log cabin with chimney surrounded by a fence set in a wintertime scene

History of Plymouth Plantation

by William Bradford

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What were some of the hardships the pilgrims faced during their trip across the Atlantic and the first winter at Plymouth?

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The Pilgrims faced many hardships during their journey to Plymouth and through the first winter in the New World. First, there was little space aboard the Mayflower for its 102 passengers and additional crew members. Areas below-decks were cramped and dark, and passengers had little personal space. Many passengers were seasick. All the passengers needed to use a chamber pot for a bathroom, and if the weather was rough, they were not allowed to go up on deck to dump it out. For 66 days, passengers endured these small, smelly spaces. Additionally, there was little food and water. Many passengers, including children, drank ale.

The troubles of the Pilgrims did not end when they reached America. Initially bound for Virginia, the Mayflower went off course and ended up landing on Cape Cod first, before finally settling in Plymouth (known then as Plimoth). The weather was much colder than what the Pilgrims had prepared for and the first winter was devastating. The Pilgrims struggled to build homes, and many families crowded into the few homes that were built. Food was scarce, and many Pilgrims starved to death that first winter.

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The first hardship that the Mayflower experienced was that her sister ship, the Speedwell, developed serious mechanical problems and had to turn back to England.  The Speedwell was the passenger ship, so the Mayflower, designed to carry freight, had to be hastily refitted for the passengers.  It was not comfortable; quarters were tight and some freight had to be left behind. Once underway, the Mayflower encountered rough seas and storms and began to leak; a main beam was also damaged. The anxiety and fear must have been very difficult for the crew and passengers.  Because the voyage had been delayed, the weather was quite cold, and ultimately, the ship had to land in Massachusetts where there was no established colony or homes, instead of their intended destination, Virginia.

The first winter was brutal. They had to use what they had at hand to build crude shelter.  There was constant fear of Indian attacks.  Food was scarce and disease and exposure claimed about half the colony.  In the spring, the arrival of Samoset, Massasoit, and Squanto brought peaceful negotiation and help in adapting to the climate.  The survivors learned, with the help of Squanto, how to plant, hunt, fish, and utilize what the surroundings offered.

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The Pilgrims faced many hardships on their voyage across the Atlantic and upon arriving in New England.  The trip across the Atlantic was very rough.  The trip took longer than expected.  They had to endure severe storms crossing the ocean.  They also had issues with their ship.  One of the main beams cracked which led some to wonder if the voyage could proceed.  Because of these difficulties which slowed the passage, there were shortages of food.  People also became sick, and one passenger died.  Because of the storms, they arrived much later than planned and in a different location.  Arriving in November presented additional issues for the pilgrims. Food was a big concern that first winter. Disease also was an issue as many of the pilgrims died of a plague which moved quickly through the colony. In addition, there was the threat of conflict with unfriendly Native American tribes. Fortunately, the pilgrims received help from Squanto, a Native American, who taught them how to survive and how to negotiate a peace treaty with the Native Americans. The pilgrims faced many obstacles on the voyage to the Americas. They also faced many obstacles once they arrived.

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