::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
5 Questions About: The Pilgrims

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 Plymouth, Massachusetts and like many of her peers had a summer job working at the plantation museum in costume. Since 1981, she has worked at Plimoth Plantation's Research Department, for the last few years as Research Manager. She wanted to be sure we understood that the word “pilgrim” as many meanings. “The term Pilgrims can have several meanings depending on circumstances and its use therefore can be confusing,” she told us. “I will use Separatist for the religious group that separated from the Church of England; and Plymouth colonists for those people of whatever religious belief that came over aboard the Mayflower.”)

DaRK PaRTY: After fleeing religious persecution in England for the Netherlands, why did the Pilgrims decide to leave the relative peace and prosperity of Leiden for the great unknowns of the New World?

Carolyn: In 1607 and 1608, Separatists from the Scrooby area of Nottinghamshire fled England for the more tolerant Netherlands, settling first in Amsterdam, where religious dissention among the English living there drove them a year later to Leiden. In that much smaller city, it was harder for them to get enough employment to make a living, but much more peaceful.

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 Leiden to emigrate, and they, with their investors, eventually got a patent from the Virginia Company.

DP: When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth they wrote the Mayflower Compact, which has been called the precursor to the U.S. Constitution. What was the Mayflower Compact and how important was it?

Carolyn: The Mayflower Compact, or combination as the colonists called it, was an interim agreement to stick together and obey the laws of England. The colonists' original patent giving them permission to settle in America was for territory in the north parts of Virginia, the boundary of which was roughly the mouth of the Hudson River.

By landing in New England instead, they lost their legal right to settle as a company. Shortly before reaching shore, some on board were planning to "use their own liberty" since the patent from the Virginia Company would be void. The compact bound them into a civil body politic, giving them the power to enact such laws as necessary and promising due obedience to same.

After the Mayflower returned to England in May, the colony's English investors obtained a new patent from the newly-formed Council for New England on June 1, 1621. This second patent was sent to Plymouth Colony aboard the Fortune which arrived on November 11, 1621. This document superseded the combination drawn up a year earlier. The second patent survived and is the collection of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth; what became of the Compact is unknown.

DP: During their first New England winter the Pilgrims suffered grave causalities. What was the cause of the hardship?

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 Netherlands, apparently stationed in Leiden or the surrounding area. He had become acquainted with the Separatists in Leiden, including their pastor John Robinson, and was hired to come to the colony and oversee their military affairs. He was in charge of two of the three exploring expeditions on Cape Cod in 1620, later organizing and training the colony's militia.

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).

Bradford's words portray a caring man. However, in his dealings with Natives perceived as a threat to the colony, Standish definitely believed in striking hard. The nearby colony of Wessagusset (present-day Weymouth) had aggravated the local Massachusett people to the point of attack. Knowing that the English colonists of Plymouth would retaliate, they planned to attack Plymouth as well. Learning of the plan, the Plymouth government ordered Standish to take some men to Wessagusset and attack first, specifying that he was to bring back the head of the leader, Wituwamet, "that he might be a warning and terror to all of that disposition."

The story can be read in colonist Edward Winslow's “Good News from New England,” but briefly, Standish and his men killed three men, including Wituwamet, and hanged another. Three others were killed elsewhere. Pastor Robinson was distressed at the news, and wrote that [killing] one or two principals should have been enough. He described Standish as "a man humble and meek amongst you, and towards all in ordinary course," but "there may be wanting that tenderness of the life of man (made after Gods image) which is met." This seems to me to sum up Standish's character.

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 England, "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others."

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.

Read our 5 Questions About interview on the Great War here

Read our 5 Questions About interview about happiness here

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