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The Pilgrim Fathers
by 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 and freedom.

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 assault again.

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 America.

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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