Thanksgiving is a celebration of gratitude. The Pilgrims, who survived the voyage to America on the Mayflower and their first winter, must have surely felt the elation that comes from enduring a great hardship. They lived difficult lives. How fortunate we are to live in these modern times, despite the problems that plague our communities and world. For many of us, living today is easier in numerous ways. Why not offer thanks each day when we wake.
The Mayflower story is a testament to courage, perseverance, and dreams. This is how it went.
The Mayflower sailed from England with 102 passengers plus crew. Some were families traveling together, while others left family members behind. Destined for Virginia, 37 of the passengers were Pilgrims (Separatists) fleeing persistent religious persecution. Some were hired hands, servants, or farmers called “Strangers” by the Separatists and recruited by London merchants with interests in the voyage.
Several women on the Mayflower were pregnant. One, Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth en route to a boy. He was named Oceanus. A young boy died during the voyage, and a second baby was born during the winter of 1620-1621, when the company wintered aboard the ship. There was one stillbirth during the construction of the colony.
Four small children of this group of passengers were consigned to the care of the Mayflower pilgrims. The Virginia Company began the transportation of children in 1618. The children were thought to be orphans, foundlings or involuntary child labor. At that time, children were routinely rounded up from the streets of London, orphanages, or taken from poor families receiving church relief to be used as laborers in the colonies. Any legal objections to the involuntary transportation of the children were over-ridden by the Privy Council. In 1959, it was proven that these four children belonged to Katherine More, but the admission of adultery led the father, Samuel More, to believe they were not his children, so he sent them to America because they were deemed illegitimate, and a source of great controversy in England. Three of the four children died in the first winter in the New World, but the survivor, Richard More, lived to be approximately 81, dying in Salem around 1695.
The passengers slept and lived most often in the low-ceilinged great cabins. The cabins were thin-walled and cramped, around 25 by 15 feet. A main deck cabin was a little larger. Below deck, any person over five feet tall would be unable to stand up straight. The maximum possible space for each person was slightly less than a standard single bed.
Passengers would pass the time by reading by candlelight or playing cards and games. Meals on board were cooked using a firebox, an iron tray filled with sand on which a fire was built. This carried some risk because it was kept below deck. Passengers made their own meals from daily rations and food was cooked for a group at a time. Living in crowded quarters, and the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables (difficult to store on a long sea voyage) many passengers suffered from scurvy, a lack of vitamin C. Passengers with scurvy experienced symptoms such as rotten teeth, bleeding gums, and bad breath. (Can any of us imagine the reality of this today? Not to mention the lack of hygiene and the odors permeating the cramped quarters.)
Passengers consumed large amounts of beer. (In this situation, it was probably a good idea). It was thought to be safer than water. The Pilgrims were accustomed to the lack of safe drinking water, and beer was considered part of a healthy diet. Their clothes included: oiled leather and canvas suits, stuff gowns, leather and stuff breeches, shirts, jerkins, doublets, neck-cloths, hats and caps, hose, stockings, belts and piece goods. William Mullins, a merchant shoemaker on the voyage and a “stranger” brought 126 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots with him.
No cattle or beasts of burden were brought on the journey but there were pigs, goats, and poultry. Some brought pets such as cats and birds. Peter Browne took his large mastiff and John Goodman brought his spaniel.
The crew of the Mayflower totaled about thirty men. There was the pilot, John Clarke, a carpenter, a bosun, a gunner, a cook, and four quartermasters, Robert Coppin, the second mate, and Andrew Williamson, the ship’s merchant (today he would be known as the purser).
William Bradford, a Pilgrim church leader, wrote about a sailor who taunted the passengers about their seasickness, and how he would watch them die, thrown overboard and then take their possessions. When this sailor suddenly became sick, died and was cast into the sea (the first of the only 2 deaths during the voyage) the Pilgrims viewed his death as a divine justice. Bradford wrote “Thus his curses light on his own head, and it was an astonishment to all his fellows for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him.”
The seamen on the Mayflower charted their course with a compass, measured their speed with the log and line system, and time was measured with an hourglass.
The voyage was plagued by rough seas and storms, which pushed it off course. At times, the sailing became so difficult that the Mayflower’s master, Christopher Jones, wanted to return to England but weighing the risk, he decided against it.
To establish legal order and to suppress growing strife within the ranks, the settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact after the ship dropped anchor at the tip of Cape Cod on November 19. The Pilgrim’s realized they would not make it to Virginia and scouted for a suitable settlement, especially after the ship’s master threatened to leave them if they didn’t quickly find a place to land. The passengers of the Mayflower finally landed at Plymouth on December 26, 1620.
During the winter the passengers remained on board the Mayflower, “suffering an outbreak of a contagious disease described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.” Afterward, only 53 passengers remained, just over half, alive. Half of the crew died as well. In the spring, they built huts ashore, and in March of 1621, the survivors disembarked from the Mayflower. What a journey!
I’m so grateful for my comforts. What are you thankful for?