The Desperate Housewives of 1620

Pilgrim women in a brave New World

By Nan Graham

The women of the Mayflower arrived 33 years after the doomed group (17 women, 113 men) we now call the Lost Colony. Some of the women’s names of the Virginia settlement were Agnes, Margery and Joyce. Notice right off the bat that the Pilgrim women had remarkably different names, reflecting their Separatist religious background. You’ve got to love these Desperate Housewives names: Fear, Constance, Remember, Chastity, Humility and (surprisingly) Desire, females with remarkable backstories.

According to Caleb Johnson of the Mayflower Society, only 18 adult women arrived aboard the Mayflower on that November day in 1620. All were married. Three of them had set sail at least six months pregnant. All three would have sons, though; of course, they didn’t know that when they boarded the ship. Many left their children in the Netherlands with hope of having them sent later when the colony was established. Many never lived to see these children again.

One expectant mother gave birth to a son, appropriately named Oceanus, before the tiny ship sighted land. Another to son Peregrine while moored in harbor. The third birth was a stillborn son. That last hapless mother died during the following winter along with 12 other women.

The first thing the group did was to draw up a document which would spell out a plan for governing the new group: the first such document in the New World. Forty-one men signed the Mayflower Compact, as it is called: nine adult men on the ship did not. These nine absent signatures would include the seamen and anyone too ill to sign. No women signed the document. None expected to. Not until the document was completed and signed did the landing party go ashore. It was to be the first such compact in the new country. The newcomers first set foot on this New World with an idea and written plan.

In those early days, the women stayed on the Mayflower and only went ashore a few times in January, February and March. Women died at three times the death rate for men. By April, only four adult women remained. Interestingly, the 11 young girls, from age 1 to age 16 years old, aboard the ship fared better than their adult counterparts . . . or the men, for that matter. Only two girls were lost that dreadful first winter.

The circumstances of these little girls being on the voyage might explain their deaths. The two children, 8-year-old Ellen and 4-year-old-Mary, were the children of Katherine More and her lover Jacob Blakeway. Katherine’s husband, Samuel, declared the girls would be better off in the New World with the Pilgrims, since they bore the stigma of illegitimacy. Sadly but not surprisingly, the abandoned girls died that first winter, far from any familiar faces.

One mysterious loss was William Bradford’s wife, Elizabeth. Days after Bradford and the other men left to investigate the land, leaving all women aboard, Elizabeth disappeared. It is unknown whether she fell overboard or committed suicide. It seems reasonable to think she purposefully drowned herself. She had left her 4-year-old son in Europe an ocean away, a drastic thing for any mother to do. The ship was safely anchored and moored in a sheltered inlet; the weather was calm. Falling overboard seems unlikely.

Aboard ship, the women were expected to make and mend clothes for everyone on the ship, including the “Strangers,” as the deckhands, seamen and non-Pilgrims were called, for the cold months ahead. A party of Pilgrim men plus Miles Standish, their military passenger, and merchant Richard Warren rowed to shore soon after they landed. All four women with the children remained on board to clean and scrub the ship’s quarters, empty chamber pots, tend to the youngsters, prepare meals from provisions, do laundry and make the clothes for the entire group.

They stayed aboard ship in the narrow, cramped area between the deck and the hold below — called the “Tween” — for weeks, while the men explored and built shelters and occasionally returned to the ship to bring aboard any game they may have captured. There was no return voyage back home. Winter seas made the voyage impossible. Besides, the captain and most of the crew were almost always ashore in those early weeks, off exploring the New World.

Although most women could read a bit, their names were not included in the signatures on the Mayflower compact setting the rules and expectations for the group. Most of the women signed their names with an X, since they were not taught to write. So there are no diaries left (what Pilgrim woman had time to journal anyway?) to tell us what the Pilgrim women thought as they watched the second boatload of colonists arrive in 1621 with 33 more men, to make the cooking and sewing and washing workload even more impossible. Only two women arrived with this second boat. So six adult females shared the load of maintenance of the new settlement when it was finally built. (And you thought you were put upon with your Thanksgiving arrivals!)

The Pilgrim woman could not vote or speak in town gatherings or church or interpret Scripture. A woman of Plymouth was allowed to choose her husband, could buy, own and sell her own property and got one-third of her husband’s estate at his death, no matter what his will said. She wore red, violet blue and green clothing, not the black garb we usually see depicted. She kept her head covered in every public place, bad hair day or not.

We don’t know what these women of such courage dreamed of in this New World. It might have been simply for shelter and warmth and good food to eat and a day off. But most of all to be with family and friends, thankful to live in safety and peace in this new place. This Thanksgiving, we join them in those thoughts.

Nan Graham is a frequent contributor with unparalleled knowledge of the South.

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