Famine and Survival

Far into the distant horizon disappeared the Mayflower. She had been a fixture in the harbor for close to four months. In between their much needed explorations for a suitable place to settle in the expansive land before them, the tired men upon their return, found in her cabins and halls refuge from the wilderness and the unrelenting and cruel weather. The moored vessel was for many weeks their shelter in the absence of any other structure into which they would run to find relief from the assailing wind-driven snow. In her cramped spaces, the women also cared for their children and the sick, dealing daily with menacing challenges of their own. Fast spreading illnesses caught up with them in total unpreparedness. Yet, as they saw the vessel’s bow oriented eastward, her repaired sails bellied by auspicious western winds, none among the dwindling colony made his return to the great isle they loved.

With the departure of the Mayflower, the reality the Pilgrims knew was distressing; it was nothing but lack, sickness, diminishment, peril and death. With no ship on which to reverse their destiny once again, they instead sealed their resolve to endure and make do with what they had. When the spring greeted them, only 51 of the 102 who sailed from England had survived their first winter. The death of so many of them greatly impaired their work and production capacity. In addition, the dreadful circumstances obligated them to engage in work and tasks with which they had limited experience. Nonetheless, their arduous efforts were spent securing food, clothing, shelter and whatever else was needed for survival. Resolutely they went on.  As the weather warmed, with renewed vigor they planted corn, which, in spite of it being a smaller than expected harvest, they were able to supplement with fishing and some hunting. They had sufficient food in store, or the prospects of enough to last for the next several months. Their cautious optimism was challenged, as on November 21st, 1621 – exactly a year after the arrival of the Mayflower—another ship brought 35 more colonists.

The Fortune had been at sea almost five months, and her passengers had severely depleted their own supplies. Perplexed and seriously burdened, the Pilgrims’ hopes for increased food production capacity quickly proved unrealistic. With very few exceptions, these 35 young newcomers were mostly unmarried and lusty men whose attitudes and behavior demonstrated a lack of serious commitment and responsibility. With winter fast approaching, the Pilgrims, in an effort to avert famine, took inventory of their food stock, and decided that food supplies would not last the harsh, long season if rations were not controlled. A conservative accounting would only carry their food stores to no more than six months, if that long, possibly bringing them to a critical stage when supplies would be used up before food production could be stabilized. Half a ration was their lot per person. Still, starvation pressed them hard, threatening the colony. Surviving, the smitten but resolute colonists could not dismiss anxious food forecasting from their minds, as their second year and highly anticipated corn harvest was extremely light in yield. Adding to the ominous outlook in the fast approaching final months of the year, was the reckless way in which the newcomers took to the corn fields and helped themselves to unripe corn, bringing a light yield to almost nothing. Gaunt famine stalked them ahead, darkening their mood, as they would face it again weaker and with less fortitude. Averting death by starvation challenged their tenacity, and most times securing food during the winter months proved to be a draining and a lamentably unfruitful struggle.

With the coming of a new spring, their third in Plymouth, and having survived extreme food shortages and brief periods of famine, the Pilgrims implemented a new food production system. Up to this point, they had organized their food production and general industry in the colony following a communistic pattern. It had been each individual for all, and all for each, with constraints. This system proved to be a failure for all their efforts, especially since the young men among them were terribly uncooperative and highly disruptive in the colony’s general industry. With frivolous and unhelpful doings, they continually undermined the work the Pilgrims and other responsible individuals contributed for the benefit of all. As seeding time neared, they thought of ways to maximize corn yields aiming to avoid the pitiful and deficient yields which hardly had sustained them in prior years. After much consideration and debate, it was decided that each family would have a parcel of land to be worked in accordance to the number of its members, and all families and individuals were encouraged to plant and raise as much corn as they could. The results were highly promising. With many more individuals participating in the raising of their own supplies of corn, much more corn was planted. And whereas before some of the young men did not participate in the raising of corn for the colony, this time the incentive motivated them, and even some women,  who with their young children planted and raised as much corn as they could. An industrious and healthy sense of work and production became an encouragement for each family and individual. The more prudent and thrifty ones, as well as the stronger and dedicated ones, found more satisfaction in their toil. This in turn kindled a sense of welcomed rivalry by which more was sown and raised. Still, though more land had been devoted to the cultivation of corn, their current food supply remained perilously close to extreme shortage, such that all during the spring and summer months their sustenance was exclusively from hand to mouth as they foraged and gathered whatever they could find to eat. However, they anticipated their best harvest. To their horror, the famine that had indeed pinched them during the better part of their third year was accompanied by a drought which consumed them with worries and concerns.

Late May was followed by six weeks of incessant drought. The prolonged dryness would inevitably impact the corn and what they had planted in their gardens, produce on which they had naturally put much hope. Facing a fourth winter with insufficient food stores discouraged even the most courageous among them. In their dire circumstances, the fraught little colony convened a day of prayer and humiliation before the Lord, and falling on their knees they solemnly prayed. The day had started as it had for several weeks. No signs of weather changes were appreciable, and the sun and the heat continued to beat down on them as on the corn and gardens, further parching their fields and their expectations. For approximately nine hours the colonists gathered in their customary place of worship; burdened, tired and disconsolate the assembly prayed for mercy and favor. Fervently and with desperate pleas, they asked for relief, for otherwise, their new plan, their invested efforts and their hopes for a larger crop would of necessity come to naught. Gracious and speedy was the answer to their entreaties. As evening approached, the skies began to overcast and shortly thereafter, gentle and steady rain showers drenched the fields, reviving their dried out and brown corn, and watering the much needed beans and fruits, parched for almost two months. Their hearts previously weighed down by the oppressive heat were revived with hopes for a bigger and sustaining harvest once again. Satisfying and enormously relieving was the realization and approbation of their new system of corn farming and land-based food production. The success was so clear and unequivocal that the colonists, upon adopting it thereafter, never found themselves in want of food. It was a turning point in the struggles against the hunger and famine they had repeatedly faced.

The effects of their individual scheme of planting were well accepted by all, and those who had been more enterprising and consistent were able to produce larger amounts of food, a much needed relief to those whose production had partly failed. Some colonists were able to buy the surplus of others, such that during winter months, all had ample food supplies to last them until seed time. They had started the turn-around event with a day of prayer and humiliation before the Lord, and following such favorable results, they consecrated a day of thanks in which they intended to praise God for His goodness and tender care, and especially for their deliverance from certain starvation. Though they had not yet reached a state of more complete stability in their new homeland, and no luxuries surrounded them, they were never to work on an empty stomach.


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