Through the magic of television, early next week our flat screens will feature two different programs about the early Pilgrims who endured a wretched and desperate sea voyage, landed in an unintended and inhospitable spot in the New World, and somehow survived to have the first Thanksgiving with the Wampanoag Indians. National Geographic Channel has produced a “gritty,” two-part version of this historical event called “Saints and Strangers” on Sunday and Monday nights at 8:00 (central). PBS will air a documentary version, “The Pilgrims: American Experience,” based on insights from historians, next Tuesday at 7:00 (central).
Reading about these programs took me back to my high school American Literature classes where I taught about this remarkable band of people and the book their governor wrote. Truly an inspiring story, its origins come from a two-volume book called Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford. The book itself has a surprising history that I’ll describe tomorrow in an additional post. It is our only document that describes the daily life of these early colonists.
William Bradford [1590-1667] grew up in Yorkshire, England, and he moved back and forth among relatives because he was an orphan at an early age. He joined a Separatist congregation that followed the radical idea that they should separate from the Church of England. Unlike King James’ church, their services were simple, filled with fellowship, and contained little ritual. This, of course, did not make King James I happy, and he vowed to harass them and chase them from his land.
Bradford joined a Separatist group that fled to the Netherlands, staying there twelve years. By age 30, he had a wife and son, and the congregation’s welcome in the Netherlands had worn thin. The congregation vowed to raise money to start a new life overseas, but not all were able to go. Bradford and his wife, Dorothy, had to leave their four-year-old son in the Netherlands because he was too young to travel. Some historians believe this loss was the factor that led to Dorothy’s death—possibly a drowning suicide—by falling off the deck of the Mayflower once it docked in the New World.
The congregation had joined non-Separatists [“Strangers”] to make the perilous journey, 102 in all. The Mayflower was only 90 feet long by 26 feet across. If you climb onto the Mayflower II—as I have in Plymouth, Massachusetts—you will be shocked by its tiny size. A hundred people lived in that dinky space. After difficulties between the “Saints” and “Strangers,” the Pilgrims were put below deck, a depressing hole of sea-sickness and too many bodies. The second ship, the Speedwell, had to turn back, leaving our history books to celebrate only the Mayflower. The voyage took 65 nauseating days of being tossed and buffeted on the ocean in a tiny vessel.
It is amazing that anyone survived the first winter in a New England territory that was much colder than the intended, legal destination just north of what we call Virginia. The pilgrims had planned for a much milder climate, but an ice storm threw them off course, destroyed their main beam, and threatened to end their lives. Even so, in order to govern their new little colony, they created a remarkable description of self-government called the Mayflower Compact. Then they came ashore.
Sickness and death stalked them that first winter, leaving hardly enough well people to take care of the sick ones. By April of 1621, the Mayflower left the harbor at Cape Cod and sailed back to England. I always told my students this with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye: not one of the remaining Pilgrims and non-Pilgrims got on that ship to go “home.”
As more and more settlers arrived in the 1620s, Bradford missed the fellowship of that original colony. He served as governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621 to 1657 (with five years off during that period), and was considered a wise and prudent leader, working with the Indians and making just laws for the colony. He believed he should write a history of their lives in the New World, and began to do so in 1630. Over four years he wrote Of Plimoth Plantation, the story of the colony from 1621 to 1646. In a second post tomorrow, I’ll write about the remarkable story of his document. When you read of its journeys, you’ll be surprised by the fact that we have even a page of it left.
Oh, in case you’re wondering about Bradford’s son whom they left in the Netherlands—in 1623, two more ships, the Anne and the Little James, sailed into Plymouth Harbor. In the group of passengers was Bradford’s son, as well as a woman named Alice Carpenter Southworth. She was a widow with two sons of her own, and she married William Bradford, having two sons and a daughter with him. By all accounts this second marriage was happy, a pleasant thought to be salvaged from this difficult struggle to found a colony in a new world.