Pilgrim Food for Thought

As we settle into this Thanksgiving, it’s worth remembering some of what the second permanent English settlers in the New World (the first being the Jamestown settlers) went through in order to lay the groundwork for what later was to become the United States of America. Here’s some food for thought, courtesy of the History Channel DVD Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower.

* The Pilgrims spent 10 years living in the Netherlands (where there was more religious freedom than in England), before deciding to set off to the New World.

* About half the passengers were non-Pilgrims who just wanted to go to the New World as well, whom the Pilgrims called the Strangers – although after two months of crossing the Atlantic in close quarters it’s doubtful that they were considered strangers anymore.

* They were victims of a bait and switch deal where the investors who financed the voyage at the last minute demanded that the Pilgrims had to work six days a week for them after getting to the New World – like indentured servants. By that time the Pilgrims were too deeply into the project (e.g. had sold their land and many of their possessions) to back out.

* Just before departing they had to sell off literally tons of supplies in the ship in order to pay additional bills.

* They wanted to leave in spring or early summer but were beset by delays so they finally set off in August, with the Mayflower and Speedwell. But the Speedwell started taking on too much water so they turned back to have it repaired. After waiting a few weeks they set off again and had to turn back yet again, finally deciding that the Speedwell was just too unseaworthy. They lost a month that way, so had to set off in September, one of the worst possible times not only because of the Atlantic gales revving up, but because that meant they would arrive in the New World in November at the beginning of winter.

* During a storm, a main support beam cracked, threatening the integrity of the whole ship. But they managed a make-shift solution.

* According to the agreement with the investors, they were supposed to arrive and settle in the Hudson River Valley – not far from present-day New York City. They reached landfall around Cape Cod, then headed south toward the mouth of the Hudson, but got caught in the Pollock Rip Shoals off of Cape Cod where many many ships have gone down. They were in grave danger but fortunately the wind direction shifted and they managed to turn back.

* A schism broke out, with some of them saying their special laws drawn up for their venture will be invalidated if they don’t settle within the Virginia Colony, which at that time encompassed part of the Hudson River Valley. That’s what led to an onboard agreement – now called the Mayflower Compact – in which they drew up special rules and regulations to abide by in lieu of the Virginia Colony laws.

* They originally tried to settle down on Cape Cod but realized they had antagonized the Nauset tribe too much by digging up their mounds containing stored provisions and disturbing grave sites. So they settled on the mainland at what they called Plymouth, which turned out to be a poor choice for settlement compared to the present-day Boston Harbor 40 miles to the north. They chose a spot where a group of Wampanoags called the Patuxet had lived. They villages were deserted, because four years earlier in about 1616, almost all of the Patuxet along with thousands of others up and down the northern coast had died from plague, probably from germs brought over by a French ship.

* By February or March, only a little over half of the original 102 passengers were still alive. Most had died from scurvy and other diseases, including their governor, John Carver.

* Several months after arriving they finally established relations with the Wampanoag. Squanto, one of the few surviving Pautuxet, chose to live with them and taught them a lot about surviving in the new world. Squanto already could speak English, because several years before, he was captured by traders/slavers and sold as a slave in Malaga, Spain, where he escaped to London and made his way back to his homeland.

* That spring, the Mayflower and its crew headed back to England, many months later than what they originally planned. It only took a month to go back, versus the two-month journey the way there. When it arrived in London, the investors were expecting the ship to be loaded with valuable goods from the New World. It was only loaded with rocks, for ballast.

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