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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

The Pilgrim Maid and the Indian Chief

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Ms. Edinger, you know that Dear America diary you're reading to us?" my student Isabel asked. "You're wrong. Patience was a real person. My sister has the book, and she showed me the epilogue that tells what happened to her. She really lived!"
Ah, yes, Patience Whipple. The 103rd passenger on the Mayflower. The one Samoset called "The Pudding Girl." The one who almost became the first English child to step on Plymouth Rock.
History is full of hard lessons. As is teaching. Being open and willing to learn from both sets of lessons has been key to my work as a 4th grade teacher. Like so many educators, I am a chronic learner. I not only continually relearn and revise my views on history as new information becomes available, but I also continually revise my approach to teaching history as my students provide me with new information, often in the form of puzzled looks and questions.
Take Patience Whipple. My 9- and 10-year-old scholars had been studying the Pilgrims for weeks before I started reading her story out loud. I had challenged my students to get beyond the Pilgrims of myth, to find out what those Mayflower people were really like. On a mission for truth, my eager young historians plunged into our classroom collection of nonfiction books.
Those dark clothes and buckles so familiar to us? Not what the Pilgrims wore at all, my students discovered. Total harmony between the Mayflower passengers and Native Americans? Much more complicated and not nearly as nice. By the time they had finished grappling with a few pages of Mourt's Relation, a firsthand account of the settlers' first year, I was sure that they were ready for Patience.
"You've been reading, thinking, and talking about history for the past two years," I told my students:You know how complicated it is to find out what really happened in the past. This fall, you found out through your oral history interviews that memories are not perfect; people forget and get things wrong. Now you've become amazing Pilgrim experts. You are just about ready to take all that knowledge and write historical fiction stories about the Pilgrims. But before you do, I want you to listen to someone else's made-up Pilgrim story.
Together we looked at Kathryn Lasky's book A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple. We examined clues that indicated the work was fictional: The author's name on the title page clearly showed that the book was written by someone other than Patience Whipple, and a statement from the Library of Congress labeled the book "juvenile fiction." Certain that they understood this was not a real diary, I began reading.
Lasky's first entry, in which the fictional Patience writes of her queasy stomach aboard the Mayflower, captured the students' attention immediately. As I read on, the students helped me ferret out the real from the imaginary. Patience's description of trees, they noticed, was straight from the pages of Mourt's Relation, whereas her feelings and thoughts came straight from the head of Kathryn Lasky. They were riveted the day I read Patience's entry describing Samoset's arrival at the settlement and the comparable passage from Mourt's Relation. I was sure they knew which source was real.
But here was bright, thoughtful Isabel insisting, "The epilogue proves that Patience is real."
A few years ago, I couldn't have cared less whether Patience were real or not. I'd seen the Dear America books in stores, but they hadn't interested me. I wanted real historical sources for my students. I was excited to discover that students could, with support, read Mourt's Relation. Students enjoyed that book's clear account of the Mayflower's journey, complete with whales and storms; its description of the Pilgrims' search for a place to settle; and tantalizing references to American Indians. Plenty of well-researched nonfiction was available, such as Marcia Sewell's attractive and provocative picture books, Lucille Recht Penner's Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners, and Connie and Peter Roop's Pilgrim Voices: Our First Year in the New World. My students found the real Pilgrim story fascinating; there was no need to make it more palatable with fiction.
But one day a student came in with Patience's story, and I was surprised to discover that I liked it. Lasky's research was solid, and her writing grabbed me. I decided Lasky's book would be a good model for the class in writing their own Pilgrim stories. The students appeared to understand that Patience was a fictional character in a story based on a real event. But then Isabel—and most of the class, when shown the epilogue—became confused about whether or not Patience was real.
I was taken aback that these bright children continued to have so much trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. With an inward sigh, I had them look again closely at one of their favorite primary sources: Governor William Bradford's list of all 102 Mayflower passengers. The students had to admit that there was no Remember Patience Whipple there. Somewhat disappointed (nothing like proving your teacher wrong!), the class conceded that, despite that all-too-believable third-person epilogue, Remember Patience Whipple was a made-up character.
It was an important lesson for all of us. My students learned to be more wary of books packaged to look like authentic historical sources, and I learned to be more wary of my assumptions about what students understood.

Where Are the Native Americans?

I also experienced a hard lesson when I began incorporating teaching about Native Americans into my U.S. history curriculum. Fifteen years ago, I was very proud of the U.S. history curriculum I was teaching at the Dalton School and was resistant to changing it. A pretty nice balance of facts, skills, and projects, I thought. I moved my class briskly through 10 textbook-based units a year. Then a curriculum supervisor brought me up short one day by asking where the Native Americans were in my curriculum.
I was taken aback and offended. Didn't he admire my plans for handmade covered wagons and dioramas of sod houses? What did he expect, I griped; I was just following the textbook. Was it my fault Native Americans were barely mentioned there? Eventually, however, I had to acknowledge that my supervisor was right. The Native Americans had been all too easy for me to overlook.
This hard lesson started me on a new journey in teaching and learning history. I jettisoned the textbook and discovered a brand-new world of trade books. My curriculum went from one in which Native Americans barely existed to one in which they were at the center. Mayan temples replaced the sod houses. Tlingit button blankets replaced the Revolutionary War quilt. More important, the way we did these projects changed. In my old approach, we would go through a textbook chapter and then dive into projects. We investigated exactly how a covered wagon was made and what was in it, but we never considered the passengers' interactions with the native people whose land the wagon traversed.
With my new curriculum, as we worked on projects, the students and I continually reflected on how history was interpreted and the importance of who was telling the story. While building a model Mayan city, we studied ancient Mayan cities and the archaeologists who uncovered them. Studying the Anasazi meant doing a parallel study of their modern descendants, the Pueblo Indians. Our visit to the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians in the American Museum of Natural History raised difficult questions about the ethics of collecting cultural artifacts and whether it was right for these ceremonial objects to be so far from home.
While developing my new curriculum, I came across Susan Jeffers's award-winning book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle. Our principal had already introduced me to this moving speech long attributed to Chief Seattle. During a Thanksgiving assembly one year, the principal had told the assembled school,Thanksgiving is a time to remember and reflect on our land, which we hold so dear. One day, 100 years ago, a famous Native American spoke about what was happening to the environment. Here is what Chief Seattle said.
She read poetic words that evoked images of the land, its holiness, and our connection to that land. Her eloquence moved us all to silence. By the time she had finished, every student in the room was solemn.
I was delighted, then, to find a text of this moving speech. The book was gorgeous; it would be a perfect introduction to my Northwest Coast unit. But before I had an opportunity to use the book with my students, I discovered that it was controversial. Jeffers's text did not in fact consist of the chief's actual words.
I sought out more information. I came across David Buerge's book Chief Seattle (1992), which had excerpts from a firsthand account of the speech. From this book and other sources, I learned that Chief Seattle, a leader of the Suquamish tribe, had indeed given a speech at an 1854 meeting with Isaac Stevens, President Franklin Pierce's representative. The United States wanted to purchase the tribe's land, and the chief's speech was a response to that offer. Chief Seattle's words were probably delivered in the Lushotseed language and translated into Chinook; one listener, Henry Smith, took notes in English. Smith's transcription of these notes, published more than 30 years later in a Seattle newspaper, provide the only firsthand account of the speech—a speech that focuses on the loss of land to the white man, not on environmental destruction. The speech I heard at the Thanksgiving assembly—the one on which Jeffers based her book—is something else entirely. That speech was created in the 1970s to promote environmental awareness and was falsely attributed to Chief Seattle (Stott, 1995).
It was another hard lesson. After some thought, I decided to still use the book with my students, but to use it differently.
"Here is an incredibly beautiful book based on a speech that Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish tribe of the Northwest Coast, gave in 1854," I began after gathering the students together on the rug. I told them,The book's author, Susan Jeffers, clearly created it to help us think about the destruction of the environment. The only problem is that the message she attributes to Chief Seattle is not his. I'm going to read you two books—Jeffers's and then another nonfiction book, which has the only firsthand account of the chief's speech. See what you think.
Our conversation afterward was difficult. The students were torn between loving Jeffers's striking illustrations and text and regretting that Seattle's words had been reworked to make his speech into something other than he had intended. Eventually, we decided that the book should have been published as a work of fiction. This was a hard lesson for my students, as it had been for me.

Living History

The complexities of disentangling real people from creative portraits came to light when I took my class to Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, set up as a 1627 Pilgrim village. The staff dressed, acted, and spoke as though they were Pilgrim settlers. The students raced about, seeking out historical figures they had researched. "Where is Governor Bradford?" they asked everyone. "Was it horrible that first winter?"
My students understood that Plimoth Plantation was a carefully researched enactment of how people lived in times long past. They were less clear on this point when we visited Hobbamock's Homesite, an exhibit run by the Plantation's Wampanoag Indian Program. Although the staff here (many of them Native Americans themselves) dressed in 17th century Native American clothes and performed activities of that period, they did not operate in character. Rather, they spoke about the Wampanoag, their lifestyle, and their relationship with the Pilgrims. The children loved watching the construction of a canoe, crawling into a round house, and examining artifacts. But on the bus ride home, some expressed confusion, asking, "Do those people at Hobbamock's Homesite live like that all the time? Is that what Indian life is still like?" The children expressed relief when I assured them that this was just an exhibit. Had they not asked, some of them might have gone on thinking that Native Americans still live today as they did in the 1600s.
My classes are full of clever, sophisticated students. They delight in intellectual explorations and bristle at any suggestion that they are too young to tackle complex ideas. Whether exploring history through challenging primary sources like Mourt's Relation or grappling with such difficult issues as who interprets history, they rise to the challenge. But for all their bright comments and questions, the complicated interplay of historical fact and fiction can still trip them up. If students are to take from historical fiction an understanding of other cultures and times that goes deeper than sentimentality or entertainment, they need to be able to sort out the real from the imaginary. But they may need more support than we realize.
To provide that support, we have to remain learners ourselves, continually reexamining our own beliefs about history and about students' understandings. And, when confronted with new information, we must be willing to change—the hardest lesson of all.

Buerge, D. (1992). Chief Seattle. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books.

Stott, J. (1995). Native Americans in children's literature. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

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