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The Mayflower Story

November 19, 2012


A portion of this column is an excerpt from the book Santa Almost Got Caught: Stories for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year

by Kirk H. Neely (2011)

More than thirty years ago in Boston I visited a replica of the Mayflower, the vessel that brought the Pilgrims to the shores of the New World. I was struck by how small the ship was. The thought of crowding 102 people on a boat 128 feet long and enduring an ocean voyage of sixty-six days boggles the mind.

In the middle of the Atlantic, the small Mayflower was swept into a fierce storm. A tremendous wave broke across the deck of the ship, splintering boards and fracturing one of the main beams. With Captain Christopher Jones shouting orders above the roar of the raging sea, the crew employed a large iron screw jack to lift the broken beam and the sagging deck back into place. After inspecting the repairs, Captain Jones decided that the ship’s hull was sound. The journey continued.

The storm at sea was yet another event in a long history of difficulties faced by the Pilgrims. A decade after removing themselves from the Church of England, the Separatists lived as exiles in Holland. The Puritans, as they were also known, negotiated for three years before obtaining the necessary sponsor to establish a colony in the New World.  Only eight Separatist families were prepared to make the pilgrimage across the ocean. They were seeking religious freedom.

Thinking that the group was too small to survive, the Virginia Company recruited volunteers to join the voyage.  The Puritans referred to these recruits as strangers. The passengers — strangers and Pilgrims, soldiers and sailors, recruits with their families, and eight Separatist families — made the perilous voyage together.

The Mayflower’s intended destination was the Jamestown Colony. Whether or not Captain Jones was aware that the ship was off course is unknown; but at sunrise on November 9, 1620, the high ground of Cape Cod was sighted. The Mayflower would have to sail three more weeks to reach Jamestown.

The decision was made to go as far south as the mouth of the Hudson River, just inside the boundary of the Virginia Company’s claimed land. A few hours later, another storm, roaring out of Nantucket Sound, drove the small ship back to the north.  The Mayflower found refuge just inside the tip of Cape Cod at the safe harbor now known as Provincetown, Massachusetts.

One of the strangers on board was Steven Hopkins.  His wife had given birth to a son at sea on the Mayflower only a few days after the fierce storm that broke the crossbeam.  The infant was appropriately named Oceanus.

Hopkins had overheard mutinous talk among some of the strangers.  They grumbled that if the Mayflower landed outside of the Virginia Company’s territory, the authority of the colony would not be legally binding upon them.

The Separatists heard the rumor. Their leaders — William Brewster, William Bradford, John Carver, and Edward Winslow — wrote out a statement of self-government. The Separatists persuaded the others on board to sign the document. Before anyone set foot on solid ground, forty-one men, strangers as well as Pilgrims, had signed the Mayflower Compact.

Over the following weeks, the Mayflower continued to explore the inner curve of Cape Cod, searching for a suitable harbor. Finally on December 21, the trustworthy vessel found a haven at Plymouth. By Christmas Day, a holiday the Puritans did not observe, construction on the first buildings had begun. While homes were being built, the people continued to live aboard the cramped Mayflower.

The first winter in the New World was severe, and disease was rampant. Pneumonia and scurvy decimated the ranks of the colonists. By spring, fifteen of the eighteen wives had died, as had five of the twenty-eight children. Nineteen of the twenty-nine hired men and fifteen of the thirty sailors died from hard work in the harsh weather. Only five Pilgrim men and eight strangers remained alive. Teenager Priscilla Mullins lost her entire family.

The bereavement and hardships of that winter bound strangers and Pilgrims together. A hardened soldier, Miles Standish tended the sick alongside Separatist William Brewster. Sneering sailors and praying Puritans now shared a common suffering.

On March 16, a tall, half-naked man walked into the circle of startled villagers. He introduced himself as Samoset. He spoke only a little English. So, he left in frustration. Three days later, Samoset returned with Squanto, who knew English very well. These two Native Americans were largely responsible for the survival of the depleted colony. Perhaps aware of the hardships the colonists had endured, the Indians taught the Europeans how to hunt and fish.

Following the death of Governor William Carver in April 1621, the Mayflower set sail for the return voyage to Europe. The fifty people of Plymouth Colony, more than half of them children, were left in America.  Priscilla Mullins became the bride of John Alden.  Widows and widowers were united in marriage.

Massasoit, Chief of the Narragansett tribe, befriended the Pilgrims. A treaty signed by both groups kept the peace for fifty-four years, until Massasoit’s death.  Native Americans advised the colonists on agricultural methods that enabled the Plymouth community to enjoy a good harvest.  On December 13, 1621, a three-day feast was planned. Massasoit came with ninety Indians. We often refer to that feast as the first Thanksgiving.

At that gathering, William Bradford read scripture and led in prayers of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my favorite Holiday. It is the least commercialized of all of our celebrations. It is the one day that all people of every faith can celebrate. Will the people who suffered most from super storm Sandy be able to give thanks? Will the difficulties of our lives prevent us from being grateful?  Will we reduce this opportunity to express our appreciation for the blessings of life to a day for football and overeating?

When Clare and I gather with our family around our table on Thursday, I will tell the Mayflower story. We will read from the Psalms, and we will pray. You might consider doing something similar with your family.

The people of the Mayflower serve as an example for all of us.  We learn from them that our deepest expressions of gratitude may come in the midst of our greatest difficulties.

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2012

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