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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Black Pilgrim Stirs Controversy, 30 Years On

A reenactment of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass. (AP/Plimoth Plantation)

A reenactment of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass. (AP/Plimoth Plantation)

by Kevin Sullivan

Was there a black pilgrim breaking bread with the Puritans in the 1620s?

That question caused a huge controversy in the 1980s when the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass. hired a black actor to portray a pilgrim.

The Plantation reproduces the pilgrims’ 17th century village, complete with period buildings, food and role-playing interpreters, who speak as though it were 1627.

In 1981, Bob Marten was the museum’s director of programs. He said that the museum had begun receiving federal funds, and that required them to advertise as an equal opportunity employer.

An African American applied for a role playing job, and Marten hired him. He said there had been black people in Plymouth at the time of the pilgrims, so it seemed logical.

But some historians and descendants of pilgrims balked, and the museum decided if there was going to be a black pilgrim at the museum, he had to be based on a real person.

Marten said that for more than 100 years, historians had referenced a black pilgrim, named Abraham Pearse, who came to Plymouth in 1623.

The Blackamore

Marten did some research and found an entry in the 1861 publication, “Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England 1633 – 1689” that read:

“Abraham Pearse, the blackamore.”

Blackamore was a term for a black person in those days.

An excerpt from “Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England 1633 - 1689,” edited by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, M.D. lists “Abraham Pearse, the blackamore.”

An excerpt from “Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England 1633 - 1689,” edited by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, M.D. lists “Abraham Pearse, the blackamore.”

“A number of historians with experience examining the records have looked at it over the years, and without exception that we know of, they would concur that he was a black man,” Marten said.

But Marten said some descendants of Abraham Pearse did not concur.

Marten said, “One of these descendants said to me, ‘You took all the fun out of being a pilgrim descendant. It was a thing of great pride to be related to this nobility and if these pilgrims, if some of them were black men, then that prestige, all the fun of being a descendant of a pilgrim is gone.’”

Additional Research

The museum decided additional information was needed, and they brought in other museum researchers, including Jim Baker, to investigate.

Marten had based his case on the 1861 publication. But it turns out that book was a transcription of a slew of colonial records. Baker found the original 1643 document, and found that it read differently. On one line was the name, Abraham Pearse, and under his name (not next to it), read the words: the blackamore.

Baker interpreted that to mean, there were actually two men, Abraham Pearse, and an unidentified black man.

This 1643 Muster List of men able to bear arms, lists Abraham Pearse and beneath his name, the term, "the blackamore."

This 1643 Muster List of men able to bear arms lists Abraham Pearse and beneath his name, the term, "the blackamore."

“Pearse appears in the colonial record at least 30 times,” Baker said. “He marries someone who is obviously part of the regular community. His children continue on and have descendants. There’s never any mention that he was noticeably black.”

Bob Marten disagrees. He says that the single reference to Pearse’s race is consistent with other colonial records. And he notes that other people through history, including the 19th century abolitionist, Charles Sumner, also referred to Pearse as a black pilgrim.

The DNA Trail

Fast-forward to the 21st century. We now live in the age of CSI, where sophisticated DNA tests could put this controversy to rest.

In fact, amateur genealogist and radiologist Dr. Brad Pierce of Little Rock, Ark., has reviewed DNA tests of two Abraham Pearse descendants.

“We can say with virtual certainty that the father of Abraham and his ancestors on the male Pearse line are not of African descent,” Dr. Pierce said. “The DNA suggests that it has a characteristic that suggests they are of Scandinavian descent.”

But Abraham Pearse could have African ancestry on his mother’s side.

Dr. Pierce explained that he traced the Pearse descendants to Abraham Pearse through their Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son. In order to determine Abraham Pearse’s mother, you would have to trace his X chromosome, which fathers pass down to female offspring, and mothers pass down to both males and females. As far as we know, no one has done that research.

Another Black Pilgrim

It turns out that there was another black man, named John or Juan Pedro, who did live in Plymouth from 1623 to 1624. So why can’t the Plimoth Plantation base a black pilgrim character on him?

Jim Baker said the museum is based on a specific year, 1627, and Pedro left Plymouth in 1624.

“We’re looking at a specific year with a specific list of people, which we happen to have by name there in this particular year,” Baker said. “And sliding someone in before or after, simply negates what the plantation is up to and trying to represent.”

Bob Marten ended up losing his job for speaking to the press about the whole controversy. He said he was authorized to speak, the museum said he was not.

Marten still lives in Plymouth, and hopes that one day, Abraham Pearse will be recognized as the first black pilgrim.

“I’d like to see black, historically-oriented people, who work in the field of black history [conduct] research on Abraham Pearse and the pilgrims, and become an authority on the subject,” Marten said.

As of today, there is no black pilgrim at the Plimoth Plantation, but museum officials say they hope to one day expand, and build a farm-tavern that could include characters from 1620 through 1689, which would allow for someone to portray at least John Pedro as a black pilgrim.

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  • Jaltman

    Why would being descended from a Black man remove “prestige” from Pearce’s descendants?

    • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

      Did you notice that he never said who told him that?  Personally  I happen to think he made that up.

    • Aaron


  • Anonymous

    if you did DNA testing on people, we’d find that many of us are multiracial. Ever hear of the term Swamp Yankee??  

    • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

      Swamp Yankee as I understand it, refers to someone of English colonial ancestry who lives in the South Shore area of Massachusetts, Eastern Connecticut, and Rhode Island.  A Swamp Yankee is anything but multiracial. The term also suggests someone of lesser intelligence, or experience, say from a small town.  Swamp Yankees were people who had committed small crimes in England and were given the option of migrating to the Massachusetts  Colony with their families, or spending years in prison. 

  • Cindy

    As a descendent of one of the Mayflower I personally would have no problem being related to someone of color. It’s unfortunate that Pearse’s family would find this lacking in prestige. To me it’s all a fascinating part of who we are, regardless of our origin.

    • Russel Pierce

      As one of the Pierces in the decended Abraham Pearce line let me say I’d be proud of a multi-racial heritage. However I am more interested in the truth. I am offended by the implication a racial bias must exist just because science doesn’t align with a preferred narrative. Am I a bigot because I want to know the truth?

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    You guys really need to do a bit more research before you do a report.  Not every person who traveled on the Mayflower was a member of the “Leiden congregation” as the Pilgrims were known. Only 37 members of the congregation made the journey. The remainder of the passengers were either hired planters, men hired on for one year, family servants and one lone carpenter.  


  • Anonymous

    here’s a link to the Swamp Yankee listing from Wikipedia. 

    It is my understanding that Swamp Yankee refers to people in SE Mass who 
    kept away from population centers.  Several people over the years have
    told me that intermarriage took place.  For example, the Swamp Yankees 
    didn’t share the antipathy toward Native peoples.  I don’t have a citation for 
    this.  Just folk wisdom from people I’ve met over the years.  Proud, resilient, 
    self-reliant, sons and daughters of the Clearances, originally, in Scotland 
    who wanted nothing to do with any officialdom. 

  • Mario Valdes

    For a bit more on the subject, there is this link from June Cross’s 1996 Emmy award winning PBS Frontline documentary,  “Secret Daughter.”


  • A Blackamore

    Has a BLACKAMORE  from Boston England I found that reference.

    I did find out the our family moved north around the 13 century both to Nottingham and Boston. There are a couple of families with the name Blackamore in the Boston area.
    Our family name is a version of Blackmoor and our family most have come north from here.

    Has you know a large group of Pilgrams left the Boston area for Holland and some then joined up with others in Plymouth to travel to America.
    This said I don’t know if there is a connection between the our family in Boston and the ” Blackamore” who is on your list?

  • Jim

    I am a decendant of Abraham Pearce and would support further research interesting.

    Jim      e-mail    moonstrk@crocker.com

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