The Pilgrim Fathers
By Maureen Storey
This article was originally published in the December 2000 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
The theme of the Society’s annual meeting in October was migration and this prompted me to find out more about the most famous group of emigrants to include a Soule – the group that has become known as the Pilgrim Fathers.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century England regarded itself as a Protestant nation – the long years of stability under Elizabeth I had allowed the Church of England to become firmly established and for most people the religious upheavals of the mid 1500s were long forgotten. However, the religious practices of the Church of England were very little different from those of the Church of Rome and dotted throughout the country were small congregations of those who yearned for a far more radical church. But although England was Protestant it was also authoritarian and increasing pressure was put on these groups of dissenters to conform. By 1608 the pressure was so great that one such group, the members of a Calvinist congregation based in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, decided to move to Holland, which allowed freedom of worship. The group, which consisted mostly of poorly-educated farmers with little money and less influence, hoped to set up a semiautonomous English Protestant community. They settled in the city of Leiden but soon found that Holland was not their promised land. They had achieved religious freedom but little else – they struggled economically and found there were pressures on them to conform to the Dutch way of life. In addition they were fiercely proud of being English and were dismayed when the first evidences of assimilation into the local population appeared: the first intermarriages and the fact that many of their children were beginning to speak Dutch in preference to English.
By 1617 the group were thoroughly disillusioned with life in Holland and decided to look for somewhere else to settle: somewhere they could be free from outside interference. The obvious choice was the new territories in America that were just being opened up for settlement and the group entered negotiation with the London Company for some land. They eventually secured the patents for two pieces of land in what was then called North Virginia but was in fact somewhere around what we now know as Manhattan. However, securing the land was only the first of their problems: in the end only half of the group in Holland decided to go so they needed to find more settlers in order for the community to be a viable size and as they had very little money of their own they needed to find a way to fund the expedition. They solved the first problem by recruiting fellow Calvinists from the congregations in England and filled the last few spaces by ‘selling’ them to anyone else who wanted to go. They found the necessary money by entering a seven-year indentured servant agreement with a London merchant: in return for the money to pay for the expedition the settlers agreed to give him all profits that they made in the first seven years.
The plan was for the whole group to leave England in the summer of 1620 in two ships: the Mayflower which was chartered just for the voyage and the Bluebell, a smaller ship that the settlers bought outright with the intention of using her as a fishing vessel once in America. In July the contingent of 35 from Leiden, including their leaders William Bradford and William Brewster sailed into Southampton in the Bluebell and met up the group from England and the Mayflower. There was some rearrangement of passengers and stores and the two ships with a total of 120 passengers set sail for America on 25 August but they were forced to turn back when it was found that the Bluebell was taking on water. They repaired her and set off again but soon found that the Bluebell was still leaking badly. They put into Plymouth in order to have a closer look at the problem and found that she was unseaworthy and had to be abandoned. There wasn’t room for all the prospective passengers and their stores on the Mayflower so some opted to stay behind and the Mayflower finally left alone with 102 passengers on 16 September 1620.
The voyage across the Atlantic took 65 days and, considering they had left England much later in the year than originally intended, the weather wasn’t too bad though they did suffer one serious storm, which caused some damage to the ship. The Mayflower was a cargo vessel and not intended to carry such a large number of people so conditions aboard must have been bad but it completed the voyage with the same number of passengers that it had started with – there had been two deaths in the 65 days but two boys had been born. On 19 November the ship sighted land and finally dropped anchor off Cape Cod at what is now called Provincetown on 21 November.
The Pilgrims were now presented with a dilemma – although they had made landfall in America, for some reason that has never been determined the Mayflower’s captain had brought them to the wrong place – they were several hundred miles from the land granted to them in their patents and they had no legal right to settle where they were. The argument as to whether they should stay put regardless or demand that the captain took them on led to a near mutiny. The result of the heated debate that followed was the written agreement signed by all the male emigrants that was to become known as the Mayflower Compact. This document, based on a Separatist church covenant, became the basis of the government of the community and is nowadays regards as the USA’s first state paper. In it the colonists agreed to abide by the rules made by the community and to elect a leader, with all the men having an equal say in the decisions. Their first decision was to stay put.
They then began exploring the area looking for a suitable site for their settlement. Initially they looked at Cape Cod itself, where they come across their first evidence of Indian settlement: deserted summer camps and some recently dug mounds which they at first assumed to be graves but which on closer inspection proved to be caches of Indian corn – which the settlers promptly appropriated for their own use. It was decided the Cape was too exposed for permanent settlement and so the Mayflower sailed further down the coast until finally entering Plymouth Harbour. They spent some time exploring Clark’s Island in the harbour before settling on a spot on the mainland for the village.
By this time it was late December and winter had set in so the colonists’ first task was to set about building their village. It was decided that each household would build their own house but that everyone would help with the communal buildings to be used as stores. Because they had arrived so late in the year the Mayflower instead of just unloading the settlers and sailing straight back to England, as had originally been intended, stayed until the following Spring which meant they had some shelter while building started. But as the weather deteriorated so did the health of the settlers and it wasn’t long before what was called the Great Sickness took hold. It’s not really known what this was but it was most likely a combination of the sort of illnesses that strike in the conditions that the settlers found themselves in and almost certainly included elements of scurvy and dysentery. The settlers toiled on through the winter whenever the weather and their health permitted and when the Mayflower finally departed in April 1621 the village was completed but by that time half of the settlers were dead.
With the spring the health of the remaining pilgrims improved and they began planting. They also had their first encounters with the local native population and it was only with the help of these Indians that they got through the first year. After some initial suspicion on both sides, a peace treaty was signed which was to last for 54 years and the Indians taught the settlers the skills they needed to survive: where to find clams and eels to eat, which fruit they could eat and which were poisonous, how to hunt the deer and turkey, how to fish for herring and then to use the fish as fertiliser when growing corn and beans. The settlers and Indians worked together throughout the summer and in October celebrated their harvest with three days of feasting – America’s first Thanksgiving.
Their celebrations, however, were rather premature because when the settlers actually took stock of their harvest they found it fell a long way short of what they hoped. They hadn’t been 100% successful in their attempts to grow Indian corn and most of the seeds they had brought with them from England gave a very poor yield. This left the settlers with no alternative but to live on reduced rations throughout the next winter. The spring of 1622 brought with it the arrival of the Fortune with 35 new settlers but this was a very mixed blessing because although they needed the manpower to replace those that had died in the first winter, these new settlers brought with them no new supplies or tools. The net result was that the community had to tighten its belt still further to feed the extra mouths. By May the food was exhausted and in desperation Edward Winslow and a few of the men took the long boat on a round trip of 150 miles begging food from other settlements along the coast. When he returned he reported that nowhere had he been refused help and nowhere had he been allowed to pay for the food he’d been given.
The settlers struggled on through the summer of 1622, tending their fields and improving the village. Their hopes all centred on having a good enough harvest to see them through the next winter and spring, but they still had much to learn from the Indians about how to grow the native corn and once again the harvest failed and they faced the prospect of another winter of starvation. Their salvation this time came in the form of the Discovery, a merchant vessel, which put in to Plymouth on her way back to England from Virginia. The Discovery had no spare food but she was carrying a quantity of tools and other goods that the settlers bought and were then able to exchange with the local Indians for enough food to see them through the winter.
The fortunes of the settlers finally began to improve in the spring of 1623 with the arrival of the Little James and the Anne, which brought 60 new settlers and fresh supplies and seeds. Over the next few years the conditions in the colony improved, the settlement began to grow and prosper and the original settlers were able to renegotiate their loan and free themselves from their seven-year contract. This meant that the community no longer had to be run as a commune and each family could have their own plot of land to tend – the beginnings of a farm of their own.
As the community grew they needed more land and by 1627 they had begun to spread out and set up new settlements in the area. The next few years saw the arrival of a lot more settlers and the establishment of many more villages in an area that became known as New England.
The obvious questions for The Sole Society to ask are:
· Who was the George Soule that sailed on the Mayflower?
· What part did he play in the first years of the community?
· And what happened to him subsequently?
The answer to the first of these is that we simply don’t know. George appears on the Mayflower’s passenger list as a servant of the Winslow family, which means he wasn’t one of the group from Holland but we know nothing of his origins. The two most commonly voiced theories are that he was the George who was baptised in Tingrith, Beds, in 1595 or that as the Winslows came from Worcestershire he was probably one of the Soule family that lived in Eckington, Worcs, at that time. Hopefully one day evidence will come to light which will prove definitely where he did came from, but it hasn’t yet.
There is very little mention of George in the early records of the colony, just a few brief glimpses. He was a signatory of the Mayflower Compact and in the first division of land in 1623 he received one acre for his own use. Sometime between then and 1627 he must have married Mary Becket, a passenger on the Anne, because their names and that of their eldest child Zachariah appear on the list drawn up in that year when the cattle were shared out. In 1633 George was made a freeman of the colony and in 1637 he took part in an expedition against the Pequot Indians. It was at about this time that George and his family moved to Duxbury township and he began to play a more prominent part in the community: he was one of the selectmen chosen for the town, was deputy to the General Court several times in the 1640s and 1650s and served on the committee for the revision of the colonial laws.
Americans that can claim Mayflower descent are intensely proud of it and many societies have sprung up for the various families involved. The one for George and Mary’s descendants is called The Soule Kindred, with whom we maintain loose links. George and Mary had eight children that we know of – which was about average for the settler families – and today their descendants are to be found throughout North America.
No doubt much more is known about George’s life in America than I’ve discovered to date. I’m keen to know more about him and his family, so I hope that this article will prompt some of his descendants to tell us more about them in future journals.
Sources: The information for this article was taken from some of the many websites that deal with the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower – just try typing Mayflower into your search engine and see what you get!
If, however, you want to read up on the background I would recommend Caleb Turner’s Mayflower web site (http://members.aol.com/calebj) as a good starting point.
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