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Why there were only four Englishwomen at the first Thanksgiving

At the first Thanksgiving, in November 1621, there were only four European women in attendance.  It’s not that more weren’t invited.  It’s just that there were only four European women around.  All the others died.
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The Mayflower during its Atlantic crossing, fall 1620 (photo not available).

The Pilgrims’ first winter at Plymouth was harsh, and they weren’t ready for it.  Only five of the women in the group lived to see the spring.  Most of the men survived, and 22 of the thirty of the children survived, too.  The Mayflower landed on November 16, 1620, right when winter was starting.  The Pilgrims figured it wouldn’t matter so much since they had traveled to a place well south of England, so the winter would probably be milder.  London is as far north as the city of Calgary, but its winters aren’t as cold as Calgary’s because the Gulf Stream current sends warm water and warm air, providing a much gentler climate for it and for western Europe.  This was not understood yet, but they learned it quick.  The Pilgrims knew they were heading south to around 40º latitude, the same as that of Madrid.  The weather in New England wasn’t very well understood yet, so they expected to find a Mediterranean climate, not snow and months of temperatures below freezing.

Women, it was said at the time and for a long time afterward, had “weaker bodies” and thus weren’t hardy enough to survive.  A more accurate way to put it is that they had weakened bodies.  Remember that there was no Motel 6 to check in to at Plymouth at the time, so everyone had to spend all their time on the ship, anchored off the coast.  Everyone but the men, who were busy building houses, hunting game, and foraging for food.  Women were confined to the ship.  A more modern understanding holds that because the men were able to stay active in the fresh air, they reaped health benefits that women missed out on.  Women also had prolonged exposure to disease on the ship, and were more likely to get sick.  As a result, the women’s health was generally worse than the men’s.  It didn’t help that the task of taking care of the sick men and women fell to the women, who were exposed to germs and viruses more than the men.  Compound that with the cramped, filthy conditions of the ship, they were much more vulnerable.  Had women been allowed to leave the ship and stretch their legs more, and even do physical labor, more of them would probably have survived.

Five of the 28 women survived that winter.  46 of the 78 men survived.  One of the women, Katherine Carver, died in May 1621, diagnosed with a “broken heart” caused by her husband dying of sunstroke a month earlier.  In 1623, the wives who stayed behind in England finally came to join their families in the New World.  None of them perished during the winter of 1620/21.

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in October 1621, following the harvest that year.  There were over 140 people in attendance, including 90 Wampanoags who joined them.  Much of the thanks was owed to the Wampanoags, the native people of the region, who had shown the Pilgrims how to plant and raise corn.  They were probably responsible for averting more Pilgrims' deaths that year.  The last Pilgrim, Mary Allerton, who arrived on the Mayflower at age 3, died in 1699.

There was never another voyage of the Mayflower.  The ship sailed back to England in the spring of 1621, was decommissioned, and sold for scrap.  Its timbers are said to have been purchased by a farmer in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1624 and used to build a barn.  The barn still stands today, and is a popular tourist attraction, despite the fact that the authenticity of the claim has been widely discredited.


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The reverse of an American $10,000 bill representing the Embarkation of the Mayflower.

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