By Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.
Ask "the man (or woman) on the street" what he (or she) knows about the Pilgrims, and you will probably be told that they (1) celebrated the First Thanksgiving with the Indians, (2) came to America on the Mayflower in 1620 to find religious freedom, (3) landed on Plymouth Rock. Some may even know that half of them died the first winter. Few will know that the majority of them had spent at least a dozen years in Holland. As descendants and members, hopefully we know a little more.
We should know that after they feasted at their 1621 harvest festival (aka Thanksgiving), in which they celebrated the successful raising of enough crops to get them through the winter, they were not to "live happily ever after." Two days short of the first anniversary of the signing of the Compact, the ship Fortune arrived on November 9, 1621. On board was Robert Cushman, who had been left behind when the Speedwell was unable to make the initial 1620 trip. Cushman was one of their Leiden leaders and brought his son Thomas with him. Thomas was later to succeed William Brewster as the Ruling Elder. Other family members and friends such as Philip Delano, Thomas Morton, and William Bassett were on the Fortune. That certainly must have raised the spirits of the initial survivors. They very quickly discovered that the ship might better have been named the MisFortune. Bradford writes in his history:
"there was not so much as bisket-cake or any other victuals for them, neither had they any bedding, but some sorry things they had in their cabins; not pot or pan to dress any meat in; nor overmany clothes, for many of them had brushed away their coats and cloaks at Plymouth as they came."
Not only had they brought no provisions, but the ship had to be restocked with provisions for its return voyage one month later. The arrival of the newcomers meant thirty-five more mouths to feed over the winter on depleted stores. The colony was immediately put on half rations with hopes of another ship arriving soon with supplies. The next supply ships didn't arrive until July 1623.
Not only was there a food shortage, but Edward Winslow, writing on 11 December 1621, states that they had only seven dwelling houses and four other buildings. As those who have visited the 1627 Plimoth Plantation know, even six years later the houses generally had but one room with, perhaps, a loft. With a colony population of eighty-six, it is hard to imagine eight to a dozen souls trying to find shelter in each building that winter.
In 1623 Bradford describes "the great drought" and how the food shortage had continued for the greater part of two years, so that when the ships arrived that year "the best dish they could present their friends with was a lobster, or a piece of fish without bread or any else but a cup of fair spring water." This was also the year in which fire destroyed three or four homes.
The failure of the Pilgrims' own ship Speedwell to make the original crossing with the Mayflower led to many problems during the first years that might have not occurred if it had made the voyage. On arrival, the Speedwell was meant to be used in fishing and travel along the coast. Had it been available after the return of the Mayflower in April 1621, it could have provided additional housing for the settlers, especially during the second winter. Instead a majority of the Leiden group sailing together, families had been forced to separate causing many wives and children to be left for a later crossing. Anyone how has experienced a long separation due to a military or business posting to a distant area for a number of months will have an idea about what our Pilgrim ancestors went through. For the Pilgrims it was even worse. For those Mayflower passengers who survived the first winter, little did they know that it would be over two years before they would be reunited with their families. One wonders how those families survived without their husbands and fathers. The Anne was the first major family ship to arrive. Among its arrivals in 1623 were Hester Mahieu, wife of Francis Cooke; Bridget Lee, wife of Samuel Fuller; Sarah Allerton, wife of Degory Priest; Barbara, who would marry widower Myles Standish; and Elizabeth, wife of Richard Warren. When they did arrive, Bradford writes that they found their husbands and fathers "ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked." Some 35 more of their Leiden group didn't join them until 1629 and another group not until 1630.
During the first decade, the Colony remained and agricultural community, with clothing, shoes, tools, implements, etc., having to be imported from England. Indeed, it wasn't until 1625 that the first heifer, a bull and three or four horses arrived.
Among those who never did make the trip was their beloved religious leader, Pastor John Robinson, who died in Leiden in 1625. The Pilgrims practiced infant baptism, but because they believed that only an ordained minister could perform baptisms, not an elder or deacon, the first baptism didn't take place in the Colony until 1629.
Natural disasters also took their toll. The most deadly continued to be sickness. The infectious fever of 1633 took the lives of at least twenty men, women and children of the Colony, including their physician and deacon Samuel Fuller. That same year was their first experience with the seventeen-year locust. A devastating hurricane hit the Colony in 1635 and an earthquake in 1638.
No, our Pilgrim ancestors did not "live happily ever after." They lived their lives making great sacrifices that few of us have even been asked to make. They suffered greatly in lonely and often terrifying conditions for a number of years without giving up and fleeing back to Holland or England. For a number of decades they lived in the most humble housing. When you see the 1640 Sparrow house, the 1666 Jabez Howland house, and the 1677 Harlow Old Fort House, realize that these houses started out as one room and were eventually enlarged to what they are today.
And yet, with their drafting of the Compact they were able to establish a permanent English Colony in which they governed themselves without royal interference. They established the town meeting system of ratification. The Plymouth Colony served as an important footing to the foundation of our Republic.
Could you have survived what they did? Let us then strive to honor them be seeing that they are not remembered as a curious and unimportant incident in American history.