A pandemic that devastated the Native American population helped the earliest pilgrims survive.

A pandemic that devastated the Native American population helped the earliest pilgrims survive.

The idea of the suffering martyrs of early Pilgrim colonies was probably an exaggeration, as they were well equipped to take advantage of the land.

William Bradford, the governer of the New Plymouth colony, wrote about the incident that has been considered the first Thanksgiving in 1623, "Instead of famine now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God."

It's a hell of a story. In 1621, a group of colonists arrived to live a life of religious faith. They hosted a dinner between themselves and 90 members of the nearby Wampanoag tribe, who had helped them survive those first few years. Together, they feasted on the bounty of the harvest. 





The way Bradford tells the history of the colony, every day was a new struggle for survival in a harsh and desolate land of few resources and wild men. The only way those first few colonists survived was through the grace of their heavenly father. Bradford declared that the English "were ready to perish in this wilderness," but God had heard their cries and helped them. Bradford wrote that the settlers should "praise the Lord" who had "delivered them from the hand of the oppressor."

Sounds very dramatic, right? Buckle-hatted Puritans eating dirt, rubbing two sticks together to make fire, and chasing around fat turkeys that mocked them with each humiliating warble. But in reality, the land was fertile, the Native tribes lived in comfortable settled villages, and beautifully built homes. In 1605, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed past the site the Pilgrims would later colonize and noted that there were "a great many cabins and gardens." He even provided a drawing of the region, which depicted small Native towns surrounded by fields.





Here's where it gets gross, cruel, and tragic. 

Shortly after contact with the first Old World explorers, a horrible plague spread through the region. The current belief is that the plague was leptospirosis, a disease caused by bacteria that had likely reached New England through the feces of rats that arrived on European ships.

Ah, rats. Between this and the Black Plague, they're like a Postmates for biological apocalypses. Also, they really have it in for humanity, don't they? 

Anyway, the waves of plagues killed something like 90 percent of the indigenous population between 1617 to1619. "By God's visitation, reigned a wonderful plague," King James' patent for the region noted in 1620, "that had led to the utter Destruction, Devastacion, and Depopulation of that whole territory."

Pause to have a crisis of faith here. 





Anyway, that meant that the most fertile land had fewer people inhabiting it and that the remaining Native people were open to trade with the people who'd brought the destruction in order to increase their stores. 

Not only that, the pilgrims at New Plymouth had plenty of knowledge to draw from. The first few attempts to colonize the New World at Jamestown had suffered bitter winters and disease. Many people died or gave up. Hell, the colony of Roanoke disappeared off the map. But the people who made it came back with stories to tell about how to survive. One in particular, mathematician Thomas Harriot, made a list of natural resources available in the the lands for future colonizers to exploit. Another, artist John White, painted watercolors of fish that they could eat and vast fertile fields. 

In short, the stories that are circulated around how tough the pilgrims of New Plymouth had were based around the idea of Christian suffering and salvation, but in reality they were better prepared than they describe and they rejoiced in the depopulation of the indigenous culture as proof that the land was meant for them by divine providence. 




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