The Latin adjective pereger/-gris, composed of per, through, and ager/agri, a field, a land, literally meant who has gone through lands, hence who is on a journey, away from home. From this adjective was derived the adverb peregri, peregre, meaning abroad, and to, or from, foreign parts. This in turn gave rise to peregrinus, which meant, as an adjective, that comes from foreign parts, strange, exotic, and, as a noun, a foreigner, in particular a foreign resident as opposed to a Roman citizen.
(Similar in derivation as well as in sense, the Latin adjective externus, meaning outward, external, of, or belonging to, another family or country, foreign, strange, was from the adjective exter, of same meanings.)
Borrowed from Latin peregrinus, the English word peregrine is found first in faukon peregryn (= peregrine falcon) in The Squire’s Tale by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400).
The form pilgrim, which appeared in late Old English as pilegrim, is of multiple origins. It is partly a borrowing from the Late Latin form pelegrinus, a variant, with dissimilation of r to l, of peregrinus. It is also from Anglo-Norman forms such as pilegrine and from Old French forms such as pellegrin (the Modern French word is pèlerin). However, according to Ernest Weekley in An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921), pilgrim is from Provençal pelegrin or Italian pellegrino, this early adoption by English being explained by the pilgrimage route to Rome via Provence.
The word pilgrim translates as:
– pelegrí, feminine pelegrina, in Catalan
– pellegrino, pellegrina, in Italian
– peregrino, peregrina, in Spanish and Portuguese
– peregrin and (from French) pelerin in Romanian
– Pilger in German
– pelgrim in Dutch.
The change of final -n to -m in English pilgrim is comparable to that in vellum, from Old French velin, and in grogram, from French gros grain, meaning coarse grain.
The English word pilgrim had, among its early meanings, as in classical Latin, that of a foreigner, an alien. For example, the Book of Judges, 19:16, is, in the Late Version (1395) of the Wycliffe Bible:
An eld man turnede ayen fro the feeld, and fro his werk in the euentid, and apperide to hem, which also hym silf was of the hil of Effraym, and he dwellide a pilgrym in Gabaa.
An old man turned again from the field, and from his work in the eventide, and appeared to them, which also himself was of the hill of Ephraim, and he dwelled a pilgrim in Gibeah.
And, as late as 1991, the British author Angela Carter (1940-92) used the word in its etymological sense of a traveller, a wanderer, in her novel Wise Children:
But, pilgrim by name, pilgrim by nature, came the day the wanderlust seized him by the throat again. He must be up and off, he must be up and doing. He dropped off a crate of crème de menthe for Grandma, tap shoes for me and Nora. then he was gone and left no forwarding address although the postcards came every month or so.
The word has had its sense of a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons since around 1200, and, in the late 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:
Bifil that in that seson on a day,
It happened that in that season on one day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
In Southwark at the Tabard Inn as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
Ready to go on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
To Canterbury with a very devout spirit,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
At night had come into that hostelry
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Well nine and twenty in a company
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
Of various sorts of people, by chance fallen
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
In fellowship, and they were all pilgrims,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
Who intended to ride toward Canterbury.
In religious contexts, pilgrim also denotes a person travelling through life, especially one who undertakes a course of spiritual development leading towards heaven, a state of blessedness, etc. The word is therefore specifically applied to a person who experiences life as a sojourn, exile, or period of estrangement from such a state. It is a reference to the Epistle to the Hebrews, 11:13-16, in the New Testament:
(King James Version – 1611)
13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. 15 And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. 16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
In 1630 or later, in Of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford (circa 1590-1657), one the Puritans who founded the colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and its second governor, referred to them as pilgrims in an allusion to this biblical passage. About their departure from the Dutch city of Leyden, he wrote:
They lefte yᵗ [= that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place near 12. years ; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to yᵉ [= the] heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.
The Reverend Cotton Mather (1663-1728) also used the term in Magnalia Christi Americana: or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England (1702), for example when describing the settlers’ first winter in America:
Besides the Exercises of Religion, with other Work enough, there was the care of the Sick to take up no little part of their Time. ’Twas a most heavy Trial of their Patience, whereto they were called the first Winter of this their Pilgrimage, and enough to convince them, and remind them, that they were but Pilgrims.
The same phraseology was repeated and became familiar in New England. By the late 18th century, commemorative toasts were often given to the Pilgrims or the Sons of the Pilgrims, and through such celebrations Pilgrims and Pilgrim Fathers eventually passed into use as historical designations. The first known user of Pilgrim Fathers was Samuel Davis in a 1799 hymn “written for the Anniversary of the Landing of the Pilgrims”:
Hymn for the 22d of December
Hail, Pilgrim Fathers of our race!
With grateful hearts, your toils we trace;
Again this Votive Day returns,
And finds us bending o’er your urns.
Jehovah’s arm prepar’d the road;
The Heathen vanish’d at his nod:
He gave his Vine a lasting root;
He loads his goodly boughs with fruit.
The hills are cover’d with its shade;
Its thousand shoots like cedars spread;
Its branches to the sea expand,
And reach to broad Superior’s strand.
Of peace and truth the gladsome ray
Smiles in our skies and cheers the day;
And a new Empire’s ’splendent wheels
Roll o’er the top of western hills.
Hail, Pilgrim Fathers of our race!
With grateful hearts your toils we trace;
Oft as this Votive Day returns,
We’ll pay due honors to your urns.
But several writers have been critical of the Pilgrim Fathers. For example, in Our Forgotten Foremothers, her address to the Congress of Women, held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, in May 1893, the American woman suffragist and reformer Lillie Devereux Blake (1833-1913) said, about the first settlers’ landing:
On that bleak December day, two hundred and seventy-two years ago, one hundred and one persons came ashore on the cruel New England coast, of whom only forty-one were men, and yet, with the usual modesty of their sex, in talking of the deeds of these first settlers, their sons have followed the advice given last fall by the leader of one of the political parties and “claimed everything;” whereas, the real heroines and martyrs of those days were the women. What hardships confronted them in the awful winter that followed! Only try to fancy what they must have suffered! Living in a few huts—they could not be called houses—on that ice bound coast. Think of the storms that howled about their frail habitations, the snows that swept over them, the bitter cold that froze them! How helpless they were! On the one hand the inhospitable forest that encircled them, the lurking place of wild beasts and hostile Indians; on the other hand the wide ocean that stretched between them and their former homes. How chill they must have been with only open fires fed with green wood, with no clothing fitted for the rigors of that climate, with not enough food for them and their children! What these women must have had to bear of hardship, misery and home-sickness! No wonder they died and their deaths were scarce recorded. Bradford does not mention even the death of his own wife.
And then it must be remembered, as Fanny Fern* long ago wittily said, “These women had not only to endure all that the Pilgrim Fathers had to endure, but they had to endure the Pilgrim Fathers also.” And these worthy men must have been very trying, as all know that a cold house and a poor dinner does not conduce to any man’s amiability, and they were so censorious.
(* Fanny Fern (1811-72) was an American newspaper columnist, humorist, novelist, and author of children’s stories.)
In a letter dated 29th September 1897, the English historian Frederick York Powell (1850-1904) wrote the following (P. F. stands for Pilgrim Fathers) to another British historian, Thomas Frederick Tout (1855-1929):
The colonial history of N[ew] E[ngland] is indeed very unlovely; the best people and their struggles with nature one does not hear of: their accursed ministers and mendaciously impudent politicians ‘fill the historic canvas’ . . . And then fellows like that overrated Hawthorne and Irving make poetry and sentiment of a set of hard-gutted lying bigots. I agree with him who wished that instead of the P. F. landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock had landed on them.
The following phrase is, rightly or wrongly, attributed to the American lawyer and statesman William Maxwell Evarts (1818-1901):
The pious ones of Plymouth who, reaching the Rock, first fell upon their own knees and then upon the aborigines [= the Native Americans].
This phrase, or a similar one, must have been well known in the early 20th century. The American author Thomas Dixon (1864-1946) made a character refer to it in The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia (1903):
“You have departed from the faith of our fathers.”
“Perhaps,” Gordon said, with a twinkle in his eye, “if you mean our famous fathers who ‘landed first on their knees and then on the aborigines.’”
In Reason, Thought and Language or The Many and the One: A revised system of logical doctrine in relation to the forms of idiomatic discourse (1906), Douglas Macleane (1856-1925), fellow, lecturer and chaplain of Pembroke College, Oxford, quoted it in the form of a distich:
To the first settlers in New England the following Sorites, with the final steps and conclusion left to be understood, is attributed:—
“Resolved (1) That the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. (2) That what is the Lord’s is His Saints’. (3) That we are His Saints.” Ending with the attempt to exterminate the Indians.*
* “First they fell upon their knees;
And then upon the aborigines.”
In a book published the same year, The Africander Land, Archibald Ross Colquhoun (1848-1914), the first Administrator of Southern Rhodesia, also quoted this distich immediately after writing:
When the British colonists made homes for themselves in America they found races already in possession.
These they pushed back, farther and farther, since it was impossible to assimilate them to an European civilisation, and a process of extermination was carried out.