Mayflower Madams

Updated: Nov 23, 2019

Much of what has been written about the Pilgrims is fiction, as is the case in most historic events.

What is not lost in translation, are documented facts about the 18 bad-ass adult women who traveled to North America on the English vessel, the Mayflower, in 1620. Not all of them were Pilgrims. Three of them were pregnant (giving birth en route, if you can even begin to imagine such a thing…). All of them were married, and only four of them survived their first winter in America. But let’s back up a bit.

It is widely accepted that the Pilgrims fled to America to escape religious persecution. This is partially true. In reality, when English King Henry VIII tired of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, (his brother Arthur’s widow), and longed to marry the headstrong Ann Boleyn, sister of his former mistress, Mary, he ran into a roadblock.

Henry hoped to secure an annulment from the Roman Catholic Church, specifically from the Pope. And despite the fact that he had obtained papal dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place some 20 years before, he thought he had a shoo-in of an excuse for said annulment, laid out in the Old Testament (Leviticus Chapter 20 Verse 16):

“If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”

The pope wasn’t buying it. And neither was Catherine, who countered that although she slept with Arthur seven times during their brief union, the results were “disappointing.” It seems the sickly young king had trouble in the get-it-up department, and her virginity intact, she was never truly his brother’s wife.

And so, fed up to the gills by the Pope, his wife, and her conniving nephew, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who helped plot and scheme her divorce avoidance tactics (it literally took over a decade of finagling until Henry secured his freedom), Henry decided to start his own religion, “The Church of England” it would be called. And he, of course, would be the head. Problem solved. Case closed. He would order his Archbishop to grant him an annulment. Done deal.

Consequently, his subjects, who were all subsequently ordered to renounce the Catholic Church and worship under the auspices of his new Henry-centered religion, were understandably miffed. One group in particular, took great offense and began to gather together to get back to the basics. Dubbed “Separatists” they eventually fled England and settled in Holland, where the populace was inclined to be more tolerant of individual religious beliefs.

However, after a dozen years, the Separatists, now also known as “Pilgrims” decided that the land of tulips was not the place for them. As their offspring began mingling with the Dutch, they feared dilution of their kind. They also couldn’t find lucrative work.

Therefore, when the opportunity arose to travel to the New World with a group of English businessmen footing the bill in exchange for a percentage of their first year’s profits, they decided, some 42 of them, to join 60 other passengers on a ship called the Mayflower, a cargo vessel that was never designed to transport people.

To imagine life on the Mayflower is, well, unimaginable. With passengers housed in the cramped, dark ship for up to a month and a half before she even set sail, no doubt the filth, stench and illness began brewing before they left port.

Ship logs listed the passengers, mostly working class individuals and tradesmen who were also staked by the Englishmen. They were stacked like sardines and, due to the lack of sunlight and proper nutrition, although they had enough provisions to get them to America, (the leftovers of which helped get them through the astonishingly harsh first winter) there weren’t enough of some foods to stave off certain illnesses (citrus/scurvy)

While legend has it (and is documented by a marker) that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock where a young woman, Mary Chilton, the daughter of James Chilton, at 64 the oldest passenger on the ship, was the first to step foot on solid ground. In reality, the ship wandered off course during a series of treacherous storms, and was finally able navigate to shore after two months at sea at Cape Cod, as dawn was breaking on November 9,1620.

They were some 220 miles northeast of their intended destination, which was the mouth of the Hudson River. While Mayflower master Christopher Jones attempted to reach their target, fierce headwinds prevented them from doing so. They would spend the next month and a half near present-day Provincetown, Massachusetts until they finally made the journey to Plymouth to construct their permanent settlement.

It was during that time, when the men would leave the ship during the day to build the necessary structures, that the women were left behind to tend to the children and housekeeping duties. While the men breathed fresh air every day, the women’s lungs were filled with the stale, moldy, putrid air of the damp wooden ship. That, coupled with the severity of the first winter, killed all but four of the women on board. In every account of the trials that followed, it is noted that without these four women, the entire colony would have perished.

Instead, as has been the case throughout history, the women pitched in with an “All for one” and “One for all” attitude. Those remaining were not all Pilgrims, but not a one of them stood a chance without the others.

While none of the women, in the rest of their subsequent lifetimes accomplished anything considered extraordinary, they were, for the most part, upstanding citizens of the New World. The exception was, it is noted, Eleanor Billington, oft described as a “renegade” and who was not a Pilgrim. In fact in the decades following the Mayflower’s landing Eleanor and her kinfolk were often in trouble with the authorities, Eleanor herself being shackled in the town square as the result of her contrary behavior.

The other women, whom history has come to know as “The Caregivers” included Pilgrims Mary Brewster and her children, sons Loving and Wrestling and daughters Patience and Fear; Susanna White and her offspring Resolved and Peregrine; as well as a “stranger” a non-Pilgrim, Elizabeth Hopkins. The quartet kept alive those whose offspring today has grown to 10 million American descendants and another 35 million worldwide.

As payment, perhaps, for their service to their community, Pilgrim widows had a somewhat astonishingly forward role in American society in the 17th Century. After the death of her husband, a widow, unlike her English counterparts, could own land, execute the will of her late husband’s estate, and make her own will to provide for her children, particularly her daughters.

It is fairly evident, to anyone who has made the acquaintance of most any current day, Eastern seaboard female, that the offspring of Mary, Susannah, Eleanor and Elizabeth - and of the 14 other women lost that first winter, have grown to symbolize what is formidable about American women. No job is too big. No challenge is too great. Not even, that very first Thanksgiving which, as you probably have guessed, was not the first Thanksgiving at all, there being ample evidence that Spanish and French explorers beat the Pilgrims to the proverbial punch.

Nonetheless, the women got up early, stuffed the bird, and hopefully had a tankard or two full of mead to toast the awesomeness of each other.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

--Barbro Andren