Before you fill your plate,
please remember why we mark this day.
Nov. 27, 2019
Charles M. Blow
When I was a child, Thanksgiving was simple. It was about turkey
and dressing, love and laughter, a time for the family to gather around a feast
and be thankful for the year that had passed and be hopeful for the year to
In school, the story we learned was simple, too: Pilgrims and Native Americans
came together to give thanks.
We made pictures of the gathering, everyone smiling. We colored turkeys or made
them out of construction paper. We sometimes had a mini-feast in class.
I thought it was such a beautiful story: People reaching across race and culture
to share with one another, to commune with one another. But that is not the full
story of Thanksgiving. Like so much of American history, the story has had its
least attractive features winnow away — white people have been centered in the
narrative and all atrocity has been politely papered over.
So, let us correct that.
What is widely viewed as the first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast to which
the Pilgrims had invited the local Wampanoag people as a celebration of the
About 90 came, almost twice the number of Pilgrims. This is the first myth: that
the first Thanksgiving was dominated by the Pilgrim and not the Native American.
The Native Americans even provided the bulk of the food, according to the
Manataka American Indian Council.
This is counter to the Pilgrim-centric view so often presented. Indeed, two of
the most famous paintings depicting the first Thanksgiving — one by Jennie
Augusta Brownscombe and the other by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris — feature the
natives in a subservient position, outnumbered and crouching on the ground on
the edge of the frame.
The Pilgrims had been desperate and sick and dying but had finally had some luck
The second myth is that the Wampanoag were feasting with friends. That does not
appear to be true.
As Peter C. Mancall, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote
for CNN on Wednesday, Gov. William Bradford would say in his book “Of Plymouth
Plantation,” which he began to write in 1630, that the Puritans had arrived in
“a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.”
Mancall further explained that after the visits to the New World by Samuel de
Champlain and Capt. John Smith in the early 1600s, “a terrible illness spread
through the region” among the Native Americans. He continued: “Modern scholars
have argued that indigenous communities were devastated by leptospirosis, a
disease caused by Old World bacteria that had likely reached New England through
the feces of rats that arrived on European ships.”
This weakening of the native population by disease from the new arrivals’ ships
created an opening for the Pilgrims.
King James’s patent called this spread of disease “a wonderfull Plague” that
might help to devastate and depopulate the region. Some friends.
But many of those native people not killed by disease would be killed by direct
As Grace Donnelly wrote in a 2017 piece for Fortune:
The celebration in 1621 did not mark a friendly turning point and did not
become an annual event. Relations between the Wampanoag and the settlers
deteriorated, leading to the Pequot War. In 1637, in retaliation for the murder
of a man the settlers believed the Wampanoags killed, they burned a nearby
village, killing as many as 500 men, women, and children. Following the
massacre, William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next
100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the
bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”
Just 16 years after the Wampanoag shared that meal, they were massacred.
This was just one of the earliest episodes in which settlers and colonists did
something horrible to the natives. There would be other massacres and many wars.
According to History.com, “From the time Europeans arrived on American shores,
the frontier — the edge territory between white man’s civilization and the
untamed natural world — became a shared space of vast, clashing differences that
led the U.S. government to authorize over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on
Indians, the most of any country in the world against its indigenous people.”
And this says nothing of all the treaties brokered and then broken or all the
grabbing of land removing populations, including the most famous removal of
natives: the Trail of Tears. Beginning in 1831, tens of thousands of Native
Americans were forced to relocate from their ancestral lands in the Southeast to
lands west of the Mississippi River. Many died along the way.
I spent most of my life believing a gauzy, kindergarten version of Thanksgiving,
thinking only of feasts and family, turkey and dressing.
I was blind, willfully ignorant, I suppose, to the bloodier side of the
Thanksgiving story, to the more honest side of it.
But I’ve come to believe that is how America would have it if it had its
druthers: We would be blissfully blind, living in a soft world bleached of hard
truth. I can no longer abide that.
On Thanksgiving it’s usual to think back to that first feast, one far better
known in custom and imagination than it is in fact. What is certain is that in
1620, when the Mayflower was rounding into shoal waters near Cape Cod, there was
little reason, apart from faith, to expect that the settlement its passengers
hoped to found would succeed. By the following autumn more than half of the 101
humans on board the Mayflower would be dead.
For all the natural wealth of this new world, it also turned the Pilgrims’
knowledge into ignorance. Their English seeds were nearly useless. They carried
with them barely enough food to sustain themselves and the ship’s crew until
April 1621, when the Mayflower returned to England. Had it not been for the
agriculture of local American Indian tribes, already tragically decimated by
European diseases, the Plymouth colony would surely have followed earlier New
World settlements into extinction.
To us, looking back from the staggering opulence of the present day, life in
1620 looks more than threadbare. It looks all the barer the more accurately you
understand it. But it was life. And while there is life, there is always room
for thanks, for a gratitude that is never threadbare. It is not the feast we
give thanks for, but our presence at it.
One of those early settlers called America “a most hopeful place.” We accept
that now as nearly a truism. But it took a certain cast of mind to see a hopeful
place in those grim November woods, in the early snows of 1620, among the
lingering effects of nine hard weeks at sea. In that cast of mind, you quickly
learn to give thanks abundant for being present at the feast of life, just as we
November 23, 2011
The New York Times
By WILL BOAST
LAST Thanksgiving my girlfriend and I flew to Milwaukee to spend the long
weekend with her parents and sister. Caitlin and I had been dating for over a
year and a half, and I felt comfortable enough around her family. But things
always got tough for me around the holidays, and it didn’t help that Caitlin’s
family was so close, so affectionate, always hugging and teasing. Caitlin and I
had just moved in together, and her mom — mildly religious and deeply sarcastic
— had started referring to me as her “sin-in-law.”
I’d told myself this trip was no big deal, but as soon as we set foot in the
house, I started acting aloof and grouchy. At the table for the big meal, I
could mumble only a brusque, impersonal thanks for “good food and hospitality.”
“Lame,” Caitlin’s mom said, calling me out. “Boy, that was truly lame.”
Later, doing the dishes, I dropped a glass Caitlin handed me and started
shouting at her. When everyone went out to a movie, I stayed home. I went
upstairs to Caitlin’s childhood room, pulled the covers over my head and sobbed.
Thanksgiving is an emigrant’s holiday, first celebrated, legend has it, by the
settlers of the Plymouth colony in desperate gratitude to God for their first
good harvest. The previous winter, they had lost nearly half their number to
starvation, illness and attacks. A successful harvest, along with the peaceful
participation of the Wampanoag Indians in the feast, meant that from that point
on the Pilgrims might endure.
Few Americans know that the Mayflower initially embarked not from Plymouth but
from Southampton, my birthplace. When I was 7, my family emigrated from southern
England to the Midwest, our pilgrimage for a job my dad had landed that, my
parents prayed, would finally lift us out of working poverty. We spent our first
Thanksgiving with work friends of my dad’s, the Stiers, a brash, beautifully
welcoming heartland couple who plied us with Tater Tot casserole, green-bean
casserole, fried onions, candied yams and — most curious — ambrosia (which,
after a few gooey spoonfuls, seemed the very symbol of the giddy, stomach-sick
feeling of being briskly ushered into a new culture).
Our friendship with the Stiers ended after they asked my dad to come in on a
risky business venture and he refused. But by that time we were versed in
Thanksgiving ritual. In the kitchen, Dad forwent the marshmallow-centric sides,
substituting favorites from across the pond: roast parsnips, toad-in-the-hole,
bread sauce, stump. But we weren’t just turning Thanksgiving into a larger
version of an English Sunday roast. By choosing to celebrate the holiday — as we
came to celebrate the Fourth of July — we were staking our claim on this new
life, declaring that, despite homesickness and hard winters, we intended to
endure and make a permanent settlement.
For the Pilgrims, the trials were long and began even before they reached these
shores. Two hundred miles out of port, the Mayflower’s sister ship, the
Speedwell, started leaking, and the expedition had to make a pit stop in
Plymouth, England. The Mayflower continued on, burdened with extra passengers;
the Speedwell was abandoned.
My family, too, was scuppered mid-journey. The summer before I went away to
college, my mother was given a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. When I came
home for Thanksgiving, she was so far gone she didn’t even remember my name. At
the table, I watched in gutsick horror as she drooled chewed-up turkey and
cranberry sauce down her chin. After she died, my father and my younger brother
went to war with one another, Dad threatening Rory with military academy and
expulsion from the house if he didn’t shape up and quit drinking, smoking weed
and staying out all night with friends.
The next two Thanksgivings the three of us came together for the few hours it
took to pick over a meal, but the only words I remember Dad actually addressing
to Rory were “pass the bread sauce.” That winter, my brother was killed in a car
accident, out with his buddies on their way to a party, and my father, shattered
by grief, set to the business of drinking himself to death. Our last
Thanksgiving together, just the two of us, he was too wasted to eat the meal
he’d spent all day preparing.
I spent the next seven holidays in seven different places, most often with
friends and their families, as an extra guest at their tables, the English guy
with the Midwestern accent, the guy without a family of his own.
When Caitlin, her mom, dad and sister got back from the movie, they caught me
raiding the fridge. I’d crawled out from under the covers with bleary eyes and
bedhead, and they started peppering me with jokes. When I looked hurt, Caitlin’s
mom gave me a hug and tousled my hair. “Come on, kiddo,” she said, “you’re gonna
have to take it like the rest of us.” She was still joking around, but she
That night, lying awake next to Caitlin, I tried to pick apart my feelings.
I was scared of committing, really committing, to this relationship. And I
missed Mom, Dad and Rory as achingly as ever. For so many years, Thanksgiving
had been something to brave — every year another mark on the wall. But this
Thanksgiving, here with Caitlin, wasn’t just one more to endure. History tells
us the Plymouth settlers, when sure of a good harvest (and good defenses),
repaid their native hosts with mistrust, disease and war. It’s hard to survive,
even harder to stop behaving like a survivor.
Over the rest of the weekend, I relaxed a little. All that was expected of me,
really, was that I eat, drink, joke around, give as good as I got. After all,
Caitlin’s mom seemed to mother just about everyone she met.
But by the time we all said goodbye at the airport and she kissed me on the
cheek and said, “Love ya, kiddo,” I’d recovered enough of my good spirits to
realize her “kiddo” wasn’t just a knee-jerk nicety. I’d been given a seat at the
family table. It was time for me to start calling this new world “home.”
Will Boast is the author of the short story collection
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers
on issues both timely and timeless.
In just a few days, we will once again endure the annual
spectacle of the president of the United States pardoning a turkey that would
otherwise have been fated for the Thanksgiving table. This event is typically
covered in the media as a light-hearted bit of fluff — and fluff is what it
might well be, if there were not actual humans on death row awaiting similar
intervention. In the current American context, however, the turkey pardon is a
distasteful parody of the strange power vested in politicians to decide the
earthly fates of death-row prisoners. There is in it an implicit acknowledgment
that the killing of these prisoners is a practice that bears real, non-jocular
comparison to the ritual slaughter of birds for feasts.
I am not saying that this slaughter of birds for food is wrong ― not here anyway
― but only that the parallel the presidential ritual invites us to notice is
revealing. To riff on Dostoyevsky’s famous line about prisoners: you can tell
what a nation is like by the way it treats its turkeys. Obama’s pardoning of one
randomly selected bird at Thanksgiving not only carries with it an implicit
validation of the slaughtering of millions of other turkeys. It also involves an
implicit validation of the parallel practice for human beings, in which the
occasional death-row inmate is pardoned, or given a stay by the hidden reasoning
of an increasingly capricious Supreme Court, even as the majority of condemned
prisoners are not so lucky. In this respect, the Thanksgiving pardon is an
acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.
Arbitrariness is generally treated, both by supporters and detractors of the
death penalty, as a mere glitch in the system, as something that could in
principle be worked out. But what this understanding misses is the historical
fact that, until very recently, capital punishment was explicitly arbitrary, and
openly cruel: its principal reason for being was to set an example of the
infinite power of the state over the lives of its subjects.
It is thus not surprising that in most of the Western world, capital punishment
died away, though usually only gradually, along with the decline of absolutism
and the shift to democracy. When a person is executed, a message is sent about
what the state may legitimately do to its subjects, and it is a message that has
proven difficult to make fit with other basic commitments of a political culture
that rejects arbitrary absolutism and favors human dignity and human rights.
In many countries, including Britain and France, the last vestiges of capital
punishment survived for rare cases of treason alone: a fact which highlights the
fundamentally political character of the death penalty. The rest of the Western
world eradicated capital punishment by the late 20th century, even for treason,
while somehow it managed to survive in the United States. Curiously, though, it
has survived alongside a redoubled dedication to upholding the constitutional
ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
There has of course been a great deal of controversy over what this phrase
means, and whether any imposition of the death penalty is by definition a
violation of the ban. Yet in the United States, debates about what constitutes
cruelty and unusualness tend to focus on the particular methods of execution,
whether it be by firing squad, electrocution or lethal injection. This focus is
what has been in part responsible for the continual migration from one method of
execution to another: each new method, starting with the guillotine in the
French Revolution (perhaps the most vivid, if short-lived, instance of the gross
discrepancy between democratic and egalitarian ideals, on the one hand, and
state terror on the other), has been introduced as an unprecedently humane way
of carrying the punishment out.
With time, though, methods that were once hailed as innovative and humane end up
faring no better than their predecessors, and one can’t help but sense that the
continual migration from one form of killing to another has to do not so much
with real progress toward greater humanity, as with the ultimately groundless
whim of fashion.
We look at firing squads as barbaric, not because we have any solid reasons for
believing that lethal injection is more gentle, but only because they remind us
of the past, and we believe as an article of faith that in the past people were
less enlightened than we are. One death-row inmate in Utah, Ronnie Lee Gardner,
illustrated this point in 2010 with a request to be executed by firing squad in
one of the few states in which this was, until recently, still possible, and in
which prisoners are free to choose the method of their death. Gardner apparently
selected this method out of a simple personal preference, but he sent the state,
and the country, into a terrible fit over what to do. Many people assumed that
he must simply have been stalling, or that he was seeking to draw attention to
his case. Yet few stopped to ask in what respect death by rifle is really more
horrible than death by chemicals.
What all the migrations from one method to another have consistently missed is
that it might not be the method of killing that is cruel and unusual, but
rather, so to speak, the existential consequence of the method’s deployment: the
fact that it results in a loss of life at the hands of the state. This focus on
methods, rather than on what the methods bring about, makes it appear as though
the subtraction of a life is not in principle cruel and unusual, even if it has
proven impossible so far to find a way of bringing about the subtraction of a
life that is not cruel and unusual. If one pauses to think about it for just a
moment, this quest quickly shows its absurdity: we are in effect seeking to
retain capital punishment in a justice system that has already done away with
In such an odd ― and unprecedented ― state of affairs, the only way we could
really live up to the prohibition without abandoning the practice in conflict
with it would be to somehow subtract souls from existence without having to work
through the bodies these souls inhabit. But that can’t work: capital punishment
is not categorically different from corporal punishment, but rather a limit case
of it. There is no way to have the one without the other, and arguing over the
relative comfort of the method of execution employed, acting as if in executing
a person one is doing no harm to his body (even going so far as to swab the
prisoner’s arm with rubbing alcohol before injecting the chemical solution that
will kill him moments later) is nothing but a pseudohumanitarian farce.
In the confusion of the post-9/11 era, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz was enabled to
emit a horrible proposal: that the government should start issuing “torture
warrants” to federal agents who find themselves in situations in which they
could, by getting cruelly and unusually rough, extract information that might
save the lives of hundreds or thousands of people. The most lucid objectors to
this proposal noted that although agents might very well find themselves in such
a situation ― and although, perhaps, when they do they should perhaps just go
ahead and start torturing ― what we absolutely do not want is to enshrine into
law the possibility of suspending what are otherwise our deep moral commitments.
Similarly, we may acknowledge that some people almost
certainly do deserve to die. But for better or for worse, there simply is no
person or body that can be entrusted with the grave responsibility of killing
them. One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment, in my view, has
not to do with its effect upon the criminal who is punished, but with what it
does to those involved in the application of the punishment.
In Gardner’s case, one of the five executioners was given blanks to fire,
without any of the squad members knowing which of them this was. In this way
responsibility for the execution was diffused, so as to ensure that no one
member of the firing squad would, with certainty, be tainted by it. This
diffusion was also an implicit acknowledgment that to participate in an
execution is to risk being tainted.
Execution cannot be fully normalized or proceduralized, and the attempt to do so
is in a certain respect more terrifying than the murder to which it is a
response: the murder was plainly a transgression, whereas the compensatory
execution is allowed for in our books of law, as the culmination of normal
procedure-following. The death penalty makes it possible for killing to be
encompassed within the normal carrying out of a bureaucratic procedure, rather
than remaining a transgression or a suspension of our ordinary commitments. To
uphold capital punishment is therefore to make killing itself normal: something
that it is not even for the great majority of murderers.
Killing is, in short, cruel and unusual, and this is why murderers are rightly
despised. This is also why capital punishment fits so well as part of the system
of justice of absolutist states, but cannot, and never will, have an uncontested
place in a democracy.
LAST Thanksgiving my wife was trying to explain to our
granddaughter, Lizzie, 5 at the time, that some of her ancestors had been
participants at the original 1621 feast in Plymouth. “I know,” said Lizzie, who
apparently had been learning about Thanksgiving in school. “We’re Indians!”
Actually, Lizzie’s forebears were Pilgrims. (My wife, like several million
Americans at this point, is a Mayflower descendant.) Nowadays Pilgrims, with
their funny, steeple-crowned hats and buckle shoes and their gloomy, pious ways
(no games on Sunday, no celebrating even of Christmas!), have gone out of
fashion. It’s true that upon arriving in the New World they were so hapless that
they would surely have perished during their first winter without the help of
the American Indians.
But the Pilgrims were nevertheless heroic in their way. There were a great many
Puritans in England at the beginning of the 17th century who wanted to purge
Christianity of what they considered the laxity and corruption introduced by
Rome and by the insufficiently rigorous Church of England. But only a few
hundred of them felt strongly enough to become separatists and emigrate to
What they objected to in the established church may seem fussy and trivial
today: the wearing of surplices, the exchange of wedding rings, making the sign
of the cross at baptism. But at the heart of their convictions was also a
radical political thought: that the state had no business in the running of
religion, and that congregations had the right to elect their own leaders.
The 102 passengers who sailed on the Mayflower in September 1620 came from all
over England (and not all of them were religiously motivated), but the leaders
of the separatist movement came from just a handful of farming villages in
Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and southern Yorkshire, most within walking
distance of one another. This is not the touristy, thatched-cottage part of
England, but it is beautiful nonetheless, and last spring my wife and I visited
to see what we could learn about her ancestors, who in so many ways are
forefathers to us all.
We made the underappreciated cathedral town of Lincoln our base, and stayed at
the White Hart Hotel in a charming upstairs room that overlooked the cathedral
close. John Ruskin, the great English art critic, called the town’s cathedral
“out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles,”
which did not prevent the dean and chapter from renting it out as a location for
the film “The Da Vinci Code.” It really is a towering wonder, visible from miles
around. Clearly I would not have made a good Puritan, for of all the churches we
visited, this is the one, with its cassock-wearing choristers, flickering
candles and rumbling organ, that I liked the best.
Lincoln also has some interesting Roman ruins and a couple of good restaurants.
At the bottom of the aptly named Steep Hill, there is one exceptional restaurant
with a name that would probably summon forth pickets in the United States. It’s
called the Jews House, which is what it was in the 13th century, when Lincoln
was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in England. Far from being an
ethnic restaurant, the Jews House these days serves a lot of food that observant
Jews are not allowed to eat: dishes like pork belly with miso glaze and
pan-fried tiger prawns with melon sorbet.
To visit the villages of the Pilgrim leaders, all you really need is a map and a
car. We had the additional benefit of Nick Bunker, author of “Making Haste From
Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and the New World” (Knopf, 2010), who, after
working as a stockbroker in London, now lives in an old, partly Norman house in
Lincoln, where he writes full time. He was wearing riding breeches, stout boots
and thick knee socks — not strictly necessary but a nice, squire-like touch. He
took us first not to one of the Pilgrim sites but to the Church of St. Lawrence,
in the all-but-abandoned village of Snarford. The tiny stone building gives no
suggestion of the extravagant alabaster statues within — funeral monuments of
the St. Paul family, local grandees who became staunch Puritans. Sir George, the
last and wealthiest of the clan, and his wife, Frances Wray, are propped up on
their right elbows, as if watching television on the couch. He’s wearing armor
and she has on a starched white ruff.
The almost lurid colors of the statues take a little getting used to if you have
grown up on notions of Puritan somberness, and the general splendor of the
little church is an important clue to the Pilgrims. Unlike so many radical
religious movements, theirs did not take hold among the poor and downtrodden
but, rather, among small landowners and yeoman farmers. Many of them could read,
a fairly unusual accomplishment then but a useful one for a group that believed
wisdom derived from personal study of the Scriptures.
The most important of the Pilgrim villages, and probably the epicenter of the
whole separatist movement, is Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire, where William
Brewster, the local postmaster and later a Pilgrim leader, lived and held
clandestine religious services in a large manor house. Scrooby today is a bit of
a backwater and most of the house (which is now in private hands) was demolished
You can still see traces of the moat and fishponds that once surrounded this
grand establishment, and in the nearby market town of Gainsborough, another
Puritan stronghold, there is an enormous half-timbered Elizabethan manor that
gives an idea of what Scrooby Manor must have been like. In Gainsborough,
especially, the Puritans were not rubes but bustling men of business.
Not far from Scrooby is the modest Yorkshire village of Austerfield, where
William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth Colony, grew up; orphaned,
he found solace in the radical preaching that could be heard in the area. In the
other direction is Babworth, a pretty little hamlet where Richard Clifton, an
important separatist thinker, was rector of the local church.
Then there is Sturton le Steeple, where these days at the Church of St. Peter
and St. Paul, Fisher-Price toys, for child-minding, are parked next to a
sarcophagus. Sturton, a large and still prosperous-looking village, was the
birthplace of both John Robinson, the charismatic spiritual leader of the
Pilgrims, and John Smyth, who led a large separatist congregation but eventually
became even more important in the Baptist movement.
More than anything else it was probably the critical mass of such men —
eloquent, passionate, many of them educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
— that accounts for why this area became such a hotbed of separatism. It also
did not hurt that the main religious authority was the Archbishop of York, who,
being more worried about Roman Catholics, took a fairly relaxed attitude toward
But could the landscape itself have been a factor? This is farming country, so
flat that a modest little mound in the Nottinghamshire village of
Gringley-on-the-Hill is a local landmark. Nick Bunker took us up there one
morning, and though the view has changed a lot since the 17th century — much of
the land has been drained, and there is a big power station to the north — you
can still get a sense of what it must have been like. The sky is endless, the
horizon flat, the light soft and Hopperish. There are marshes, woods, heaths,
pasturelands and fields of red clay. Though far from the sea, it is a
countryside, Mr. Bunker suggested, that in some ways resembles what the Pilgrims
found in New England. It’s also the kind of landscape that urges you to spread
out and — far from bishops and bureaucrats down south — think daring,
So why did they leave? For one thing, the king and a new Archbishop of York had
begun cracking down on them. The Scrooby congregation also interpreted a
devastating flood that surged up the Bristol Channel in January 1607 as a sign
of divine disapproval. Later that year a large group tried to flee the country,
booking passage from the Lincolnshire port of Boston. They were betrayed by the
ship’s captain, however, and the leaders, including Brewster, were imprisoned in
the town’s medieval guild hall. (Once a port second in importance only to
London, Boston is now down at the heels a little, though still worth a visit
thanks to the local church, St. Botolph’s, and the guild hall, now a museum.)
A year later the separatists tried again, and a handful of them made it to
Amsterdam, where they were followed by a steady trickle of others from the
Scrooby area. “They all got over at length,” Bradford wrote, “some at one time
and some at another, and some in one place and some in another, and met again
according to their desires, with no small rejoicing.”
After a year or so, the flock, now numbering 100 or so, moved south to the town
of Leiden. My wife and I came to like this university town even more than
Amsterdam, though the bike riders are apt to run over the unwary. One afternoon
I saw a woman pedaling her young child on the crossbars while also texting.
Many of the canals in Leiden are wider and leafier than those in Amsterdam, and
there are extensive public gardens belonging to the university. But in the 17th
century Leiden was also an industrial town, noisome and crowded. The English
immigrants, like most people, worked in the textile business, weaving cloth on
looms in the home, and they sorely missed rural life. William Bradford lived on
a canal, not far from Haarlemmerstraat, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare,
that was so foul it eventually had to be filled in. The entrance to the alley
where he lived is today across from an H & M store. William Brewster lived on an
alley appropriately known as Stincksteeg. There is a plaque marking the spot
and, in a window where his house once was, a poster of Marilyn Monroe. Like most
of the English Pilgrims at Leiden, Brewster lived near the Pieterskerk, the
city’s grandest church, still imposing though much of the ornament was stripped
out during the Reformation.
The only remaining Pilgrim house is also in this neighborhood, on the corner of
the Pieterskerkhof and the Kloksteeg, but it has been so modernized that you
would never take it for a 17th-century dwelling. To get a better idea of how the
Pilgrims lived you need to visit the American Pilgrim Museum, a brick house near
the Hooglandse Kerk presided over by the genial and drily ironic Jeremy Bangs,
author of the immense and immensely knowledgeable book “Strangers and Pilgrims,
Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation”
(General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009).
It is the oldest house in Leiden, dating back to the 14th century, and typical
of a Pilgrim dwelling: a single 8-by-14-foot room with a stone floor, small
leaded windows, a big medieval fireplace. The parents would have slept sitting
up in a box bed (because lying flat was thought to cause disease) and the
children on the floor. Somewhere in there a loom would have been crammed.
It was for the sake of the children, Bradford later wrote, that the Pilgrims
decided to move on to the New World. In Leiden they had to work from an early
age and many of them were learning Dutch and adopting Dutch customs. But the
cramped, slumlike conditions, so far from the open Scrooby landscape, also had
something to do with the decision.
Not all of them went. Some were fearful. Some, like John Robinson, stayed behind
to tend the Leiden flock. Had he gone to New England, history — especially the
relations between the Pilgrims and the Indians — might have been different. In
Mr. Bangs’s account, Robinson emerges as a man of singular intelligence and
liberality who decided, for example, that St. Paul was wrong and that women
should feel free to speak up in church.
Another Leidenite, Thomas Blossom, was a passenger on the Speedwell, the
Mayflower’s companion vessel, which sprang a leak and had to turn back. He
eventually made the journey in 1629, joining the colony at Plymouth, where he
became first deacon of the church. This might be of interest to those concerned
about President Obama’s Americanness, for Blossom is one of his ancestors.
My wife happened to bring this up a few weeks later when we were completing our
Pilgrim journey by making a visit to Plimouth Plantation, a replica of the
original colony in Plymouth, Mass., where historical re-enactors take the part
of the historical Pilgrims. She got into a conversation with a woman in a bonnet
and voluminous skirt cooking over a fire. “You know, a descendant of one of your
brethren eventually became president,” my wife said.
The woman looked at her and said, “President of what, Miss?”
There are direct flights from New York to the East Midlands airport in
Nottingham, about an hour away, or you can drive or take the train from London,
which will take three to four hours. To get around the Pilgrim landscape, you
will need a car, some good maps, and GPS wouldn’t hurt, though even that may not
help when it comes to navigating Lincoln’s many and confusing one-way streets.
Luckily, the police seem tolerant of bewildered Yanks. The cathedral and the
Stump, the great church in Boston, are open daily, but the various parish
churches have more limited schedules and some are open only by appointment. It
is best to write or call ahead to the parish secretary.
The White Hart Hotel (www.whitehart-lincoln.co.uk) is charming, ideally situated
at 87 Ballgate, across from the cathedral close, and — a valuable perk — comes
with parking. Double rooms, with breakfast, start at about £99 (about $156, at
$1.57 to the pound). The food at the White Hart is more than acceptable, but it
would be a mistake not to try the Jews House, the city’s best restaurant, housed
in its oldest and most picturesque building (jewshouserestaurant.co.uk). Less
ambitious and more traditionally English is the nearby Wig and Mitre, a
Victorian pub-style restaurant that features things like braised beef and roast
wood pigeon (wigandmitre.com).
LEIDEN, THE NETHERLANDS
Car rentals are much more expensive in the Netherlands than in England, and
because the country is so small and the Dutch train system so good, a car here
is really more a hindrance than a help. Trains from Amsterdam to Leiden run
every 15 minutes or so; the trip takes a little over half an hour and costs 14
euros (about $19, at $1.35 to the euro).
Leiden is itself easily and pleasantly walkable. A good way to preview the city
and get your bearings is to take a boat tour through Leiden’s many canals.
Several companies offer these trips, almost all with narration in English
available, and there is usually a boat of one sort or another leaving every few
minutes from the Beestenmarkt. Fares are mostly under 10 euros for a ride of
roughly one hour.
Though outstanding in just about every other way, Leiden is not a city of great
hotels. The Nieuw Minerva occupies what used to be six 16th-century houses
facing one of the city’s many canals and is best appreciated from the outside.
The rooms are serviceable, not very expensive by European standards (starting at
$78 for a double) and the location is ideal: a short walk from the Central
Station and just around the corner from the Haarlemmerstraat, one of the city’s
two main drags.
The two essential Pilgrim sites in Leiden are the great Pieterskerk, or Peter’s
Church, which became the Puritan John Robinson’s adoptive home, and the Leiden
American Pilgrim Museum, easily found by heading for the hard to-miss belltower
of the Hooglandse Kerk, or Highland Church. (That it could be called such
suggests that the flatland-dwelling Dutch have very different ideas of altitude
from ours.) The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m.;
admission 3 euros.
In Leiden, as elsewhere in the Netherlands, it is surprisingly difficult to find
authentic Dutch food. A good all-purpose bistro, lively and reasonably priced,
is the City Hall Restaurant (restaurantcityhall.nl), as the name suggests,
behind Leiden’s 17th-century city hall, a building whose grandness suggests how
seriously the town fathers took the notion of civic government.
Elsewhere in town are lots of bars serving authentic jenever, not to be confused
with gin and a drink the Pilgrims were probably advised to stay away from. Not
for nothing is a shot of jenever, tossed down after a beer, known as a kopstoot,
or a head butt.