An Interview With Carolyn Freeman, Research Manager at Plimoth Plantation
(DaRK PaRTY still has turkey leftovers in the refrigerator and we’re still trying to lose the 10 pounds we gained gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving. What better way to celebrate the Thanksgiving season than to talk with Carolyn Freeman Travers, the research manager at Plimoth Plantation? Carolyn grew up in
DaRK PaRTY: After fleeing religious persecution in
Carolyn: In 1607 and 1608, Separatists from the Scrooby area of Nottinghamshire fled
After living there for 11 or 12 years, the English Separatists began to look for a new place to live. They had a number of reasons; chief of which was the nearing end of the Twelve Years' Truce between the Dutch and the Spanish, set to occur in 1621.
William Bradford in his history of Plymouth Colony gave several other reasons. The poverty most of them lived in was discouraging other English from joining them, and the hard work was making them old before their time. Their children were either bowed down with the work they were doing or assimilating into the Dutch culture. They also wanted to bring Christianity to the remote parts of the world. All of these factors combined to cause some, although less than half, of the Separatists in
DP: When the Pilgrims arrived in
Carolyn: The Mayflower Compact, or combination as the colonists called it, was an interim agreement to stick together and obey the laws of
By landing in
After the Mayflower returned to
Carolyn: The two primary sources which describe conditions the first winter after their arrival both blamed the long voyage, wet and cold conditions, and lack of housing for the sicknesses which ultimately resulted in the deaths of almost half of the colonists.
The monotonous shipboard diet with its lack of fruit and vegetables resulted in scurvy or near scurvy for the colonists, and there was little by way of fresh food available after landing. That, coupled with the wet and cold conditions they faced those first few months, resulted in a "general sickness," very likely pneumonia or something similar, which took the lives of almost 50 of the 102 colonists.
Bradford in his history gave this description: "But that which was so sad and lamentable was, that in two or three months half of their company dyed, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and the (terrible) condition had brought upon them; so as there died sometimes two or three of a day in the aforesaid time; that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained." (Editor’s note: translated from old English).
“Mourt's Relation” referred to the distance that the passengers had to wade - three-quarters of a mile to get to shore while the Mayflower was at Provincetown, resulting in coughs and colds: "oftentimes they waded to the middle of the thigh, and often to the knees to go and come from land... it brought to the most, if not to all, coughs and colds, the weather proving suddenly cold and stormy, which afterwards turned to the scurvy, whereof many died."
DP: Miles Standish is often romanticized in his role as military leader of the Pilgrims. However, by some accounts he could be a mercurial and vicious man. What is your impression of Captain Standish?
Carolyn: I would call Myles Standish martial rather than mercurial. He had been trained as a soldier in the
Governor Bradford in his description of the first winter singled out Standish as one of the few healthy 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, dried 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 hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren." (Editor’s note: translated from old English).
The story can be read in colonist Edward Winslow's “Good News from
DP: What was the first Thanksgiving really like and what is the average person's biggest misconception about it?
Carolyn: The event popularly known as the "First Thanksgiving" was in reality a traditional English harvest festival, lasting several days, involving people outside of the church, and including feasting and sports. A Day of Thanksgiving in the Separatist faith was essentially another Sabbath, spent primarily in church and as likely to be a fast as a feast.
The only description of the event comes from a letter. Colonist Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in
I don't think I could pick out the biggest misconception. It wasn't a first - there had been thanksgiving services held by other Europeans prior to 1620 and Native peoples had been giving thanks in special ceremonies for thousands of years prior to their arrival. As I said above, it wasn't a day of Thanksgiving by their definition, although Winslow's description depicted an event much like what the American holiday became. It is also surprising to people how little is known - not the date, only some of the participants, very little of the menu and none of the logistics.