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THE FIRST WINTER 1620-1621

 

THE PILGRIM
STORY

Understanding the Pilgrims

The Scrooby Separatists

Life in Holland & Departure to New England

The Mayflower Voyage

The First Winter

The "First Thanksgiving"

Plymouth
Colony:
1622-1626

Pilgrim Clothing

17th-century Wampanoag Clothing

Arrival and Exploration:

The Mayflower sighted land on November 9, 1620. It proved to be Cape Cod, which although the right latitude, was well east of their original destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. However, an encounter the following day with the shoals which lie off the outer Cape, as well as the lateness of the year, persuaded them to remain in the Cape area. The Mayflower came to anchor in what is today Provincetown harbor on November 11, after 66 days at sea. That day the male passengers signed the famous agreement we now know as the "Mayflower Compact."

While the Mayflower remained in the harbor at the tip of Cape Cod, the people went ashore to shake off the months of travel, to wash their linen and to explore what they perceived to be a wilderness. A shallop -- a small coastal craft -- had been stowed below decks in sections. The pieces of the shallop were unshipped and brought ashore to be put together. This took 16 or 17 days. While the Pilgrims were waiting for the shallop to be reassembled, sixteen armed men set out on November 15 under the command of Captain Myles Standish to explore the immediate area.

The explorers saw some Native Americans from afar, but were unable to catch up with them. They discovered a buried cache of Indian corn and a kettle, which they took (but paid for the following June), and the remains of a fortification. As the wandered William Bradford was caught in the noose of a deer trap. A second expedition, in which 34 men took part, used the shallop to proceed further along the inner Cape. They found many signs of the native population which had fled at their approach, more corn and the burial of a European man.

Plymouth Founded

It was on a third expedition that the exploring party arrived in Plymouth harbor, where they finally found a suitable place for their permanent habitation. On December 6, ten men braved the frigid winter weather to take the shallop once again along the coast. They found a Native American burial ground and some unoccupied dwellings before camping for the night. At daybreak on December 9 they were attacked by the local inhabitants in a brief exchange of arrows and musket shot, but no one was harmed. The party then proceeded in the shallop only to be caught in a rising storm. First the heavy seas broke the rudder hinges; then their mast split into three pieces. It was all they could do to maneuver the shallop into a nearby harbor and land on an island where they spent a cold and rainy night. The following day being the Sabbath, they did little but explore the island. It was later named "Clark's Island" apparently after Thomas Clarke, the mate of the Mayflower.

On Monday, the 11th of December, they went ashore in Plymouth where they found cleared fields and plenty of fresh running water. It was at this time that the famous landing on Plymouth Rock was presumed to have occurred, although there is no record of it in the original accounts. The explorers then returned to the Mayflower to say that they had, at last, found a suitable place to build their new community. The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth harbor on December 16, 1620, and construction on the settlement began on the 23rd.

The First Winter at Plymouth:

The Mayflower remained in New England with the colonists throughout the terrible first winter. Although the ship was cold, damp and unheated, it did provide a defense against the rigorous New England winter until houses could be completed ashore. Nevertheless, exposure, malnutrition and illness led to the death of half the group, both passengers and crewmen. There were four deaths (and one birth - Peregrine White) during the month they spent at the tip of Cape Cod. The remainder of the winter saw the deaths of another 40 or 41 colonists. At the lowest ebb, only seven people were healthy enough to tend the sick. On January 14, a fire destroyed the thatched roof on their first structure or "rendezvous" but fortunately none of the sick people that lay within were hurt. A second fire a month later was put out without incident. Despite all of the tragedies and hardships, the Pilgrims persevered in building their new settlement. The Village street was laid out with two rows of plots for their houses and gardens. A platform was erected on the top of the hill above the village, and six cannon installed for defense.

The colonists had observed Native Americans near the settlement in mid-February, but it wasn't until Friday, March 16, that the two peoples actually met. It was then that the famous encounter occurred when Samoset, an Abenaki Sagamore from what is now Maine, and another man entered the little village and said "Welcome, Englishmen." Samoset had learned English from the English fishermen who crossed the North Atlantic each year to fish for cod. He told the Pilgrims of the great plague which had killed all of the Patuxet people who had previously occupied the cleared farmland where the new colony sat, and of the ill-feeling the local Native Americans had towards the English following some kidnapping by Thomas Hunt, an English captain who had visited the area a few years before. During Samoset's visit, the colonists were busy planting their garden seeds.

On March 22nd, Samoset returned with another Native American, Squanto, who was one of the men who had been captured by Hunt. His adventures abroad, from slavery in Spain, escape to London and return to America as a guide in the employ of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, had taught him well about the ways of the Europeans. Squanto, or Tisquantum, became the little colony's chief interpreter and agent in their interaction with the Native Peoples. His arrival paved the way for a visitation by Massasoit, the regional leader among the native people, the Wampanoag. After an exchange of greetings and gifts, the two peoples signed a treaty of peace which would last over fifty years.

Departure of the Mayflower:

At the suggestion of Massasoit, fields on the south side of the brook were turned by hand and crops of wheat, barley, Indian corn and peas planted in early April. Work continued on the houses. The weather was improving. Spring was in the air and people were recovering from the winter illnesses. The surviving half of the crew were presumably eager to return home, and the colony was ready to bid farewell to the Mayflower. The little vessel left New Plymouth on April 5th, 1621.



Plimoth Plantation
P. O. Box 1620
Plymouth, MA 02362
(508) 746-1622

© Plimoth Plantation, Inc. 1999