The name “Pilgrim” doesn’t always convey the true character of those first settlers in Massachusetts.
When people hear the word “Pilgrim,” they often think about people dressed in black, with buckles on their shoes, hats and belts. When I was a kid and had to draw a Pilgrim as part of a Thanksgiving assignment, I would visualize timid people — people who were somewhat meek and mild.
In the old movie western, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” John Wayne routinely called the Jimmy Stewart character “Pilgrim.” When John Wayne would ask the young lawyer from the east, “Think ‘ya can make it, Pilgrim?” It wasn’t asking because he was confident in the pilgrim’s ability to survive; quite the opposite.
Pilgrims have often been portrayed as being quiet, pious, scholarly people — not tough, brave or hearty. In reality, being able to survive a harsh, two-month sea voyage, followed by a bitter winter spent on the windy, unprotected shores of Cape Cod Bay, took strength and endurance that few people could imagine today.
Who were the Pilgrims?
Life in England in the early 1600s could be brutal. People, regardless of their spiritual beliefs, were only allowed to worship one way. They had to belong to the Church of England. No other religion was allowed in the country. The king of England was the undisputed head of the church and everyone was required to support the church with their devotion and, most importantly, their money. There was no freedom of religion.
As you might expect, not everyone agreed with having somebody else’s religion forced upon them. Some people separated themselves from the Church of England. They became known as Separatists or Puritans.
The Pilgrims were English Separatists. They sought freedom of religion. They wanted to live their lives based on the commands of the Bible; not the commands of the king. The only way to get religious freedom was to leave England.
They first moved to Amsterdam. Years later, they decided to strike out completely on their own. Through contacts they had made, they secured the rights to settle in America and received financing from the London Company. In September of 1620, they began long their trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
Less than half of the passengers aboard the Mayflower were Pilgrims. Many were servants. Some were hired to help the Pilgrims get settled in the new country. Several were crew members. 102 people sailed from England that gray September day. Two people died during the cold, hazardous passage. Two months later, 102 people arrived at the shores of Cape Cod Bay. Two boys, Oceanus and Peregrine were born during the voyage.
The two-month passage from England to American was filled with danger. During one horrible storm, John Howland, an indentured servant, was swept overboard by a savage storm. As he thrashed about in the freezing, cold waters of the North Atlantic, he was able to grab the topsail halyard that had broken off and was dangling from the ship. This piece of luck allowed Howland to hang onto a lifeline until the crew was able to pull him back onboard. Howland survived and later became a leader of the colonists.
John Howland lived to the ripe, old age of 80 and fathered many children. His life made a huge difference in American history. His descendants include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dr. Benjamin Spock and President George H.W. Bush and his famous political sons, George and Jeb.
Half of those who landed and settled Plymouth Colony in November of 1620 died of disease, hunger and the cold, cold winter. Finally, the summer of 1621 arrived.
Those who survived were strong, tough people. Their survival was cause for celebration. Their new freedom was cause for celebration. Their celebration became known as … Thanksgiving.
We have every reason to be thankful. Some people will always argue about whether this country and our government are perfect or not. Perfection in anything is almost impossible to achieve, but, in general, we have the best this world has to offer, and it all started nearly 400-years ago on the shores of Cape Cod Bay.
It started with that small group of brave, strong and determined men and women. Their bravery took root in a fledging country. Their determination helped forge the greatest nation on earth.
Give thanks for the Pilgrims. Have a great Thanksgiving.
Randy Riley is Mayor of Wilmington.