The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers
While the Colony of Virginia was fighting for life, and struggling against tyranny, other colonies were taking root upon the wide shores of America.
You will remember that in 1606 a sort of double company of adventurers was formed in England, one branch of which – the London Company – founded Jamestown. The other branch – the Plymouth Company – also sent out an, expedition, and tried to found a colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River. But it was a failure. Some of the adventurers were so discouraged with the cold and bleak appearance of the land that they sailed home again in the ship which had brought them out. Only about forty-five or so stayed on. The winter was long and cold, and they were so weary of it, so homesick and miserable, that when in the spring a ship came out with provisions they all sailed home again. They had nothing good to say of Virginia, as the whole land was then called by the English. It was far too cold, and no place for Englishmen, they said.
Still some of the adventurers of the Plymouth Company did not give up hope of founding a colony. And nine years after this first attempt, our old friend Captain John Smith, recovered from his wounds received in Virginia and as vigorous as ever, sailed out to North Virginia. In the first place be went “to take whales, and also to make trials of a mine of gold and of copper” and in the long run he hoped to found a colony.
It was he who changed the name from North Virginia to New England, by which name it has ever since been known. He also named the great river which he found there Charles River after Prince Charles, who later became King Charles I, and all along the coast he marked places with the names of English towns, one of which he named Plymouth.
But Smith did not succeed in founding a colony in New England; and several adventurers who followed him had no better success. The difficulties to be overcome were great, and in order to found a colony on that inhospitable coast men of tremendous purpose and endurance were needed. At length these men appeared.
Nowadays a man may believe what he likes either in the way of politics or religion. He may belong to any political party he pleases, or he may belong to none. He may write and make speeches about his opinions. Probably no one will listen to him; certainly he will not be imprisoned for mere opinions. It is the same with religion. A man may go to any church he likes, or go to none. He may write books or preach sermons, and no one will hinder him.
But in the days of King James things were very different. In those days there was little freedom either in thought or action, in religion or politics. As we have seen King James could not endure the thought that his colony should be self-governing and free to make laws for itself. Consequently he took its charter away. In religion it was just the same. In England at the Reformation the King had been made head of the Church. And if people did not believe what the King and Clergy told them to believe they were sure, sooner or later, to be punished for it.
Now in England more and more people began to think for themselves on matters of religion. More and more people found it difficult to believe as King and Clergy wished them to believe. Some found the Church of England far too like the old Church of Rome. They wanted to do away with all pomp and ceremony and have things quite simple. They did not wish to separate from the Church; they only wanted to make the Church clean and pure of all its errors. So they got the name of Puritans. Others however quite despaired of making the Church pure. They desired to leave it altogether and set up a Church of their own. They were called Separatists, or sometimes, from the name of a man who was one of their chief leaders, Brownists.
These Brownists did not want to have bishops and priests, and they would not own the King as head of the Church. Instead of going to church they used to meet together in private houses, there to pray to God in the manner in which their own hearts told them was right. This of course was considered treason and foul wickedness. So on all hands the Brownists were persecuted. They were fined and imprisoned, some were even hanged. But all this persecution was in vain, and the number of Separatists instead of decreasing increased as years went on.
Now at Scrooby, a tiny village in Nottinghamshire, England, and in other villages round, both in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, there were a number of Separatists. Every Sunday these people would walk long distances to some appointed place, very likely to Scrooby, or to Babworth, where there was a grave and reverent preacher, to hold their meetings.
But they were never left long in peace. They were hunted and persecuted on every side, till at length they decided to go to Holland where they heard there was freedom of religion for all men.
To many of them this was a desperate adventure. In those days few men traveled. For the most part people lived and died without once leaving their native villages. To go into a new country, to learn a new language, to get their living they know not how, seemed to some a misery almost worse than death. Still they determined to go, such was their eagerness to serve God aright.
The going was not easy. They were harassed and hindered in every fashion. Again and again evil men cheated them, and robbed them of almost all they possessed, leaving them starving and penniless upon the sea shore. But at length, overcoming all difficulties, in one way or another, they all reached Amsterdam.
Even here however they did not find the full freedom and peace which they desired, and they next moved to Leyden.
They found it “a beautiful city and of a sweet situation.” Here they settled down and for some years lived in comfort, earning their living by weaving and such employments, and worshipping God at peace in their own fashion.
But after about eleven or twelve years they began once more to think of moving. They had many reasons for this, one being that if they stayed longer in Holland their children and grandchildren would forget how to speak English, and in a few generations they would no longer be English, but Dutch. So they determined to go to some place where they could still remain English, and yet worship God as they thought right.
And the place their thoughts turned to was the vast and unpeopled country of America. But which part of America they could not at first decide. After much talk however they at length decided to ask the Virginian Company to allow them to settle in their land, but as a separate colony, so that they might still have religious freedom.
Two messengers were therefore despatched to London to arrange matters with the company. The Virginian Company was quite willing to have these Separatists as settlers. But do what they would they could not get the King to promise them freedom to worship God. All that they could wring from him was a promise that he would take no notice of them so long as they behaved peaceably. To allow or tolerate them by his public authority, under his broad seal, was not to be thought of.
That was the best the Virginian Company or any of their friends could do for the Separatists. And with this answer the messengers were obliged to return to Leyden. When the English men and women there heard it they were much disturbed. Some felt that without better assurance of peace they would be foolish to leave their safe refuge. But the greater part decided that poor though the assurance was they would be well to go, trusting in God to bring them safely out of all their troubles. And after all they reflected “a seal as broad as the house floor would not serve the turn” if James did not wish to keep his promise, so little trust did they put in princes and their oaths.
So it was decided to go to the New World, and after much trouble everything was got ready. A little ship called the Speedwell was bought and fitted up. Then those who had determined to go went down to the sea shore accompanied by all their friends.
Their hearts were heavy as they left the beautiful city which had been their home for the last twelve years. But they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers upon the earth, and they looked only to find in heaven an abiding place. So steadfastly they set their faces towards the sea. They went on board, their friends following sorrowfully. Then came the sad parting. They clung to each other with tears, their words of farewell and prayers broken by sobs. It was so pitiful a sight that even among the Dutchmen who looked on there was scarce a dry eye.
At length the time came when the last farewell had to be said. Then their pastor fell upon his knees on the deck, and as they knelt round him he lifted his hands to heaven, and with tears running down his cheeks prayed God to bless them all.
So the sails were hoisted and the Speedwell sailed away to Southampton. Here she found the Mayflower awaiting her, and the two set forth together. But they had not gone far before the captain of the Speedwell complained that his ship was leaking so badly that he dared not go on. So both ships put in to Dartmouth, and here the Speedwell was thoroughly overhauled and mended, and again they set out.
But still the captain declared that the Speedwell was leaking. So once more the pilgrims put back, this time to Plymouth. And here it was decided that the Speedwell was unseaworthy, and unfit to venture across the great ocean. That she was a rotten little boat is fairly certain, but it is also fairly certain that the Captain did not want to sail to America, and therefore he made the worst, instead of the best, of his ship.
If it is true that he did not want to cross the ocean he now had his way. For the Speedwell was sent back to London with all those who had already grown tired of the venture, or who had grown fearful because of the many mishaps. And the Mayflower, taking the rest of the passengers from the Speedwell, and as many of the stores as she could find room for, proceeded upon her voyage alone.
Among those who sailed in her were Captain Miles Standish and Master Mullins with his fair young daughter Priscilla. I daresay you have read the story Longfellow made about them and John Alden. At the first John Alden did not go as a Pilgrim. He was hired at Southampton as a cooper, merely for the voyage, and was free to go home again if he wished. But he stayed, and as we know from Longfellow’s poem he married Priscilla.
Now at length these Pilgrim Fathers as we have learned to call them were really on their way. But all the trouble about the Speedwell had meant a terrible loss of time, and although the Pilgrims bad left Holland in July it was September before they finally set sail from Plymouth, and their voyage was really begun.
And now instead of having fair they had foul weather. For days and nights, with every sail reefed, they were driven hither and thither by the wind, were battered and beaten by cruel waves, and tossed helplessly from side to side. At length after two months of terror and hardships they sighted the shores of America.
They had however been driven far out of their course, and instead of being near the mouth of the Hudson River, and within the area granted to the Virginian Company, they were much further north, near Cape Cod, and within the area granted to the Plymouth Company, where they had really no legal right to land. So although they were joyful indeed to see land, they decided to sail southward to the mouth of the Hudson, more especially as the weather was now better.
Soon however as they sailed south they found themselves among dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and, being in terror of shipwreck, they turned back again. And when they once more reached the shelter of Cape Cod harbour they fell on their knees and most heartily thanked God, Who had brought them safely over the furious ocean, and delivered them from all its perils and miseries.
They vowed no more to risk the fury of the tempest, but to settle where they were in the hope of being able to make things right with the Plymouth Company later on. So in the little cabin of the Mayflower the Pilgrims held a meeting, at which they chose a Governor and drew up rules, which they all promised to obey, for the government of the colony. But this done they found it difficult to decide just what would be the best place for their little town, and they spent a month or more exploring the coast round about. At length they settled upon a spot.
On Captain John Smith’s map it was already marked Plymouth, and so the Pilgrims decided to call the town Plymouth because of this, and also because Plymouth was the last town in England at which they had touched. So here they all went ashore, choosing as a landing place a flat rock which may be seen to this day, and which is now known as the Plymouth Rock.
“Which had been to their feet as a doorstep, Into a world unknown-the corner-stone of a nation!”
The Pilgrim Fathers had now safely passed the perils of the sea. But many more troubles and miseries were in store for them. For hundreds of miles the country lay barren and untilled, inhabited only by Native Americans, the nearest British settlement being five hundred miles away. There was no one upon the shore to greet them, no friendly lights, no smoke arising from cheerful cottage fires, no sign of habitation far or near. It was a silent frost-bound coast upon which they had set foot.
The weather was bitterly cold and the frost so keen that even their clothes were frozen stiff. And ere these Pilgrims could find a shelter from the winter blasts, trees had to be felled and hewn for the building of their houses. It was enough to make the stoutest heart quake. Yet not one among this little band of Pilgrims flinched or thought of turning back. They were made of sterner stuff than that, and they put all their trust in God.
“May not and ought not the children of those fathers rightly say,” writes William Bradford, who was their Governor for thirty-one years, “our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean and were ready to perish in the wilderness? But they cried unto the Lord and He heard their voice.” The winter was an unusually severe one. And so, having no homes to shelter them or comfort of any kind, many of the Pilgrims died. Many more became seriously ill. Indeed at one time there were not more than six or seven out of a hundred and more who were well and able to work. And had it not been for the wonderful devotion and loving kindness of these few the whole colony might have perished miserably. But these few worked with a will, felling trees, cooking meals, caring for the sick both day and night.
The first winter the Pilgrim Fathers, it was said, “endured a wonderful deal of misery with infinite patience.” But at length spring came, and with the coming of warmth and sunshine the sickness disappeared. The sun seemed to put new life into every one. So when in April the Mayflower, which had been in harbour all winter, sailed homeward not one of the Pilgrims sailed with her.
The little white-winged ship was the last link with home. They had but to step on board to be wafted back to the green hedgerows and meadows gay with daisies and buttercups in dear old England. It was a terrible temptation. Yet not one yielded to it. With tears streaming down their faces, the Pilgrims knelt upon the shore and saw the Mayflower go, following her with prayers and blessings until she was out of sight. Then they went back to their daily labours. Only when they looked out to sea the harbour seemed very empty with no friendly little vessel lying there.
Meanwhile among all the miseries of the winter there had been one bright spot. The Pilgrims had made friends with the Indians. They had often noticed with fear Native Americans skulking about at the forest’s edge, watching them. Once or twice when they had left tools lying about they had been stolen. But whenever they tried to get speech with the Indians they fled away.
What was their surprise then when one morning an Indian walked boldly into the camp and spoke to them in broken English!
He told them that his name was Samoset, and that he was the Englishmen’s friend. He also said he could tell them of another Indian called Squanto who could speak better English than he could. This Squanto had been stolen away from his home by a wicked captain who intended to sell him as a slave to Spain. But he had escaped to England, and later by the help of Englishmen had been brought back to his home. All his tribe however had meantime been swept away by a plague, and now only he remained.
Samoset also said that his great chief named Massasoit or Yellow Feather wished to make friends with the Palefaces. The settlers were well pleased to find the Indian ready to be friendly and, giving him presents of a few beads and bits of coloured cloth, they sent him away happy. But very soon he returned, bringing Squanto and the chief, Yellow Feather, with him. Then there was a very solemn pow-wow; the natives gorgeous in paint and feathers sat beside the sad-faced Englishmen in their tall black hats and sober clothes, and together they swore friendship and peace. And so long as Yellow Feather lived this peace lasted.
After the meeting Yellow Feather went home to his own wigwams, which were about forty miles away. But Squanto stayed with the Englishmen. He taught them how to plant corn; he showed them where to fish and hunt; he was their guide through the pathless forests. He was their staunch and faithful friend, and never left them till he died. Even then he feared to be parted from his white friends, and he begged them to pray God that he too might be allowed to go to the Englishmen’s heaven.
Besides Yellow Feather and his tribe there were other Indians who lived to the east of the settlement, and they were by no means so friendly. At harvest time they used to steal the corn from the fields and otherwise harass the workers. As they went unpunished they grew ever bolder until at length one day their chief, Canonicus, sent a messenger to the Governor with a bundle of arrows tied about with a large snakeskin. This was meant as a challenge. But the Governor was not to be frightened by such threats. He sent back the snakeskin stuffed with bullets and gunpowder, and with it a bold message.
“If you would rather have war than peace,” he said, “you can begin when you like. But we have done you no wrong and we do not fear you.”
When the chief heard the message and saw the gunpowder and bullets he was far too much afraid to go to war. He was too frightened to touch the snakeskin or even allow it to remain in his country, but sent it back again at once.
This warlike message however made the settlers more careful, and they built a strong fence around their little town, with gates in it, which were shut and guarded at night. Thus the Pilgrims had peace with the Native Americans. They had also set matters right with the Plymouth Company, and had received from them a patent or charter allowing them to settle in New England. Other Pilgrims came out from home from time to time, and the little colony prospered and grew, though slowly.
They were a grave and stern little company, obeying their Governor, fearing God, keeping the Sabbath and regarding all other feast days as of the evil one.
It is told how one Christmas Day the Governor called every one out to work as usual. But some of the newcomers to the colony objected that it was against their conscience to work on Christmas Day.
The Governor looked gravely at them. “If you make it a matter of conscience,” he said, “I will release you from work upon this day until you are better taught upon the matter.” Then he led the others away to fell trees and saw wood. But when at noon he returned he found those, whose tender consciences had not allowed them to work, playing at ball and other games in the streets. So he went to them, and took away their balls and other toys. “For,” said he, “it is against my conscience that you should play while others work.”
And such was the power of the Governor that he was quietly obeyed, “and,” we are told, “since that time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.”
They were stern, these old settlers, and perhaps to our way of thinking narrow, and they denied themselves much that is lovely in life and quite innocent. Yet we must look back at them with admiration. No people ever left their homes to go into exile for nobler ends, no colony was ever founded in a braver fashion. And it is with some regret we remember that these brave Pilgrim Fathers have given a name to no state in the great union. For the Colony of Plymouth, having held on its simple, severe way for many years, was at length swallowed up by one of its great neighbours, and became part of the State of Massachusetts. But that was not till 1692. Meanwhile, because it was the first of the New England colonies to be founded, it was often called the Old Colony.