and the Speedwell. Both vessels set sail for America on August 5, 1620. No sooner had the ships left the port of Southampton, England when the Speedwell developed a leak. The ships put into the port of Dartmouth for repairs, and resumed the voyage on August 23. Unfortunately, the Speedwell proved no more seaworthy after setting sail—obviously the name of the ship was not truly applicable in reality—and it was once again forced to seek repairs. After the two ships reached the port of Plymouth, it was decided that only the Mayflower would journey to America. Some passengers decided to remain in England, but others chose to transfer to the Mayflower. Because of this, when the Mayflower (commanded by Captain Christopher Jones) left Plymouth, it carried 30 crewmen and 102 passengers.

Most of the latter were Pilgrims, but some were not. Funding for the voyage had been provided by a group known as the Merchant Adventurers, and to insure their chances of being repaid by the Pilgrims they had insisted that certain individuals chosen by them should go with the settlers to America. Among these “Strangers,” as the Pilgrims called them, were Christopher Martin and Myles Standish. Martin was given command of the emigrants while the voyage was underway, and Standish would be the military leader of the new colony. The Pilgrims were led by William Bradford, William Brewster, and John Carver. Carver was elected by the populace to replace Martin as the governor after the colony was established.  

  1. There may have been many reasons for the pilgrims coming to America, or to the other colonies at that time. Can you describe some of them?

While the first English colonists came to America to seek fortune, the Pilgrims were motivated on their journey by religious turmoil in England. Initially untouched by the Protestant Reformation, England had eventually turned away from the Catholic Church because of Henry VIII. Wishing to end his first marriage, he had sought an annulment from the pope. When the pontiff rebuffed his effort, Henry VIII decided to form his own church and make himself the head of his new creation. Although no longer under the authority of the pope, this new denomination (named the Church of England) kept many features of the Catholic Church.

In the ensuing years, however, a segment of the English populace began to believe that their new church needed to create even more distance between it and the Catholic Church. A number of issues proved especially vexing to these individuals. For one thing, they felt that local congregations should largely govern themselves, rather than answer to a centralized authority.

A second issue revolved around the cause of salvation. Many English dissidents believed that God had predestined individuals, a concept that had been initially suggested by the theologian John Calvin. But when they suggested that the Church of England embrace their point of view, they were rebuffed. Those opposed to the Church of England chose at the point to cease attending service, but Parliament countered with a law making it a crime to avoid going to church. While some dissidents chose to remain in the church in the hope of purifying it (becoming known in the process as Puritans) a small group believed that their only recourse was to leave the church entirely. These separatists initially went to Holland to seek religious freedom in 1607.

After a decade in that new land, however, they felt that their identity was slowly eroding because of the pervasiveness of the surrounding Dutch culture. It was for this reason that they had made the decision to emigrate to America. By agreeing to repay the Merchant Adventurers for the cost of the trip, they hoped to find the freedom to worship as they chose and keep their English identity. 

  1. What happened immediately after landing, and do we have an exact date?

Most Americans believe that the Pilgrims came to the coast of Massachusetts and stepped off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock. The real story of their arrival in New England, however, is much more complex. 

First, the Pilgrims made landfall far from their intended destination. The Virginia Company had allocated them land near the mouth of the Hudson River, but Plymouth is approximately 250 miles north of that location. While some of the Pilgrims felt that they needed to honor their agreement and sail south, the majority decided that they were better off living outside the jurisdiction of Virginia Company. They then had to select a place to land. They first sailed into a harbor where Provincetown, Massachusetts is currently situated. This is where they first went ashore on November 13, 1620. They then spent over a month scouting the coast of Massachusetts for a place to establish their colony.

After considering a number of locations, they finally decided on a place that at one time had been inhabited by Native Americans, and thus had large stretches of land that had already been cleared. Finally coming ashore on December 21, the Pilgrims named their new home in honor of the port city in England that had been their last point of departure. While they may have stepped on Plymouth Rock while getting out of the boat, there is no actual proof either that they did or did not.

  1. Why is this event important, and what seemed to happen immediately after this event in the years that followed? 

For such a small group of people, the Pilgrims exerted an influence on modern-day America far exceeding their numbers. First, they gave us one of the fundamental building blocks of our democracy, the Mayflower Compact. Because of the concerns voiced about the legality of their location of choice, the Pilgrim leaders had decided that a set of rules to govern their existence was called for. These guidelines were agreed to by 41 members of the group. This covenant established the principle of self-government, one that we still embrace to this day.

Second, after a disastrous first winter that saw half of the colony die, the Pilgrims held a Thanksgiving in November of 1621 to celebrate their first harvest. The modern-day holiday that we celebrate is directly descended from this event. The Pilgrims would never be a numerous people, and the colony itself would cease to exist in 1691 when it was absorbed by Massachusetts, but these two Pilgrim accomplishments have guaranteed their continued level of esteem.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

This is a very appropriate subject to address first in this series, as it illustrates an important point about our nation’s past. We think that we know about the events that shaped our country, but we actually remember a crafted version of the past. How that image has been shaped says as much about us as the actual event does.

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