Pilgrims, Pie and Pity: Happy Thanksgiving

Today we are reminded of the Pilgrims who “landed on Plymouth Rock”, suffered terribly due to their complete lack of preparedness and forethought, and were saved from utter destruction by the sheer kindness of “strangers”.  Well, they weren’t really strangers as the Wampanoag people had been dealing with English settlers and raiders for some time, even suffering losses themselves due to plagues of Small Pox and other disease introduced by the English.  Ultimately if it weren’t for the kindness, and cultural values, of the Wampanoag and other groups of Native Americans, the Pilgrims may not have survived at all (think of the original Jamestown colony).

Now, I am not as far as I know a descendant of any of the Mayflower passengers of 1620, although my Grandmother has told me she thinks perhaps we are.  Since I recently discovered a possible connection to a Jamestown colony member, I do wonder if that is really what she was told as a child. (See my post https://livesofserfs.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/the-tale-of-three-john-gibbs/)  But, in the spirit of the day, and the family lore, let’s talk a little about the Pilgrims as I know them after doing a little research.

  • The Pilgrims did not travel to North America to seek religions freedom.  They already had that where they were, in the Netherlands.  They had left England for the Netherlands earlier in the century to gain religions freedom.  But in the Netherlands they didn’t feel they were able to retain their cultural identity as “English”.  So they decided to pack up once more and set their sights on the New World as the place they could go and retain their cultural identity.  Religious freedom was already a reality.
  • They set sail from England in September 1620 and it took them about sixty-six days to cross the Atlantic, thus they arrived in November.  Travelling sixty-six days in a ship the size of a large yacht does not sound like fun to me.  And add to it sailing across the northern Atlantic during fall storm season?  It’s amazing they made it at all.  (I am still a little boggled why so many ships sailed during the colder months of the year.  Perhaps I should look into this more to find out why.)
  • They landed far north of their intended destination, the mouth of the Hudson River.  Instead they landed in Cape Cod Bay.  If you look at a map, this may not seem like a big difference in today’s travel times, but back then it was a huge distance.  The reason they missed their original destination was weather.  And they did make at least one attempt to continue south, but were turned back by rough seas, and so decided to stay put instead of continuing to their original destination.
  • They arrived sick.  Most likely 66 days on board the ship without access to fresh food caused all kinds of diseases, including scurvy which was documented.  Once they decided to stay put, those men who were able to did manage to get off the ship and build houses and other buildings on shore while the sick remained on board.  This probably sealed the fate of those on board.  Knowing what we know now of communicable diseases, I kind of think if they had been able to get off that ship sooner and spread out more on shore, perhaps the death toll wouldn’t have been as high.  But that is, of course, speculation on my part.  As it was, about 45 out of the 102 people on board were dead by March of 1621 and apparently only 4 adult women survived.
  • When they finally went ashore in early spring of 1621, they did apparently had seeds to plant, such as wheat, but because they settled on land not suited to the cultivation of wheat, it was not a successful crop (think seashore…how many wheat fields to you see along a seashore?).  They also had apparently found a store of corn during earlier forays to land in a mounded grave of a Native American, but whether or not they ever used this corn for planting is not clear.  What is clear is they were not prepared for the realities of survival in North America, and perhaps could be criticized for their lack of forethought, or at the very least their optimism.  Of course, as we know, it was not the first, nor last time a colonizing attempt would go wrong, and I can only think of our own attempts at sending people into space, or the people who are crowding boats desperately trying to make it from Africa to Europe as examples of woeful unpreparedness in modern times.
  • What saved the Pilgrims was not just Squanto, as we like to believe.  It was the entirety of the Native American people who lived in that area.  Prior to the Pilgrims arrival, English raiders had captured and enslaved members of the Wampanoag group in the same area!  It seems more likely from this perspective that they would have been more likely to fight the colonists than help them.  And in fact, some of them did fight!  But as the Pilgrims stayed on their ship, and built houses, maybe it became clear to the Wampanoag that these were not raiders and so they chose to let them stay.  After observing the Pilgrims struggling, they even helped them survive their second winter in North America by teaching them planting techniques for the land they occupied.  What ultimately saved the colonists was the most human of emotions: pity.  We can probably guess, but never know, what conversations were like took place in the homes of the Wampanoags and the other groups in the area about these new arrivals.  They must have had some clue that the Pilgrims were perhaps the tip of the iceberg, and making enemies may have seemed pointless.  What I wouldn’t give for a time machine.

What got me thinking about this today was an article posted by the NY Times about the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of New York and what it takes to be recognized as a descendant of a Mayflower passenger.  (See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/nyregion/persistence-in-the-genes-connecting-the-dots-to-the-mayflower.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0)  What does it take?  GOOD PRIMARY SOURCES.  Kudos go to them for demanding good primary source research.  It’s one thing for your grandmother to tell you you’re a descendant, and entirely another thing to prove that you are.  Also, with 5 generations of descendants proved by the society already, if you can make it back that far, you open up a wealth of information and history that make it worth the try.

BUT, one last tidbit for thought about the article above: “Historians say there is a dark side to what they refer to as “lineage societies.” Mayflower societies developed, at least in part, as a “reaction to immigration” that was transforming the United States late in the 19th century, said Herb Sloan, a history professor at Barnard College. Membership, he said, conferred the notion that “we’re authentic. We’re better. We were here before. Unlike these unwashed immigrants coming to America.”  I would also like to add here that even today the Society does not include for membership the descendants of the saviors of their own ancestors: the Wampanoag people.  

Something to think about on this Thanksgiving Eve as you eat your turkey, stuffing and pie.

(Please don’t start me on how these three items were NOT on the menu at the first Thanksgiving!)


Some links about the topics from today’s post:










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