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10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the American Pilgrims

Pilgrims
Public Domain (Library of Congress), Wiki Commons

This week, families will come together from all across the nation for Thanksgiving. They will stuff themselves full of turkey, side dishes and desserts. Some will laugh and joke with relatives, while others renew old feuds and bicker with their cousins and siblings. No matter how your particular Thanksgiving winds up, you can thank the American Pilgrims for starting this long-standing custom.

The Pilgrims left the Old World and came to the new one in order to begin a fresh life. They had a hard first winter, but survived (after some heavy losses) and eventually prevailed with a great deal of help from the Wampanoag Indians. Most of us have a general understanding of the Pilgrims, but we decided to track down a few lesser-known items we found interesting.

The Mayflower Wasn’t Built for People

Public Domain, Wiki Commons

The Pilgrims made their way across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower. It was an extremely dangerous journey. Almost everyone got sick during the long voyage. The people lived in filthy conditions and terrible discomfort. One of the reasons for the suffering was the fact that the Mayflower wasn’t initially built for human cargo. It was actually designed to transport caskets of wine and other goods. The needs of passengers, apart from crew, weren’t really taken into account, adding to the suffering of the Pilgrims down in the holds.

Cooks Were in Short Supply During the First Thanksgiving

Public Domain (Library of Congress), Wiki Commons

The first winter took its toll on the Pilgrims. More than half of the settlers died before they were able to celebrate a successful harvest. Many of the departed were adult women. When things finally got better, well over one hundred Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered for the first Thanksgiving dinner. There were only four women (of European descent) or so on hand to prepare all of the food. Imagine how nerve-racking that job would have been. Even back then, the cooks were overworked and hardly had any time to breathe.

Pilgrims Buried Their Dead Late at Night

Evans, Getty Images

Landing on a new continent comes with a lot of risk. The Pilgrims had to learn how to take care of themselves in a new place while maintaining relations with the Native Americans at the same time. They didn’t always know who was friend or foe. Since a lot of Pilgrims died during the first winter, there were tons of burials, but the dead were only put to rest at night, in order to keep the dwindling number of Puritans a secret from the Native Americans living close by.

The Pilgrims Spied Land Before Plymouth Rock

Michael Springer, Getty Images

Plymouth and Plymouth Rock have gone down in history has the place were weary Pilgrim feet first touched down on American soil. While by all accounts this is where and how the European voyagers came ashore, Plymouth wasn’t the first piece of land the Pilgrims spotted in the New World. They sailed past Cape Cod, but decided to give it a pass for various reasons. The Puritans sent out a small party to find a more suitable place to land, and eventually headed over to modern day Plymouth.

The Pilgrims Enjoyed Beer

Johannes Simon, Getty Images

Many people believe the Pilgrims were exceptionally straight-laced. This might have been true regarding some of their religious customs, but not so when it came to drinking beer. The Puritans brought barrels full of beer with them during their trip across the Atlantic, and most likely drank heartily during their first Thanksgiving meal. The early settlers considered beer healthier than water. Even children were allowed to partake of their innovative brews, which probably made for a very jovial Thanksgiving Day meal.

The Pilgrims Weren’t Alone on the Mayflower

Michael Springer, Getty Images

The Mayflower held Pilgrims and sailors, and the two groups didn’t always get along. The Pilgrims were known for their strict religious austerity, which often came into conflict with some of the saltier language and habits practiced by the men in charge of sailing their boat. The sailors often referred to their passengers as “puke stockings,” because the Puritans were always vomiting from seasickness. By the voyage’s end, many of the old seadogs finally had to admit, despite their prejudices, that the Pilgrims were a tough lot, even if they were a bit too religious for the sailors’ tastes.

Thanksgiving Might Have Been Based on a Jewish Holiday

Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday, like Christmas or Easter, but it does have something in common with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in that it’s a festival of thanks for food, and delivery from religious persecution. Before disembarking on American soil and starting a brand new way of life, the Pilgrims lived among the Sephardic Jews in Holland for a time, where they might have picked up a few things from the holiday traditions of Sukkot, which makes use of special celebratory meals and commemorates the years the Jews spent in the desert after Exodus.

The Pilgrims Lived in Holland

Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

When the Pilgrims left the British Isles, they didn’t immediately head for the shores of the New World. They stopped off in Holland for a good decade or so, in order to practice their form of Christianity without any restraint. Why didn’t they just stay among the Dutch if life was good, you might be wondering? Well, they were worried that they were assimilating into Dutch cultural too much, and losing their traditions, which prompted them to pack their bags and leave Europe altogether. Sometimes people just need to head out into the wild and start from scratch, as the Pilgrims did.

A Woman Gave Birth on the Mayflower

Sabrina, Getty Images

The voyage across the Atlantic was rough. Conditions were less than ideal, and many of the passengers believed they were going to die at sea. Just imagine being pregnant during this harrowing trip. One woman was. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to a baby boy while the Mayflower was plowing through the Atlantic. The boy was christened, appropriately enough, Oceanus Hopkins. Later on, after the Pilgrims had settled in, more children were born. Some were given very interesting names as well, like Angel, America, Consider, Freedom and Opportunity. Apparently the Puritans were looking forward to the future.

The Pilgrims Didn’t Eat With Forks

Luis Davilla, Getty Images

It would be pretty hard to eat traditional Thanksgiving food without a fork these days. The pilgrims used spoons and knifes, but forks were nowhere to be found. Luckily they were allowed to eat with their hands, which simplified things a bit (try and carve a slice of turkey without a fork or your hands). Since they often swapped cups and plates back and forth, and ate with their hands, the spread of disease went unchecked. Communal living was a great way to make friends and talk with neighbors, but it often came with a hefty price. It seems the Puritans weren’t really worried about good hygiene. They didn’t even know what that was.

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