Pilgrim Women at Plymouth Colony
The Pilgrim Maiden Statue
Sculpted by Henry Hudson Kitson
Brewster Gardens, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Dedicated in 1924 to “those intrepid English women whose courage, fortitude and devotion brought a new nation into being.”
In the first years of the 17th century, small numbers of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England and committed themselves to a life based on the Bible. Most of these Separatists were farmers, poorly educated and without social or political standing. The Separatists were persecuted in England, and many fled to Holland where their religious views were tolerated. They remained there for almost 12 years.
These English Separatists soon became known as pilgrims, because they were forced to wander from their native land, looking for religious freedom and the right to worship as they saw fit. At some point, the word was capitalized, and they have been known as Pilgrims throughout history.
Pilgrim women lived in a society which believed that women were created by God for man’s benefit, and for him to subjugate. While women were required to submit to their husbands, the Pilgrims also believed that husbands were to love their wives. Females were usually taught to read, but not write and had to sign documents by making an X. The law usually treated women as minors, with only a few more rights than children.
By 1617, the Separatist elders had become concerned about the unhealthy conditions their young people were exposed to – Holland was famous for its legal prostitution and free-wheeling lifestyle. Although they were able to worship freely in Holland, it was difficult for them to make a living. Discouraged by economic difficulties and their inability to secure civil autonomy, the congregation voted to emigrate to America.
On September 16, 1620, the ship Mayflower set off from Plymouth, England, on its journey to the New World with 102 Pilgrims on board. Fifty of the Pilgrims were men and nineteen were women, mainly in their thirties. There were also fourteen young adults between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, and nineteen children twelve and under. The ship arrived at Cape Cod (now Massachusetts) in the early morning of November 11, 1620.
Building Houses at Plymouth Colony
“Tuesday, the 9th of January, was a remarkable fair day, and we went to labor that day in the building of our town, in two rows of houses for more safety. We divided by lot the plot of ground whereon to build our town. After the proportion formerly allotted, we agreed that every man should build his own house, thinking by that course men would make more haste than working in common. The common house, in which for the first we made our rendezvous, being near finished wanted only covering, it being about twenty feet square. Some should make mortar, and some gather thatch, so that in four days half of it was thatched. Frost and foul weather hindered us much, this time of the year seldom could we work half the week.”
The men went ashore at Plymouth Colony to build shelter for their families. The other Pilgrims were still cooped up on the Mayflower anchored in Plymouth harbor. The weather outside was bitterly cold. Before long, disease began to spread. This might have been typhus fever, but was probably some sort of infectious pneumonia. By the time two or three of the one-room houses were built, the deaths were multiplying. The common house was soon crowded with the sick and the dying.
The Pilgrim women must have endured horrors we can only imagine. They were homeless now, facing a new and alien country. They had to quickly adjust to a new way of life. Their supply of food was quickly disappearing, and completion of the housing was delayed by the foul weather and the lack of men strong enough to work.
There were sick to be nursed, children to be cared for, and women with frail bodies, like Rose Standish and Mary Allerton, who were ravaged by the sickness. The death toll increased and the illness spread until there were only a few left to care for the sick, to fetch wood for the fires, and to bury the dead. More than half of the colonists who journeyed to America on the Mayflower were buried on the Plymouth hillside by spring.
“But the next day, being the 14th of January, in the morning about six of the clock the wind being very great, they on shipboard spied their great new rendezvous ( the common house) on fire… the house was fired occasionally by a spark that flew into the thatch, which instantly burnt it all up but the roof stood and little hurt. The most loss was Master Carver’s and William Bradford’s, who then lay sick in bed, and if they had not risen with good speed, had been blown up with powder, but, though God’s mercy, they had no harm. The house was as full of beds as they could lie one by another, and their muskets charged, but, blessed be God, there was no harm done.”
The whole colony would surely have perished if not for the unceasing care provided by the women who survived the first difficult winter at Plymouth Colony: Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster and Susanna White. These women had come to the New World devoted to their men and their families, because that was their part in life.
Eleanor Billington was one of only four women who were still alive to partake in the harvest celebration in the autumn of 1621. The Billingtons were not part of the Pilgrim Separatist community. Her family is regarded as being rather ill-behaved and caused much trouble in the colony from time to time. She was sentenced to sit in the stocks and be whipped for slander in 1636. She did, however, care for the sick during that first critical winter.
Elizabeth Hopkins traveled to Plymouth with her husband Stephen Hopkins and their baby Damaris, as well as and his children from his first marriage, Constance and Giles. Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Oceanus, while they were at sea. Stephen Hopkins was a member of a group the Pilgrims called “strangers,” who comprised more than half the passengers on the Mayflower.
These strangers signed on in London to help defray the cost of sending a ship to the New World and to further the chances of the colony’s survival. They included merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants, and three young orphans. All were common people, and about one-third of them were children. Elizabeth and Stephen had five more children in America.
Mary Brewster and her husband William were Pilgrims, and journeyed to America with their sons Love and Wrestling. After the colonists landed at Plymouth, William became the senior elder of the colony. He also served as an advisor to Governor William Bradford. William Brewster is perhaps the most well-known of the Pilgrims, but little is known about Mary.
Mary was one of only five adult women to survive the first winter. Son Jonathan Brewster joined the family in November 1621, arriving at Plymouth on the ship Fortune. Daughters Patience and Fear came on the ship Anne in 1623. Mary died in 1627 at Plymouth, having reached about the age of 60. Husband William survived her, and would live another 17 years.
Susanna White, her husband William, and their young son Resolved were Pilgrims. Susanna gave birth to another son, Peregrine, in December 1620 while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown Harbor. Edward quickly became one of the more prominent men in the colony. He was on many of the early explorations of Cape Cod and wrote several first-hand accounts of those first years.
William White died on February 21, 1621. Edward Winslow’s wife Elizabeth died on March 24, 1621. Susanna married Winslow on May 12, 1621 – the first wedding at Plymouth Colony. The Winslow had five children, but only two lived to adulthood: Josiah and Elizabeth. Edward Winslow died at sea in 1655.
The Pilgrim Mother Statue
Sculpted by Paul 0. Jennewein
This granite figure stands on the waterfront near Plymouth Rock. On the back are listed the names of the women on the Mayflower. The inscription reads: “They brought up their families in sturdy virtue and a living faith in God without which nations perish.”
After the death of a husband, the role of a woman in society changed drastically. A widow could own land, execute the will of her late husband, and make her own will to provide for her children, particularly daughters. A widow fulfilled a completely different gender role from her married and single female counterparts. The role of women and widows grew more distinct over time, further demonstrating that women played an important role in the early society of the Plymouth Colony.