What was it like to live in the first American colonies?
We wanted to know about that. It was harder than we imagined.
The first of the 13 British American colonies was established in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia.
Next the Pilgrims arrived at the site of Plymouth, Massachusetts, famously fleeing religious persecution. They wished to be separate from the Church of England.
Although Jamestown, Virginia, was the first British colony, we tend to relate to the colony that the Pilgrims established in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 for the more vivid stories of the early colonial life.
William Bradford sailed on the Mayflower and was an early governor of the new colony. Many years later he journaled about the adventure and was the one who called them “Pilgrims”.
…With mutual embraces and many tears, they took their leaves of one another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them…but they knew they were pilgrims and looked not much on those things, but lifted their eyes to heaven, their dearest country and quieted their spirits…William Bradford
Between England and the new land, they stayed for a while in Holland but did not feel at home nor that they could maintain their own chosen culture in that very different culture. Amazingly, they eventually decided that going to the little known New World would be good for them!
Something unexpected on the voyage was the development and signing (by the male voyagers) of the Mayflower Compact. This was a mutual agreement of the members of the party to work together to maintain their community. While still continuing to attribute their allegiance to James I. The document has been called the start of democracy in this land and the first writing of a constitution.
The extreme hardship of voyage and arrival
Half of those hundred or so who made it across the ocean in that voyage died the first year. Apparently from ship-borne diseases. Also malnutrition and scurvy.
So did the Native Americans they and others from the Old World met and intermingled with; up to ninety percent died from diseases new to them, especially the plague.
Their ability to provide for themselves, including food, safety, and shelter was poor. It was a brutal time and difficult life. In fact, arriving in early winter, there was no time to build effective shelters so they stayed on the Mayflower. And ate food they were transporting.
It’s just a (Plymouth) Rock
We gather that the actual rock is always a disappointment. We love symbols, but really this is not what anybody expects. When you hear there is a granite rock that is the site of the arrival of the fabled ship from the Old World, naturally you expect something grand. At least half the size of the ship, something everyone could walk across to reach dry land, right?
No. That’s wrong, actually. There is a boulder. Ten tons sounds big but it’s not, for a rock. It is in Plymouth Harbor at the shore.
At one point it probably was much larger, but there is no early mention of the Mayflower folks tripping across such a piece when they disembarked.
That legend came later. Maybe they landed near it, and sighted it as a marker.
At any rate, it is smaller now. That’s due to attempts to move it with it breaking (more than once), and people actually chipping souvenirs off it! Finally, the large remnant lies protected from further harm by a large stone portico built over it at the shoreline.
There really was a first Thanksgiving
Legend (we understand it is a true story) has it that our modern Thanksgiving dates from the 3-day harvest festival celebrated in the fall by those who survived. By then they could plant corn, hunted, learned to trade, and started a real colony. We gather they took a while to master fishing, despite the proximity of Cape Cod.
From the New World, they learned to plant the native crops of maize, squash, pumpkins, beans, and potatoes.
From the Old World, they brought seeds or beginnings for turnips, carrots, peas, wheat, barley, and oats.
The importance of the Native Americans
It’s a whole other story to recount their complex relationship with the natives. Obviously, it was pretty rocky, though apparently not as lethal to both sides as earlier interactions there and in Virginia.
A singular survivor of the plague brought to the Native Americans was Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe. He helped them endure, teaching them essential skills and acting as interpreter.
At the fall harvest, there were more Indians present than surviving colonists! Peacefully, they contributed to food and participation.
Growth and conflicts
These are amazing stories. We could go on quite a bit of our learning and recounting them. Why are there not an enormous number of movies made? I guess the era and circumstances are not fashionable in our early 21st century! Maybe that will come around again.
“Standish’s raid” may have ruined or severely set back what had been budding good relations between the settlers and natives. Myles Standish, who traveled on the Mayflower too, was the military commander of the colony. In about 1642 he raided and killed at least two unsuspecting Indian leaders because of rumors that the Native Americans were planning an attack.
Local retaliation ensued. A number of the natives fled the area. This was consequential since it caused the tribes to drop the fur trading that had been burgeoning, setting back the colony’s financial well-being for some time.
Suffice it to say, there ensued many conflicts and local wars. Colonies grew up over what was becoming New England.
By 1643, the Plymouth colony joined with others into the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The New England Confederation formed in 1691.
Anyway, our limited “interest” for the purposes of this blog post is to find out about the lifestyle of these early arrivals to our country, not so much the politics and wars.
Home living in the Colonies
The home of the less well-to-do was in a simple house. Mostly, a large extended family lived together. Wood framed the house that had a dirt floor and paper windows. It was held together with clay and mud “daubing”. Furniture was home made and fairly sparse.
There might be only one room. Fireplace cooking and use for warmth in the winter was usual.
The more well-to-do borrowed the ideas for house architecture from the Old World. That, of course, gave rise to the English colonial style. In New England, there was also a persisting Dutch influence from the span the Pilgrims were in Holland before they came to the New World.
It was a hard history
Well, we did learn something about this stuff in school … quite a few years ago … but to go over it, even though just a little bit for review related to the home life interests of our blog and general interest in Americana … well it opened out no-longer adolescent eyes.
First of all, so many deaths! We must have previously glossed over how enormous was the loss due to disease. The lengthy and grueling trip across the Atlantic took its toll on the Pilgrims with over half of them dying soon after arrival.
Illness and ignorance took their toll
Apparently they caught ill on the trip. They had crowded circumstances and knew nothing about the hygienic principles we do today. All that is worthy of an article, or book by someone, someday. Plague was in Europe and the people carried to the Native Americans. Possibly ninety per cent of the local Indians perished!
Secondly, we did not include much about this in this article, because war and brutality are not the subjects we wanted to write about! But if you look through our references and get interested in the subject, it is amazing how easily some of the military colonists found it to kill Native Americans. Of course, there was evil on back. We don’t know enough to comment further. But it was a pretty rough existence.
Thirdly, we were amazed how poorly the occupants of the Mayflower were for living in the New World.
It was as though they just jumped aboard, expecting to know what to do. They didn’t. They knew very little about survival.
It seems they were quite lucky to have that single Indian, Squanto, at first to help them learn to plant, to translate for them, and appears to have helped “introduce” them to surrounding people.
Fourthly, lurking in history are stories of indentured servants. A major component of who came across to this country. We are not surprised, after all. We knew the wealthy and those happy with conditions at home (England) would not have gone through the rigor of this adventure.
Before you go
The story of Colonial America is vast. We’ve written here just a taste. We should be back with more posts over time. For now, you may enjoy reading an article on this blog that is on the major American values. We did talk about the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech in that. Freedom of religion wasn’t really part of that discussion.
This story of the Pilgrim trip brings home how important freedom of religion is and was. That a brave band of Separatists felt so strongly that they needed to not be absorbed into or thought irrelevant by the Church of England. They made a trip like this into basically the unknown, that half of them did not survive. The survivors made it into history, however, as our Pilgrim Fathers.