Tag Archives: Puritans

Why the Pilgrims were actually able to survive



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‘Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor’ by William Halsall (1882).
Pilgrim Hall Museum

Peter C. Mancall, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Sometime in the autumn of 1621, a group of English Pilgrims who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and created a colony called New Plymouth celebrated their first harvest.

They hosted a group of about 90 Wampanoags, their Algonquian-speaking neighbors. Together, migrants and Natives feasted for three days on corn, venison and fowl.

In their bountiful yield, the Pilgrims likely saw a divine hand at work.

As Gov. William Bradford wrote in 1623, “Instead of famine now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.”

But my recent research on the ways Europeans understood the Western Hemisphere shows that – despite the Pilgrims’ version of events – their survival largely hinged on two unrelated developments: an epidemic that swept through the region and a repository of advice from earlier explorers.

A ‘desolate wilderness’ or ‘Paradise of all parts’?

Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which he began to write in 1630 and finished two decades later, traces the history of the Pilgrims from their persecution in England to their new home along the shores of modern Boston Harbor.

William Bradford’s writings depicted a harrowing, desolate environment.

Bradford and other Pilgrims believed in predestination. Every event in their lives marked a stage in the unfolding of a divine plan, which often echoed the experiences of the ancient Israelites.

Throughout his account, Bradford probed Scripture for signs. He wrote that the Puritans arrived in “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” They were surrounded by forests “full of woods and thickets,” and they lacked the kind of view Moses had on Mount Pisgah, after successfully leading the Israelites to Canaan.

Drawing on chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Bradford declared that the English “were ready to perish in this wilderness,” but God had heard their cries and helped them. Bradford paraphrased from Psalm 107 when he wrote that the settlers should “praise the Lord” who had “delivered them from the hand of the oppressor.”

If you were reading Bradford’s version of events, you might think that the survival of the Pilgrims’ settlements was often in danger. But the situation on the ground wasn’t as dire as Bradford claimed.

The French explorer Samuel de Champlain depicted Plymouth as a region that was eminently inhabitable.
Source., Author provided

Earlier European visitors had described pleasant shorelines and prosperous indigenous communities. In 1605, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed past the site the Pilgrims would later colonize and noted that there were “a great many cabins and gardens.” He even provided a drawing of the region, which depicted small Native towns surrounded by fields.

About a decade later Captain John Smith, who coined the term “New England,” wrote that the Massachusetts, a nearby indigenous group, inhabited what he described as “the Paradise of all those parts.”

‘A wonderful plague’

Champlain and Smith understood that any Europeans who wanted to establish communities in this region would need either to compete with Natives or find ways to extract resources with their support.

But after Champlain and Smith visited, a terrible illness spread through the region. Modern scholars have argued that indigenous communities were devastated by leptospirosis, a disease caused by Old World bacteria that had likely reached New England through the feces of rats that arrived on European ships.

The absence of accurate statistics makes it impossible to know the ultimate toll, but perhaps up to 90 percent of the regional population perished between 1617 to 1619.

To the English, divine intervention had paved the way.

“By God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague,” King James’ patent for the region noted in 1620, “that had led to the utter Destruction, Devastacion, and Depopulation of that whole territory.”

The epidemic benefited the Pilgrims, who arrived soon thereafter: The best land had fewer residents and there was less competition for local resources, while the Natives who had survived proved eager trading partners.

The wisdom of those who came before

Just as important, the Pilgrims understood what to do with the land.

By the time that these English planned their communities, knowledge of the Atlantic coast of North America was widely available.

Those hoping to create new settlements had read accounts of earlier European migrants who had established European-style villages near the water, notably along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, where the English had founded Jamestown in 1607.

These first English migrants to Jamestown endured terrible disease and arrived during a period of drought and colder-than-normal winters. The migrants to Roanoke on the outer banks of Carolina, where the English had gone in the 1580s, disappeared. And a brief effort to settle the coast of Maine in 1607 and 1608 failed because of an unusually bitter winter.

Many of these migrants died or gave up. But none disappeared without record, and their stories circulated in books printed in London. Every English effort before 1620 had produced accounts useful to would-be colonizers.

The most famous account, by the English mathematician Thomas Harriot, enumerated the commodities that the English could extract from America’s fields and forests in a report he first published in 1588.

The artist John White, who was on the same mission to modern Carolina, painted a watercolor depicting the wide assortment of marine life that could be harvested, another of large fish on a grill, and a third showing the fertility of fields at the town of Secotan. By the mid-1610s, actual commodities had started to arrive in England too, providing support for those who had claimed that North American colonies could be profitable. The most important of these imports was tobacco, which many Europeans considered a wonder drug capable of curing a wide range of human ailments.

These reports (and imports) encouraged many English promoters to lay plans for colonization as a way to increase their wealth. But those who thought about going to New England, especially the Pilgrims who were kindred souls of Bradford, believed that there were higher rewards to be reaped.

Bradford and the other Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts often wrote about their experience through the lens of suffering and salvation.

But the Pilgrims were better equipped to survive than they let on.The Conversation

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The two men who almost derailed New England’s first colonies


Peter C. Mancall, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

There is no holiday more American than Thanksgiving – and perhaps none with origins so shrouded in comforting myths.

The story is simple enough. In 1620 a group of English Protestant dissenters known as Pilgrims arrived in what’s now Massachusetts to establish a settlement they called New Plymouth. The first winter was brutal, but by the following year they’d learned how to survive the unforgiving environment. When the harvest season of 1621 arrived, the Pilgrims gathered together with local Wampanoag Indians for a three-day feast, during which they may have eaten turkey.

Over time this feast, described as “the first Thanksgiving,” became part of the nation’s founding narrative, though it was one among many days when colonists and their descendants offered thanks to God.

The peace wouldn’t last for long, and much of America’s early Colonial history centers on the eventual conflicts between the colonists and the Native Americans. But the traditional version ignores the real danger that emerged from two Englishmen – Thomas Morton and Ferdinando Gorges – who sought to undermine the legal basis for Puritan settlements throughout New England.

Over 200 years later, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the first federal day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War, it was a good moment for Americans to recall a time when disparate peoples could reach across the cultural divide. He was either unaware of – or conveniently ignored – the English schemers who tried to chase those Pilgrims and Puritans away.

Tensions mount

The Puritans followed the Pilgrims, founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630. There, John Winthrop, who became the governor, wrote that the English wanted to create a “city upon a hill.” The line came from Matthew 5:14, an early example of how these English travelers viewed their actions through a biblical lens.

The growing numbers of English migrants strained the local resources of the Algonquian-speaking peoples. These locals, collectively known as Ninnimissinuok, had already suffered from a terrible epidemic possibly caused by a bacterial disease called leptospirosis and an infectious disorder, Weil syndrome, in the late 1610s that might have reduced their population by 90 percent.

Worse still, in 1636 the Puritans and Pilgrims went to war against the Pequots, whose homeland was in southern Connecticut. By the end of 1637, perhaps 700 to 900 natives had died in the violence, and another 900 or so had been sold into slavery. The English marked their victory with “a day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for the victory obtained against the Pequods, and for other mercies.”

English hostility against Natives has taken a central place in historians’ version of the origins of New England. But though it is a powerful and tragic narrative, indigenous Americans did not pose the greatest hazard to the survival of the colonists.

A new threat emerges

Just when the Pilgrims were trying to establish New Plymouth, an English war veteran named Ferdinando Gorges claimed that he and a group of investors possessed the only legitimate patent to create a colony in the region.

Gorges had gained notoriety after battling the Spanish in the Netherlands and commanding the defense of the port city of Plymouth, on the southwest coast of England. Afterwards, Gorges was in search of a new opportunity. It arrived in 1605 when the English sea captain George Waymouth returned to England after a voyage that had taken him to the coast of modern Maine and back. Along with news about the coastline and its resources, Waymouth brought back five captive Eastern Abenakis, members of the indigenous nation that claimed territory between the Penobscot and Saco rivers in Maine. Waymouth left three of them with Gorges. Soon they learned English and told Gorges about their homeland, sparking Gorges’ interest in North America.

Gorges, with a group of investors, financially backed an expedition to the coast of Maine in 1607, though the colony they hoped to launch there never succeeded.

These financiers believed that they possessed a claim to all territory stretching from 40 to 48 degrees north latitude – a region that stretches from modern-day Philadelphia to St. John, Newfoundland – a point they emphasized in their charter. Gorges remained among its directors.

Kindred spirits

As luck would have it, Gorges soon met Thomas Morton, a man with legal training and a troubled past who had briefly visited Plymouth Plantation soon after the first English arrived. Morton would join forces with Gorges in his attempt to undermine the legal basis for the earliest English colonies in New England.

Morton and the Pilgrims despised one another. By 1626 he had established a trading post at a place called Merrymount, on the site of modern day Quincy, Massachusetts. There, he entertained local Ninnimissinuok, offering them alcohol and guns. He also imported an English folk custom by erecting an 80-foot pole for them to dance around.

The Pilgrims, viewing Morton as a threat because of his close relations with the locals and the fact that he had armed them, exiled him to England in 1628.

Thomas Morton.
Wikimedia Commons

To the disappointment of the Pilgrims, Morton faced no legal action back in England. Instead, he returned to New England in 1629, settling in Massachusetts just as Winthrop and his allies were trying to launch their new colony. Soon enough, Morton angered the rulers of this Puritan settlement, claiming that the way they organized their affairs flew in the face of the idea that they should follow all English laws. The Puritans, looking for an excuse to send him away, claimed that he had abused local natives (a charge that was likely baseless). Nonetheless, they burned Morton’s house to the ground and shipped him back to England.

After a short stint in jail, Morton was free again, and it was around this time that he began to conspire with Gorges.

During the mid-1630s Gorges pushed English authorities to recognize his claim to New England. His argument pivoted on testimony provided by Morton, who claimed that the Puritans had violated proper religious and governing practices. Morton would soon write that the Puritans refused to use the Book of Common Prayer, a standard text employed by the Church of England, and that the Puritans closed their eyes when they prayed “because they thinke themselves so perfect in the highe way to heaven that they can find it blindfould.”

In a letter he wrote to a confidant, Morton claimed that at a hearing in London, the Massachusetts patent “was declared, for manifest abuses there discovered, to be void.” In 1637, such evidence convinced King Charles I to make Gorges the royal governor of Massachusetts.

But the king never followed through. Nor did the English bring the leaders of the colony to London for a trial. The Puritans maintained their charter, but Morton and Gorges refused to back down.

A quick compromise

The title page of the controversial ‘New English Canaan.’
Ancient Lights

In 1637, Morton published a book titled “New English Canaan.” In it, he accused the English of abusing and murdering Native Americans and also of violating widely accepted Protestant religious practices. (Today there are around 20 known copies of the original.)

With good reason, the Puritans feared Gorges and Morton. To make peace, they relented and in 1639 Gorges received the patent to modern-day Maine, which had been part of the original grant to the Massachusetts Bay Company. By then, Gorges’ agents had already begun to establish a plantation in Maine. That settlement ended the legal challenge to the existing New England colonies, which then prospered, free of English interference, for decades.

But Morton wasn’t quite done. He returned to Massachusetts, possibly as an agent for Gorges or perhaps because he had hoped that the situation might have improved. When he arrived local authorities, having seen his book, exiled him again. He retreated north, to Gorges’ planned colony. Winthrop wrote that he lived there “poor and despised.”

By 1644 Morton was dead, along with the scariest threat the Pilgrims and Puritans had faced.

The Conversation

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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