The Pilgrims’ Miracles in Context: a comparison of the settlements in Jamestown and Plymouth

Several years ago around Thanksgiving time, I became acquainted with a hymn about the Pilgrims called “O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand.” Now, I thought I knew about the pilgrims. I knew about Squanto fertilizing maize with fishes and other quaint anecdotes of early American life. However, the solemn tone of this hymn surprised me with dark allusions like, “The God they trusted guards their graves.” It also spoke of miraculous protection and guidance that my basic knowledge could only vaguely justify.

(Here is my own arrangement of this hymn, for those of you who are curious to hear all the words. I recorded this on my phone, so the quality is less than stellar. Don’t judge.)

I’d read a little bit about the early settlers of America in Jamestown. I knew of the starvation that drove them to eat worms, and shoe leather, and even each other. And I started to wonder how Jamestown compared to Plymouth. Why were the Pilgrims willing to risk the depravity that Jamestown had faced? Did they experience such dire circumstances?

As I delved deeper into this topic, I was fascinated and inspired. The two groups were about the same size, with 104 settling Jamestown in 1607, and 102 settling Plymouth in 1620, but the composition of the groups were different. The settlers of Jamestown were mostly men. They were aristocrats, or servants to aristocrats. They came to America seeking their fortunes.

In contrast, the Plymouth settlers included 18 families. Some were well-educated, but most of the party came from rural backgrounds. They were accustomed to hard work (although they were not farmers). They came to America seeking separation from the rest of the world in order to raise their children in the religion and culture of their choice. Not all of the settlers were separatists, or “saints” as they called themselves, but they formed the majority.

Both groups faced extreme hardship in those very early days. Jamestown settlers arrived in a fleet of three ships. They picked a settlement site, built a fort, and sent one of their ships back to England for supplies. But as the ship left, the settlers succumbed to a variety of diseases and the death toll climbed. On top of their illnesses, they were also cursed with a certain amount of ineptitude. They didn’t know how to grow food and their communal farming method failed.

Although relationships with the local Indians often turned violent, a chief of the Powhatans took pity on them, allowing them to hunt on their hunting grounds and giving them food. The natives generosity pulled them through their first winter, but the settler’s hardships were just beginning. Unbeknownst to them, their supply ship had been shipwrecked in Burmuda on their way back to Jamestown. They had also unknowingly taken up residence in New England in the midst of a drought. By the end of 1609 they were facing winter with little food reserves and they had managed to ruin their relationship with the Powhatans by demanding too much food in the midst of a hard growing season. They spent the winter afraid to leave their fort for fear of Indian retaliation, and supplies ran so low that they eventually cannibalized their dead. By the time their shipwrecked supplies finally arrived in the spring of 1610, 80-90% of the settlers had died and their fort was in shambles. The situation was so dire that the surviving settlers clamored to sail for England and were only convinced to stay when an approaching fleet arrived with supplies, settlers, and new leadership.

The Pilgrims knew about Jamestown and other horrific settlement failures. Perhaps this is why the Pilgrims first escaped the Church of England by immigrating to Holland. However, it became clear that immigration was turning their children Dutch instead of turning them into Saints. Seeing the extinction of their own way of life on the horizon, they decided to truly separate themselves from the rest of the world. Like the Jamestown settlers, they left in a fleet. However, one of the two ships didn’t make it very far. The Speedwell began taking on water, and attempts to fix the problem failed. Some accounts claim that the crew sabotaged the ship in fear of the treacherous crossing and settlement ahead. Whatever the case may be, the original 120 travelers pared down to 102 and squeezed aboard the Mayflower bringing along much of the Speedwell’s supplies. After this 2-month delay, the crowded Mayflower set off all alone.

The voyage encountered several storms, one of which cracked a main beam, threatening to sink the ship. Luckily, the innovative Pilgrims crafted a fix for the beam out of some resettlement supplies and after about 65 days their journey ended. Despite coming to shore a little north of the place they had chartered to settle, they determined to stay.

They reached America in November and had to live aboard the Mayflower until they could build sufficient shelter on land, and the cramped conditions bred disease and death. Their first contact with the natives also proved unfavorable, ending in shots fired on both sides. Apparently, six years before the Pilgrim’s arrival, white explorers kidnapped 27 natives (including Squanto) and sold them as slaves in Europe, leaving local tribes angry and distrustful.

Luckily, December brought a miracle. The Pilgrims, still searching in treacherous weather for an appropriate settlement site, happened upon a beautiful hill. It was defendable and could be built upon, despite the frozen ground, because it had already been cleared. The land had belonged to a village of natives killed by disease (probably smallpox) three years before. The outbreak had been so severe that the Pilgrim’s discovered unburied skeletons within abandoned dwellings. By early January they had completed the first building of their settlement, a common house. By the end of February they had mostly finished the settlement and brought their supplies ashore, but they had also lost a third of their company to disease, and the death toll still rose. At one point only a handful of settlers were well enough to feed and care for the rest. Furthermore, the Pilgrims were uneasily aware of local natives spying on them.

In the middle of March a second miracle struck. To the shock of all, a native man walked right into the middle of town and welcomed the settlers in English! The man’s name was Samoset. He treated the uneasy settlers congenially and soon introduced them to his chief Massasoit. He also introduced them to Squanto, who had been kidnapped by white men, taken to Europe as a slave, escaped to England, and worked his way back home only to discover that his tribe had been wiped out by an epidemic (the same tribe that had inhabited the hill the settlers now claimed).

Detailed information about the politics between New England Indian tribes is rare. Much of what we believe comes secondhand from the records of settlers, written well after the fact. It seems, however, the epidemic that killed Squanto’s people had weakened Massasoit’s tribe as well, leaving them vulnerable to the attacks of enemy tribes. Squanto had been very impressed by the English during his time abroad and apparently told Massasoit that the tribe was ultimately no match against an English colony. Although Squanto was wary of the newcomers, he encouraged the chief to pursue a mutually beneficial agreement with them and gain their strength to defend tribal lands.

In a nerve-racking negotiation, Massasoit brokered just such a peace with the settlers, establishing an expectation of mutual defense. This treaty was honored to the end of Massasoit’s life. From that time on, Squanto lived with the settlers, considered by Plymouth Governor Bradford to be “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

Squanto arrived in the exact week the settlers needed to plant their first crops. He taught them what would grow, how to fertilize weak soil, how to plant and store foods, where to fish, how to take beaver skins (which proved an important source of income), how to navigate their new surroundings, and basic survival skills. Squanto’s unique horticulture was very different from English horticulture, but scientifically sound. From his first day with the Pilgrims, Squanto was both hard working and invaluably knowledgeable. The first spring and summer in Plymouth was so bountiful that Edward Winslow wrote in an England-bound letter, “we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.”

The Pilgrim’s first year in America was not easy. Of the 17 women who made the treacherous voyage, only 4 survived to see the harvest. In total their numbers were reduced from 102 to 53. But as the hymn states, “Laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God came with those exiles o’er the waves,” and despite their heavy casualties, their principles and their way of life survived them, in miraculous fulfillment of their deepest hopes and dreams. In fact, 1 in 10 Americans (including me) can trace an ancestor back to the Mayflower.

Now consider this happy ending juxtaposed with the near destruction of Jamestown. The Pilgrims faced similar troubles, including delay, disease, and distrust. But for the Pilgrims, miraculous circumstances combined to buoy them up. They found themselves in a place prepared to receive them. They were able to broker a friendly relationship with the Natives, despite well-founded fears and misgivings on both sides. And then they befriended a lifelong guide and teacher, who spoke English and knew enough about his homeland to make the settlement immediately successful. Without the Pilgrim’s miracles, America would have been a much different place. Americans have all benefited from their sacrifices and principles. For their miracles and the characters of the men and women who lived to deserve them, I am forever grateful.

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