December 1, 2013

Native horticulturalist rescued Pilgrims

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time of giving thanks. But it is also a time when we commemorate the success of the Pilgrims, the separatists who came here from England to establish the Plymouth colony.

It is generally believed that the Pilgrims easily adapted to life on the Massachusetts coast, that they were readily able to build homes in the wilderness, raise a plentiful harvest and find abundant fish and game. By all accounts, that was not the case.

Upon arrival in mid-November of 1620, the Mayflower set anchor near the tip of Cape Cod at what is now Provincetown. The passengers, some English separatists some indentured servants, were indeed thankful. But they were not prepared. It was far too late in the year for planting and they had not brought sufficient food to last them until spring.

They knew nothing about the plants and animals of this unfamiliar land and, although they were able to find some game, soon realized it would not be enough to take the 102 passengers and crew of 25 through the winter.

Accounts from that time state that in their explorations, the passengers found stores of corn, beans and dried fish at a burial site which stood among the remains of an Indian village at Provincetown. The travelers took the food and then sailed on to what is now Eastham, where they raided similar burial sites, stealing whatever food they could find. It was there, at what is now called First Encounter Beach, that the Nauset tribe, offended by such violations, defended themselves and their culture against the English settlers, forcing them out. Only then did the Mayflower sail on to Plymouth Harbor.

That winter was a terrible one for the settlers. Without homes, they were left with little choice but to spend the bitter cold months of January, February and March aboard ship in the cargo holds below the crew’s quarters. By the end of the ordeal, contagious diseases such as pneumonia, scurvy and tuberculosis had taken the lives of nearly half of the passengers and crew.

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