By Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.
Since the tragic events of September 11th, we have come to better understand the difference between a hero, a role model, and a celebrity. A hero/heroine is defined "as a person distinguished for exceptional courage, fortitude, or bold enterprise, especially in time of war or danger; one idealized or held in esteem for superior qualities or deeds of any kind." Role models and celebrities are not always heroes.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony had their first heroes early on. One of my "more distant" great grandfathers, Governor William Bradford in his history, Of Plimoth Plantation, written in the 1630s, tells of the great sickness that befell both the passengers and the crew of the Mayflower during the winter of 1620-1621.
The Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, after sixty-six days at sea confined below deck of the approximately 90 by 26 foot vessel. Finding no European settlement or even shelter awaiting them, that same day they drew up what we call today the "Mayflower Compact." Winston S. Churchill called it "one of the remarkable documents in history, a spontaneous covenant for political organization."
They spent the rest of the month and early December exploring Cape Cod and its environs searching for the best place to build their settlement. Having decided on an abandoned Native American village site with a good nearby water source and a hill where they might build a protective fort, on December 25th they began to erect the first building, the "first house for common use to receive them and their goods." They next started to build some frame, thatched-roof, one-room cottages. But in twelve months, according to Edward Winslow in a letter dated 11 December 1621, they had only completed seven dwellings plus four common buildings.
Almost immediately after their arrival they began to suffer from pneumonia and disease. It was a cold and rainy winter and, with no pier or dock, they constantly had to wade between their long boat and the shore. By the departure of the Mayflower on 5 April 1621 for its return voyage to England, half of the 102 passengers had died. This included fourteen of the eighteen wives, fourteen of the twenty-six heads of families, and eight of the dozen unattached men and boys. Among those lost were seven of the Pilgrims who have living descendants today.
As Bradford tells the story:
So as there died sometimes two or three of a day in the aforesaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And these, in the time of most distress, there was but six or seven sound persons who to their great commendations, be it spoken, spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to be named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered.
It also would have been up to these "Magnificent Seven" to bury the dead on what is now Cole's Hill. The present-day Sarcophagus memorial on that hill overlooking the Plymouth Rock contains many of their bones.
Unfortunately, Bradford fails to list all of these earliest of New England American heroes, but he does single out two.
Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness.
We can only guess who the others might have been. Bradford tells us that he and Gov. John Carver were not among them. Perhaps Priscilla Mullins was one. It is interesting to note that in his "The Courtship of Miles Standish," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Part II has John Alden say of Pricilla Mullins:
"I saw her going and coming, Now to the grave of the dead, and now to the bed of the dying, Patient, courageous, and strong, ..."
The care by Standish for the sick even appears in Part III when Longfellow says of Priscilla:
"she knew how during the winter He had attended the sick, with a hand as gentle as woman's;"
Although the courtship itself is not based on historic fact, the above and other facts, such as mention of the seven dwellings, suggests that Longfellow must have read Mourt's Relation, published in 1622, and Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation, first published in 1856, the latter published only two years before the publishing of "The Courtship."
As we know, it was in the Fall of 1621 that the Pilgrims held their harvest festival that has become associated with our present day Thanksgiving. Having raised a good crop, they believed that they had sufficient provisions for the coming winter. Little did they know that the first ship to arrive after the Mayflower, the Fortune would arrive on the first anniversary of the Mayflower's arrival with thirty-five more settlers. They were welcome, many being family members left behind in 1620. However, their arrival turned out to be a miss-Fortune because they brought no provisions whatsoever. Once again the Pilgrims were faced with a bleak winter and living on half-rations. Fortunately, no one died during the second winter.
Brewster and Standish survived until 1643 and 1656 respectively and were two of the most important members of the Colony until their deaths.
Stacy Wood is a retired Naval Officer and horologist. He was the first director/curator of the National Watch & Clock Museum. He is a member of the Lancaster County Historical Society and former governor of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (SMDPA).