Communalism Did Not Protect the Pilgrims From Starvation in the Winter of 1620-1621

A recent [2010] television production on the History Channel titled “The Real Story of Thanksgiving” made the entirely false declaration that the system of communal property first established at the Plymouth colony protected them from starvation during their first winter in America. The truth is exactly the opposite.

First of all, a substantial number of the them did starve to death that first winter. The reason for their plight that first winter probably had nothing to do with their ideas about common property rights. They didn’t arrive in the New World until December of 1620 and they were taken by surprise at how cold and miserable it was. In 1620 the role of ocean currents in determining the weather on land was not known. Thus, the Pilgrims left England believing the weather would be similar in America because their destination was roughly the same latitude as London. They spent the first winter hovering and freezing in whatever shelter they were able to hurriedly construct immediately upon arrival. The only food they had that first winter consisted of what they brought with them, supplemented only by whatever game they may have shot in the forest [some histories of the period claim that they also found a stash of corn and ate it. If so, they truly were starving because at that time all they knew of corn was the European variety, which was pig food]. Under any system of property rights it is to be expected that a small group of people who have just endured a perilous journey together and now face a harsh cold winter in a strange land would likely share whatever they have or can gain through group or individual efforts.

But in the next few years, for those still alive, the system of property rights became a decisive factor in their success, or lack of it. Those who today attempt to bolster their sales pitch for socialism by referring to the communal system that the Plymouth colony first attempted [but soon abandoned] must ignore the actual history of the time, and the very words of William Bradford himself. This short video presents a more truthful account than the recent production on the History Channel:

The voiceover in this video pronounces all the vowels in the writing of William Bradford. That’s a little weird. There are no recordings to prove it, but it’s not likely that words in the English language were pronounced much different then they are today, even accounting for different accents. But there was no standardized spelling of words in those days. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary would not appear for another 150 years. The voiceover in the video pronounces the “e” on the end of the words that Bradford wrote. I think it is more likely that the ending “e’s” were merely a quirk of Bradford’s spelling, and were silent. Anyone who has read the Lewis and Clark journals, written almost 200 hundred years later, will be familiar with the fact that spelling was mostly an individual preference and didn’t seem to follow any universal rules.

Ever wonder why the Pilgrims arrived in December, much later than they had originally planned? It is because they had so much trouble getting the Mayflower made seaworthy and also they were resolving disputes with the London financiers of their new colony to be. They actually had two ships, neither of which was entirely seaworthy. They bought one called the “Speedwell” which became the Mayflower. Their first departure was aborted when the Speedwell began to sink soon after leaving England. They made it back to Leiden for repairs, just barely. That resulted in a late fall departure and arriving in the New World with winter in full swing. That’s the main reason, perhaps the sole reason, so many froze and starved the first year.

The final chapter is that the Plymouth Colony was not a success. The early Pilgrims that stayed and survived were eventually assimilated into the later and more successful Massachusetts Bay Colony.

See the next post, The Real Story of Thanksgiving, for more of this most terrific tale of American History.


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