America, we are told, sprung from a few hardy souls who braved the oceans and the fearsome wilderness, armed only with the spirit of independence, Yankee ingenuity and a flinty faith in their own particular God. They fled the Old World to be free to worship that God in their own way.
It can be a heartening thing to look back on our ancestors and marvel at the combination of faith, bravery and jack-of-all trades skills they displayed in hacking colonies out of the primeval forest.
Heartening, but only if your look is not too close. Too close a look reveals a picture very different from legend….
On September 16, 1620, the Mayflower set sail. She carried a very mixed bag of 102 passengers, bound for the New World. There were two Separatist Puritan (later called Pilgrim) factions, one from England and the other from Leyden, and a third group, consisting of non-believing hired help, servants and “gentleman adventurers.” The voyage took 65 days to reach landfall. It was not until December 26 that they finally selected Plymouth for the site of their new colony. They apparently acquired some of the crew as settlers, so some lists show 106 people as having landed
By spring, 52 of them were dead.
Why? Well, to start out, political and organizational problems delayed their trip so that they landed solidly in a New England winter. Since the season was too late to grow anything, they had to rely on their ship’s stores and what little they could obtain by hunting, fishing, and trading with the reluctant local Indians. To scurvy, caused by vitamin C deficiency, and “ship fever” (typhus) were added the effects of starvation.
No doubt even the best prepared party would have suffered heavy losses. But this was not the best prepared party. They were a mixture of “God will provide” religious and “the servants will provide” adventurers, all misled by the rosy, Garden of Eden descriptions of a certain Captain John Smith to believe America was a magic land of temperate winters where fruit could simply be picked off the trees.
This was not a hardy, balanced group of capable pioneers. This was a group that expected to have it easy.
The makeup of the party tells it all. One look makes it painfully how carefully they were selected for the experience, skills, and hardiness for the grim task ahead.
49 were listed without an occupation. This is frustrating to the historians, but we can interpolate that at least 11 of these were women and 19 were children.
16 were listed as servants. (One wonders if they thought they might need to serve High Tea to the natives.)
8 were listed as housewives.
8 more in what one might describe as the fabric trade, including 1 fustian maker, 1 wool carder, 1 wool comber, 1 linen weaver, 1 silk-worker, 1 hatter, and 2 tailors. (You never know when you might need nice new suit made from non-existent wool, linen or silk.)
6 more were listed as having no occupation, the usual indicator of the famous “gentleman adventurers.”
5 listed as sailors.
5 listed as merchants, (including 1 Camlet Merchant, another obvious necessity).
1 cooper (John Alden, to my surprise).
All this detail is necessary. Please notice two things. First, only the last four on the list have trades obviously useful for colony building. Second, in all that stupendous variety there is not one listed as a farmer!
Fundamentally then, these were a fairly random collection of city folk, completely incompetent to the task ahead. No one selected them because each offered some skill necessary for the success of the colony. In fact, no one selected them at all. They chose themselves. And it is a measure of their dewy eyed optimism that they decided that even though they were delayed it would be no real problem to arrive right at the beginning of winter.
The American Indians were a hardy people, with scant sympathy for those suffering from their own ineptitude. As they watched them stumble their way into starvation and disease, the local Wampanoag Indians might be forgiven for having a “there goes the neighborhood” feeling.
Yet somehow their tale had a happy ending.
We all know the story. How Squanto (Tisquantum), an English speaking Indian arrived in spring just in time to keep the survivors from dying. How he brought them deer meat and beaver skins. How he taught them how to cultivate corn and other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicine. He explained how to dig and cook clams, how to get sap from the maple trees, use fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their survival.
In fact, they did so well that by fall they were able to invite their Indian neighbors to a Thanksgiving Feast.
It is such a wildly improbable story (an English speaking Indian just happens to live next door…Oh Right!) that it is no wonder that the Pilgrims saw divine intervention in their survival.
For the Indians side, there is the dose of irony that is almost too painful. It is impossible to believe that they saw in their hapless and helpless new neighbors any shadow of doom. But perhaps they should have been suspicious when, at the Feast, their new neighbors soon ran out of food and they had to send back to their own village for more provisions. In the end, they supplied the bulk of the banquet.
We have no evidence that they saw it as a precedent about their new relationship and about their fate. Perhaps they should have.