Pilgrims In Armor

Amongst the myths of the Pilgrims is the ideal that they were peaceful folks who never quarreled with anyone and never feared an attack because they were friends with the natives tribes. Furthermore, they lived in their own little bubble of safety, immune from the dangers of the outside world.

Let’s do some myth busting! We already discovered that two ships originally left England and that the Pilgrims knew how to do more than pray and eat. Today we explore the reality of the Pilgrim’s world and how the men were prepared to defend their families from assault.

Thistoric cannonhe Pilgrims’ World

It was not peaceful. (But then when has this world ever been peaceful?)

1559-1648 – War in the Netherlands. This religious and politically sparked war lasted 89 years, but there was a period of truce. Interestingly, that truce was between 1609-1621, which was the exact period when the Separatists (Pilgrims) sought religious refuge in that country.

1588 – Spanish Armada. As part of an on-going struggle with religious roots between Spain and England, a large convoy of Spanish warships set out to invade the island nation. However, fireships and fierce storms prevented any successful landing, leaving Britain free to continue supporting Protestantism and semi-political freedom.

1588 -1590 – The War of the Three Henrys. Religious conflict plagued France as Catholics and Huguenots struggled to tolerate each other. The War of the Three Henrys erupted when three men (all named Henry, in case you hadn’t guessed) claimed the French Throne. In the end, Henry of Navarre triumphed and issued the Edict of Nantes, allowing a period of religious freedom in France.

1618-1648 – The Thirty Years War. Beginning with a religious conflict, this war dragged through the decades and involved many nations of Europe. It is generally acknowledged that there were four periods of the war: The Bohemian Conflict, The Danish Conflict, The Swedish Intervention, and The French Intervention. The war ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (an event which is usually the end of Western Civ. 1 classes in college).

Pilgrims in a Hostile Land

From 1620-1622 Plymouth Colony did not have a fort for defense. The settlers were busy just trying to survive, and, since they had established peaceful relations with the local native tribe, they had no real reason to build a fortress.

It should be acknowledged that before the Peace Treaty in spring of 1621 the Pilgrims were afraid of attacks from the tribesmen, especially because they had had some strange encounters during the early exploring in December 1620. When the men were searching for the right location for the settlement, they went out in their armor and carrying their weapons.

Now, in 1622 – the year after the First Thanksgiving – a warning message from an unfriendly tribe and rumors of a massacre in Virginia, prompted the Pilgrims to build a stockade around their town, post sentries, and have the men form several militia units. In the following years, Plymouth was never directly attacked, but their militia aided other settlements and also acted as a “police force” to help keep the peace.

An artist's image of Captain Myles Standish. It is not confirmed if the image is based on a real painting from the 1600's.

An artist’s image of Captain Myles Standish. It is not confirmed if the image is based on a real painting from the 1600’s.

The Military Captain at Plymouth

Meet Myles Standish, the military leader of Plymouth colony. While much of Captain Standish’s life prior to 1620 is mysterious, we know that he did have a military background. It is very possible that he led English soldiers during the War in the Netherlands.

By 1620, Myles Standish was married, highly educated, and respected in military matters. Captain and Mrs. Standish were “strangers” – they were not going to America to escape religious persecution. Once in the New World, Captain Standish led the exploring groups and probably directed his comrades toward choosing a town site on elevated, defensible ground. During the winter, Mrs. Standish died and the captain was one of only two Pilgrims who did not get sick.

When the Wampanoag tribesmen assembled with the Pilgrims to sign the peace treaty, Captain Standish also made sure he suitable impressed everyone with his little militia and his cannon.

In later years, Captain Standish led the Plymouth militia to defend other settlements from attacks and represented the colony on business trips to England. His military skill proved essential to the success of the colony and his leadership abilities made him a trusted resident of Plymouth.

Reproduction armor (breastplate and backpiece) hanging on the wall of a house in Plimoth Plantation Living History Center

Reproduction armor (breastplate and backpiece) hanging on the wall of a house in Plimoth Plantation Living History Center

The Armor & Weapons

So what did the Plymouth militia use for weaponry? What type of armor did they wear?

The armor of the early 1600’s was fairly useless and even dangerous on the European battlefields. (Bullets were penetrating the armor and then bouncing of the back-pieces and sides – think of a marble inside a tin can and you’ll have the unhappy idea.) However, armor was useful in the New World as protection against arrows and hatchets. Many of the Pilgrim men had breastplates and helmets which they would’ve worn for their military demonstrations, when they stood sentry, and when they defended other settlements.

Swords were a symbol of status in this era. We know that Myles Standish carried a special sword that he had obtained somewhere in his European travels.

Daggers were common. But don’t get the idea that the Pilgrims had them up their sleeves, ready to murder each other; that’s inaccurate! A dagger was like a pocket knife back then, and men carried them to assist in day-to-day tasks.

By the 1600’s, cannon were in wide-spread use on European battlefields, though they still lacked range and directed effectiveness. The Pilgrims did have cannons at Plymouth, and those weapons were a source of intimidation to unfriendly native tribes.

The Pilgrims would’ve used matchlocks and maybe flintlocks. Both types of guns had a chamber for a few grains of gunpowder which would be ignited either by a match-cord or a spark from a gun hammer striking flint. That spark would ignite the gunpowder grains and start the reaction inside the gun that was necessary to send the ball out the muzzle. The firearms were not known for great accuracy which equals “battlefield safety” or “frustrating hunting trip.”


The Pilgrims did not come to America as conquistadors. They came willing to work and build a new settlement, but they knew they might have to defend themselves. Thus, under the leadership of Captain Myles Standish, the Pilgrim men prepared to protect their families and new homes if necessary.

Wars and weaponry were not foreign concepts to the Pilgrims. Europe was filled with conflict and these people knew (and possibly experienced) that first-hand. By coming to the New World, the Pilgrims left the religious and political wars behind, but they understood the importance of a militaristic presence to ensure their own safety.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Had you ever considered the armor, weapons, and defense strategies the Pilgrims used? What lessons might we learn that are applicable to the our lives in the 21st Century?


Working Hard: Building Plymouth Colony

Last week I challenged you to learn something new about the Pilgrims…something that would help you see them as real people, not mythological giants casting a long shadow on history. We have explored their travel delay, and today we’ll study their work. The Pilgrims believed in working hard. While they lacked some of the skills necessary to succeed in the New World, they were accustomed to providing for their families and completing tasks to help their community.

A replica of a Pilgrim home (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

A replica of a Pilgrim home (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

The Protestant Work Ethic

Did you ever wonder: What made Plymouth successful as a colony?  What made it different from the earlier English colonization attempts at Roanoke and Jamestown?  There are many factors that can be taken into consideration when answering these questions: the climate, friendly native tribes, better leadership, etc.

While all these are factors, the most important thing that made Plymouth Colony a success was an understanding and fulfillment of the Protestant Work Ethic.  While the Jamestown gentlemen expected to have a life of ease and wealth (eventually importing slaves to make this a reality), the Pilgrims came to America expecting to work hard and make a new life in a new land where they could worship God freely.

The Protestant Work Ethic is the belief that work is a gift from God and a means of glorifying Him.  It is the belief that man is called to work and that a person serves God by working diligently and faithfully in his chosen occupation.  This was the belief held by the Pilgrims when they lived in Europe and when they migrated to the New World.

Men’s Work

The Pilgrims acknowledged the Biblical principle that men are the leaders, protectors, and providers.  The Pilgrim men worked hard at their trades in the Old World to provide a living for their families; when they lead their families to America, they continued in the roles as leaders, protectors, and providers by establishing the colony, defending the women and children, building houses, planting fields, hunting, and making peace treaties with the Native Americans.

I think sometimes we imagine the Pilgrims hiding and spending all their time in prayer before their trip to the New World. While it is true the Separatists faced persecution, they did not neglect to provide for their families. Thus, most of the men had a trade or skill set that they used to make an income.

(Note: We call the Plymouth colonists “the Pilgrims” and for sake of word-count I have adopted this practice. However, there were really two groups of “the Pilgrims.” There were the Separatists – the settlers seeking religious freedom – and the Strangers – the settlers simply looking for a better life in America.)

So what did the Pilgrim men do? Here’s a short list:

John Alden – cooper (built barrels)

Isaac Allerton – tailor

William Brewster – the pastor; a printer by trade

John Browne – weaver

Francis Cooke – wool comber (prepared wool for spinning and weaving)

Francis Eaton – house builder

Samuel Fuller – “say-weaver” (wove linens and coverlets); colonial legends claim he was the physician for the colony.

Stephen Hopkins – tanner (leather worker); possibly owned a London shop

Myles Standish – soldier of fortune

This example list shows the Pilgrim had successful jobs in the Old World and many of their skills would be useful in establishing a colony.

Baking bread was a woman's job. Here's a reproduction of an outdoor bake oven (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

Baking bread was a woman’s job. Here’s a reproduction of an outdoor bake oven (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

Women’s Work

The Pilgrim women accepted the Biblical role for women: keepers of the home, faithful wives, and loving mothers. They continued in their feminine role in the New World, just as they had in their old homes, though in America there were plenty of new challenges.

The Pilgrim ladies worked hard to make new homes in America and to care for their families.  They made the “houses in homes,” worked in the gardens, cooked and baked food, cared for the children, mended the clothes, cleaned the houses, and practiced hospitality to the visiting Native Americans.  Their tiny homes were crowded just with their own families, but the Pilgrim women accepted into their households those who needed care after the long winter.

Only six women survived the first harsh winter. So, yes, six women cooked a three day Thanksgiving feast! Here are the names of those remarkable ladies:

Elinor Billington

Mary Brewster

Dorothy “Carver” (actually a servant of the Carver family; she later married Francis Eaton)

Elizabeth Hopkins

Priscilla Mullins

Susanna Winslow

Kids, want to chop and stack the wood? This would've been a job Pilgrim boys helped with.

Kids, want to chop and stack the wood? This would’ve been a job Pilgrim boys helped with.

Children’s Work

There were no time-wasters like video games in 1620 – indeed, the idea of childhood being a time of freedom and play was a foreign concept back then. So what did the children do?

Children worked alongside their parents in the daily tasks; they learned how to be good providers or homemakers.  They helped care for younger siblings, hauled wood to keep their houses warm, carried water for the cooking, and, when there was time, they learned to read.  The Pilgrims believed that it was very important to read the Bible.

Did you know: after the first winter in Plymouth, the children outnumbered the surviving adults? So we have pretty strong evidence that children played a major role in preparing and serving the first Thanksgiving feast. (Kids, quit complaining about having to dry the dishes after your big meal! At least you didn’t have to chop the fire wood, haul the water, and turn the turkey on a spit over the fire…)

Skills They Didn’t Have

The Pilgrims had trades, good leadership, and faith, but they did lack some skills necessary for colony building.

They were not good hunters; hunting was forbidden in England, since most of the forests were owned by the king and nobility. They were not the world’s best farmers. Neither were they outstanding soldiers.

Make Peace, Get Help

Providentially, the Wampanoag Native American tribe was not hostile to the Pilgrims. Samoset and Squanto came to the colony in the spring of 1621 and helped the Pilgrims learn to hunt, fish, and plant corn properly.

The Pilgrims made a peace treaty with Chief Massasoit and his tribe and both people groups benefitted from the agreement.


The willingness to work hard for the glory of God enabled the Pilgrims of Plymouth to build a successful colony where they could live in freedom. An understanding of the Biblical roles for men, women, and children also contributed to the success of the colony.

In the autumn of 1621 they celebrated their first year in America by hosting a Thanksgiving Feast.  They invited their neighbors from the Wampanoag Tribe who had become their friends and who had taught them many skills needed to survive.  The Pilgrims gave thanks to God for His blessings to them. The Protestant Work Ethic, an understanding of the Biblical roles for men, women, and children, and a thankful attitude toward God for His blessings lead to the success of Plymouth Colony.

Perhaps a new understanding of the work ethics which built America will inspire us to re-discover the blessing of work. 

…doing the will of God from the heart with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord…    Ephesians 6:6-8

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. How does a reminder of America’s founding principle of hard work encourage you? Why do you think this principle is not viewed favorably by many people today?

1620: A Tale of Two Ships

Replica of the Mayflower, Plymouth Massachusetts (Bierle Photo)

Replica of the Mayflower, Plymouth Massachusetts (Bierle Photo)

Many people are familiar with the good ship Mayflower. It has become part of American legend and lore since it brought the Pilgrims to the New World – we imagine a large, sleek sailing vessel cruising across the calm Atlantic, the wind-filled sails billowing above the happy Pilgrims frolicking on the deck. Well, it’s time re-evaluate our “lovely” myths and legends about the Pilgrims…and what better time to do it than in this season of Thanksgiving!?

Through the research and teaching, I learned that we Americans have bought into a lot of myths about our forefathers. We image the Pilgrims waltzing (making that jumping…Plymouth Rock, you know) into the new land, having just a little hardship, making friends with their Native American neighbors, the crops grow, the houses are built, and then it’s time to feast on turkey, sweet potatoes (with marshmallows, grown in the local marsh, of course) and pumpkin pie. My most sincere and humble apologies for my sarcasm!

As with all eras of history, it is extremely important to remember the folks we are studying were REAL people, not marble statues or romanticized paintings. They had hopes and fears. They argued, fought, and forgave. They loved. They grieved. They sweated; dirt got under their fingernails.

So – as a historian – I’m going to make a call to action and give you a challenge. By the time you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast this year, I want you to have learned at least three new things about the Plymouth colonists. (Don’t panic and run to the library, just read Gazette665). I want you to have three “ah-ha” moments when you realize they were real people and not the stiff, dark-clothed, buckle be-sprinkled, solemn parishioners that the Victorian era art has taught and modern advertising has completely spun out of control. Will you try? Will you accept my challenge? (Shout out your answer and thoughts in the comments!)

[Miss Sarah has now climbed off her soapbox and is ready to share history.]

An artist's depiction of the Pilgrim embarking on their voyage.

An artist’s depiction of the Pilgrim embarking on their voyage.

The Mayflower & The…?

Wait, a sec…you mean there were two ships? Yes. The Mayflower and the Speedwell originally both left England, sailing for the New World. But…something happened…and that is the story you are going to hear today. And you get the account in the original words of William Bradford – who was really there, experiencing it all. (Any little comments in parentheses are mine to clarify, liven it up, or make the story relatable!)

Here’s is the account of the Pilgrims trying to leave England in 2 ships: The Mayflower and The Speedwell.

At length (in the year 1620) after much discussion everything was got ready. A small ship (the Speedwell) was bought and fitted out in Holland, intended to help transport them, and then to remain in the country for fishing and such other pursuits as might benefit the colony. (The religious folks in the group we call “Pilgrims” had been living in Holland to escape English persecution). Another ship (Mayflower) was hired in London, of about 180 tons. When they were ready to depart, they had a day of solemn humiliation, their pastor taking his text from Ezra 8:21 – “And there at the river, by Ahava, I proclaimed a fast that we might humble ourselves before our God, and seek of Him a right way for us and for our children, and for all our substance… …Then with mutual embraces and many tears, they took leave of one another…

Thus, hoisting sail, with a prosperous wind they (Speedwell & passengers) came in short time to Southampton, where they found the bigger ship from London lying ready with all the rest of the company… (Skipping the length details about the final supply/money fiasco)

Everything being now ready, and all business completed the company was called together… Then they allotted the company to each ship as they thought best, and chose governors and two or three assistants, to take charge of the people on the way…which done, they set sail from Southampton, about the 5th of August.

Mayflower IIBradford Continues – The Perils of A Leaky Ship

(First Travel Delay) …They had not gone far when Mr. Reynolds, the captain of the smaller ship (Speedwell), complained that he found her so leaky that he dare not go further till she was mended. (Remember, these are the days of wooden hulled ships!) So the captain of the bigger ship (Mayflower), Mr. Jones, being consulted with, they both resolved to put into Dartmouth and have her mended, which accordingly was done… Some leaks were found and mended, and it was then believed that she might proceed without danger…

(Second Travel Delay) But after they had gone 100 leagues beyond Land’s End…the captain of the small ship (Speedwell) again complained that she was so leaky that must bear up (that means “turn around and go home”) or sink at sea… So they consulted again, and both ships resolved to bear up again and put into Plymouth (that’s Plymouth, England), which accordingly was done. No special leak could be found, but it was judged to be the general weakness of the ship, and that she would not prove equal to the voyage.

Bradford Continues – The Decision

Upon which it was resolved to dismiss her, and part of the company, and proceed with the other ship; which, though it caused great discouragement, was put into execution. So after they had taken out such provision as the other ship could well stow, and decided what persons to send back (very hard decisions), they made another sad parting, the one ship (Speedwell) going back to London, and the other (Mayflower) proceeding on her journey…

The Voyage of the Mayflower

And thus on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set off, alone, across the Atlantic. 102 passengers aboard and a crew of approximately 30. The ship itself was between 100-110 feet in length.

The crossing was rough. Fierce Atlantic storms sloshed the crew and passengers with water. The main mast cracked and was repaired with the large screw taken from Mr. Brewster’s printing press. John Howland was swept overboard, but miraculously survived and was rescued.

The Mayflower anchored near land.

The Mayflower anchored near land.

On November 11, 1620, they sighted land: Cape Cod…but they had wanted to go to Virginia. Eventually, the weather forced them to decide to settle in the Cape Cod area, and, after signing the Mayflower Compact and agreeing to stay together and form a colony in Massachusetts for the glory of God and country, they set out to find the perfect location.

So…why’d you write about this?

Two reasons. 1) Many people don’t know about the Speedwell and it’s frustrating saga. 2) It’s relatable history.

Ever been on a road trip and got continual delays? Or how about just trying to get through a work day – you know, the day that every single time you turn around there’s a delay. (The printer’s out of ink. The line at the sandwich shop is out the door when you’re in the biggest hurry…etc. etc.)

We can relate to the Pilgrim’s experience because we face delays and frustration in our own lives. We can learn from the Pilgrims – they tried several times to overcome the difficulty, but finally decided to try something different. Yes, about half of their group had to stay behind, but the rest went forward…and founded a colony.

The image of the Mayflower and its crew and passengers bravely setting out on their own inspires me to have stronger faith and move forward. I hope it will inspire you.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Was there something in the account of “trying to leave England” that was particularly interesting to you? Tell us in a comment.

Thanksgiving Trivia Question (& Thoughts)

Gazette665 Thanksgiving 2014Happy Thanksgiving!

Here’s your historical trivia question for the day: which president established Thanksgiving as a national holiday? (By the way, there wasn’t an American president when the Pilgrims celebrated).

If you said Abraham Lincoln, you’re correct. Lincoln established the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving. Prior to Mr. Lincoln, different states and communities often had a day of thanksgiving in the autumn but not all on the same day. Leaders – George Washington included – made proclamations for days of thanksgiving after great victories or challenging events. However, it wasn’t until 1941 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Thanksgiving became an official holiday on the 4th Thursday of November each year!

And here’s your one sentence reminder about the very first Thanksgiving in America: The Pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod region (Massachusetts) in 1620, survived an extremely difficult winter, received help from the Wampanoag tribe, and in the autumn of 1621 decided to have days of celebration and thanksgiving. (I think next year, we’ll cover the Pilgrims and their “thanksgiving feast” in detail because the real history is fascinating!)

Now the history facts are concluded and I thought I’d write a “personal” note. Someone asked me to list five things I’m thankful for. There are so many blessings it’s challenging to list only five, but here’s what I’m especially grateful for this year.

1. My Faith

2. My Family

3. Heritage of America (and getting to share this history through writing and living history)

4. Life’s Challenges – building character through all the difficulties

5. Opportunities to Serve – though teaching, volunteering, being a friend, or helping at home.

What five things are you grateful for?

Thanksgiving Blessings –

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah