The Story of the Pilgrims

Religious Dissent In England

Nearly every schoolchild in America knows the basic story of the Pilgrims: that seeking religious freedom, they set sail from England in the Mayflower, arriving in what is now Massachusetts. And, that following a harsh first winter, they celebrated the following year’s harvest with a feast of Thanksgiving.

But any complete story of the Pilgrims actually must begin with the reign of Henry VIII, which lasted from 1509 – 1547. Although he may be most famous  for his many wives, Henry’s most lasting effect was the religious upheaval he created when, for political and personal reasons, he named himself the head of the Church of England, and independent of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

This change opened the door for a widespread Protestant movement in England. By the time his daughter, Elizabeth, took the throne, there was a great deal of disagreement over the official forms of worship and the methods of church government. While Elizabeth insisted that her people conform to the regulations of the Established Church, many were dissatisfied, and some were ready to suffer persecution rather than comply.

The land still contained Roman Catholics who believed that the Pope was the true head of the Church. Others, on the contrary, wanted to free the Church of England from forms and symbolism, which they considered relics of Romanism and superstition. They were called Puritans because they wished to “purify  the church  by adopting simpler modes of worship.

Still another group believed that the form of church government should be altered and that the creed and rituals should be prescribed — not by the queen — but by assemblies. These persons were known as Presbyterians, because they believed in the appointment of church dignitaries known as presbyters.

All of these groups believed in a state church, but disagreed as to the government or as to forms of worship. There was, however, another sect of  Puritans, who believed that a church as a local body of believers, and that local church had the right to elect its own ministers and govern its own affairs. These were called “Independents  or “Separatists  because they believed in the separation from the Established Church.

During Elizabeth’s reign, such dissenters were dealt with harshly. And things grew even worse under her successor, James.  But unlike Elizabeth, James did not have the command of his people, and dissent grew worse.

The Scrooby Separatists

During this time, there were in the town of Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire a group of Separatists led by the minister John Robinson and ruling elder William Brewster, the town’s postmaster. As with many of the Separatists, they suffered greatly for their beliefs.

William Bradford, later the Governor of Plymouth Colony wrote of those years that they could not long continue:

“in any peacable condition; but were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken and clapt up in prison, others had their homes beset and watched night and day and hardly escaped their hands; and most were feign to fly and leave their houses and habitations and the means of their livelihood.

Fearing further persecution, the Scrooby Separatists decided to relocate to the Netherlands, which had at that time a reputation for permitting religious freedom.

Bradford later wrote that “thus molested and beset by a joint consent they resolved to go into the Low Countries, where they heard was freedom of Religion for all men.”

Leaving England, however, was not easy. English authorities foiled the first attempts by the Scrooby Separatists to leave in 1607, arresting several of the leaders. The second attempt, in 1608, resulted in the departure of the men, while English authorities held the women and children onshore. They were later reunited in Amsterdam.

In 1609, the Scrooby Separatists moved to Leyden, where they stayed for twelve years.

While the Netherlands did indeed offer the religious freedom they sought, there were other issues. The Dutch economy was faltering, and their children were beginning to adopt Dutch ways. While the Scrooby Separatists felt they had to leave England for religious reasons, they still considered themselves Englishmen, and wanted their children to feel the same:

“That which was … of all sorrows most heavy to be borne was that many of the children were drawn away into extravagant and dangerous courses.”

What they needed was an isolated an uninhabited stretch of land where they could settle on their own terms and establish their own way of life. Bradford wrote:

“The place they had thoughts on was some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation, being devoid of all civil inhabitants, where there are only savage and brutish men which range up and down little otherwise than the wild beasts of the same.”

English North America in 1619 had been divided between two groups of speculators, the London Company and the Plymouth Company. The London Company had had some success with the establishment of Jamestown, which the Plymouth company, assigned the less habitable northern coastal regions had not been able to follow. Still, the Plymouth Company’s investors were eager to colonize the mainland, and thus gain a monopoly on the fisheries off the coast and on the grand banks.

In the same year that the Jamestown colony was founded (1607), a group of 120 adventurers was sent out to the mouth of the Kennebec River in present day Maine under the leadership of George Popham, a nephew of the Chief Justice of England. Although they had high hopes, reality soon set in and the long winter brought much suffering and death. Popham himself died and the next summer the enterprise was abandoned

The failure of the expedition convinced many that the land was uninhabitable and for some years, no other effort at settlement was made. The next major trip to the north coast was led in 1614 by John Smith (of Jamestown fame). During his explorations – which took him from Penobscot to Cape Cod. – Smith drew a detailed map of the coast, which he sprinkled plentifully with English names and christened “New England.   He was, no doubt, trying to make that harsh coast seem more pleasant. Despite his propaganda efforts, Smith knew that it would take an extraordinary effort to settle the land. In fact, Smith predicted that nothing but hope of riches would ever people that region, or

“draw company from their ease and humors at home.   But it wasn’t entirely wealth that brought people to the region; there also was something more fundamental, and ultimately more important.”

The Mayflower

While the Scrooby Separatists were determined to settle in the New World, money was an issue. Such expeditions were expensive; ships prohibitively so. But they were not without resources.

Through a friend named Sir Edwin Sandys, the Separatists were able to obtain from the Virginia Company the cash to purchase one ship, the Speedwell, and to hire another, The Mayflower. The Virginia Company also granted them a charter to settle in the Hudson Valley, which was at the northern end of the Virginia Company’s holdings.

A group of Separatists set sail from Leyden for England on the Speedwell on July 31, 1620. There, they met the Mayflower and another group of Separatists. Unfortunately, the Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy and unable to make the trip to the New World.  There has been some speculation as to why the Separatists would have attempted to make the trip in the fall, rather than wait for the following spring. The simple fact of the matter was that they were running out of money. Docking fees and the expenses of living away from home were made it necesary to leave immediately.

The Scrooby Separatists decided to send only some of their number on the initial trip – perhaps sixty or seventy. The remainder of the berths on the Mayflower would be taken  by other adventurers who were known to the Separatists as “Strangers.” Left behind was the minister Robinson; instead Brewster was selected as the leader. Also joining them in Plymouth was Miles Standish, a thirty-six year old soldier who, although not a member of the congregation, was apparently in sympathy with the movement.. The Mayflower  left for the New World on September 6, 1620. The trip took 65 days, during which time William Burton, a servant of Deacon Samuel Fuller, died, and a boy, Oceanus Hopkins, was born.

Unfortunately, when they sighted land, it was not the Hudson Valley, but the coast of New England, near Cape Cod in what is now Massachusetts. They judged that it was too late to continue on to the Hudson Valley, but this created a legal problem because they did not have a charter to settle elsewhere.

There also was a problem stemming from the lack of legal authority. Many of the “Strangers”  were destined to become indentured servants in the New World, and took the change in plans to mean that they could operate as they wished. Further, the “Strangers  among them had no desire to submit to the authority of the more numerous Scrooby Separatists, whom they viewed as religiously suspicious.

To appease the “Strangers,  the Separatists wrote a document which now is called the Mayflower Compact, which outlined a plan of government for the group. It was signed on November 11, 1620 the day on which the Mayflower entered Cape Cod Harbor. All forty one males signed the document, including the indentured servants. John Carver was named the first governor. It is interesting to note that the government thus drawn up was the same in form as they were authorized by the Virginia Company to institute until something permanent could be done.

The First Winter

One day, while they were in the meeting house, an Indian entered the village and astonished them by saying “Welcome, Englishmen.  Eager to learn of the people whith whom they were sharing their land, the Pilgrims interrogated him and learned that his name was  Samoset, and that he had learned his English from fishermen on the coast of Maine. Samoset also told them that the people who had formerly inhabited this stretch of land had been wiped out by a plague brought by Europeans.  Samoset stayed the night, and left the next day. However, a few days later, he returned with another young man named Squanto. He, too, spoke English. Squanto had been kidnapped some years before by traders and sold into slavery Spain, but was rescued and sent back to his own home by an Englishmen. Apparently grateful to his rescuers, he taught the Pilgrims a great many things about survival on the North American coast. In April 1621, Samoset and Squanto appeared with emissaries from the chief of the local Wampanoag tribe. The chief, Massasoit, along with his brother Quadequina, and about 60 men were waiting nearby and wanted to negotiate a  treaty of peace and friendship. The deal, which was quickly worked out, favored the Pilgrims on paper. The Wampanoag, however, also gained from the treaty. In conflict with the powerful Narragansett tribe, Massasoit sought to use the Pilgrims as leverage in his conflict. Soon after this, Canonicus, the chief of the Narragansett sent a snake skin filled with arrows to show his hostility to the new friends of his enemies. The Pilgrims sent back the skin filled with powder and shot. This was enough to convince him that he, too should come to an agreement with the Pilgrims. The treaties lasted for the most part until King Philip’s War in 1675.

The First Thanksgiving

By the fall of 1621, the little colony had recovered from the hardships of the previous winter. They had planted nearly 30 acres of crops, and had built homes, a meetinghouse, and storerooms. And, as the harvest approached, they decided to hold a celebration. Edward Winslow wrote:

We set last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas. According to the manner of the Indians we manured our ground with herrings (alewives) which we have in great abundance and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase in Indian corn. Our barley did indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering. We feared they were too late sown. They came up very well and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might, after a special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered in the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as many fowl as with little help besides, served the Company for almost a week, at which time, amongst our recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their great king the Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. They went out and killed five deer, which they brought in to the Plantation, and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. 

This, of course, is the event that we today recognize as the first Thanksgiving. But it is unlikely that the Pilgrims considered it as such. For the Separatists, days of Thanksgiving were a sacrament, and not a harvest festival. Still the feast – prepared by the nine surviving Pilgrim women – did much to boost their spirits. Their optimism, however, was unfounded. The harvest was not as good as they had thought, and they had badly misjudged their supplies. Strict rationing was going to be necessary to make it through the winter of 1621 – 1622. To make matters worse, a ship called The Fortune arrived with 35 more settlers – including three women. The new arrivals were poorly supplied and immediately became a burden. A month later, The Fortune returned to England, taking more of their precious supplies with it. That winter, the Pilgrims were once again faced with the prospect of starvation, and the next summer’s harvest was no better. There was no harvest feast that year. In 1623, the region was faced with a long drought that threatened yet another year’s crops. Desperate, the Pilgrims gathered in July for a day of humiliation and prayer. The next morning, it began to rain. Praising God, the Pilgrims declared a day of Thanksgiving. Near the end of July, two ships called the Anne and Little James arrived with 60 new settlers, and a good supply of provisions. The colony was saved, and they never starved again.

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