13 September 1951
ON Thursday, 13 September 1951, twenty-seven members of the Society journeyed to Plymouth at the invitation of Mr. Ellis Wethrell Brewster, a Resident Member of the Society, and President of the Plymouth Cordage Company, of which our President, Augustus Peabody Loring, Jr., was Chairman of the Board. A bus of the Boston and Maine Transportation Company provided an easy and agreeable journey to Plymouth, where the members inspected the standard historical sites and the works of the Plymouth Cordage Company. Returning to Boston, the bus ignominiously collapsed, but fortunately in close proximity to a cider mill in Hanover, where the members passed the late afternoon agreeably until a relief bus arrived from Boston.
In honor of this journey, Mr. Samuel Eliot Morison prepared the following paper, which is a revision of an address that he delivered to the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of New Hampshire in 1936, which was printed at the Merrymount Press the following year in a limited edition:
Why are the Pilgrim Fathers Significant?
THE place of the Pilgrim Fathers in American history can best be stated by a paradox. Of slight importance in their own time, they are of great and increasing significance in our time, through the influence of their story on American folklore and tradition. And the key to that story, the vital factor in this little group, is the faith in God that exalted them and their small enterprise to something of lasting value and enduring interest.
The first half of this paradox, the insignificance of the Plymouth Colony in the colonial era, is one upon which almost all American historians are now agreed. It was the earliest colony in New England, and it proved to the great mass of English Puritans who were seeking a home in the New World that it was possible to make a living in New England. But, after 1629, New Plymouth (the official name of the Pilgrims’ colony) was overshadowed by the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, to which it was annexed in 1691. Massachusetts Bay, rather than Plymouth Colony, was the seed bed of New England. There and in Connecticut and New Haven the distinctive New England institutions of church and state, culture and commerce were developed. And it was in Rhode Island, Maine and Maryland rather than in New Plymouth that germinated the seeds of democracy and religious liberty which are among the principal glories of our American heritage.
Three American institutions may be said to have been founded or at least started by the Pilgrim Fathers. These were, registry of deeds and civil marriage, both of which they had picked up from the Dutch, and the Congregational Church, which they were the first in America to set up. Massachusetts Bay would probably have adopted the Congregational form of church organization in any case; but few if any of her early leaders had seen an actual working church of that pattern; and when Dr. Samuel Fuller, the Pilgrim physician, visited Salem in 1629 to cure the epidemic that broke out there among the recent immigrants, he was able to describe the government of the First Church of Plymouth in a manner that clinched the argument for the First Church of Salem being a Congregational Church.
For the Pilgrim Fathers of Plymouth were Puritans. They must share in whatever praise be accorded to the Puritans for their virtues, and blame for their shortcomings. The word “Puritan” used in their day meant the people who wished to push the Protestant Reformation to what they conceived to be its logical conclusion. All Puritans, generally speaking, were Calvinist in theology; but they might be Presbyterian, Congregationalist or otherwise in their views of church government, and Nonconformist or Separatist in their attitude toward the Anglican Church. The nucleus of the Pilgrim Fathers was a congregation of English Separatists—left-wingers of the Puritan movement—who fled from England in 1608 and settled at Leyden in Holland. Their pastor, the Rev. John Robinson, was a broadminded scholar who, after sundry conferences with other Puritan leaders, worked out the Congregational Church organization which in time became the official church of colonial New England. We should drop the misleading antithesis of “Pilgrim and Puritan,” invented in the nineteenth century. The Pilgrims were Puritans; nobody more so.
Even the Pilgrim church at Plymouth was soon overshadowed by the churches that sprang up elsewhere in New England, churches whose learned and brilliant pastors, such as John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, contributed to the literature of Puritanism and Congregationalism, as the simple parsons of Plymouth Colony never did. By any quantitative standard, the Plymouth Colony was one of the smallest, weakest and least important of the English colonies, even of those in New England. But in quality, especially in spiritual quality, it was second to none.
If all this be true, you may well ask, why does the Colony of New Plymouth bulk so large in the historical consciousness of today? Why do most Americans and all Englishmen (to the intense annoyance of Virginians, whose Jamestown colony was founded thirteen years earlier) frequently claim priority for the Mayflower? Why do the Pilgrim Fathers so constantly figure in poetry, oratory, comic strips and advertisements around Thanksgiving Day?
You may answer this question for yourself by reading even a small part of William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. Here is a story of simple people impelled by an ardent faith in God to a dauntless courage in danger, a boundless resourcefulness in face of difficulty, an impregnable fortitude in adversity. It strengthens and inspires us still, after more than three centuries, in this age of change and uncertainty. Bradford’s History strikes the note of stout-hearted idealism that all Americans respect, even when they cannot share it. Governor Bradford’s annals, as retold by countless historians and teachers, and by poets like Longfellow, have secured for this brave little band a permanent place in American history and American folklore. The story of their patience and fortitude, and the workings of that unseen force which bears up heroic souls in the doing of mighty errands, as often as it is read or told, quickens the spiritual forces in American life, strengthens faith in God, and confidence in human nature. Thus the Pilgrims in a sense have become the spiritual ancestors of all Americans, whatever their stock, race or creed. Bradford foretold it himself in these words:
Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole Nation. . . .
“They Knew They Were Pilgrims”
The Plymouth Pilgrims were simple folk. Only one, Elder William Brewster, had a university education. Only two others, John Carver and Edward Winslow, were ranked as gentlemen. The rest, as Bradford himself, a self-educated farmer’s son, wrote, “followed the innocent trade of husbandry.” During the ten years that they spent in Leyden, they earned a living in various humble occupations such as weaving and dyeing. Elder Brewster ran a printing shop where he produced Puritan tracts that could not pass the censorship in England. There were several congregations of English Puritan exiles in the Netherlands; but this one at Leyden, although inferior in social status to some, was their superior in spirit, a veritable band of brothers. The others thought only of getting back to England; but the Rev. John Robinson’s band looked to something beyond, and bore hardship with a cheerful spirit. They resisted the unpleasant refugee propensity to complain. For, said Bradford, “they knew they were Pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”1 In a letter to Sir Edwin Sandys on the subject of removing to Virginia, Brewster and Robinson declared:
We verily believe and trust the Lord is with us, . . . and that He will graciously prosper our endeavours according to the simplicity of our hearts therein. . . .
We are knit together as a body in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord, . . . by virtue whereof we do hold ourselves straitly tied to all care of each other’s good, and of the whole. . . .
It is not with us as with other men, whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again. . . .
A noble declaration, abundantly carried out!
Bradford relates the “reasons for their removal” from Holland; their negotiations with the London merchant adventurers who provided the funds; the touching farewell at Delfthaven, 22 July; the long delay at Southampton while the merchants tried to screw a few extra pounds out of them; the first start with the two ships; the disheartening return to Plymouth in order to abandon the unseaworthy Speedwell; and how “these troubles being blown over, and now all being compact together in one ship with a prosperous wind” they finally squared away on 6 September 1620. As the historian Charles McLean Andrews wrote, “No enterprise in overseas settlement thus far undertaken can compare with this desperate project” of the Leyden Pilgrims.
Let us not forget the deep debt that the Pilgrims owed to the Virginia Company of London, which was still struggling to make a success of the first English colony, on the Chesapeake. Sir Edwin Sandys, elected treasurer of the Virginia Company in 1619, was a nephew of the Archbishop of York, who employed Elder Brewster’s father; and through his good offices the Pilgrims and the London merchants associated with them obtained from the Company a land patent. They were to be one of those “Particular Plantations” settled by organized groups, to which the Virginia Company offered large tracts of land and a limited autonomy. The text of this patent has never been found, and probably is lost forever. Andrews conjectures very plausibly that it specified no particular place for the location of the Hundred, which the Pilgrims were free to take up on any of the numerous unoccupied shores of the then South Virginia, which stretched from the Chesapeake almost to the Hudson. And the experience of the Virginia Colony was of incalculable value to the Pilgrims. Captain John Smith, in an interesting passage, declares that he offered his personal service to the Pilgrims, but that they were content to peruse his writings. It is certainly difficult to imagine that gallant captain in the place of Myles Standish!
The Mayflower Compact
The Mayflower Compact,2 like many of the Pilgrims’ praiseworthy acts, has been overrated. It has been called the First American Constitution, a Charter of Democracy, an actual contrat social such as Rousseau described from his imagination, a Basic Document of American Liberty, and I know not what else. But your historian is content with what Bradford says. It was “a Combination made by them before they came ashore. . . occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall. . . . that when they came ashore they would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia, and not for New England, which belonged to another government, with which the Virginia Company had nothing to do.” In other words, it was a necessary result of their landing in an unexpected location where their patent had no validity. In form this “combination” followed the church covenants with which Puritans were perfectly familiar. The necessity of such an agreement had been foreseen by John Robinson, who in his parting letter of instructions advised the Pilgrims to let their “wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honour and obedience in their lawful administrations.”
The Compact was simply an agreement made by Englishmen who, finding themselves on English soil without any specified powers of government, agreed to govern themselves until the king’s pleasure should be signified. There was not the slightest thought of independence, or of republicanism among those who drew it up. The Pilgrims were, in fact, much more loyal to the English monarchy than the other Puritan colonies. Their Compact established no democracy, since the signers assumed exclusive right to political power in the Colony, and it was not signed by all adult male passengers. The forty-one who did sign constituted themselves a political corporation, admitting to the franchise, individually and very sparingly, certain newcomers, young men, and former bondservants. It was superseded by the Peirce patent of 1621 from the Council for New England, which granted the Compact signers and whomsoever they chose to associate with them, the right of self government.
At no time did the government of Plymouth Colony even approach a form that we would call democratic today. In 1643 there were only two hundred and thirty-three freemen or voters in the Colony, as compared with six hundred and thirty-four “Males that are able to bear Arms from 16 Years old to 60 Years.” Moreover, from 1627 to 1639 there was one minor group that had greater power than the whole body of freemen, the “Old Comers” who had the exclusive power to allot land.
Although the Pilgrim Colony was very far from being a democracy, it was a community where talent was promptly recognized and generously rewarded, no matter what a man’s background might be. When in 1627 Bradford, Allerton and Myles Standish were appointed by the freemen “Undertakers” to take exclusive charge of the fur trade of the Colony and complete responsibility for paying off the Colony’s debt, they were allowed to co-opt five more men to aid them. Besides Elder Brewster and Edward Winslow they chose to these very responsible positions John Alden, who had been engaged as cooper for the Mayflower just before she sailed; John Howland, a young man of unknown antecedents who came as Governor Carver’s servant; and Thomas Prence, son of a London coachmaker who arrived in the Fortune a year later at the age of twenty-one. Prence was the first man in the Colony other than Bradford and Carver to be elected Governor, in 1634. He and John Alden had been Assistants to the Governor since 1632; and John Howland, too, was elected an Assistant in 1634.
In any case it would be unhistorical to judge the political abilities of the Pilgrims by the touchstone of democracy. They amply demonstrated an ability equal, if not superior, to other groups of English colonists, to govern themselves with no assistance from King, Proprietor, appointed Governor, or corporate overlord.
Who’s Who Among the Pilgrims
In asserting that the Pilgrim Colony was a homogeneous community, I am answering a leading question. It was pointed out fifty years ago that only thirty-seven of the hundred or so passengers on the Mayflower belonged to the Pilgrim congregation at Leyden. Hence many have concluded that the Pilgrim Fathers were but a minority in the Plymouth Colony; and “debunkers” have gone so far as to declare that only one third of the Mayflower passengers were in any way connected with the Leyden Pilgrim group, the other two thirds being persons added to the passenger list by the London merchants, and including those whom Bradford describes as “untoward persons mixed amongst them from the first.” It has even been asserted that Bradford’s History was a tract of special pleading for a minority of Leyden Pilgrims who trampled ruthlessly on the majority of colonists.
If the Pilgrims were indeed able to bend a heterogeneous crowd of adventurers to serving their high purposes, they must have been even stouter fellows than we suspected! But, apart from that, the question whether the Leyden Pilgrims were or were not the majority aboard the Mayflower depends on the way they are counted. If you count noses, thirty-seven were of the Leyden group and sixty-five were not; but if you group them by families, the figures tell a very different story. And I submit that the only sensible way to analyze the Mayflower passengers is by families; for some of the Leyden people picked up relatives or servants in England, and in those days it was unheard-of for a dependent kinsman or servant to differ in religious or political views from his master. On board the Mayflower there were twenty-six heads of families, of whom exactly half came from Leyden; and twelve boys or men without families, of whom five came from Leyden. The great sickness of the first winter at Plymouth so thinned the ranks that in the spring there were left twelve heads of families, again split fifty-fifty between Leyden and non-Leyden, and four single men, none of whom had belonged to the Leyden congregation. But three of the six surviving non-Leyden heads of families were Hopkins, Standish, and Warren, who became pillars of the Pilgrim state; and the four surviving bachelors were the famous John Alden, Gilbert Winslow the brother of Edward Winslow, Gardiner who soon returned to England, and a six-year-old boy. This seems to me not a very substantial basis for the claim that a majority of the Mayflower passengers were indifferent or hostile persons, who were kept down by a bigoted minority.
Certainly the Mayflower’s passenger list included a few “wicked persons and profane people” (as Bradford describes them) like John Billington, who was hanged for murder. Others, good, bad and indifferent, came over in the Fortune, the Anne, and the Little James, in 1621–1623. Toward otherwise-minded persons, the Pilgrims, considering that the Plymouth Colony was their colony and that there was plenty of room for the otherwise-minded elsewhere in New England, behaved with singular kindness, forbearance, and justice. Bradford’s story of John Lyford, the lewd parson whom the merchant adventurers sent over, is a diverting instance of the Pilgrims’ Christian way of dealing with offenders. As with him, so with others, the greedy and the factious showed themselves up, decamped or were expelled, came to grief, straggled back to Plymouth, begged forgiveness and fresh assistance, received both, betrayed their benefactors again, and again came to grief. The Pilgrims always forgave the injury, and recovered from the wound.
“American Way of Life”
One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less. Democracy is one of these. The log cabin is another; the Pilgrim Fathers built frame houses and knew nothing of the log cabin, which was introduced to America by the Swedes on the Delaware. Religious toleration is a third; the Pilgrims did not believe in it, and Plymouth Colony passed legislation against Quakers and other Dissenters just as did Massachusetts Bay, Virginia, and most of the other colonies, English, French or Spanish. But the most common false attribution of today is that the Pilgrims invented what is vaguely called The American Way of Life. This notion is based on a famous passage in Bradford’s History in which he describes how their “common course and condition” was modified by individual land holdings, and how this increased food production and incidentally proved the “vanity of that conceit of Plato’s. . . that the taking away of property and bringing in community unto a commonwealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”
Actually, it was not communism that the Pilgrims gave up, and not laissez-faire individualism that they adopted. The capitalists who provided the funds for the Mayflower and her voyage had imposed on them a very severe form of servitude. They had to agree that all colonists work for a common fund for seven years, during which they would receive only bare subsistence; and at the end of that time all property acquired and land cultivated would be divided equally among capitalists and colonists, the English shareholder who had contributed about £12 receiving the same as a colonist who had worked for seven years. This system was not of the Pilgrims’ choosing; it had been tried earlier in Virginia and had failed there; but it was the only way these almost penniless people could obtain funds for an expensive migration to America.
The grant of allotments did not end hardship and famine at Plymouth; Bradford tells how the following fall, when a ship came in with some newcomers, they burst into tears on seeing how thin and ragged the Pilgrims were. The real economic salvation of the Plymouth Colony was the establishment of Massachusetts Bay in 1630, which gave the Pilgrims a market for their cattle.
Nor in other ways did the Pilgrims approach modern American individualism. They regulated wages as well as prices; they punished people for idleness as well as for drunkenness and Sabbath breaking; they forbade anyone to trade with the Indians unless he belonged to the inner governing body known as the Undertakers, and they restricted freedom of movement. Nobody could leave his home, buy land and settle elsewhere without permission of the Court. Typical items from the Plymouth Colony Records are the following:
Whereas Edward Holman hath been observed to frequent the house of Thomas Shrive at unseasonable times of night, and at other times, . . . The Court have therefore ordered that the said Edward Holman be warned by the Constable of Plymouth that he henceforth do no more frequent or commune at the house of the said Shrive, nor that the wife of the said Shrive do frequent the house or company of the said Holman. (4 May 1652)
Mr. Stephen Hopkins, for suffering servants and others to sit drinking in his house and to play at shuffle board, and such like misdemeanors is therefore fined 40 shillings (2 Oct. 1637). (Later, the same man is) presented for selling beer at 2 pence per quart, not worth a penny.
Web Adey was proved to have profaned divers Lord’s days by working sundry times upon them, and had been for the like offence formerly set in the stocks, and was again found guilty, therefore was censured to be severely whipped at the post. (7 July 1638)
John Stockbridge of Scituate is presented for disgraceful speeches tending to the contempt of the government, and for jeering speeches to them that did reprove him for it. (5 June 1638).
Mowers that have taken excessive wages, viz. 3 shillings per diem, are to be presented if they make not restitution. (29 August 1643)
Whereas Joseph Ramsden hath lived long in the woods, in an uncivil way, in the woods, with his wife alone, whereby great inconveniences have followed, the Court have ordered that he repair down to some neighbourhood betwixt this and October next, or that then his house be pulled down. (3 June 1656)
All this was in accord with the general social and economic notions of the period. The Pilgrim state, judging from its records, was just as “nosey,” interfering and regulating as the other English colonies.
The Mayflower Lands
Enough of these controversies. Let us return to the events of 1620. On Friday afternoon, 10 November in their calendar (the 20th in ours), the Mayflower is making the best of her way around the back side of Cape Cod to the harbor now called Provincetown, within the tip of the Cape. Nightfall finds her off Peaked Hill Bar. The weather is clear and cold; the moon, in her last quarter, rises shortly after one o’clock, lighting up the white sand dunes of Cape Race. Most of the passengers are below, the “graveyard watch” has charge, and on the high poop deck Master Jones and Master’s Mate Clark walk briskly to and fro, conferring every now and then, watching the sails, peering into the binnacle, looking up at the stars, and conning the helmsman in the steerage. The watch keep warm by frequently trimming braces, tacks and sheets in order to get the most out of light airs from the south and west; and although the Mayflower with her foul bottom can make but a knot or two under these conditions, the flood tide helps her along. Every quarter-hour the leadsman in the chains heaves the hand-lead, and sings out the marks and deeps. It is a night of watchfulness, but not of danger; of quiet anticipation among the passengers over the prospect of landing on the morrow; a night of thankfulness after their narrow escape from the shoals.
During the small hours the Mayflower stands off and on, in order not to lose touch with the Cape. Daylight breaking around six o’clock on Saturday 11 November finds her on a southeasterly course working in by Wood End with a fair tide; at seven o’clock, the sun rises red and clear above the Truro hills; and by the time eight bells are struck, and the watch is changed, the Mayflower has weathered Long Point, and is sailing free, headed northeasterly for Provincetown Harbor.
This is the time that Carver and Brewster, Bradford and Winslow have chosen for signing the Mayflower Compact. Breakfast has been eaten, a psalm of praise and thanksgiving sung by all, and an extempore prayer said by Elder Brewster. The sea is smooth, the weather fair, and everyone feeling fine; it will be an hour yet before the course has to be altered and final preparations made for anchoring. So at this opportune moment the leaders summon the other men into the great cabin, read the Compact which they had drafted the day before, and request everyone to sign or make his mark. After that is done, and the generalty dismissed, we may suppose a little quiet handshaking among the leaders, and a few remarks like “Thank God, Governor, that’s over!” and “I never expected John Billington to sign—it must have been your prayer that brought him to it, Elder!”
It is now nine or ten o’clock. The bulwarks are so crowded with passengers eager to look upon their new Land of Canaan that the mate has to order them to stand clear of the tackle, that he may work his ship. About a mile off the end of Long Point, Master Jones orders the ship wore, brails up the lower courses, and hauls sharp on the port tack for the inner harbor, feeling his way with armed lead to the best holding ground. It would be about ten or eleven o’clock that the Master orders the square spritsail handed, the mizzen sheet hauled flat, and the foretopsail lowered and clewed up. Mate Clark cries “hard down!” to the helmsman, who answers “hard down, sir,” and presently “helm’s a-lee!”; and with main topsail aback to check her way, Mayflower turns into the wind a furlong from the shore. At the right moment the best bower anchor is let go, and the thick hemp cable, which the seamen have been flaking on the forecastle head since daybreak, is carefully paid out as the anchor fluke bites into unfamiliar bottom, and the ship begins to make sternway. The cable is snubbed on the capstan; and now, as Bradford notes in correct nautical language, “they rode in safety.” The Mayflower is snugged down in the best and most sheltered anchorage of the Great Harbor of Cape Cod.
Now the ship’s longboat is lowered over the side, and an armed landing party of fifteen or sixteen rows her ashore, landing on the point at the southern end of the present Provincetown. Bradford tells how they promptly “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element. . . .”
“What Could Now Sustain Them?”
For all that, the Pilgrims were in a pretty grim situation. The most skilful orator of today could not even approach Bradford’s vivid image of their plight, and the spirit in which the Pilgrims met it:
. . . Here I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and so I think will the reader too, when he well considers the same. Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by that which went before), they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succour. . . . And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. If it be said they had a ship to succour them, it is true; but what heard they daily from the master and company? . . . that if they got not a place in time, they would turn them and their goods ashore and leave them. . . . It is true, indeed, the affections and love of their brethren at Leyden was cordial and entire towards them, but they had little power to help them. . . . What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity, etc. Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure forever. . . . Let them confess before the Lord His lovingkindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.”
Bradford, if anything, understates the situation. The Pilgrims knew nothing of the coast they had reached, except what John Smith had written in his Description of New England. Supplies on the Mayflower were gravely depleted after her ten weeks’ voyage; and there was no opportunity to produce food for another nine months. Stephen Hopkins had perhaps been in Virginia; but the others had never been anywhere except England and Holland. Simple folk, farmers and artisans, they were unused to handling firearms, ignorant alike of fishing and fur-trading, unfitted by training and temperament to cope with pioneer life on the edge of this savage continent. No group of Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Dutchmen arrived on our shores in the colonial era at so unfavorable a season or so ill equipped; few were so isolated from possible succor. Yet none came through so well.
What other causes can we assign for this, than the Pilgrims’ profound faith in God, and God’s response to their prayers? Not that they failed to help themselves:—innately capable, though inexperienced people, they did all that men could do, but something more was needed, and that they had—God’s assistance. His hand may constantly be seen in their history. The “first encounter” with the natives (at which the Pilgrims made the surprising discovery that the Indians were more afraid of them than they were of the Indians); the caches of corn found buried in the sand; the shallop weathering a December snowstorm and finding shelter in Plymouth Harbor. When a sort of scoutmaster was needed to teach these English rustics the ways of the New World, a lone Indian marches into their settlement crying “Welcome, Englishmen!”, and introduces to them Squanto, who teaches them how to plant corn, snare fish, and trap beaver. Then there were the windfalls of corn from Virginia and other unexpected quarters when famine was impending; the mysterious voice that warned them of a fire in the storehouse; the “sweet and gentle showers” that came out of a clear sky just in time to save one year’s harvest; the turning back of a ship sent to foreclose the Colony for the merchant creditors. Of the source of these interventions Bradford is so certain that he simply remarks, as they occur, “Behold now another Providence of God!”
In handling the Indians, our Pilgrim Fathers were notably successful, avoiding alike the harshness and the heedlessness which had cost so many English lives in other colonies. In his dealings with the natives, William Bradford, the farmer’s boy from Austerfield, played the part of a frontier Richelieu. Squanto and another friendly Indian, Hobbamock, who drifted into Plymouth, were played off against each other. The Governor “seemed to countenance the one, and Captain Standish the other, by which they had better intelligence, and made them both more diligent.” The warlike Narragansetts send a rattlesnake skin by way of challenge; the Governor returns it filled with bullets, and the Narragansetts decide not to continue the correspondence. Winslow and Hampden visit the friendly Massasoit, find him at death’s door after an unusually heavy bout of gluttony, and administer the favorite physic of Dr. Fuller, the Pilgrim physician, with such immediate and surprising effects that Massasoit becomes their friend for life, and warns them of an Indian plot to come down and wipe out Plymouth. When the miserable beachcombers whom Weston had sent over, and who on sundry occasions had made themselves a danger and a nuisance to the Pilgrims, were reported to be in the last extremities at Wessagusset, insulted and tormented by the Neponset Indians, the Pilgrims might well have taken the short view of “good riddance to bad rubbish.” But, writes Bradford, “we thought (both by nature and conscience) we were bound to deliver” them. Accordingly Captain Standish marched with the Pilgrim army of eight men to Wessagusset, bearded four Indians in one of the English huts there, killed Peksuot with his own knife, and then despatched two other Indians. There was no more trouble from the Neponsets.
On the one occasion when Pilgrim diplomacy faltered, “another Providence of God” saved them. Squanto, it seems, had made himself obnoxious to other Indians by exploiting his friendship with the English, pretending a power to spread the plague, and sounding a false alarm of impending treachery by Massasoit, who when he heard of it, sent a messenger to demand that Squanto be surrendered up, as one of his subjects. Bradford refused; but the messenger shortly returned, more insistent, accompanied by “divers others” to implement the demand, and bearing “many beavers’ skins” to cover the Puritan conscience! Governor Bradford was in a quandary. It was wrong to surrender Squanto to certain death; but the Pilgrims were dependent for their safety on Massasoit’s friendship, and the food supply was low. Now, at the very instant when the Governor had made the bad decision to deliver up Squanto, a strange boat was seen to be crossing the harbor. Having heard rumors of French enemies approaching, and fearing a “combination between the savages and them, the Governor told the Indians he would first know what boat that was ere he would deliver him into their custody. But being mad with rage, and impatient at delay, they departed in great heat.” The boat proved to be the tender of a friendly English fisherman who brought news of a food supply at Damiscove Island in Maine. Its timely appearance saved Bradford from a grave mistake in diplomacy; for Massasoit soon recovered from his rage against Squanto, who lived to serve as Bradford’s guide and interpreter in his expedition around Cape Cod.
Food was the first difficulty during the early years. Like all Englishmen of the time, the Pilgrim Fathers felt starved without their favorite provender of wheat bread, beef, and beer; yet time and again they were reduced to short commons of corn bread, shellfish, and water. As Bill Nye wrote in his comic History of the United States, “The people were kept busy digging clams to sustain life in order to raise Indian corn enough to give them sufficient strength to pull clams enough the following winter to get them through till the next corn crop should give them strength to dig for clams again!”
Cargo space in the vessels of that time was small, and the voyages so long that every fresh arrival of immigrants meant more mouths to feed, with less food to go round; yet always, when the Colony seemed to be at the last extremity, food was procured from friendly Indians, fishermen or casual traders. No cattle reached Plymouth until the spring of 1624; yet children were born and weaned without milk, and men fought and toiled without beef. Winslow alludes with some scorn to those who “return with their mouths full of clamours” because in New England “they must drink water and want many delicates.” To complaints that “the water is not wholesome,” Bradford admitted that it was “not so wholesome as the good beer and wine in London (which they so dearly love)” but insisted that “for water it is as good as any in the world (for aught we know) and it is wholesome enough to us that can be content therewith.” Yet the absence of beer evidently irked the good Governor, for in his touching tribute to Elder Brewster, he meditates on the Providence of God that allowed so many Pilgrim Fathers to attain great age. “It must needs be more than ordinary,” he writes, “and above natural reason that so it should be; for it is found in experience that change of air, famine, or unwholesome food, much drinking of water, . . . are enemies to health. . . . And yet of all these things they had a large part and suffered deeply in the same. . . . What was it, then, that upheld them? It was God’s visitation that preserved their spirits.”
“Man Lives Not By Bread Only”
And when all is said and done, this conclusion of the faithful Governor seems to me to express the real significance of the Pilgrim Colony. They were few in number and poor in the goods of this world. They evolved few institutions of any value in American development. They were not great shipbuilders, successful fishermen or fur trappers, or notable farmers.
They were not of gentle or noble blood. Yet those simple folk were exalted to the stature of statesmen and prophets in their limited sphere, because they firmly believed, and so greatly dared, and firmly endured. Their annals illustrate a great and universal law that faith in God brings God’s assistance. The Pilgrims’ faith brought them triumphant through the perils of the sea and the wilderness, and created a great spiritual tradition that will bear fruit so long as men read the Pilgrim story and believe in the God in whom they believed.
Bradford, after telling of all the “crosses, troubles, fears, wants and sorrows” that they had been through for thirty years, and the relative security that they finally attained, writes, “What was it then that upheld them? It was God’s visitation that preserved their spirits.” And he concludes with a message of profound significance for us, in this era of uncertainty and tribulation:
God, it seems, would have all men to behold and observe such mercies and works of His providence as these towards His people, that they in like cases might be encouraged to depend on God in their trials, and also bless His name when they see His goodness towards others. Man lives not by bread only. . . . It is not by good and dainty fare, by peace and rest and heart’s ease in enjoying the contentments and good things of the world only, that preserves health and prolongs life. God in such examples would have the world see and behold that He can do it without them.