Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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In Search of Freedom - Part V
By Judy Leithe

The first attempt at Socialism in the New World was an utter failure.  the Pilgrims' English benefactors stipulated that future colony would operate as a collective for 7 years.  So, the dutiful Pilgrims planned to build New Plymouth Colony as a Socialist commune. 

On December 25th, the first work party began construction on the intended "Common House," a 20-foot-square building meant to store their supplies.  However, due to harsh weather, the structure had to be used as shelter for the workers, and it also served as a hospital.  The living conditions, both on and off of the ship, were extreme.  Of the original 102 Pilgrims, nearly half of them died from exhaustion, malnutrition, and illness, even after having survived their harrowing sea voyage.  It was discovered that William Bradford's wife drowned from falling overboard shortly after they anchored at Cape Cod.  It was not known whether it was an accident, or whether she committed suicide due to the hardships they had already endured and faced in the future.  

The Colony began to take shape as 19 small huts, made from braided twigs, branches, leaves and mud, were constructed around the Common House.  It was March before the women and children were able to finally disembark from the  Mayflower, which departed for England the next month.  It was determined that each family unit was to share whatever crops or goods they produced among the whole community.  In time, it became clear that there were those among them who did not contribute their fair share of work, but, helped themselves to the stores of food and goods provided by the more industrious settlers.

For their first year, the Pilgrims knew they were being stealthily observed by native tribesmen.  Then one day, a self-assured young brave walked into their encampment and greeted them in English!  His name was Somerset, and he explained that he had learned some English from earlier British fishermen.  His Wampanoag Chief, Massasoit, sent him as an emissary to prepare for a meeting with these newcomers.  Somerset said he would bring another brave, named Squanto, who had been kidnapped by earlier explorers. He not only spoke fluent English, but was familiar with English customs from his time as a slave in Europe.  Spanish monks took Squanto in, and helped him board a ship which brought him back to his homeland. Squanto was the interpreter between the settlers and Chief Massasoit, and together they agreed upon friendship and a mutually beneficial treaty, which lasted for 50 years.  The Wampanoags taught the settlers how to plant corn using fish heads as fertilizer, as well as other unfamiliar farming techniques.  The settlers shared European technology, such as iron tools and weaponry.  Their treaty also provided mutual protection from stronger native tribes in the region.         

William Bradford, who was repeatedly elected Governor of Plymouth Colony over the next 30 years, wrote in his journal that the Colony "... languished in misery..." and that they suffered, "...discontentment, thievery and famine..." under this collectivist system.  After two years, Bradford parceled out land to individual families to exploit for their own benefit.  "This had a very good success," wrote Bradford, "for it made all hands very industrious..."   From that time forward, the Colony, as a whole, prospered under a new direction emphasizing individual enterprise -- which we call Capitalism. 

Most Americans learn about the Pilgrims starting with a general awareness of their Mayflower voyage to the New World.  Then, their story picks up again as they and their "Indian" friends gather around their Thanksgiving banquet table.There is much more to their story, and it deserves greater attention. It is hoped that this five-part series has shown the character of these remarkable people, and how we benefit, even today, from learning about their faith, courage, and enterprise.  

Next week, we will explore the heroic actions of a Colonial woman, who happened to be an ancestor of Governor William Bradford.