The Pilgrims' First Winter In America

by Stan Griffin

When the "Mayflower" and its passengers anchored at the tip of Cape Cod in November, 1620, the Pilgrims "fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had ... delivered them from ...perils and miseries ..."

Soon afterwards came the writing and signing of the "Mayflower Compact," in which Pilgrims and Strangers alike agreed to: (1) make laws for the good of the colony; and (2) obey those laws. This was done before anyone had been ashore.

After several scouting expeditions and even a move by the "Mayflower" to a new harbor, a suitable place was chosen for the colony. After the decision was made, they found their new home on a map drawn by Captain John Smith six years earlier. He had named it "Plymouth."

The designated site was located on high ground beside a river. There was land that had been planted in corn (by Indians), and it was near a "sweet brook" which ran under a hillside and contained "much good fish."

On December 25 the first working party left the ship to begin construction of "New Plymouth," as they decided to call it. Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas because they considered it just an "invention" of the Roman Catholic Church.

Construction began initially on a "Common House," to be located behind the beach. The structure was planned to be 20 feet square. There was an adequate supply of timber available.

Building crews had to cope with alternate days of rain, snow, and sleet. In spite of the weather, all four sides were up in a period of three weeks.

This "Common House" was intended to be a storage area for supplies from the "Mayflower," but events caused it to be used as a family shelter and later as a temporary hospital.

This first structure was soon surrounded by small huts made of branches and sod built to house the workers. The other settlers spent their nights on the "Mayflower" until they had somewhere to live on land.

Next, a short street was laid out, running from the beach to a hill. On it was built a wooden platform. Very shortly after its completion, the cannon which had been brought from England were mounted as a defense against Indians.

Along the street, lots were laid out. Each one was 8 feet wide and 50 feet deep. The entire company of settlers was divided into 19 households. Every single person joined a family which they themselves chose. Households were assigned lots (the number depended on how many people were part of it). Permanent title to the land was not assigned.

Family cottages or shacks built on these lots were made of wattle (poles twisted or braided together with twigs, reeds or branches) and daub (mud) with a thatched roof (one made with plant stalks, reeds, or leaves.

Despite all the obstacles, several buildings were erected in the first few weeks. But illness delayed the homebuilding.

It was March 21 before everyone had moved from the "Mayflower" to shelter on land. By that time, the number of settlers had dropped considerably. Over 1/2 of them died during the winter of 1620-1621. Likely causes given were starvation, cold, and disease. On the list of deadly diseases were scurvy and one that was referred to only as "the sickness."

The terrible statistics of this first winter follow:

In the month of December, six people died.

In January there were eight deaths.

In February there were 17 fatalities.

And in March, 13 died.

Frequently two or three died on the same day. Four entire families were taken, and there was only one family that didn't lose at least one member.

Of 18 married women, 13 died. Only three of 13 children perished. This seems to indicate that mothers were probably giving their share of food to the children.

Pilgrim leaders feared the Indians, even though none had been seen (at least up close) since the early days of their arrival. They did all they could to hide the magnitude of their human losses. Burial services were conducted after dark. Graves were leveled and planted with corn to conceal them.

The winter was, by local standards, a fairly mild one. The Plymouth settlers were simply not used to living on an awful diet and being exposed to the elements. Had it been a really severe winter, it's likely that all of them would have been wiped out.

During this horrendous winter there were, of course, some dissatisfied complainers. They were overcome by "wisdom, patience, and a governor who was just and fair."

When the "Mayflower" was prepared to return to England in April. 1621, its captain offered to take any survivors with him at no charge. It is a testament to the faith and determination of the survivors that none took him up on his offer.

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