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History of Plymouth Plantation

by William Bradford

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What hardships did the Pilgrims face aboard the Mayflower and in Plymouth, according to Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation?

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The Pilgrims had to deal with hardships in Plymouth. They died because of diseases they caught on the ship and due to exposure in the winter.

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Bradford is disarmingly frank about the "hard and difficult beginnings" which the pilgrims endured. In the space of just two or three months, he tells us, half of the original company had died, due mainly to a combination of extreme cold and the ravages of scurvy. The disease had originated on board the ship and was quite common among mariners at that time. Worse still, there was no known cure. Once the pilgrims finally set foot on dry land, things didn't get any better. Without proper shelter, they succumbed to the harshness of winter, many of them undoubtedly dying due to exposure.

The pilgrims were also hampered by their inability to grow crops on American soil. They had no experience with the kind of conditions they now needed to deal with. Fortunately, the local indigenous people were on hand to provide them with advice on how to grow crops, which is somewhat ironic considering the deep mutual antagonism that would develop between the English settlers and Native Americans in due course.

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Bradford's history details many of the hardships the Pilgrims endured, especially during their voyage and first winter at Plymouth. Making their way across the Atlantic in the Mayflower, which was a very small ship by today's standards, they experienced terrible storms, "furious seas," and many rounds of seasickness. When one of the main beams in the ship "bowed and cracked," they lived in fear of even completing their voyage. Additionally, throughout these great difficulties, the Pilgrims had to endure the taunts and abuse of the Mayflower's crew, sailors who showed contempt and deliberate cruelty toward them. One of their group, John Howland, was swept overboard during a storm; he was saved, but the experience left him sometimes ill. Another of their group, William Butten, died during the voyage. 

Because their passage took far longer than expected, the Pilgrims landed during the dead of the New England winter, their supplies mostly depleted. Bradford called this, appropriate, "The Starving Time." The Pilgrims suffered and died, "sometimes two or three of a day." Bradford reported that of more than one-hundred, barely fifty survived. During the worst of this suffering, only six or seven of the Pilgrims remained unafflicted and worked night and day to care for the sick. 

In establishing their colony at Plymouth, the Pilgrims faced enormous odds, as Bradford recounted:

. . . they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor . . . . what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men--and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not.

In spite of these hardships, however, the Pilgrim's endured. With the special help of Squanto, their Native-American gide whom they considered an agent of God, their colony survived.

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