The Scourge of Winter

THE Mayflower sailed around Cape Cod into the bay, and the settlement of New Plymouth was begun: “On the 15th day of December they weighed anchor to go to the place they had dis­covered and came within two leagues of it, but had to bear up again. On the 16th day the wind came fair and they arrived safe in the harbour. Afterwards they took a better view of the place, and resolved where to pitch their dwellings; and on the 25th day they began to erect the first house for common use, to receive them and their goods (145).” The Mayflower put down her three anchors.

The Pilgrims decided to construct a gun-platform on a hill. They could then defend the new settlement with cannon taken ashore from the Mayflower: “In one field is a great hill on which we appoint to make a platform, and to plant our ordnance; which will com­mand all round about. From thence we may see into the bay and into the sea, and we may see thence Cape Cod (146).” The hill, once known as the Mount or Fort Hill, is known today as Burial Hill.

Soon after the landing at New Plymouth, William Bradford’s 23-year-old wife Dorothy was drowned. It has been suggested that she committed suicide, unable to endure the prospect of the sufferings which would face the settlement that winter. But the Puritan minister who wrote Bradford’s life said simply: “At their first landing, his dearest consort accidentally falling overboard, was drowned in the harbour (147).”

John Carver, chosen as leader after the Mayflower Compact was signed, was now formally appointed Governor of the new settle­ment. He was “a godly man and highly approved among them.”

A Doncaster merchant, Carver had invested more money in the voyage than the rest.

Then, “after they had provided a place for their goods and common stores, which they were long in unlading owing to want of boats, the severity ofthe winter weather and sickness, and had begun some small cottages for dwellings—as time would admit they met and consulted of law and order, both for civil and military government, as seemed suited to their conditions, adding to them from time to time as urgent need demanded.

“In these arduous and difficult beginnings, discontent and murmuring arose amongst some, and mutinous speech and bearing in others. But theywere soon quelled and overcome by the wisdom, patience, and just and equal administration of things by the Gover­nor and the better part, who held faithfully together in the main (148).99

One of the settlers was delighted to find plenty of fish in this bay, which was “a most hopeful place. It has an innumerable store of wild fowl and excellently good, and cannot but be full of fish in their seasons. Skate, cod, turbot and herring we have tasted of. Abundance of mussels, the greatest and best that we ever saw. Crabs and lobsters, in their time infinite (149).”

Trees and other plants grew in abundance around the bay: “Two or three great oaks, but not very thick. Pines, walnut, beech, ash, birch, hazel, holly, asp, sassafras, in abundance, and Vines every­where. Cherry-trees, plum-trees and many others which we knew not. Many kinds of herbs we found here in winter, as strawberry leaves innumerable, sorrel, yarrow, carvell, brook-lime, liverwort, watercresses, great store of leeks and onions, and an excellent strong kind of flax and hemp. Here are sand and gravel and excellent clay, no better in the world, excellent for pots, and will wash like soap: and great store of stone, though somewhat soft, and the best water that ever we drank and the brooks now begin to be full of fish (150).”

Puritans did not believe in keeping Christmas Day as a religious festival. But on that first Christmas Day Master Christopher Jones of the Mayflower gave his companions some beer to drink: “Monday the 25th being Christmas Day, we began to drink water aboard. But at night the Master caused us to have some beer. And so on board we had divers times, now and then, some beer. But on shore none at all (151).”

Three days after. Christmas the settlers began to look to their security. “So many as could went to work on the hill, where we purposed to build our platform for our ordnance; and which doth command all the plain and the bay; and from whence we may see far into the sea. And it might be the easier impaled, having two rows of houses and a fair street (152).” The settlement was, in fact, designed as a small and compact fort.

On that same Thursday they laid out the plots for the houses, planning as few as possible so that the settlement would be easy to defend. “In the afternoon we went to measure out the grounds. And first we took notice how many families there were, willing all single men that had no wives to join some family as they thought fit, that so we might build fewer houses. Which was done; and we reduced them to nineteen families. To greater families we allotted larger plots: to every person half a Pole [2-75 yards] in breadth, and three [l&5 yards] in length. And so lots were cast where every man should lie. Which was done and staked out (153).”

At first the Pilgrims were not troubled by Indians. “Wednesday, the 3rd January. Some of our people, being abroad to get and gather thatch; they saw great fires of the Indians, and were at their cornfields: yet saw none of the savages nor had seen any of them since we came to this bay (154).”

But most of the settlers had to spend the bitter months of a New England winter in their common dwelling, measuring only twenty feet square. Cramped living conditions, bad diet and weather began to take a heavy toll: “In two or three months’ time half of their company died, partly owing t0 the severity of the winter, especially during January and February, and the want of houses and other comforts; partly to scurvy and other diseases which their long voyage and their incommodious quarters had brought upon them. Of all the hundred odd persons scarcely fifty remained, and some­times two or three persons died in a day (155).”

Others lived in primitive dug outs, with turf roofs supported by wooden posts. In the absence of glass, oiled paper was stretched over the windows to keep out the cold, but still allowing a little light to pierce the gloomy interior.

As more and more settlers fell sick, a growing burden of work had to be shouldered by those who were still fit and well: “in the time of worst distress, there were but six or seven sound persons who, to their great commendation be it spoken, spared no pains night or day, but with great toil and at the risk of their own health fetched wood, made fires, prepared food for the sick, made their beds, washed their infected clothes, dressed and undressed them; in a word did all the homely and necessary services for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear mentioned. And all this they did willingly and cheerfully, without the least grudging, showing their love to their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered (156).”

In these dark days Bradford gave special praise to William Brewster, who was aged over fifty and probably the senior among them, and also to the soldier, Captain Standish: “Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend elder, and Miles Standish, their captain and military commander, to whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sick con­dition. And yet the Lord so upheld these men, that in this general calamity they were not at all infected with sickness. And what I have said of these few, I should say of many others who died in this general visitation, and others yet living, that while they had health or strength they forsook none that had need of them. I doubt not that their recompense is with the Lord (157).” Amid all the other hardships, Miles Standish’s wife died, probably of scurvy due to bad diet. Indeed of all eighteen wives only four survived the first year.

As the settlers at first had no minister, Brewster (as an elder) led their Sunday worship: “And besides that he would labour with his hands in the fields, as long as he was able. Yet when the Church had no other minister he taught twice every Sabbath, and that both powerfully and profitably, to the great contentment of the hearers and their comfortable edification. Yea, many were brought to God by his ministry. He did more in this behalf in a year than many, that have their hundreds [of pounds] a year do in all their lives (158).99

Bradford especially remembered the example set by Brewster’s unfailing courage and endurance. “He was no way unwilling to take his part, and to bear his burden with the rest. Living many times without bread or corn, many months together; having many times nothing but fish and often wanting that also; and drunk nothing but water for many years together (159).”

Sickness also struck the crew of the Mayflower, delaying her return to England. Scurvy “began to seize the sailors also, so that almost half of the crew died before they went away, and many of their officers and strongest men, amongst them the boatswain, gunner, three quarter-masters, the cook and others (160).”

The settlers’ food was monotonous, consisting mainly of corn bread, wild fowls and shellfish. They could not fish because they had neglected to bring suitable hooks from England. One day “one of the sailors found alive upon the shore a herring which the Master had to his supper; which put us in hope of fish, but as yet we had got but one cod. We wanted small hooks (161).”

On New Year’s Day, 1621, the Pilgrims hastened to fetch their supplies off the Mayflower. It was no easy task: “We were much hindered in lying so far off from the land, and fain to go as the tide served, that we lost much time. For our ship of 180 tons drew so much water that she lay a mile and almost a half off: though a ship of 70 or 80 tons, at high water, may come to the shore (162).”

Whenever the stormy weather abated, the settlers hurried outside to lay the foundations of their homes. Bradford wrote: “Tuesday, the 9th January, was a reasonable fair day: and we went to labour that day in the building of our town, in two rows of houses for more safety. We divided by lot the plot of ground whereon to build our town. We agreed that every man should build his own house, thinking by that course men would make more haste than when working in common. Frost and foul weather hindered us much. This time of the year seldom could we work half the week (163).”

On one Sunday in January, the thatched roof of the community house caught fire, but luckily the damage was slight: “The 14th of January, in the morning, about six of the clock, the wind being very great, they on shipboard spied their great new rendezvous on fire: which was to them a new discomfort . . . The house was fired occasionally [accidentally] by a spark that flew into the thatch which instantly burnt it all up. But the roof stood and was little hurt (164).”

John Carver and William- Bradford both had a narrow escape in the fire, as they lay sick in bed: “If they had not risen with good speed, had been blown up with powder. But through God’s mercy they had no harm. The house was as full of beds as they could lie one by another; and their muskets were charged. But blessed by God there was no harm done (165).”

While sickness raged in the community house, the Pilgrims lived in constant fear of Indian attack. “The Indians came skulking about those who were ashore and would sometimes show themselves aloof at a distance, but when any approached them they would run away. Once they stole away the men’s tools where they had been at work, and were gone to dinner (166).”

This mishap taught them a lesson, for “this coming of the savages gave us occasion to keep more strict watch, and to make our pieces and furniture [muskets and their equipment] ready, which by the moisture and rain were out of temper (167).”

On the morning of Saturday, 17th February, the settlers “called a meeting for the establishing of military orders amongst ourselves: and we chose Miles Standish, our Captain; and gave him authority of command in affairs (168).”

They also brought some guns from the Mayflower up to the platform: “Wednesday, the 21st of February. The Master came on shore, with many of his sailors, and brought with him one of the great pieces, called a Minion [a cannon weighing 1,200 lbs., having a bore of 3¼ inches, and firing 340 yards] and helped us to draw it up the hill; with another piece that lay on shore: and mounted them; and a Saker [or Sacre, a cannon weighing 1,500 lbs. , having a bore of 3½ inches, and firing 360 yards], and two Bases [cannon; each weighing 202 lbs. and having a bore of l¼ inches] (169).”

Captain John Smith, whose help the Pilgrims had declined, wrote acidly of their plight that winter: “Yet, at the first landing at Cape Cod, being a hundred passengers besides twenty they had left behind at Plymouth; for want of good take-heed, thinking to find all things better than 1 advised them, spent six or seven weeks in wandering up and down in frost and snow, wind and rain, among the woods creeks and swamps. Forty of them died and threescore were left in most miserable estate at New Plymouth where their ship [the Mayflower] left them, and but nine leagues by sea, from where they landed (170).” But despite every setback, the Pilgrims struggled on through the winter, counting the days before the return of Spring and the hope of better things.