Skip to content

6 Surprising Facts and Fiction about the Pilgrims

6 Surprising Facts and Fiction about the Pilgrims Banner Image

Ah…. Thanksgiving.  If I close my eyes, I can still smell the globs of paste we used to make Pilgrim hats in elementary school.  My mom always had a turkey in the oven by 5:00 am and the house smelled heavenly when we rolled out of bed to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  The Thanksgiving of my childhood is filled with memories of a lazy day, stuffing and football.  Just like the pilgrims of old, right? Surprisingly, the Pilgrims may not have lounged around in pasted paper hats watching football as much as we think.  In fact, many of the things we learned about the Pilgrims may not be entirely true!  Let’s explore some surprising facts and fiction about the Pilgrims!

Religious freedom in… Holland?

Pilgrims were Calvinist Protestants seeking religious freedom from the King of England. We all learned this lesson early in our school years. What you may not realize is that when it was denied, they moved to Holland first, where they worshipped as they wished for ten years. They didn’t like the Dutch way of life, however, and wanted to start over in a place where tolerance could be practiced. They didn’t want to convert the Native people or other settlers but simply wanted to live peacefully.  In 1620, they returned to England and began planning for their voyage to the New World.

Pilgrims didn’t drink alcohol!

While sailing 66 days across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, Pilgrims had a limited diet. They ate dried meat and fish, grains and flour, dried fruit, cheese and hard biscuits. Makes sense. They also avoided drinking water because it was unsafe. You may be surprised to learn that they drank beer instead (even the kids!). Once they arrived in the new land, they drank fermented apple juice similar to today’s hard apple cider.

First stop – Plymouth Rock

Not quite! The Mayflower first landed at the tip of Cape Cod in what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts. They tried to sail to the mouth of the Hudson River, where they hoped the land would be fertile enough to farm. However, they ran into bad weather and got stuck. They planned to try again but the beer supply was running low (really!). They crossed the Cape Cod Bay instead and landed at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620.

Pilgrims named Plymouth after Plymouth, England

I really thought this was a bonafide fact. Wrong! Plymouth was named long before the Pilgrims ever made it their new home. A group of explorers in the region called it Plymouth (or Plimoth, to be completely accurate) years earlier. It’s just a quirky coincidence that the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth, England and landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

New to this new world

Nope- not all of them!  One of the Mayflower’s passengers had actually been to America before the voyage. Stephen Hopkins was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. He was a tanner, merchant and assistant to the governor through 1636. He was also a former resident of Jamestown. Hopkins was shipwrecked in Bermuda in 1609 and made his way to Jamestown in 1610. He returned to England in 1614 and his story inspired William Shakespeare to write The Tempest.  Hopkins must have had a taste for adventure because he again set sail with the Pilgrims on September 6, 1620.

The first Thanksgiving was a shared feast of turkey and pumpkin pie!

The Pilgrims struggled to survive in their first year. Of the 102 passengers, only 51 survived. They buried the dead in unmarked graves so the Native Wampanoag wouldn’t realize how many were lost. The Wampanoag then taught the survivors how to get the land ready for planting. In the fall of 1621, they shared a feast of venison, seafood, ground nuts, squashes, beans, popped corn and berries to celebrate the harvest. It wasn’t quite the turkey and stuffing we think of today. The entire meal was prepared by a handful of women who were probably up much earlier than 5 a.m.!

If you’re like me, these surprising facts and fiction about the Pilgrims may shake the foundations of your youth. Or you may just find them really cool! This coming year marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in America. There will be lots of amazing events to commemorate this pivotal moment in our shared history. If you want your student group to take part in the celebrations, contact Kaleidoscope Adventures. They’ll help you set the record straight without paste and paper hats!