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Excerpts from Of Plymouth Plantation

By William Bradford

Introduction

Introduction

William Bradford (1590–1657), a member of the English Puritan sect that had left England for more tolerant Holland, was one of the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower to set up a colony in the New World. Bradford, who became the long-term governor of the Plymouth colony, kept a journal of the group’s experiences in Holland, their transatlantic voyage, and the early years of the settlement at Plymouth, from which he eventually published Of Plymouth Plantation in 1650, having brought the account of the colony up to date through 1646. In these two excerpts Bradford tells, first, of the end of the voyage of the Mayflower and the landing of the Pilgrims on Cape Cod in the autumn of 1620, and, second, of the unexpected and marvelous first harvest the following year.

Imagine yourself aboard ship, as the days go by and the stormy sea continues to threaten. What emotions loom large? How do you react to the sight of land? Given Bradford’s description of what the Puritans faced on land, how would you feel about your new “home”? Bradford suggests that they could be sustained only by “the Spirit of God and His grace.” Can you appreciate why the arriving Puritans were inclined to praise God and to thank Him for His “loving kindness” to them? Would your faith and gratitude be confirmed by the surprising harvest the following summer?


Of their Voyage, and how they Passed the Sea;
and of their Safe Arrival at Cape Cod

September 6 [1620?]. These troubles being blown over, and now all being compact together in one ship, they put to sea again with a prosperous wind, which continued divers days together, which was some encouragement unto them; yet, according to the usual manner, many were afflicted with seasickness. . . .

After they had enjoyed fair winds and weather for a season, they were encountered many times with cross winds and met with many fierce storms with which the ship was shroudly1 shaken, and her upper works made very leaky; and one of the main beams in the midships was bowed and cracked, which put them in some fear that the ship could not be able to perform the voyage. So some of the chief of the company, perceiving the mariners to fear the sufficiency of the ship as appeared by their mutterings, they entered into serious consultation with the master and other officers of the ship, to consider in time of the danger, and rather to return than to cast themselves into a desperate and inevitable peril. And truly there was great distraction and difference of opinion amongst the mariners themselves; fain would they do what could be done for their wages’ sake (being now near half the seas over) and on the other hand they were loath to hazard their lives too desperately. But in examining of all opinions, the master and others affirmed they knew the ship to be strong and firm under water; and for the buckling of the main beam, there was a great iron screw the passengers brought out of Holland, which would raise the beam into his place; the which being done, the carpenter and master affirmed that with a post put under it, set firm in the lower deck and otherways bound, he would make it sufficient. And as for the decks and upper works, they would caulk them as well as they could, and though with the working of the ship they would not long keep staunch, yet there would otherwise be no great danger, if they did not overpress her with sails. So they committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed.

In sundry of these storms the winds were so fierce and the seas so high, as they could not bear a knot of sail, but were forced to hull2 for divers days together. And in one of them, as they thus lay at hull in a mighty storm, a lusty3 young man called John Howland, coming upon some occasion above the gratings was, with a seele4 of the ship, thrown into sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards which hung overboard and ran out at length. Yet he held his hold (though he was sundry fathoms under water) till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat hook and other means got into the ship again and his life saved. And though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth. In all this voyage there died but one of the passengers, which was William Butten, a youth, servant to Samuel Fuller, when they drew near the coast.

But to omit other things (that I may be brief) after long beating at sea they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod; the which being made and certainly known to be it, they were not a little joyful. After some deliberation had amongst themselves and with the master of the ship, they tacked about and resolved to stand for the southward (the wind and weather being fair) to find some place about Hudson’s River for their habitation. But after they had sailed that course about half the day, they fell among dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and they were so far entangled therewith as they conceived themselves in great danger; and the wind shrinking upon them withal, they resolved to bear up again for the Cape and thought themselves happy to get out of those dangers before night overtook them, as by God’s good providence they did. And the next day they got into the Cape Harbor where they rid in safety. . . .

Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element. And no marvel if they were thus joyful, seeing wise Seneca was so affected with sailing a few miles on the coast of his own Italy, as he affirmed, that he had rather remain twenty years on his way by land than pass by sea to any place in a short time, so tedious and dreadful was the same unto him.

But here I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and so I think will the reader, too, when he well considers the same. Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by that which went before), they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less town to repair to, to seek for succour. It is recorded in Scripture as a mercy to the Apostle and his shipwrecked company, that the barbarians showed them no small kindness in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they met with them (as after will appear) were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, fall [sic] of wild beasts and wild men—and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah5 to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. If it be said they had a ship to succour them, it is true; but what heard they daily from the master and company? But that with speed they should look out a place (with their shallop6) where they would be, at some near distance; for the season was such as he would not stir from thence till a safe harbor was discovered by them, where they would be, and he might go without danger; and that victuals consumed apace but he must and would keep sufficient for themselves and their return. Yea, it was muttered by some that if they got not a place in time, they would turn them and their goods ashore and leave them. Let it also be considered what weak hopes of supply and succour they left behind them, that might bear up their minds in this sad condition and trials they were under; and they could not but be very small. It is true, indeed, the affections and love of their brethren at Leyden was cordial and entire towards them, but they had little power to help them or themselves. . . .

What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,” etc. “Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.” “Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His loving-kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.”

[The First Thanksgiving]7

After this, the 18th of September they sent out their shallop to the Massachusetts, with ten men and Squanto for their guide and interpreter, to discover and view that Bay and trade with the natives. The which they performed, and found kind entertainment. The people were much afraid of the Tarentines, a people to the eastward which used to come in harvest time and take away their corn, and many times kill their persons. They returned in safety and brought home a good quantity of beaver, and made report of the place, wishing they had been there seated. But it seems the Lord, who assigns to all men the bounds of their habitations, had appointed it for another use. And thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity.

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

 [MayJuly 1623]8

I may not here omit how, notwithstand[ing] all their great pains and industry, and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them. By a great drought which continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away though it was set with fish, the moisture whereof helped it much. Yet at length it began to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were parched like withered hay, part whereof was never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indians’ admiration that lived amongst them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen; yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God. It came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked and therewith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold. And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving. . . .


1 An old form of shrewdly in its original meaning wickedly. Return to text.
 
2 To heave or lay to under very short sail and drift with the wind. Return to text.
 
3 Lively, merry; no sexual connotation. Howland, a servant of Governor Carver, rose to be one of the leading men of the Colony. Return to text.
 
4 Roll or pitch. Return to text.
 
5 A Biblical reference, a high place or ridge. Return to text.
 
6 A small open boat propelled by oars or sails and used chiefly in shallow waters. Return to text.
 
7 This passage records an event that took place a few weeks after those of the first passage, though the actual date of this first thanksgiving festival is nowhere related. Return to text.
 
8 This last paragraph comes much later in Bradford’s account. According to the Alfred A. Knopf edition, it “is written on the verse of fol. 102. It was ‘overslipped in its place,’ noted Bradford, who at first wrote most of it on the verso of fol. 79 as of 1622; but discovering his error before completing the passage, drew his pen across it and noted beneath: ‘This is to be here rased out and is to be placed on page 103 where it is inserted.”
 

The thanksgiving day to which it refers is most likely not the same one that he recounts in the previous passage. Some scholars (e.g., William DeLoss Love in The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England) argue that this thanksgiving celebration was observed on July 30, 1623. As the editors of this edition of Bradford’s work note, “the Pilgrims never had a regular fall Thanksgiving Day. A law of 15 Nov. 1636 (Plymouth Colony Records XI 18) allows the Governor and Assistants ‘to command solemn days of humiliation by fasting, etc., and also for thanksgiving as occasion shall be offered.’” Return to text.


Return to The Meaning of Thanksgiving Day.

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  1. Honoring the Original VeteranRob Cunningham USA on November 10, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Reply

    […] the world’s Original Veteran, to America’s original pilgrim, William Bradford, a preacher who led persecuted Christians from England to seek a land where religious liberty was […]

  2. […] the world’s Original Veteran, to America’s original pilgrim, William Bradford, a preacher who led persecuted Christians from England to seek a land where religious liberty was […]

  3. […] the world’s Original Veteran, to America’s original pilgrim, William Bradford, a preacher who led persecuted Christians from England to seek a land where religious liberty was […]

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