Pilgrims recall their first days in America as immigrants

The World
William and Alice Bradford in the doorway to their home. The couple is portrayed by real life couple, Chris and Norah Messier.

William Bradford first saw America on November 9th, "in the year of our Lord, 1620." He was on the deck of a ship called Mayflower.

He had left Europe in company with other asylum-seekers, looking for somewhere they could practice their religion in peace. "We had left England some 13 years before, emigrating to a place called Holland."

But the Netherlands provided only a temporary refuge and not a home. He says he wanted to live "as many of our congregation, to live where we would be able to form a civil body politic of godly Christian men. This being impossible in Holland, we sought the King's permission that we might inhabit part of the New World, and this was granted to us."

Bradford says he was "excited, pleased and naturally worried" about what might happen, as he boarded a ship for America.


It was a "miserable" journey, but not as bad as his initial voyage to Holland, "as Mayflower was never in danger of sinking." He says he "learned on that occasion that if the sailors begin to pray, rather than their ordinary cursing, there is truly trouble."

The first winter in America was tough. The pilgrims found cleared land near a good harbor, with a clear brook providing fresh clean water. They called the place New Plymouth, sometimes spelt 'Plimoth', after their sponsors back home — a company of merchant adventurers based in Plymouth, England. But they were unprepared for the cold, and lacked good shelter and fresh food. About half the settlers died, including Bradford's first wife, Dorothy. Bradford was elected governor in the new year.

The land they found belonged to various peoples that the settlers called Indians: the first Americans. The nearest and largest 'kingdom' was the Massachusett, and Bradford formed an alliance with their "emperor," Massassoit. The Massachusett had suffered grievously from an epidemic that ravaged New England just a couple of years before. That was why so much cleared land was available for the new arrivals.

"The empty towns" gave the land a "melancholy appearance" says Bradford. Relations with the Indians, so far, have been mostly good. "I would tell you, master, they have been honorable in their dealings with me, ever."

"I find it to my liking," says Alice Bradford, William's second wife. "Truly, this is the wilderness. When I first laid my eyes upon it, I thought this must be what England looked like when the Romans first arrived 1000 years ago. And yet, surrounded on all sides by this vast wilderness, was a little town, the very beginnings of Christian civilization out in the wilderness, and I thought, here we can do God's work." 

Alice was living in London with her first husband when he passed away. William sent her a letter of condolence and invited her to join him in the New World. She arrived in July, 1623. They were married that August. She says the guests included the "Indian emperor, Massassoit, his chiefest wife — though he hath five wives — four or five of his princes and about 100 of his men, along with many of the townspeople."

"In the whole of the time I have been here, I have never seen no great trouble with any of them," she adds. The year is currently 1627.

Alice says she tries to continue cooking her traditional English food, although she's found it hard adapting to cooking on a wood fire, rather than coal or peat. "I will admit, I've blackened a pot more than once in adopting new methods."

"The other thing most queer to me, here, is this Indian corn. I ain't never seen nothing like it ever before in my life. It's a great deal of work to grow it, to harvest it, to dry it, to grind it into flour and meal, and then to prepare it. Though once it is cooked, it is light of digestion and easily fills up your belly."

When asked about Thanksgiving, William appears confused. He says "within our church, we hold that the only proper holidays are the Sabbath, which is Sunday of course, and then also days of humiliation and days of thanksgiving. In 1623, we suffered a very serious drought, and when the rains did come and sweetly soaked our land, we had a day of thanksgiving… a day of church when it is not Sunday."

William then suggests there may be some confusion with a very different festival — a feast he ordered after the first harvest, back in the year 1621. He sent out hunters to shoot fowl, including several wild turkeys. "At the time, it was simply a means of relief for all those who had worked so hard and suffered so much through that first year."

The 43 surviving settlers were joined unexpectedly by as many as 200 surprise guests: Massassoit and many of his people. They brought several deer to share in the feast.

Bradford says he never intended the feast to be an annual tradition.

"It was appropiate once, but there's no reason that there should be a thanksgiving to be repeated year after year. I wonder at times, if I am sometimes associated with things that I shall be thought to have intended for one thing, and then people shall presume that I intended something else."

(Thanks to Plimoth Plantation, and their historical interpreters who dedicate their lives to researching and portraying New England's first settlers. Chris and Norah Messier, a real-life couple, portray William and Alice Bradford. The Plantation also has an equally strong program dedicated to portraying the lives of the local Massachusett and Wampanoag Indians. The alliance lasted for two generations, but ended in conflict in the 1670s.)

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