The Search for a Black Pilgrim Among America’s First Celebrants of Thanksgiving

A print of the Pilgrims being met by a Native American. The Mayflower is anchored offshore on the right. (Library of Congress)
A print of the Pilgrims being met by a Native American. The Mayflower is anchored offshore on the right. (Library of Congress)

Was one of the Plymouth Colony settlers a black man?

The search for a black Pilgrim began decades ago. Then, in 1981, historians announced with great fanfare that they had finally found enough evidence that one early settler was indeed of African descent.

That man was included in a 1643 record listing the names of men able to serve in the Plymouth, Mass., militia. He was identified as “Abraham Pearse, blackamore.”

In those days, a blackamore, a derivative of “black Moor,”  was a term used to describe someone with dark skin. Black Moors had roots in North Africa and often worked as servants or enslaved people in Europe.

Records indicated Abraham Pearse was not enslaved; he voted and owned land, having arrived in Plymouth in 1623 — three years after those aboard the Mayflower survived 65 days at sea, battling “snow & raine,” storms and wind, a broken mast and a “saill” that “fell over board, in a very grown sea,” according to an account of their journey by William Bradford, a founder and governor of Plymouth Colony. They finally landed in “good harbor,” by “Gods mercie,” at what would come to be called Plymouth.

More than three centuries later, there was great excitement surrounding the discovery of a black Pilgrim. A United Press International story ran Aug. 20, 1981, in the New York Times under the headline: “PLYMOUTH HISTORIAN SAYS A BLACK SETTLED AT PILGRIMS’ COLONY.”

But the excitement didn’t last. A DNA analysis raised doubts about Pearse.

“The genealogical record does not support the assertion that Abraham Pearse was African,” said Richard Pickering, deputy executive director of Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth dedicated to the Pilgrims who landed there in 1620.

Brad Pierce, a radiologist from Little Rock, reviewed DNA test of descendants of Abraham Pearse, according to a 2011 WBUR radio interview.

“We can say with virtual certainty that the father of Abraham and his ancestors on the male Pearse line are not of African descent,” Pierce told WBUR. “The DNA suggests that it has a characteristic that suggests they are of Scandinavian descent.” The tests did not exclude that Pearse’s mother could have been black, but those tests were not done.

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The Washington Post

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