Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Don't Be a Pilgrim

I tell my history students that the past is always changing. It is not that the actual events are altered, but our perception of them changes. This happens because as additional information is discovered we gain a more complete picture of events that happened long ago. One of these changes is the stereotype that the Pilgrims were the pillars of American values. The original story states that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom, made friends with the Indians and had the first thanksgiving. This is basically true but the Pilgrims were not the tolerant and open-minded people that they are honored to be. All of the valued American ideals that are attributed to the Pilgrims were actually characteristics of the Dutch.

In the 1500s most of Europe was under the oppression of the Catholic country of Spain. Many Europeans were seeking religious freedom because of the spiritual reformation that had swept through Europe. At this time the Netherlands were one of the countries welcoming these religious exiles to live among them. The Dutch, in the Netherlands, fought to be released from the Spain's control and gained their freedom, which gave them the right to sail all over the world. As a result, the Dutch prepared to jump into world trade and set up colonies around the world.

The Dutch were very dissimilar from most of Europe because they were welcoming to those who were different from them and tolerant of their diverse values and ideas. They were also open to new ideas. Upon entering the world of trade, the Dutch came up with the idea to use joint stocks to fund their global trade ventures. This allowed more people to earn money from the trade they were conducting instead of simply permitting a few of the rich to get richer. The Dutch also devised a new design for a ship, which was less expensive to build, sturdier, and less likely to capsize in a storm.

New ideas in science were beginning to circulate in Europe at this time as well, and many countries were unaccepting of these concepts because they were considered to be blasphemous. One such unacceptable idea came from a man named Galileo who proposed that the earth revolved around the sun. No one would publish his papers about these unique ideas until he approached the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The Dutch were intrigued with this new way of thinking and not only published Galileo's papers, but also opened up the use of their university telescope for those interested.

Since the Pilgrims were looking for help to get to the New World, they moved to the Netherlands along with the other religious and political exiles. The Dutch welcomed them and made plans to send the Pilgrims across the ocean to the young Dutch colony of New Netherland. But, as the Pilgrims enjoyed a temporary settlement while awaiting their voyage they became uneasy with life among the Dutch. Their chief complaint was that their children were becoming "too Dutch;" or in other words, their youth were becoming more accepting of others cultures, and the Pilgrim leaders were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the differences between the people living around them. The Dutch were very welcoming to those who needed help, tolerant of those who were different from themselves, and open to new ideas and ways of thinking; the Pilgrims could not deal with the diversity and acceptance that the Dutch thrived on. So, the Pilgrims moved back to England where diversity was not as prevalent, and eventually sailed to the New World on the Mayflower.

Meanwhile, the Dutch sent about 30 families on the ship, Nieu Nederlandt, to live in the recently established colony of New Netherland - known today as New York. The people that came to this colony resembled the cultural climate of the Netherlands in Europe - many languages, cultures, and beliefs - a variety of people living side-by-side starting out a new life in the New World. Even though the people who populated New Netherland were not all Dutch, they identified themselves with the Dutch culture. In her book New Netherland in a Nutshell, Firth Fabend stated that the diverse group of colonists called themselves Dutch because they liked the characteristics that were associated with the Dutch way of life. Fabend listed these traits as: inclusivity, tolerance, the value placed on civic concord, pragmatism, charity, humanism, liberty, literacy, and the relatively enlightened Dutch attitude toward women (Fabend, 115).

The Pilgrims settled in the New World, south of the colony of New Netherland and their voyage had led them to a place where they could have the freedom to worship as they pleased. The ironic thing is that the Pilgrims would not allow anyone in their colony to have freedom to worship as they pleased; for those living in the Pilgrim's colony, it was necessary to believe as they believed and conform to their way of thinking. If a colonist had a different way of looking at the world, especially religiously, the Pilgrims banished them from the colony. The only place these exiles could go in the New World was to the colony of New Netherland, where they were welcomed and given land to live on.

In the beginning, the Pilgrims made friends with the Indians and learned how to survive in the New World; however, in the end, they used up the friendship and took advantage of the Indians. The Dutch had a few war filled years with the Indians but for the most part had a civil relationship with them. The directors of New Netherland even had to establish laws to prevent the Dutch colonists from baking too much bread for the Indians, because it diminished their own supply of wheat.

The Pilgrims carried out the unthinkable during the mid 1600s in the New World by outlawing Christmas for twenty-three years. They were afraid of pagan beliefs creeping into their way of life and did not appreciate the different cultural activities that had found their way into Christmas from others parts of the world. The Dutch in New Netherland, with the help of Sinter Klaus, never missed a Christmas in the New World. Instead of being afraid of Christmas corrupting them, they used each December to help the poor and little children to find a bit of happiness during this yuletide time of the year.

So, the next time you gather around a table with family and friends to celebrate all that you are thankful for, don't be a Pilgrim; instead, remember the Dutch of New Netherland. Remember the kindness and tolerance the Dutch showed to those who differed from themselves. Remember that they were the ones who were brave enough to think outside of the box and do things a bit differently from others. Remember that a lot can be learned from being open-minded to new ideas and that there is nothing wrong with being unique.