November! Time to think about the Thanksgiving holiday and the myths and history surrounding the early English settlers at Plymouth, Massachusetts. I’ve written about facts and myth-busting relating to the “First Thanksgiving” and you’ll find those in our blog archives.
This year I want to share about some of the real people who came over on the Mayflower. We tend to generally call them “The Pilgrims,” but in reality there were three distinct groups on that ship which voyaged across the Atlantic in 1620. The Separatists, The Strangers, The Sailors.
A Little Introduction
The Separatists were not Puritans; they were much stricter in their Protestant religious beliefs and doctrines. The Puritans wanted to “purify” the national Church of England while the Separatists believed they should depart from all forms of wrong theology and form their own, separate congregations. This landed the wrath of the Church of England and the Puritans on the Separatists and many sought refuge and religious freedom in the Netherlands. By 1620 persecution had followed the Separatists to Holland and members of the congregation in Leiden decided to build a new life in the New World. With the help of businessmen, they planned the venture and had to accept “outsiders” into their colonial plans.
“The Strangers” – as the Separatists called them – were not going to the New World for religious freedom. Some went as indentured servants to pay off debts. Some might have been escaping questionable circumstances. All were seeking opportunity, though their individual goals and dreams certainly varied. If the Separatists looked down their noses at “The Strangers,” these other Englishmen weren’t too sure about the religious folks.
The Sailors simply refers to the captain and crew of the Mayflower. Contracted to take this mixed group of passengers to Virginia, Captain Christopher Jones and his men found their ship driven far off course by fierce storms and made land in what is now call Massachusetts. In the spring of 1621, the Mayflower, captain, and crew returned to England, leaving the surviving settlers on their own in the new land.
Ultimately, the Separatists and Strangers agreed to work together for the survival of all. They signed the Mayflower Compact before leaving the ship. However, as the town of Plymouth grew and differences arose, the old divide of the original settlers would sometimes emerge as one group sought strict religious solutions and others were more open other ideas or possibilities.
Enough introduction for today, I think! Let’s talk about a young woman who journeyed on the Mayflower, survived the first winter, and would have been present at the “First Thanksgiving.” Meet Desire Minter…
A Separatist Girl
Old records are such fun, especially when they are not clear – said no researcher ever. With Desire Minter – as with other settlers in early Plymouth – many biographical details are slight and can by difficulty to track down. Which, of course, prompts the question: why write about her?
Because she has a story that matters. Even if we only know the bare details.
We don’t know exactly when Desire Minter was born. Most researchers think she would have been in her teens by 1620. Her family originated from Norwich, Norfolk in England, and her parents might have been William and Sarah Minter. In 1613 William Minter’s name appearance in the Seperatist church records in Leiden, Holland, suggesting the family moved there, seeking religious freedom. Even his daughter’s name points to a longing and, considering the background, possibly a religious longing. By 1614, the family owned a house, and Sarah Minter worked as a midwife for the Leiden congregation.
Sadly, William Minter died around 1617, and it appears that about that time Desire was placed with another family. Likely this situation happened because her mother was financially unable to care for the children or no longer could afford to keep the house. First, Desire lived with Thomas Brewer’s family. However, by 1619, Brewer was arrested and accused of printing and selling illegal books to England; this likely left Desire without protection, family, housing, or support.
A New Opportunity
Desire’s mother had remarried. As talk filtered through the Leiden congregation about relocating to the New World, Desire must have been interested. Perhaps the “final straw” was Brewer’s arrest, opening a necessity and opportunity for the young woman.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the details of the arrangement, but we know that Desire Minter boarded the Mayflower as part of John and Catherine Carver’s household. The Carvers – respected and influential leaders – also took Jasper Moore, a young man seeking a new life, and several servants. It’s not clear if Desire was a sort of indentured servant with the Carvers providing for her in return for work in the colony or if she joined them with more of an adoption agreement.
Whatever the details and whoever finalized the arrangement, Desire embarked and endured the rough voyage to Massachusetts.
Sickness claimed the lives of many “Pilgrims” that first winter. John and Catherine Carver did not survive, leaving Desire without a household. She would have lived with another family in one of the small crowded homes, helping with all the chores and looking after the many orphaned children in the colony.
She did not keep a journal and probably did not know how to read or write, and unfortunately, the colony record keepers did not spare many words to explain her history or activities. She would have been present at the autumn celebration, probably working long hours with the other women to prepare the food over open fires or large hearths.
In 1623, Desire Minter was given one acre of land when the colonial leaders divided the settlement; this probably indicates she still lived in Plymouth at that time and had not married. Interestingly, when the cattle were divided in 1627, her name is no longer listed, suggesting that between 1623 and 1627, she had made a significant decision which William Bradford recorded. Desire Minter “returned to her friend and proved not very well and died in England.” (The friend likely refers to a relative.)
This gives us clues that Desire was not a child and was to some extent allowed to make a decision of her own. After several years at Plymouth and witnessing many historic moments, she decided to make a return voyage to England.
We don’t know. Except according to William Bradford, Desire Minter died prior to 1651. It’s easy to wonder who she returned to in England. Her mother? A sibling? A friend she wanted to marry? But we shouldn’t speculate too much.
Beyond A First Glance
At a first look, Desire Minter’s life seems anticlimactic. But then start thinking about what we do know.
Here was a young woman willing to make a dangerous journey with folks who weren’t even her family because she saw an opportunity. Perhaps an opportunity to escape. Perhaps an opportunity to have her own life. She was a survivor – both of illness and of the difficult colonial life in New Plymouth. She witnessed and participated in legendary historic moments in America’s past. She made a decision – probably influenced, but still a decision – to return to England. There’s something inspirational in her story – courage, determination, risk taking, decisions.