In the summer of 1637, two working men at the English colony at Plymouth faced the possibility of execution if they were convicted of what the Puritans was said to be a grave moral crime.
Pilgrims John Alexander and Thomas Roberts had been caught in a homosexual relationship.
Plimoth Plantation Museum in Plymouth Massachusetts have discovered court records from their case, and from a handful of others to piece together the lives of the colony’s and America’s earliest gay and lesbian settlers.
“Plimoth Plantation as a museum has always been a place that has tried to recover every life,’’ said Richard Pickering, the museum’s deputy director. Pickering quoted the poet and author Paul Monette, who wrote that most of gay history “lies in shallow bachelors’ graves.’’
“We’re telling the audience that we’re going to talk about all those uncles and all those aunts who have fallen off the family tree,’’ said Pickering. “Their stories may be lost, so let’s contemplate those lost lives.’’ Though the historical record is sparse, “we can get a sense of what the options of the past were,’’ and provide some sense of history to a modern gay community “that really doesn’t have a strong sense of its past much before 1960.’’
Plimoth Plantation began researching the gay history of the colony about 15 years ago, in preparation for bringing its replica of the Pilgrim ship Mayflower to gay-friendly Provincetown.
Through the records were scant the prosecution of Alexander and Roberts for homosexual conduct reveals layers of complexities in the pilgrim life. Though the maximum penalty was death, neither man was executed. Alexander, who was perceived as the seducer and therefore was considered more responsible, was branded with a hot iron and banished from the colony, Roberts was allowed to stay, though the colony forbade him from owning land or participating in the political process.
“At first glance you would think that 17th-century New Englanders would be very harsh,’’ said Pickering. But both men were spared execution, and in time Roberts was allowed to own land and to vote. “Even though there are statutes, in the enactment of the law they are much more gentle.’’ It may have been that the colony needed every pair of hands and couldn’t afford to lose both workers, or that in a tiny community of a few hundred, the judges would have known the defendants personally and would have been reluctant to send neighbors to their deaths. (But some did try.)