In early June of 1623, the pilgrim settlers of the Plymouth colony in Cape Cod are hard at work. With another difficult winter behind them, the members of this small, beleaguered community are looking forward to the hot summer months. But warmer weather does not necessarily bring respite from the hard work of sustaining a fledgling colony in the New World. Spring and summer offer ideal conditions for cultivating the land, and the pilgrims must grow enough food over the coming months to sustain themselves through the long, cold winter. Although they may enjoy the summer sun, for now, the settlers of the Plymouth colony have learned the hard way that they must keep one eye to the future.
One of these indefatigable pilgrims is a woman named Mary Brewster. She is in her mid-fifties and is the wife of William Brewster, a senior elder, and leader of the community in Plymouth. William is the only member of the early community to have been educated at university, and as a result, he fills the role of pastor to the devout pilgrims, in the absence of another candidate. William and Mary are important figures in the early settlement, and their kindness and common sense means that many people look to them for counsel and leadership in the hard times that afflict the struggling community.
Today the colony is in its third year and is substantially diminished from the 99-person force that landed in Plymouth in 1620. Disease, hunger and fiercely cold weather had carried off half of the settlers in the first winter alone, and Mary was one of only four women who survived the trials of the first year. Mary and William arrived on the Mayflower with their two youngest children, Love, aged 12, and Wrestling, aged 9. Their oldest son, Jonathan, had arrived in Plymouth in 1621 on the ship Fortune, following the deaths of his young wife and infant son in Leiden. He had thrown himself into the labor of building up the colony and now works alongside his father. Patience and Fear, Mary’s two daughters, are expected to arrive in the summer of 1623 on the ship Anne, along with much-needed supplies and more settlers, and Mary watches the horizon anxiously every day, worrying for the safety of her two girls. Living in the care of the Brewsters was also Richard More, a 9-year-old boy who had traveled with them on the Mayflower. He works as a servant to William and is good friends with Love and Wrestling.
Today, the family wakes in the simple hut they call home. When they had first arrived in Plymouth, the entire community had lived for a time on the Mayflower itself, until it departed in the spring of 1621. The construction of houses was an urgent concern, and all the settlers had been called upon to contribute to the building work. Early houses in the colony were constructed in a simple style, imitating the structures that the pilgrims were familiar with at home in England and in Holland. However, resources and tools were scarce, and the pilgrims had to make do with what they could find nearby and the equipment that they had brought with them. Early structures were therefore quite simple, made from felled trees to create long, thin logs, and rudimentary cement made from clay to hold them together.
Mary is the first to rise, shortly after dawn, and sets about preparing a meager breakfast. The rest of the family are soon awake, and before they eat they all sit down to pray together. Religion is an integral part of their daily routine, and the strong faith of these diligent pilgrims allows them to persevere through hard times. Breakfast is a simple meal of bread and butter, with a little cheese; a small feast to sustain the workers throughout the morning labors. After breakfast, William dons his customary green trousers and a violet coat, picks up his felt hat, and strides out of the cottage to meet with other community leaders to plan the day’s labor. Mary quickly and carefully tidies away the remaining food and puts on her coif: a linen cap to cover the hair. Shooing the younger children out in front of her, she leaves the cottage and sets about the day’s work.
In the summer mornings, the whole family, like the other members of the colony, were put to work in the fields. By far the biggest challenge facing the pilgrims in these early years is finding food, which means that every able-bodied person, man, woman, and child, is put to work tending the crops and preparing the soil, in addition to raising the livestock, including goats, pigs, chickens, and cows. The labor in the fields is backbreaking. Fortunately, the indigenous inhabitants of the region are willing to share their knowledge and expertise regarding the best way to cultivate the land. Mary works closely with members of the local Wampanoag tribe, and with their help, the harvest increases year upon year.
One of the most important staples that the pilgrims encountered in Plymouth was corn, which quickly became a core component of most meals. The Wampanoag show Mary and her friends how to cook traditional recipes such as hominy and johnnycakes, in addition to helping the pilgrims construct tools and traps for hunting local animals. The settlers are also forced to learn fishing techniques in order to make the most of the ample food supply off the coast of the colony.
In mid-morning, Mary breaks off from the group who are working in the cornfields and returns to the cottage to prepare dinner. In pilgrim society, the main meal was eaten in the middle of the day, and usually included a range of dishes. Today, Mary prepares a thick, nourishing corn porridge and corn bread, to accompany fresh fish that had been caught that morning. She also sets out some chicken that had been left over from the previous day’s meal: in the colony, where food is often scarce, nothing is ever wasted. Once everything is prepared, Mary goes out to the fields to call the family in to eat. They flock to her gratefully, and sit down at the table, pausing to pray before they eagerly tuck into the dishes set out in front of them.
Life in the colony was certainly hard, but as Mary thought back to the days on board the Mayflower, she felt profound relief at being on dry land. The decision to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic in 1620 had been a huge gamble, and all of the passengers realized the risks that they were taking. Conditions on board ship were extremely cramped and confined, with 102 people and a large number of animals on board. The pilgrims remained huddled below decks for most of the voyage, crowded in the darkness. Wooden pallets were attached to the walls, hammocks were strung from the beams wherever possible, and the most unfortunate had to sleep on the floor. The passengers also shared the space with all of the food, drink, tools, and equipment that they had brought with them to make their new lives in the New World.
Mary, like many of the other passengers, had suffered from terrible seasickness, and the cramped conditions below deck served to make things worse. Although the first half of the voyage had been calm, in the second half huge waves smashed against the side of the ship, and high winds meant that the passengers had to stay below decks for most of the time. They passed the long, tedious hours thinking about the new land that awaited them, playing games, telling stories, praying and reading – anything to distract them from the discomfort of the voyage and alleviate their fears.
On days like today, with the warm sun shining down on her face, Mary feels extremely grateful that her days at sea are at an end. As the day wears on, she turns away from the fields to other tasks on the colony. She works with the other women to grind corn into a rough meal that can be used to make bread. As a senior, educated woman in the community, Mary also plays a role in schooling the younger children and teaching them to read. Education is extremely important to the early pilgrim community, particularly as reading is the main way in which these devout Christians are able to access their scripture. There is no official school in Plymouth, and as William is often busy with important matters in the colony, the task of educating the children often falls to Mary. The children are encouraged to read the Bible for practice, and today she sits out in the sun with Love and Wrestling, and some of the other younger children from the colony, patiently leading them through the difficult Biblical passages.
The children are eager to play in what remains of the daylight hours, but Mary ensures they persevere until the end of the chapter. Finally, she releases them and prepares a light supper for the rest of the family, who are returning from the fields. Supper is a small meal, usually consisting of leftovers from dinner, together with some bread and cheese. As always, the pilgrims stop before they eat and give thanks to God. In these hard times, any meal on the table is the result of hard, collective labor and no small amount of good fortune. The pilgrims are grateful for every bite.