Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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The Pilgrims- Part V
By Judy Leithe

The first attempts at Socialism in the North America were utter failures. In the strenuous first years of the Jamestown, Virginia Colony, there were people who were willing to work for survival and eventual betterment of their colony. There were others who didn’t cooperate in their community’s wellbeing, but helped themselves to their food supplies. The colony was barely subsisting anyway, so the founder, Captain John Smith proclaimed, “He who will not work will not eat!”

More than a decade later, the English Puritans, now known in American history as the Pilgrims, were instructed by their British investors to operate their future colony as a collective. So, in 1620, they dutifully began Plymouth Colony as a Socialist commune.

By December, the first work party began construction on the intended “Common House,” a 20’ by 20’ building intended to store their supplies. However, due to harsh weather, the structure had to be used as shelter for the workers, and as a hospital, as well. The living conditions, both on and off the ship, were extreme. Even after surviving the Atlantic voyage, in the first year, nearly half of the Bradford party died from malnutrition, illness, and drowning, as in the case of William Bradford’s young wife, Dorothy, who died after falling overboard shortly after reaching Cape Cod.

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 with the whole community. In time, it became clear that there were those among them who did not contribute their fair share of work. Just like the Jamestown experience, these unproductive people helped themselves to the stores of food and supplies provided by the more industrious colonists.

William Bradford wrote in his journal that, under the Socialist collective system, the colonists, “…languished in misery, discontentment…thievery and famine…” After two difficult years, Bradford parceled out land to individual families to exploit for their own benefit. “this had very good success,” wrote Bradford, “for it made all hands very industrious.” From that time forward, the colony, as a whole, prospered under the new direction emphasizing individual enterprise – known today as Capitalism. Bradford was repeatedly elected Governor of Plymouth over the next 30 years.

The Pilgrims were aware that 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 the newcomers. Somerset said he would bring another brave, named Squanto, who had been kidnapped by earlier explorers who took him to England and sold him as a slave. He was not only fluent in English, but was also familiar with English customs. He was eventually helped by some Spanish monks who arranged to have Squanto board a ship which carried him back to his homeland.

Through this remarkable encounter, Squanto was able to serve as the interpreter between the Pilgrims and Chief Massasoit, and resulted in a friendship and 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 weapons. Their treaty also provided mutual protection from more aggressive native tribes in the region.