Healing Our Founding Pandemic

As virus panic mounted in the United States, I was already researching the psychic and actual sickness that came with the Mayflower four hundred years ago. Appalled to find myself descended from six of its passengers in a year when big celebrations were planned, I wanted Americans to see our history through the lens of disease. A full ninety percent of the Indigenous Wampanoag people had died from European illnesses even before the ship landed—and our founders themselves faced a deadly mortality crisis. I also knew that healing was possible, even now. Then one morning it became a story.

There they were, ancestors from four hundred years ago, on a zoom call. Four boxes, gallery style on my screen, each with a family name in the lower left corner. Tilley—an older mother and father with their young daughter. Rogers—an older father and teenage son. Howland—a young man on his own. And me, in my eighties but twelve generations younger. They were calling to see how I was doing in the pandemic. 

Unmuted, we chatted excitedly. “I’m amazed to see your faces at last,” I said. There was no photography in their time and even now the light around them was dim, and the men’s facial hair obscured their features. I hoped my uneasiness about being a Mayflower descendant wasn’t showing through.

“We are curious to see YOU, Daughter,” one of the older men answered. “We have wondered which one of you was thinking about us. It means a lot here.” I struggled with the intonations in the older English and hoped I hadn’t offended with my critical thoughts. But they wanted news of our family in the crisis. I told them about my 97-year-old uncle and the zoom birthday party with my sister’s grandchildren. 

After the first flurry of conversation, it seemed like a time to ask one of the big questions that had troubled me in my research. “Dear Relatives,” I began, “you also went through a time of sickness and death. I’ve been trying to imagine what that was like for you. Elizabeth, you lost both your parents.” I looked hard at her family on the screen: John and Joan Tilley were around fifty, Elizabeth only thirteen. “And Joseph, you lost your father.” I watched the younger man draw closer to Thomas Rogers. “Half of the ‘first comers,’ dead in a few months. I can hardly imagine that level of loss. Please tell me how it was for you.” I had weightier questions to ask, but I wanted to understand their pain first.

Their stories began to pour out, first John Howland’s. At twenty-eight he’d taken ship as indentured servant to another passenger and looked strong and in good health. “It will be hard for you to picture, Cousin,” he said. “Your world has so many protections from sickness and death. We had nothing. No Lysol, no ventilators, no masks, and very little food. Less understanding of disease than your people have. It was the beginning of a winter much colder than we were used to and we were coming off a difficult voyage with no shelter on land. Almost 150 people were crowded onto a ship just 100 feet long and losing its caulking. Sea-water came in everywhere. Even our bunks were damp and cold. Many had scurvy from sea rations with no fresh foods. As you know we were blown off course, hundreds of miles north of our destination, and decided to settle near Cape Cod, but many were sick. We called it ‘the general sickness’ or ‘distemper.’ Your people say it was a mix of scurvy, tuberculosis, and viruses like flu and pneumonia. Our immune systems were weak from the rough voyage.”

As my relative spoke, I could feel the discomfort and sickness of the Mayflower in my bones, more than ever in all my reading. The close quarters, stressed immune systems, lack of good information, and uncertainty about the future all struck a chord with our times. I wanted to ask how they’d dealt with the emotional side of it, but others chimed in. Father and son whispered in the Rogers’ corner and young Joseph spoke. “Dear Relative,” he said looking into space as if his gaze could penetrate all the way to my living room. “It was very, very hard. I was eighteen, the only family member traveling with him.” He turned to the man beside him. “My father died in February, in what they called ‘the first sickness,’ the first wave, while we were still sheltering on the ship.” “Waves of disease,” “sheltering”—it all sounded so familiar. 

The screen was quiet for a long while before I heard the girl’s voice—Elizabeth Tilley. “I was thirteen that year,” she began, “and it was very hard for me too. My uncle and aunt both died on board in the second wave and then, when we finally went ashore in the spring, my dear parents John and Joan Tilley died too. The winter made it much harder for the older ones. I was left alone in this place, with no family.”

A roaring sound arose at that moment, some kind of zoom static. I heard the voice of William Bradford, later governor of the colony, speaking words that have become famous: “They die sometimes two or three a day,” he intoned, “the living scarce able to bury the dead, the well not sufficient to tend the sick.” I shuddered, thinking of endangered medics around the world today.

Then Elizabeth’s fresh young voice again, her parents nodding agreement as she spoke. “This is why we wanted to be in touch with you, dear Relative. We know your people fear this same kind of collapse—that the caregivers will not be strong enough, that many will die without spiritual assistance. That is the kind of panic we felt. We are concerned that this fear is bred into you somehow, into your bones.” 

“Yes, Daughter,” her mother broke in, “we think the fear may be unhealed suffering you inherited from us. We are here to help you release it.”

Hands on my heart, I looked back across the years at the six of them. “Dear Family,” I heard my voice tremble with emotion, “it is healing already to hear your words. I’ve wondered whether our suffering is some replay of what you felt, even though our situation is so much milder. We fear the very scenes you describe. And our scientists tell us now that trauma like yours becomes embedded in what they call our DNA. Some say we can release it from our bodies if we acknowledge our feelings—no matter how painful. To think that you have come to help us do this! Dear Relatives, I am so moved by your understanding and care for us.” 

I might have stopped there, but my heart was urging a deeper question. “Can you tell me more about your emotions and how you dealt with them? Were you able to grieve? Knowing this could help us a lot.”

The screen was silent for a very long time, and I remembered that Puritans were known for suppressing emotion. Finally John Tilley spoke, one of the elders on the call. “Daughter,” he said sadly, “We couldn’t do anything like that. We thought we had to stay strong. No matter how many of us died, we wanted to believe we were God’s chosen people, destined to make a home in this new land. We had to numb ourselves to the fear and the grief.”  

There was a murmur from his wife that I couldn’t hear, and he added, “Our spiritual leaders told us the only way we could get through this was not to break. Sadness and grieving over death was to question God’s will. It was something the Pagans and Savages did—not ourselves. Our people were called to hold fast against grief.”

“Oh my God,” I burst out, forgetting who I was talking to. “I don’t mean to offend,” I continued, “but we are learning that expressing grief is necessary—the only way to honor the pain and protect ourselves from this inherited trauma you spoke of. For most in our culture today, grief is still suppressed.”

Joan’s voice floated into the mix with words from the New Testament: “’Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Our hearts knew these things, Daughter, but we were unable to practice them.” Then a sweet silence.

“Could we do it together, dear Family?” I said impulsively. “Just let it out, whatever way seems natural?” It wasn’t the kind of thing you say to your Puritan ancestors, but already the sobs were welling up in my own throat and I let them come rumbling out, choking and gasping, moving my body as it seemed to want. Sobbing out all the bottled up fear, sadness, anger, and horror that had not been spoken for four hundred years, for all the violent ways we had displaced our trauma onto others, and for all the fear, suffering and death happening around me now. For those crowded together without food or clean water under freeways, in prisons, bombed-out cities, and locked-down borders.  

My own sobs were so loud they drowned out the others—that’s how sound works on zoom. But I could tell I wasn’t sobbing alone. Looking up at the screen, I saw each of those bodies bending and shaking in grief. It had been terrible to be stuck that way in fear and loss, and for so many loved ones to die. My relatives seemed aware of all the suffering that had stemmed from theirs. I felt my common ground with these first comers who had finally shared their grief with me. At last my heart warmed to them, and as our sobbing calmed, I knew it was time for the much bigger question I needed to ask. 

“Dear Family,” I began with some hesitation, “there’s something more I hope we can grieve.” I took a long breath and let it out slowly to calm my heart. A deep wrong had troubled me most of my life. The six of them looked at me in that strange way that happens on zoom—everyone’s eyes trained in a slightly different direction. Elizabeth and her parents held each other. Joseph leaned close to his father. John Howland sat alone in his frame and I stumbled on with my question.

“Most Americans know little about your deaths on the Mayflower, but even less about the terrifying epidemic that hit the Indigenous people before you arrived—far more lethal than our pandemic today. Descendants of survivors tell of a mysterious “great dying” that killed 90% of the coastal people, even before you came ashore. Beneath your own fear and grief, you must have felt the impact of their deaths too. How was that for you?” I took another deep breath, knowing this could be challenging for them. “Did you feel the pain of these fellow humans?”

Again the screen was quiet and I hoped I had not gone too far. John Howland broke the silence. In a few years, he would marry Elizabeth and both would live into their 80s with ten children and 88 grandchildren. Genealogists estimate ten million descendants. “Your information is accurate, Cousin,” he said quietly. “I was one of those sent out in a small boat to choose a site for our settlement. Storm winds blew us into Plymouth Harbor, where a village called Pahtuksut lay in ruins—beautiful corn and pumpkin fields with little pine trees starting to grow back. As we walked the land looking for water sources, we found the mounds of many graves. Elder Rogers can tell you more, as he was also with us.”

My eyes shifted to Thomas. “Yes, Daughter,” he began. “It’s good you ask about this part of the story. Before we got to Plymouth Harbor, our people spent a month exploring the outer regions of Cape Cod. Our own dying times had not really begun. Though we’d lost a few to sickness on our voyage, we had no idea what was coming. Just imagine what it was like ashore, feeling the strange earth under our feet as we made our way through the sandy woods of the outer Cape. Trying to sense the lay of the land and wondering when we would meet the savage people we had been told were all around us. As you know, European trading ships had plied this coastline for ten years, circulating reports back home. Even though we hadn’t planned to come this far north, we knew of massive illness in these parts the past several years. We didn’t know the diseases were of European origin and contact with us was spreading them. Reports told of empty villages with piles of human bones, unburied and unsanctified in the rapid onset of sickness.” I thought of the ‘makeshift morgues’ in today’s pandemic. “We didn’t see piles of bones, Daughter. Only clusters of abandoned bark houses and mounds of fresh graves. I felt a tingling in my very flesh to see how many had died here. After passing many graves, we came to one that looked so unusual we found ourselves opening it.”

I gasped, and Thomas must have heard me because he stopped to explain. “Yes, Daughter,” he continued. “The act feels wrong to us from where we are now. With the other graves, we’d felt respect and awe for the sheer fact of so much death. But with this one, some strange energy rose in us. We were not ourselves.” There was a stirring in John Howland’s quadrant as he nodded agreement. “We touched the bodies,” Rogers continued, shuddering. “We even took artwork from the mound back to our ship, the ‘prettiest things’ someone called them. We found ears of corn buried too—beautiful blue and rose-colored and ivory—and took them too. Now we know that corn was seed for the survivors’ crops or food for the journey of the dead. Our theft likely prevented them from reaching the place of their ancestors.”

He paused, bending forward as a wave of emotion passed through him, but John Howland took up the narrative. “Thomas speaks truly, Cousin. We violated a grave and stole corn—completely against our spiritual principles. And we exchanged fire with Natives at one point. We justified these things with a story our leaders began to weave after we reached the empty village near Plymouth Harbor. ‘God promised us this homeland as He did the ancient Israelites. He’d cleared the land of savages through this dreadful pestilence.’ This was wrong thinking.” He paused for a moment, bowing his head as I sat spellbound to hear him speak so critically of his own beliefs. “Throughout the ordeal of settlement, we held tightly to that story. It became our foundation, explaining our title to this land and why we could steal and kill for it.” He paused again. “Most of our descendants still feel this entitlement, dear Cousin. Most are frozen numb in it, unable to feel grief for these deaths or the four centuries of killing that followed—the burning of villages, our quest to wipe out a whole population we saw as ‘savage.’ There is a terrifying word in your language for it now—‘genocide.’ We have not been able to grieve this action or forgive ourselves, and we need your help.”

Hands on my heart again, I looked slowly around the screen for confirmation. All six ancestors were nodding agreement. My head spun with the implications. It sounded like they wanted us to change our founding legacy—or what we had thought was that legacy. Malidoma Somé had been right about ancestors—once they leave the earthly world, their vision clears. They see the harm they caused and yearn to repair it, to restore the balance they disrupted. They’re ready to acknowledge, restore and repair, but can’t do this without the help of their living descendants. And most of us are still stuck in false stories, unable to assist. 

Now it was Joan Tilley who spoke. She hadn’t lived to see how their early relationship with the Wampanoag people near Pahtuksut would deteriorate into distrust and warfare, how her descendants would want more for themselves and use the land in ways that harmed its delicate balance. “No one of us on this call personally caused the disaster,” she began. “But we all share the misguided mind that came from Europe. We thought we were separate from, wiser than, this land and the other humans here. Our ideas have led to sickness and distress for you now, your loss of connection to the earth. All of us who share this mind of entitlement are accountable. From our side, we stand ready to help our living descendants do what is needed to restore the balance.” A general murmuring of agreement rose from the others.

I looked at Joan, marveling at her freedom to speak while our male relatives listened with attention. It hadn’t been so in her day. “Thank you dear Family,” I said, “Restoration and repair will mean a big shift in consciousness for us—and maybe the pandemic will help. It is teaching many of us to deepen our relationship to life on earth and learn the Indigenous version of this history. But at the same time, our leaders are exploiting the turmoil, taking even more land and autonomy from the First People. Just recently officials used the courts to take land from the very Wampanoag people we’ve been talking about. The Wampanoag are responding, as other tribes face renewed attempts to build oil pipelines through their remote communities—bringing infection like the trading ships did. There are many actions we can take as citizens to stand with them.” I paused for breath because I knew of some remarkable healing initiatives underway as the Mayflower commemoration drew closer, but the ancestors on my screen had something of their own in mind.

Several of them started to speak at once. Then the noise of voices fell away and I heard Thomas Rogers say four words, “Grieve, apologize, repair, forgive. This is how we hope our descendants will commemorate Mayflower history, Daughter. Go deeply into your grief for the harm we initiated. It is our grief too—we welcome the tears we could not shed in our lifetimes. We need release from the stuck suffering—as you do too. Acknowledge, offer apology for all you have gained from our misdoings. Make your apologies public, share them widely, and find ways to give back. Please understand that to move forward without shame, you will need to forgive yourselves and your ancestors. Already some First People are responding to apology with forgiveness for the most heinous acts of this history. We hope for our sakes, yours, and our entire earth system that you can live into this vision.”

I was sobbing gently now, with something like relief, for this seemed the kind of deep change we could make as the pandemic opened our hearts. Where I had once felt loathing and even shame, I now felt love for these six people who had come to share their need for healing with me. “Thank you, dear Relatives,” I said, reaching toward them on the screen. Alas, I must have clicked an unfamiliar zoom signal. All of a sudden, with a “bing,” their faces faded into bright light that hurt my eyes. Zoom had cut us off, with no link to get back. But we had connected at a deeper frequency than zoom, and I knew they would be around to help.

© Louise Dunlap 2020

Louise Dunlap
Louise Dunlap

Louise Dunlap is a writer, Buddhist practitioner and active elder living in a place once known to the Ohlone people as Huichuin (now Oakland, California). She knows B.Michael only through this website but feels a deep connection across time and space and into the spirit world. Back when B.Michael was teaching, she was also an activist teacher—in the Boston area at MIT and with communities of resistance. In the years leading up to 1992—like B.Michael—she worked to counter the colonialist narratives around the Columbus quincentenary. Her forthcoming book, Inherited Silence, looks at her ancestors’ role in colonization of the continent and how descendants, ancestors, and our country can heal. It’s an honor for her to contribute a story to What I Miss? Learn more at www.louisedunlap.net. Photo: Skip Schiel