03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Paper, Scissors, Plymouth Rock

Considering all the hoopla we make over Thanksgiving, I'd be willing to bet that most Americans believe the Pilgrims were the first non-native American settlers in North America.

Set aside the putative Norse landfall, and the certainty of the Spanish in Florida and on the Pacific Coast. It's the Anglo-American narrative that captains a big hunk of early American history. And that narrative didn't begin at Plymouth Rock.

The first English settlement was the failed Roanoke Colony in about 1585, and the first permanent English settlement was in Virginia, not Massachusetts -- in Jamestown, not Plymouth. And 1607, not in 1620.

So how did the Pilgrims, and not the folk of Jamestown, manage to get top billing, even though they showed up 13 years late to the party that became the United States of America? We're a country that loves firsts -- how come the Pilgrims occupy first place in most Americans' mythic timeline?

Maybe it was the demographics. The Pilgrims came with women and children (and some nonbelievers); women didn't come to the Jamestown colony for a year after it was settled.

Maybe it was class structure. Sure, the Pilgrims showed up on these shores with indentured laborers, as did the Jamestown company. But the Jamestown group seemed more class-stratified, being, at least by Captain John Smith's account, excessively burdened with ''gentlemen'' averse to labor.

Maybe it was because, at the outset anyway, the Pilgrims reportedly got on somewhat better with the native Americans than the Virginia colonists did (except for Smith's fabulous account of Pocahontas saving his life, for what that's worth).

Maybe it was the motive for coming here in the first place -- at least motive through the lens of history. Both Plymouth and Jamestown had their feet in a couple of joint English stock companies. One company had actually set up housekeeping in Maine in the same year that Jamestown was settled, but it was soon abandoned.

In Jamestown, business and profit were the driving forces. The Pilgrims' voyage was financed at least in part by Puritan businessmen bent on profit as well as proselytizing.

But when you're weaving the tapestry of history, "profit" doesn't cast as glorious a glow as the Puritans' motive of "religious freedom'' -- plucky, God-fearing folk seeking freedom of worship, a freedom they turned around and denied to others. [''Puritanical'' is not a compliment -- at least not so far. The Puritans had actually disapproved of all the religious tolerance around them in England. Boston would ban Quakers; four Quakers were hanged for their religious beliefs.]

Anyway, that's my thinking. What's yours? How did Bay State turkey trump Virginia ham, and the late-coming Pilgrims trump the Virginians in history and imagination?

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