Fact and Fiction about the Pilgrims

I grew up outside of Plymouth in the land of the Pilgrims. I even attended school or played ball with some of the descendants of our first settlers—Brewster, Bradford, and Standish. Since November is the month of Thanksgiving, I thought I would list 10 little known facts or trivia about the Pilgrims. There are questions at the end of each paragraph, which may be used at Thanksgiving as a game of Pilgrim Trivia.

1. Samoset, an Indian from Maine, first came alone to the Pilgrims. His first words in broken English were, “Welcome, Englishmen! You got beer?” In Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, it is reported that Samoset asked for beer, “but we gave him strong water, and biscuit, and butter, and cheese, and pudding, and a piece of mallard; all which he liked well."[1] The manifest of food on the Mayflower indicated that the Pilgrims had kegs of beer, but they may have run out by the time of Samoset’s appearance. Beer was better than water because you could not trust the water. Harmful microorganisms, present in water, cannot survive long in beer (or wine). To survive the trip across an ocean, you needed a source of water, which during the colonial era, was beer and wine. What do you think the “strong water” was that was given to Samoset in place of beer? Holland Gin or Brandy. These alcoholic beverages were known as “strong waters,” which were relied upon for maintaining body warmth. According to Azel Ames in his The Mayflower and Her Log; July 15, 1620-May 6, 1621 (Complete), the food manifest not only included beer, but listed brandy and gin (in pipes).

2. Squanto introduced the Pilgrims to native seed such as pumpkin, beans, and corn. He taught them to plant a dead fish over the seed of corn that acted as fertilizer, causing greater growth and production. Did he teach the Pilgrims how to make popcorn? No! According to Andrew F. Smith who wrote Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (Smithsonian, 2001), the Pilgrims’ popcorn myth is traced to the 1880s, when heavy immigration fostered the creation of national myths to sell magazines, newspapers, and school curricula to Americanize the newcomers. The Department of Agriculture asserts that South and Central American Indians ate popcorn more than 2500 years ago, but no evidence exists for popcorn being eaten in the Massachusetts or Virginia colonies.

3. Of the 149 people aboard the Mayflower, 48 were crew, 45 were Pilgrims or Separatists, 36 were Sectarians from London and Southhampton, 14 were servants of the Pilgrims, and 6 were servants of the sectarians. Only one person, a seaman, died during the voyage across the Atlantic though 4 died on the ship in the harbor of Plymouth. How many died the first winter? Over Half! They were buried at night to prevent the Indians from knowing how many of their number were depleted.

4. John Alden was 21 years old when recruited as a crewman and cooper on board the Mayflower. He married Priscilla Mullins who was 19 and the daughter of one of the sectarians. According to Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish, the captain sent his young friend, Alden to speak for him in his proposal of courting Miss Mullins. After Alden had pleaded Standish's case, Mullins said, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" They were clearly in love, but the couple was afraid of offending Standish. When they received word that the captain had been killed fighting Indians, they agreed to marry. At the end of the wedding, Standish, alive and well, appeared, saw the starry-eyed couple and gave his blessing, asking forgiveness for his previous behavior. Alden and Mullins had 11 children and were among the founders of the town of Duxbury, Massachusetts. What was Priscilla’s occupation besides spinner and weaver? Schoolteacher.

5. The first Thanksgiving feast was based on the Jewish holiday, Sukkoth or Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). It commemorated the temporary shelters used by the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. The Pilgrim celebration lasted 3 days and included games and recreation. They ate outside and their tables didn't overflow with pies, partly because there was no desire to deplete their sugar supplies. The pilgrims hunted fowl for the feast and 100 Indians arrived with five deer to be dressed, cooked and served for the meal. Although George Washington commemorated the feast by calling for a day of thanksgiving, Thanksgiving was not declared a federal holiday until which President? Abraham Lincoln.

6. The Pilgrims did not call themselves “Pilgrims” or “Separatists.” They referred to themselves as “saints” and were much ridiculed by the sailors. The leader, according to the Pilgrim who kept a journal, was a “very profane young man” who was strongly built and haughty in attitude. He and others gloated at the seasickness of the Pilgrims and told them how much he would delight in sewing them in shrouds and feeding them to the fish. He even called them “psalm singing puke-stockings.” The Pilgrim journaler wrote that “it pleased God to smite the young man with a grievous disease,” which led to his death at sea. Ironically, he was the first to die, his body thrown into the sea to be feasted on by the fish. Who was the Pilgrim who wrote about this? William Bradford who was a signatory of the Mayflower Compact and served as the 2nd Governor of Plymouth after the death of John Carter. He retained this post for most of the remainder of his life.

7.  The Pilgrims hardly wore clothing that was black and white as portrayed in the pictures that we see. Women wore red, green, browns, blue, violet, and gray. A common color for children was blue. Boys wore dresses until six; then they started dressing like their fathers. What were their pants called? Breeches.

8. Pilgrims played “draughts,” their name for checkers. Outside, children played a game called “hid,” which we call “Hide and Seek.” They also played “lummelen,” a Dutch word known today as “Keep Away.” They also liked to participate in “Leapfrog” and marbles, and solve riddles and puzzles. Children also played “naughts and crosses,” “naughts” being an old English word for zero and crosses made like an X. What game would that resemble today? Tic, Tac, Toe.

9. Pilgrims also participated in sports. One in particular was "stool ball," which involved a three-legged dairy stool that the participants would try to knock over with a leather ball while another defended it with a wooden bat. "Pitching the bar" was a contest of strength, usually for older youth and adults, in which the participants would have to toss a long, thick pole end over end. The winner was the person who could throw it the farthest. Which Scottish game does this resemble? The caber toss. The term 'caber' comes from the Gaelic word "cabar" or "kaber," meaning rafter or beam. The origin of the caber toss is most likely traced to the military action of breaching barriers or crossing streams. During battle, the caber was tossed from one side of the stream to the other to quickly make a bridge. The warring Scotsmen would then cross the freezing stream and pursue their enemies.

10. The father of Priscilla Mullins was a cobbler and shoemaker. He brought with him on the Mayflower 250 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots. Popular footwear for men in the northern countries was either high-topped boots with turnovers or low-heeled, round-toed shoes. Were these shoes fastened with buckles? No. There were no shoe buckles during this period nor were there hat buckles. They did not come into fashion until much later in the 17th century. So, pictures of Pilgrims with buckles on hats and shoes are not portraying accurately what they wore in the 1600s.

[1] http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2699800153.html (accessed 10/23/14)