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The Pilgrims and the Dutch: A Thanksgiving Story

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Living in the Netherlands as a graduate student, I attended a quirky Thanksgiving service in the city of Leiden in November 2008. The official purpose of the event was to celebrate the centuries-old, ongoing relationship between the Netherlands and the United States. As I recall, it was attended by American expats in Holland—families like mine, as well as individual American citizens—and by local municipal officials and representatives of the Dutch and U.S. diplomatic corps. Because the service was ecumenical, we heard talks and prayers from Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and we sang favorite hymns of gratitude and popular patriotic songs that might appeal to the atheists and agnostics among us.

By the end of the long service, my three young kids were very bored, and as kids tend to do, they were finding creative, disruptive ways to express their discontent.

As for myself, when I wasn’t trying to tackle and muzzle my three-year-old daughter, I remember thinking how funny it was that we were having so much difficulty finding a turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner—not to mention a backyard football game—yet we clearly had no trouble finding Americans and even Dutch citizens to honor this very American holiday so far from American shores.

The Dutch-American relationship is indeed an old one. The first Dutch explorers and merchants traveled to the Americas starting in the late 16th century, and the first Dutch colonists started settling there (not always in the boundaries of the future United States) early in the 17th century.

The Dutch also had close connections to the Pilgrims of Plymouth fame. The service I attended in 2008 was held in Leiden—more specifically, it was held in a large church called the Pieterskerk—because that was the city where the Pilgrims lived and that was the church where they worshipped after fleeing England but before sailing for America. They lived in the Netherlands for about twelve years, only deciding to migrate a second time because many of them did not prosper there. They also faced ongoing threats from political enemies across the English Channel, and they feared that their children, some of whom grew up and served in the Dutch army, were becoming too Dutch.

The Dutch also had close connections to the Pilgrims of Plymouth fame.

Americans often learn about the Pilgrims’ Leiden sojourn in grade school. What we usually don’t learn, though, is how common their situation was at the time: They were just a few of thousands of foreigners in the Netherlands, and theirs was just one of dozens of foreign Reformed congregations (i.e., Calvinists) that gathered especially in the province of Holland. Some foreigners were there for commercial reasons or with foreign military regiments, while some, like the Pilgrims, were refugees. In fact, living in Leiden in the same period was a group of French-speaking Calvinists who undertook a similar transatlantic journey. These Huguenots and Walloons, as they were called, split themselves into two contingents, with some of them going to South America and others to the colony of New Netherland, settling on Manhattan Island a few years after the Mayflower arrived in New England. The Pilgrims and Walloons probably knew each other in Leiden.

Americans often learn about the Pilgrims’ Leiden sojourn in grade school. What we usually don’t learn, though, is how common their situation was at the time…

As historians often remind us, life is full of contingency, and it’s possible that, had things gone a bit differently, the Walloons could have ended up in New England and the Pilgrims at Manhattan. In preparation for their migrations, both groups entertained sponsorship offers from Dutch and English authorities, and both groups flirted with sailing under a different flag than the one they finally used. The Pilgrims almost settled at Manhattan anyway, even after choosing the English, because the Dutch and English had competing claims and grants in the region. According to colonist Nathaniel Morton, it was only through Dutch meddling and Dutch spies among the Pilgrims that the latter decided to end their voyage in New England and disembark near the now-famous Plymouth Rock.

The idea that the Pilgrims might have lived under Dutch authority in America is odd when we remember that they were trying to leave the Netherlands and rescue their children from Dutch influence, so it probably wasn’t a very likely outcome. But it’s somewhat less odd when we also remember that, in time, other Englishmen, including Puritans from New England, accepted Dutch rule, settling especially on Long Island. Before the invasion of 1664, when an English fleet conquered New Netherland and made it New York, there were six English towns in the Dutch colony, and many English residents of New Netherland lived as minorities in its other towns. They also had German and Scandinavian neighbors, plus Jewish neighbors of Iberian descent.

As historians often remind us, life is full of contingency, and it’s possible that, had things gone a bit differently, the Walloons could have ended up in New England and the Pilgrims at Manhattan.

Had the Pilgrims joined the Walloons or even replaced them in settling at Manhattan, they would not have missed their day of thanks. Obviously the location would have been different, and the Native American allies, if any, would have been different. But harvest festivals, prayer days, and days of thanks were common at the time. Native Americans, Europeans, and the settlers of the different European empires all had their ways of expressing gratitude or seeking blessings from their deities. Dutch rulers in New Netherland organized prayer days and days of thanks multiple times per year, depending on local needs and developments. A disappointing harvest might result in a more penitent and gloomy affair, but it provoked a holiday just as easily as a good harvest.

If the Pilgrims were one of many refugee groups in the 17th-century Netherlands, and if their 1621 celebration was one of many similar celebrations before and after them, why do modern Americans remember them above all others? Why does theirs get the honor of “Thanksgiving” (capital T) when other services, if we remember them at all, are mere “thanksgiving” services?

If the Pilgrims were one of many refugee groups in the 17th-century Netherlands, and if their 1621 celebration was one of many similar celebrations before and after them, why do modern Americans remember them above all others?

That’s a different story for a different place, better suited to an essay or blog post on 19th-century Americans and the Civil War. Suffice it to say, the stories we choose to remember are sometimes more about contemporary needs than original events. The stories that serve our national memory and national identity can have more to do with who we think we are—or who the majority wishes we were—than they do with reality. Those stories tend to weed out the contingency and diversity and messiness of the past in favor of culturally useful yet simplistic alternatives.

On a day that’s now about family, relaxation, and consuming too much poultry, maybe that’s okay. After all, no one wants to be “that relative,” meaning the one who makes everyone uncomfortable by lecturing them at the holiday table about historical misconceptions and tragic events. But once in a while, maybe after all the leftovers are gone, it might be worthwhile to sit down, read some serious history, and contemplate the contingency and messiness as well.

I can recommend a book.

Danny Noorlander is an associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Oneonta. He teaches colonial American history, the Atlantic world, and European expansion. Follow him on Twitter @DLNoorlander and @timeline_world.

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