Tag Archives: William Bradford

Thanksgiving – The History Behind the History

As an incessant student of history, I often discover gems that have been omitted from historSilhouette fedoray books. Since this is Thanksgiving week, we often think about the Mayflower pilgrims and the challenges they faced almost four hundred years ago.
The plight of those pilgrims began long before they landed at Plymouth Rock. King James, who was notorious for re-organizing the Church of England for his own convenience, was out to persecute any individual or church who went against his desires. A number of devoted believers immigrated to Holland in hopes of establishing a Christian community. However, about forty of these Christians were still not happy with the situation and decided to take the dangerous journey across the ocean, where they believed they could openly worship God and, perhaps, create a better life.
So, on August 1, 1620, 102 passengers, including William Bradford and the forty Christians, left the comforts of European civilization for the vast unknown of the New World. During the voyage, Bradford drew up a contract—the Mayflower Compact—for all members of the new community, irrespective of their religious beliefs. The new society would be ruled by majority and based on equal ownership of all supplies.
The Mayflower finally dropped anchor on November 11, 1620. The ship was supposed to have landed in Virginia, but due to a storm it missed its mark and landed in Massachusetts. The first winter devastated the travelers, who were already weakened by the seven week crossing. By spring, only 46 of the original 102 travelers were still alive.
Most of us know the next part of the story—the part where many of the pilgrims died and how Squanto, an English-speaking Indian, lived with the pilgrims for several months. And how the Wampanoag Indians taught the settlers how to fish, plant vegetables, and skin beaver for coats, among other survival skills.
However, what you may not know is that the pilgrims who survived that first difficult year learned something else important, something that somehow got left out of history books. The survivors discovered that equal ownership—equal distribution of food and supplies— wasn’t working. On paper, it sounded good. Everyone worked for the common good of all. All the land was owned by the community, all the crops were owned by the community, all of everything was owned by the community. It sounded like it should’ve been a utopian society. But in actual practice, it just didn’t work. They nearly starved and no one prospered. Eventually, the hard workers resented that others sat idle yet had the same benefits.
Bradford, now the governor of the colony, verbalized what the community had learned—no matter how industrious a man was, he had no incentive to work harder than anyone else.
Bradford devised a new plan. Instead of the community at-large owning the land and everything on the land, he divided into it sections and assigned a section to each family. Instead of the results of their labor going into a common area to be shared by all, they would retain their own goods.
The new landowners became very industrious. Soon they were bartering among themselves and with the Indians. Their output soared.
By the autumn of 1621, the harvest was so bountiful that the colonists called for a feast. And you know the rest of that story.
Do you have any “stories behind the story” you’d like to share? I’m always eager to hear the history that doesn’t make it into the text books.
Whether you do or you don’t, I hope you enjoy an abundant Thanksgiving.