The Mayflower: A True Story, and One You May Not Know

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The Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

For those of you busy prepping for the Thanksgiving holiday, making mad dashes through the grocery store, stocking up on cans of pumpkin like it’ll never be back again, may I ask that you sit a moment and learn the true story about the people who sailed from England to the New World and how they came to know the natives who lived here before them.  If nothing else, you’ll have a great conversation starter for your Thanksgiving table and everyone will be so impressed by what you know.  😉
For starters, to say that Thanksgiving was a time where the pilgrims and Indians came together as friends for a feast, is severely underrated.  And, were I to try to recap for you the 50+ years of alliances and wars that occurred between these people in the historical retelling of The Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, we’d both be here a long time!  So let me give me the basics, and encourage you with absolute sincerity that this book is a phenomenal read.
Now, our story starts in Leiden, Holland.  Before the pilgrims set sail for religious freedom to the New World, they attempted Holland.  Most of us thankfully will never know the hardships that these people underwent in their attempt to make a new life for themselves.  For the pilgrims who lived in Leiden, they were slaves.  All of them, including the women and children were forced to work long hours in the factories to earn their keep, and barely received any pay.  Their religion was persecuted and they had to gather in secret.  When enough was enough, plans started to be made about a voyage to the new world.
But these people were not rich, government officials, they were simple and poor puritans.  Several times the voyage seemed to make progress, only to have the business deal fizzle out from beneath them.  Even their first stretch of sailing was a complete disaster.  There were in fact two ships that left England, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, but the Speedwell’s captain had been sold faulty sails that were much too big for the vessel and when the Atlantic’s winds ripped through them, the support beam cracked and the boat began to leak.  Both ships headed back to shore.  Some of the Speedwell’s passengers clamored aboard the Mayflower, while others decided it a was sign not to risk their lives any further.

Joe and I outside the Mayflower II Recreation

The Mayflower suddenly held more than its capacity of people and not all of them were getting along!  Amongst the pilgrims we all know and talk about, were other Englanders who had come from the Speedwell, a few militia men, and the ship’s crew.  It was crowded and smelly and there was little privacy to the whole journey, which lasted months.  Amazingly, only two lives were lost from those on the ship, and neither occurred until after they had docked.  One of the ship’s men died, and William Bradford’s wife, Alice, was found overboard and it can be speculated suicide was the cause, as the Bradford’s had to leave their only son with family in England until the new colony was established.

Cozy sleeping quarters aboard the Mayflower II

The pilgrims had depleted their supplies and were still huddled below deck of the Mayflower while roughly 10 men went out each day to find suitable land.  Before establishing the colony in Plymouth they came across several mounds in the earth which held inside them corn, dried meat and other housewares and weapons.  They also held bodies.  The pilgrims had unearthed several Native burial mounds.
Their first encounter with the natives was a shooting match with the Narragansett Natives shooting arrows at them and they shooting their muskets.  The Natives were wary of any white travelers since those who had come before them cheated the Indians out of land, and spread disease.  But the English’s fancy form of dress and iron kettles for cooking proved useful trading supplies.  With the aid of Squanto, a native man who spoke English, a trade alliance was made between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.
What spanned for the next 50+ years was an up and down relationship between native tribes and the English settlers.  Every chief was in battle with the other tribes for territory, and of course the English were expanding their settlements too.  The greatest alliance of the 17th century was probably that between Chief Massasoit and the pilgrims’ Governor William Bradford.  Through the assistance of Squanto, these men made an alliance against Massasoit’s enemies and assisted the natives in battle, giving them guns as weapons and other supplies.  Massasoit, in return, offered protection and additional furs/food to the pilgrims.  Without his people’s aid, the pilgrims would not have survived the first year.

English Colony in 1627, taken at Plimoth Plantation

One of the most significant acts of kindness that showed the alliance between the natives and pilgrims was Thanksgiving, more likely referred to by the attendees as a Harvest Celebration.  It lasted three days and was put together by about 6 women, two of them teenagers.  The pilgrims invited their Wampanoag friend, Massasoit who brought with him his wives and honored soldiers.  The natives taught the pilgrims games and shared some food from their hunts, but the reality is they nearly ate the pilgrims out of house and home.  Nonetheless, were it not for the stolen supplies from the burial mounds, the pilgrims wouldn’t have survived the first year.  Each owed the other greatly.

The John Howland House at Plimoth Plantation

A Kitchen Area inside the Pilgrim Houses

Hay stuffed Mattress for a Bed

Handmade Clay Watering Can

Thanksgiving and the story of the pilgrims is very dear to my heart because I am a descendant of two pilgrims who crossed over on the Mayflower.  John Howland came over as an indentured servant with the colony’s first governor, John Carver, but Carver and his wife perished that first year.  Howland became a respected member of Plymouth’s colony and helped begin a fur trade expedition further north.  After a year or so settled he married fellow Mayflower passenger, Elizabeth Tilley, who had lost both her parents that first year around the age of 14 or 15.  They raised 10 children and are the most prominent Mayflower ancestors known because they survived to old ages.  Most descendants today come from the Howland family, and John is my 15th great-Grandfather.  My family stems from the tree of his eldest child, a daughter, Desire.  Last summer, I made a trip to Boston, Massachusetts and took a day train into Plymouth and toured Plimoth Plantation, a living museum that recreates the historical houses and people of the Mayflower crossing.  It’s one of the most moving and fascinating history tours I’ve ever been on.  The plantation also includes boarding the Mayflower II, a replica ship actually sailed from England to Massachusetts in a symbolic journey.

The Navigator's Room aboard the Mayflower II

Chatting with Priscilla Mullins aboard the Mayflower II

I was also able to visit the Jabez Howland house, a home built by John Howland’s son that is one of two remaining homes built and inhabited by an original Mayflower pilgrim.  Entering the home of my ancestor was an indescribable experience.  I imagined the days he lived out with his family, the winters he survived, the memories he had of those early days, and most of all his courage.

Honestly, I barely touched the surface of the story of the pilgrims and those first 50 years after settling.  Philbrick does an exceptional job of telling a captivating story of “courage, community, and war.”  I encourage everyone to learn the real story of the people involved in creating a national holiday of thanksgiving through reading his book.  And if you’re ever out east in the Boston area, definitely take a trip into Plymouth and visit the Plimoth Plantation and Mayflower II.  It’s a totally interactive site and historically acclaimed.  They are learning new information all the time.

For more info on John Howland or the first years of the pilgrim’s settlement, check out my guest post, A Thanksgiving to Remember, at David Walker’s blog.

What questions do you have?  Are you surprised by the reality of the first Thanksgiving?  Did you know at that time that eels were the dinner delicacy, and lobster was the throw away food?  What traditions does your family celebrate this time of year?  Have you ever traced your family tree and been surprised who’s shown up there? 

Happy Thanksgiving, Readers, from my family to yours! 

17 responses

  1. How cool! The best part of it was reading your family history. I love stuff like that. And what a huge source of pride for you! I have ancestors on both sides of my family who fought in the Texas Revolution. I’ve thought numerous times about joining the Daughters of the Republic but haven’t done it. Anyway, great post. Loved it.

    1. With your passion for history and legends, you should join! I bet you’d learn so much and meet fascinating women. If you ever go, you’ll have to tell us all about it.

      P.S. For more info. on my ancestor, you can read the guest post I did for David Walker on monday.

  2. I’m a descendant of John Adams and Priscilla Mullins 🙂 I’ll have to check out the book, thanks for letting me know about it.

    1. Do mean John Alden and Priscilla Mullins? That’s very cool. I believe John Alden and John Howland were friends, and Priscilla and Elizabeth were the only two unmarried women who crossed over. It seems we were destined to be friends too, Alica!

      You should definitely pick up the book (get the audio, made for a fun history lesson while I got ready each morning). It’s a fascinating and eye opening read. Even zooming around Plimoth Plantation’s website has awesome info.

  3. You had me at history 😀

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Clay! You’d definitely like visiting Plimoth Plantation, awesome living history museum. Their website is pretty cool too and they offer lots of services including camping at the English settlement, so you can learn and live just like the pilgrims did. Crazy!

  4. Awesome! Are you a member of Mayflower Society? It’s good that you can trace your history that far. Not many people are blessed with that knowledge of their ancestry.

    1. I’m not in the society, but I know someone who is. Seems like a cool honor. And we found out when we went to Jabez’s house that not 2 days earlier there was a Howland family reunion for all descendants to go to. Pretty crazy. Someday I’d love to attend and see the old homesite, as well as have Thanksgiving dinner at the Plantation.

  5. […] Flat-Out Love by Jeannie Campbell. The Best Literary Fiction Blogs & Websites by Jane Friedman. Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower by Jess […]

  6. What a fantastic post, Jess. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hectic hoopla of the holidays. Taking time out to read and reflect on what really happened is so valuable… Thanks for the insight and inspiration!

    PS I recently learned that my roots go back to the Mayflower as well… You’ve motivated me to learn more. 🙂

    1. Ooooh, do you know which pilgrim/native you’re related to. I went home this weekend too and watched the history channel’s 2 hour special on the journey and first year of the pilgrims. It’s called Desperate Crossing if you’re interested, I believe it’s available for purchase through Plimoth Plantation; I got mine there, and I thought it was incredibly well done. Performed in part by the Royal Shakespeare Acting Co., and it includes several New England history profs, the curator for Plimoth Plantation, several members of the Wampanoag Advocacy group, and the author, Nathaniel Philbrick.

  7. Great post, Jess. I loved the bit about your family history. I’ve been passionate about researching my own genealogy, specifically my Cuban side. I look forward to reading this book.

    1. I forgot to mention that the pilgrims ate cannoli at the first Thanksgiving, but you and I have been through this already. 😉

  8. […] The Mayflower: A True Story and One You May Not Know by Jess Whitkins. Nice info and some pics! […]

  9. […] I’m also a descendant of two of the original pilgrims who crossed over on the Mayflower.  I shared what the true story of the first year abroad in The Mayflower: A True Story, and One You May Not Know. […]

  10. Cherilyn Bradock | Reply

    I just came across your article… Lovely reading and so awesome to see pictures! My family history on my fathers’ side was actually traced all the way back to William Bradford. (my maiden name is Cherilyn Bradford) I had heard your stories before but it is nice to hear/read them again! ..maybe someday I will get to visit just as you did!

    1. I hope you do! It’s a wonderful living history museum.

      I went to school with one of your distant relatives too. Bradford had a sad journey to the new world with a lot of loss. His diary is such a crucial part to our knowing about that time though. Amazing it survived.

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