HARWICH — For sixth-graders at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, the encounter between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag just got real.
The students of language arts teacher Susannah Remillard are using the sketches of Samuel De Champlain, the letters of Gov. William Bradford and interviews with Wampanoag employees of Plimoth Plantation to re-create Southeastern Massachusetts, circa 1600s.
What they are finding is a far more complex story than the traditional celebration of the Pilgrim landing, one that is edged by an elegy for the Wampanoag lives lost to disease in the years immediately preceding the Mayflower’s arrival and for the hardships faced by the new settlers.
“This story is already taught in schools,” Remillard said. She said what she wanted to do as a middle school teacher is add more depth and breadth in a developmentally appropriate manner.
Today’s educational standards place more of an emphasis on expository writing, Remillard said. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, “This is my nonfiction piece.”
Each student was assigned a historical personality — English or Wampanoag — and wrote an illustrated poem based on their research.
“In the third grade, we just learned a lot about the Mayflower,” said student Samantha Van de Graaf.
Now the students are learning how the Pilgrims adapted to the land, she said.
Lessons in earlier grades were “a little bit sugarcoated,” said sixth-grader Lily Pierce. Now students are learning about the darker side of history, such as the role disease played in opening up English settlement.
Students learned from interviewing “Pilgrims” at Plimoth Plantation earlier this month and talking to Wampanoag people engaged in work at the plantation’s Wampanoag homesite, Remillard said.
As tribal members roasted quail around the fire, students asked, “What happened to Metcom? What do you feel about Massasoit and his role in negotiating with the English?” said Remillard, a 13th-generation Cape Codder who took part in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer course on Native Americans of New England.
“We’re trying to fill in the backstory of what happened prior to the colonization. So kids understood why the colony was successful — it wasn’t just step on a rock and off you go,” Remillard said.
Students learned about the hardship faced by the Pilgrims, who lost half of their population to disease and hardship the first winter, and how the near eradication of the local Wampanoag population to disease opened the doors to English settlers, Remillard said.
Champlain sketched Plymouth Harbor in 1606, showing a lively community with smoke pouring out of the top of wetus. “It’s clear this is a thriving place,” Remillard said.
But plagues before the arrival of the Pilgrims wiped out most of the Wampanoag population.
“By the time the English get to Patuxet (Plymouth), where they will settle, most of the Wampanoag are gone,” Remillard said.
By 1620, Bradford wrote, in essence, “Nobody’s here. The fields are cleared. The water is sweet and fresh,” Remillard said.
The plague that hit around 1616, just a few years before the Pilgrim arrival, had wiped out 70 to 90 percent of the Wampanoag population and left Plymouth seemingly empty with no barriers to settlement, said Darius Coombs, director of Wampanoag and Algonkian interpretive training, research and community recruitment at Plimoth Plantation.
“Nobody was there. People were wiped out from the plague or fled inland,” Coombs said. Wetu houses were empty. Bones littered the ground.
“It was all in disarray by the time 1620 rolled around,” Coombs said.
One recent theory is that the disease was the bacterial infection known as leptospirosis, which can be spread by rats from ships and result in liver failure, Coombs said.
“It was the most devastating thing that ever happened to our people,” Coombs said. “Can you just imagine the leaders we lost ... the community structure.”
“You watch everyone you loved pass away,” Remillard said. “No wonder they were traumatized.”
Coombs said Remillard is doing important work, “telling the true history of what happened.′
“We don’t shy away from disease,” Coombs said. “We don’t shy away from colonization. We don’t shy away from slavery. People want to know what really happened.”
Traders enslaving Wampanoag people is one of the things that led to the skirmish at First Encounter Beach that encouraged the Pilgrims to move on to Plymouth, then known as Patuxet, Coombs said.
Poems written by Remillard’s students capture the sights, smells and sounds of the 1600s from the perspective of both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims.
Brooke Gardiner wrote about baby Peregrine White, born to Susanna White while the Mayflower rocked in Provincetown Harbor.
“I was brought down to the slippery and
Gucky lower deck and put on a wooden
Slat. People surrounded me,” Gardiner wrote.
“My screams were as loud (as) musket
Shot, the men could probably hear me
From the shore.”
Maddie Vlacich wrote about the Pocasset Wampanoag sachem Weetamoo, a female chief who led her troops into battle against the English in King Philip’s War and drowned in the Taunton River trying to escape her enemies.
“The smell of the marsh is getting stronger as I approach the river.
I take a step closer to the river, and take a deep breath.
Then, I jump,” Vlacich wrote.
Remillard said the history of indigenous people should have a greater role in school curriculum, a lesson she tries to impart to the charter school’s 81 sixth-graders.
“What I have said to them is they are always on Wampanoag land,” Remillard said.
“Where do we expose our kids to 12,000 years of history in a land we now live in and enjoy?” said Remillard, who is going to New Zealand in January on a Fulbright scholarship to study how Maori history is incorporated in that country’s school lessons.
“This history is here,” in the names of Sesuit Harbor, Mashpee, Iyannough Road, Remillard said.
“They just don’t see it because they haven’t been taught to look for it,” she said. “We’re still here, co-existing in this beautiful place.”