Thanksgiving for a hard, ridiculous but disaster-free year

So, that first year for the Pilgrims is kind of ridiculous. They get a crazy idea, go all the way across the ocean and start this new life, and you know what? Not an easy year. I know the common line was that life was hard — the first winter was horrible! the Pilgrims were steadfast! — but what’s notable in that first year is what kind of hard life was.

There was no plague. There were no wars. No disaster. But still, hard. Take Francis Billington. Not two weeks after signing the Compact, and everyone’s still living on the boat, and on a rainy day, 14-year-old-ish Francis shoots a gun near a powder keg in the Mayflower’s cabin and nearly blows up the boat.  (Later, after various problems with the law, Francis’ father is the first Pilgrim hung for murder. Some six years later, his mother goes to the stocks and gets a whipping for slander. Francis himself gets busted for premarital sex with his eventual wife, and for other reasons, they lose a few of their eventual kids to the state.)

So, nothing big goes wrong. But still, ridiculous. The best read is the first-hand Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

The first months are all exploring — what’s where — and putting some initial stakes in the ground. Then, as the settlement gets going, they have to figure out lots of people issues: what the tribes are, how to communicate, who runs what tribe, what troubles tribes have among themselves, what alliances to make, when to step in, how to step in, whom you need to go through to get to whomever. Most everyone turns out to be friendly, but so much work and care are needed to establish that much. Even on the days everything goes right for the Pilgrim leaders, they inevitably come home soaked and exhausted.

Meanwhile, the Pilgrims get lost in the woods, learn eagle tastes like mutton, lose roofs in fires, dig gardens, discover lakes over the next hill, have their meetings get off track over and over again, and thus spend weeks trying to figure out operations. Finish the metaphor.

Life builds slowly, with no promises. You still tell a friend to come.

Loving, and old Friend,

Although I received no letter from you by this ship, yet forasmuch as I know you expect the performance of my promise, which was, to write unto you truly and faithfully of all things, I have therefore at this time sent unto you accordingly.  Referring you for further satisfaction to our more large relations.

You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others.  We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors.  Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

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