The Sorrowful First Winter at Plymouth

THE mythology of a people holds a deeper truth than their factual history. The landing of the Pilgrims, as depicted by painter and poet, never took place. Only an exploring party of 18 men landed on that first Forefathers' Day, Dec 21, 1620. The Mayflower did not come up to Plymouth from Provincetown until the day after Christmas, and many of her passengers slept aboard throughout the Winter.

A creeping tide in a shallow, almost land-locked harbor, softly lapping a low, sandy shore, with a scrubby forest beyond, confute the heroic picture that Mrs Hemans drew out of her fancy 3000 miles from the scene:
The breaking waves dashed high
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods against a stormy sky
Their giant branches tossed.
The one rock on the coast that is known to history made its belated appearance 120 years after the landing from the Mayflower, when an aged man testified that some of the Pilgrims pointed it out to him in his childhood as the veritable rock upon which they landed. Whether it was or not matters little. It is but a symbol. Even the ninety and nine simple folk who came to Plymouth on the Mayflower are significant only as symbolizing stepping-stones unto others, as Gov Bradford said.

With the "weather-beaten face" of Cape Cod repelling the Pilgrims as they looked upon it from Provincetown Harbor, an exploring party looked about for a more inviting place of settlement. Wherever the explorers went they saw the Indians darting into the forests like frightened deer. They were to learn, in due time, that those red men had seen white men before and had cause enough to fear the race. When they came upon a house its inmates fled at their approach. They did find a store or cache of seed corn, which served them well at planting time. But "the New England conscience" must have come over on the Mayflower; the Pilgrims hunted up the owners of the corn the next year and made full restitution.

Plymouth finally was chosen, not because the prospecting party thought much of it, but rather for the reason that the New England Winter already was upon them. Even while they were daily wending back and forth between ship and shore to chop and saw trees for their first log house, they were attacked by what seems to have been a virulent form of quick consumption. Lungs accustomed to the soft sea wind of the European Coast were unable to resist such an assault, and the disease spread like a conflagration.

"In the time of most distress," Bradford recorded, "there were but six or seven sound persons, who . . . . spared no pains, night nor day . . . fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds . . . . in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them, which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named . . . . and I doubt not but their recompense is with the Lord."

When the mayflowers first bloomed for the Pilgrims in Plymouth woods 47 of the colonists were under the greening turf, with only 52 above it. Of the 18 wives and mothers who had come so far to make new homes, but four were left.

Yet when soon their ship sailed away to leave those few survivors stranded on that inhospitable shore, not one of them faltered and returned with the Mayflower. Why did none flinch? Another miracle in the building of America! Everyone in that handful of humanity had stood Bradford's test: "All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be both enterprise and overcome with answerable courages."

Happily the little band were seasoned and acclimated, the sifted seed of a Nation. Some 30 of those 52 that lived through the first terrible Winter of 1620-21 still were alive as late as 1650, when there were in all about 130 descendants of the passengers on the Mayflower. The last of those passengers did not die until 1694, 74 years after the landing. He had lived to see the colony itself disappear, absorbed into Massachusetts. Even that aged survivor seems not to have been honored with the name of Pilgrim Father; the term Pilgrim can be traced back in print only to 1799.

The colonists not only had to accustom themselves to an unfamiliar climate. They found it difficult to adapt their diet to the foodstuffs of a strange land. They hungered almost to the point of starvation in their first Summer on the shore of the Duxbury clam rather than risk a resort to that bivalve. They grieved over the lack of beer, and most reluctantly condescended to the use of water as a beverage. They had to learn from the Indians not only how to raise food in that alien soil but also how to cook it. The red man's succotash never to this day has degenerated to a mere side dish on the Plymouth table, but remains almost a meal in itself, with fish, flesh or fowl for its base.

The obscurity of the Pilgrims was their salvation. No one coveted their poor country nor envied them their primitive independence. They were left free to set up a State without a King—the royal Government did not so much as notice their existence for 40 years. Not only did they set up a church without a bishop—they did not have even a pastor in the first eight years.

Plymouth may be seen in its true proportions only through the telescope of time. To the naked eye, it is a little thing. So, too, is an acorn.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 25, 1927, p. 18