Photograph by Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress
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From the signing of the Mayflower Compact to the landing at Plymouth Rock, the grade-school story of the Pilgrims doesn’t quite square with the facts.

400 years on, the Pilgrims get a reality check

Assailed by storms during its two-month-long Atlantic crossing, the Mayflower landed at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. After finding no suitable home, the Pilgrims sailed to Plymouth Bay, ferried ashore in small groups, and settled in the remains of a Native American village.

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The good people of Plymouth, Massachusetts, had big plans for 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in New England. The town’s nonprofit living history museum—known since its 1947 founding as Plimoth Plantation—had spent considerable time and some expense rebranding itself Plimoth Patuxet Museums, to more accurately represent the link between the Pilgrims and the Native American tribe whose village they occupied. More than $11 million had been invested in restoring Mayflower II, the reproduction ship that has floated in Plymouth Harbor since 1957. Tens of thousands of spectators were expected for the renovated ship’s triumphant return from dry dock, including a rendezvous with Boston’s 223-year-old U.S.S. Constitution, and an escort of Native Americans paddling dugout canoes.

Millions were expected to attend the biggest summer-long party Plymouth had ever seen. Then, last spring, COVID-19 came and ate all the birthday cake.

Then again, the story of the Pilgrims’ early years in Massachusetts and their relationship with the Indigenous people they met there has always been fraught with unexpected twists. The Europeans found their foothold in the ruins of a village emptied by the ravages of plague. Barely surviving their first winter, they feared being overrun by the Native Americans they saw peering at them from the forest—only to find in them an unlikely military and trade partner. And through it all, in every direction, the land was stained by treachery, bloodshed, and betrayal.

For the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to the Plimoth Patuxent Museums, those hard truths...

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