Thursday, November 27, 2014

The First Thanksgiving: Prepping Lessons from the Pilgrims

The first Thanksgiving was a three-day celebration of a successful harvest after a rough year for the the settlers at Plymouth, in 1621. How well prepared were they for what they faced when they left England?

A Brief History Lesson
The settlers called themselves "Saints", not "Puritans"- a name reserved for those who chose to stay in England - nor "Pilgrims", a name that wasn't applied to the Separatists until later. The Saints were a small religious group that rejected the teachings of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. They tried moving to Holland, looking for a place to practice their religion in peace but ran into problems with the 17th Century version of labor unions not allowing them to work.(1) They applied for and received permission to emigrate to the British colonies in the New World and starting making preparations to move to a place with no state religion and very limited government.

They took off from Plymouth, England in two older cargo ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, but the Speedwell started leaking shortly after they left port. This required that they return to port and cram 102 of the 120 colonists into the Mayflower for the trip, finally setting out in September 1620.(2) There was speculation that the crew of the Speedwell caused the leaks as a way of getting out of the year-long contract.(3)

It took them two months to make the journey from England to America, but the return journey only took a month. A baby was born during the voyage, proving that life goes on. Anyone who has been on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean in the fall or winter will tell you stories about the storms that occur. The Mayflower lost a crewman after he was swept overboard by a wave in a storm and one passenger died during the trip.(4) 

Once they found America, they landed at an area in what is now Massachusetts. Their permission only extended to the area that is now Virginia, so they were just a bit off course. Maps of the time were crude and hand-drawn, there was no GPS system, and nautical navigation was done by compass and sextant - taking readings from the sun and stars which were then compared to an ephemeris to determine the latitude and longitude of their location. Time was measured by hourglass and ship's speed was measured by log-and-line.(5)

The weather prevented them from sailing down the coast and winter was setting in. A group of the men wrote and ratified the “Mayflower Compact", a declaration of the founding of Plymouth (named after the port they sailed from in England) establishing the colony.(6)

The colonists and crew spent the winter of 1620-21 living aboard the Mayflower (where another child was born in November), anchored just off-shore while working on building a village on the site of an abandoned native village. Of the 102 colonists and about 30 crew, 49 passengers and about half of the crew died during that first winter from a combination of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Proper medical supplies and a balanced diet, both of which were not well understood at the time, would have helped with survival.(7) They did the best they could with what they had, which is all anyone can ask for.
Aside: Living conditions aboard the Mayflower
From the information that I have been able to find, the Mayflower had about 1250 square feet of passenger space on the "gun deck", which is where the passengers would have lived. Shove 100+ bodies into something the size of an small suburban house with no good way to get out, no central heating, no bathroom, no insulation, limited fresh water, limited fresh food, and you'll get an idea of the living conditions. Floor space per passenger would have been about the size of a twin bed or a couch, with a five-foot high ceiling. Compared to that, your average root cellar/storm shelter is spacious.(8)
Once spring arrived, the colonists were able to move ashore and finish building their village. With the help of the indigenous peoples (Native Americans) they were able to get some crops planted and learned how to hunt some of the game in the area. There were disagreements with some of the natives due to the initial lack of respect that the settlers showed for burial grounds and stored food that they found during scouting missions.(9)

The Mayflower left the colony to return to England in April 1621, after waiting for the crew members that were still alive to recover from the hardships of the winter, making it back to London by mid-May. There is no evidence that the Mayflower ever sailed again; her owner died shortly after her arrival back in England and she was probably broken up for scrap shortly afterwards.(10)

Life for the settlers that first year was busy with building, planting, hunting, and learning about their new home. They established a viable village (something that was not guaranteed) that became the basis of the longest continually-occupied community in America.

Once the first harvest was in, the remaining settlers held a three-day celebration of their accomplishments. They had a bit to be proud of and I'm sure most of them were glad to know they didn't have to spend another winter aboard a ship.(11)

  1. Even if you have skills, you may run into situations where you may not be able to use them, so have a back-up plan. 
  2. This is a good example of the axiom “Two is one, and one is none” that you'll hear preppers repeat. 
  3. A prime example of the risks associated with contracting out any part of your preps. 
  4. Travel can be dangerous, so plan your bug-out carefully. 
  5. Get the best information that you can, and be prepared for some of it to be wrong or no longer relevant.
  6. Proof that paperwork will follow you everywhere, even when SHTF. 
  7. There is a reason that the holy trinity of prepping is referred to as "Beans, Bullets, and Band-aids."
  8. Be grateful for what you have, and realize that people have lived in much worse. 
  9. Be aware of the cultures around you, have some idea of how to negotiate, and be capable of admitting if/when you make a mistake. 
  10. Nothing lasts forever.
  11. Celebrations are important for morale, which is vital to the survival of any group after a crisis, so look for reasons to celebrate and remember the wins as well as the losses.

The colonists made preparations for a difficult journey to a location that they'd never visited and ran into serious problems along the way. Their plans started coming undone from the very start, with the loss of half of their transportation, yet they continued on. They arrived at a location about 500 miles from their original destination, but decided to stay there and start a colony. Even though almost half of the colonists died before the ship left, the survivors decided to stay the course and stayed. They found an abandoned village and built on the cleared land that was available, making use of the resources they found. Without the aid of the locals, the colonists would have fared much worse. Through pure stubbornness or religious faith, the colonists had the determination to persist through disease, deaths, and weather unlike anything they were used to. They prepared as best they could and then dealt with things as they came.

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