When we think of Thanksgiving, we often imagine a nip in the air, the colors of the changing leaves, the smell of a turkey roasting and pumpkin spice. We think of family and home and all the things for which we are thankful. If we could sum up Thanksgiving with one word, it would be: heavenly, however, for the women of the Mayflower, their journey to the New World was anything but.
In September 1620, the merchant ship Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, a port on the southern coast of England with 102 passengers. Approximately 40 of the passengers were Separatists (English Protestants who disapproved of the Church of England), or “Saints” as they called themselves. The rest were relatively secular “Strangers.” A crew of 30 men sailed the ship. Of the 102 passengers, 18 were adult women, all married. While some couples brought their children with them, many left them behind with family until the colony could be established.
It was a miserable journey that took longer than expected. They originally set sail in August, but had to return to port twice due to their sister ship, the Speedwell, taking on water. Once the Speedwell was abandoned, all Mayflower passengers were squashed into an area referred to as “between decks,” roughly 80 x 20 feet, and only 5 feet high, and surrounded by heaps of luggage. Bedding was created using spare clothes bundled and tied on bales in what would have looked like a Gypsy encampment.
While sea-sickness was expected, the passengers were not prepared for the overall poor health a life at sea produced. Although they brought their warmest clothes, they were often soaked through because the cold water of the Atlantic was always seeping in the cracks. Halfway through their journey, the weather turned especially violent with 100-foot swells tossing the ship about. Many were certain they would go down with the Mayflower in the monstrous waves.
After nearly two months, on November 9, 1620, they sighted present-day Cape Cod. They spent several days trying to reach their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia; however, the harsh seas forced them to return to the Cape Cod hook, where they anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor on November 11.
The men were the first to disembark and explore Cape Cod, while the women stayed behind to watch the children and care of the sick. Dorothy Bradford, wife of the Separatist leader William Bradford, became the first woman to die when she fell off the Mayflower into the bitter cold waters of Provincetown Harbor. No reason was given to how she ended up in the water; however, some speculate the isolation and harsh conditions of the New World, along with missing the son they left behind, became too much for her.
In addition to the two-month voyage, the women remained on the ship for an additional four months while housing was built on shore. Seventy-eight percent of the Mayflower women died during that first winter. The high mortality rate among women is thought to be due to being confined to the cold, damp, filthy and crowded quarters on the ship where diseases such as pneumonia and dysentery would have spread quickly. Those who didn’t die of disease died of exposure to the New England elements – it was so cold that the water froze on their clothes making the cloth stiff as iron. Funerals became an almost daily ritual.
While more than half of the colonists died that first winter, young girls proved to have the strongest bodies of all. Out of the eleven girls on the Mayflower, only two died that first winter: Ellen More, age 8, and Mary More, age 4, who were heartbreakingly abandoned by their father in England when he discovered they were the product of his wife’s infidelity.
Once the colonists moved ashore in the Spring, they faced even more challenges. Without the help of the area’s native people, the Wampanoag, who taught them how to hunt local animals, gather shellfish and grow corn, beans and squash, it is likely none of the colonists would have survived. According to William Bradford’s On Plymouth Plantation, the 53 colonists who attended the harvest festival (Thanksgiving) in the autumn of 1621 were the last of the Mayflower survivors. Fourteen of them were females.
One of the best-known female Mayflower survivors is Priscilla Mullins, who was 17-years old when the ship dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor. Priscilla was orphaned during that first winter, but is remembered as the unrequited love of Captain Miles Standish in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish. According to the poem, Standish asked his good friend John Alden to propose to Priscilla on his behalf, only to have Priscilla ask, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
Counted among the descendants of Priscilla Mullins Alden are President John Adams; Marilyn Monroe; Vice President Dan Quayle; poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant; and yours truly!
According to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, there are an estimated 10 million living Americans and as many as 35 million people worldwide who are direct descendants of the original Pilgrims. Whether you a direct descendant, or a cultural descendant, spare a thought for the brave women of the Mayflower this Thanksgiving.
The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America
By Rebecca Fraser (St. Martins, 2017)