The Pilgrim Fathersby Brenda Ralph Lewis
Ever since the Spaniards became the first Europeans to colonise America, this 'New World' possessed a dazzling reputation as a land of opportunity. Here,
the shackles of poverty, restriction and injustice would magically fall away
and in this second Garden of Eden, men and women could at long last be free
to pursue their own destiny. It was, of course, a utopian dream and took no
account of the perils that lurked in unknown territory which was already
occupied by native Americans, not all of whom were friendly. Nevertheless,
the dream was extremely potent, not only for those who sought America's fabled
wealth, but those whose consciences were chained by religious persecution.
The Protestant Reformation, which had begun in 1517, had reached England some twenty years later. As elsewhere in Europe, it spawned dissenting minorities who were rather more ascetic in the practice of their new faith than the
Church of England which was Protestant in name, but was, effectively,
Catholicism without the Pope. Of these, the plain-living Puritans who eschewed
what they saw as the gaudy, papist show of the English church, were the most
overt and became the most oppressed. In 1609, the Puritans found England so
inimical that 35 of them left the country and settled at Leyden, in Holland.
Holland was much more to their strict religious taste, but after ten years,
the Puritans began to seek a better freedom than a patch in a foreign land.
The Puritans looked, therefore, to America where the first successful
English colony had been planted in 1607, and applied to the Virginia Company
for a grant of land. The arrangement was that the Puritans would return to
England in the 'Speedwell' where they would join the 'Mayflower' which was to
carry another 66 settlers across the Atlantic to America. The planned convoy
never took place. The 'Speedwell' proved unseaworthy and all 101 emigrants had
to crowd on board the 27-metre (90 ft) 'Mayflower'. Apart from its small size,
ships like the 'Mayflower' were hardly ideal for ocean sailing where the high
Atlantic swell and violent storms could be fatal to vessels better suited to
coast-hugging in Europe.
An overcrowded ship like the 'Mayflower' ran extra dangers . One of them was
the ease with which infections spread on board after the ship left
Southampton on 5 August 1620 and headed for the New World. In the six weeks it
took the 'Mayflower' to reach the North American coast, disease carried off
several of the 'Pilgrims' or 'Pilgrim Fathers', as they came to be called.
The voyage itself had seen tensions build up between the Puritan minority on
board and the non-Puritans who made up three-quarters of the settlers.
Feelings ran even higher when the 'Mayflower' was blown off course and
eventually fetched up not in Virginia, but at Cape Cod, Massachusetts,in
native American territory. The perils were not over even as they rowed ashore:
one 'Pilgrim' Dorothy Bradford, wife of William Bradford, one of the Puritan
leaders, fell overboard and drowned within sight of the land of opportunity
Another serious problem presented itself once the Pilgrims were ashore.
Several colonists made it clear that they would not be bound by any of the
Old World's rules, or indeed any rules at all. Fortunately, 41 of the
settlers had a greater sense of discipline and responsibility. They drafted
the Mayflower Compact which laid down the basis of government and ensured
rights for all the settlers.
Even more fortunately , there were three strong personalities among the
Pilgrims who saw to it that the Compact was observed. One was John Carver
(?1575-1621) who had been a deacon of the Puritan church while in exile in
Leyden. Carver was chosen as their governor by the Massachusetts settlers in
December 1621. Another was Yorkshire-born William Bradford (1650-1657) who
became second governor after Carver's death from sunstroke in 1621.Bradford
remained governor for some 35 years.
The third dominant figure was Lancashire-born Myles Standish (1584-1656). The more flamboyantly-named Standish was a career soldier who had served in
the Dutch army. In 1621, he was chosen as military captain for the new colony.
The settlers certainly had need of a leader like Standish. Soon after they
landed, the local natives, whom the Puritans came to regard as godless
savages, became affronted when an army party led by Standish interfered with
their ancestral graves. The natives attacked, but were unprepared for the
colonists' guns, which they had never seen before , and were quickly routed.
This was only the first skirmish between Standish and the natives which was to
gain him a reputation for near-invincibility. In 1623, for instance, his
quick, determined action saved the colonists when they came under native
Unfriendly natives were not the Pilgrims' only problem. December was a bad
time to start a settlement, especially when so many of them were too sick to
do the hard work which founding the settlement required . The minority who
were fit enough erected shelters near the beach at Cape Cod for a start, and
then set about reconnoitring the hinterland for sustenance. Had it not been
for friendlier native Americans who taught them their skills, the Pilgrims
might never have survived. The natives acted as guides through the forests and
taught the colonists woodcraft, trapping, hunting,how to make maple sugar,
moccasins and birch-bark canoes and how to raise crops of maize and tobacco.
They also introduced the colonists to the turkey, which was native to North
This aid, however, came too late for half the colonists, who died during
their first punishing winter in Massachusetts, but the following year, the
survivors showed they had learned their lessons well. In the autumn of 1621,
they produced their first successful harvest and in gratitude, celebrated
their first Thanksgiving . Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the
United States in 1863, and has been observed on the fourth Thursday in November
ever since, with the turkey as a centrepiece of the festivities.
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