Historian and Director Emeritus of the Pilgrim Society Peggy Baker has noted, “Family is at the heart of the Pilgrim story….that makes Plymouth Colony unique amid a sea of other settlements – English, Dutch, French, and Spanish alike – that were almost exclusively masculine… The Separatist movement, from its earliest beginnings, was built around strong and dedicated families.” Peggy Baker is correct, and this is what makes the Pilgrim story and the Plymouth colony so clearly the fruit of Biblical Christianity at the time.
Though a few women had gone on previous explorations, the Plymouth Colony was designed to have the family as its foundation. There were 24 family units on the Mayflower with 18 married women. Three of the women, Elizabeth Hopkins, Susanna White and Mary Allerton, were pregnant when they departed Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620. Elizabeth gave birth to Oceanus during the voyage, but the young son died during the first winter. Susanna White gave birth to Peregrine in Provincetown Harbor, and he lived to be 84, dying in 1704! Mary Allerton gave birth to a stillborn, who had died during the voyage in her womb. The contrasts here could not be more challenging.
It is interesting to note that 78% of the women died the first winter, a much higher rate than that of the men or children. This is probably due to the filthy conditions on board the ship. The men, by contrast, were at least outside during the day building homes. The women and children had to endure the two-month voyage plus living four more months on the Mayflower! By the time of the Harvest Festival we know as Thanksgiving, (probably held in October of 1621), only four adult women were alive, Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster and Susanna White Winslow. (Susanna was the surviving widow of William White who died the first winter and she had remarried Edward Winslow whose wife Elizabeth had also died the first winter.)
A woman’s job description in the Plymouth colony was arduous and noteworthy. It involved cooking, cleaning, gardening, animal care, hauling buckets of water from the stream, grinding and pounding corn, milking the goat, gathering eggs, stripping feathers off the geese, cleaning fish, getting a cooking fire just right and the manual cleaning of laundry, (soaking and scrubbing and wringing it over and over again.) In addition to all this, they “catechized” their children, teaching them to read. It is important to see that though the men (and sometimes their sons) went into the field to work each day, and often get attention historically for their work ethic, the women were pioneers whose labor and work ethic in some cases surpassed that of the men. This legacy has blessed succeeding generations.
Providentially, the presence of married women gave Plymouth an amazing head start as a colony. Their presence provided encouragement, determination, and a sense of responsibility in raising the next generation. Their devotion to God and their families was one of the reasons no one returned with the Mayflower in April of 1621.
However, the presence of women is only half the story of what made Plymouth so unique. There were 29 children under 18 on board the Mayflower when the Pilgrims anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor in November of 1620! Two (Oceanus Hopkins and Peregrine White), as noted earlier, were born on board. The other 27 ranged in age from 1 to 17. In other words, 46%, or nearly half of the passengers on board the Mayflower were women and children!
Some of the women who came on the Mayflower were “coming of age.” A man would seek to understand his “calling” from God which would focus on his vocation. A woman would seek the right man to marry as part of her “calling.” As one can imagine, there weren’t a whole lot of choices in the early years. Laws on Courtship put much responsibility on parents to make sure the courting was without physical involvement and done with permission. No man was to steal the passion of a woman prior to marriage. As historian John Demos noted, the courtship process “developed under the watchful eye of parents and siblings, or indeed of a whole neighborhood.” The statue of the Pilgrim Maid in Plymouth was constructed in honor of “the courage and devotion” of the English single women.
The Pilgrim Church, begun in England and then regathered in Leyden, Holland agreed with the Biblical injunctions that children “honor their father and mother” (Eph. 6:1-4) and parents “lay up” for their children (2nd Cor. 12:14). The laws confirmed this obedience to parents and the reciprocal responsibility of parents to provide health, welfare and education for their children. In addition, following Biblical injunctions from Old Testament Law, parents were restricted from “extreme and cruel correction” going so far as to imply that a child had a right to defend themselves from physical abuse both in the home and if necessary, in court. Thankfully, incidents such as these were rare in early Plymouth.
Children did almost everything with their parents. This included worship at home and in church, attentively listening to sermons. It also included working in the home and field during the day. But children also did things on their own, such as playing games. They played games such as All Hid (hide and seek), Naughts and Crosses (tic-tac-toe), Knickers (marbles), and Hop Frogs (leap frog).
Of the 29 children on the Mayflower, only 6 (21%) died the first winter, whereas 63% of the adults perished. This was noted as providential for the future of the colony and the legacy of their mission. After all, one of the reasons the Pilgrim Church migrated was for the sake of their children. As Bradford noted, “Many of their children that were of best dispositions and gracious inclinations, having learned to bear the yoke in their youth and willing to bear part of their parents’ burden, were oftentimes so oppressed with their heavy labors that though their minds were free and willing, yet their bodies bowed under the weight of the same.”
It is hard for those of us living in the 21st century, four hundred years later, to imagine the cost and sacrifice of families deciding to come across an ocean and settle in a wilderness when such action was so unusual. Some Wampanoag historians believe it was the presence of women and children that demonstrated the peaceful intentions of those who landed on Plymouth Rock. No wonder the Pilgrim Mother Monument in Plymouth has inscribed on its back in honor of the mothers who came on the Mayflower: “They brought up their families in sturdy virtue and a living faith in God, without which nations perish!” This is the untold virtue of the Pilgrim story – the mothers whose presence, with their children, made the family the foundation of the Pilgrim colony!
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