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Dan Holden's Creative Writing

The First Pilgrim: A Thanksgiving Story

On September 6, 1620, after two failed previous attempts to set out for the New World, the Mayflower left Plymouth Steps in England. The ship was loaded with English Dissenters who were quite a bit different in religious doctrine from the Puritans who later made their home just across the bay, in modern-day Boston.

These Separatists had a pre-drawn contract to settle a new stretch of land near the mouth of the Hudson River, in an area that is now New York City, but because of a nasty storm in the North Atlantic, they were thrown off-course and forced to weigh anchor just inside what is now known as Cape Cod.

When they first reached the new Plymouth, the weather was extreme. Snow was everywhere. The Pilgrims foraged along the shore, finding many mounds created by the natives. Some of these mounds contained stores of food. Others were graves which included not just bodies, but clothing, blankets and tools. The Pilgrims didn’t care, they plundered both with equal alacrity.

At one point, they had created enough ill-will with the natives that they were forced back to their ship, where they remained for the rest of the winter.

Half of the Pilgrims and half of the crew died on the ship during that long winter. But one child was born, on the 20th of November 1620 – 390 years ago this month.

His name was Peregrine White. Peregrine means “one who journeys to foreign lands.” It’s synonymous with “Pilgrim.”

Peregrine was the first English person, and the first Pilgrim, born in North America. (Another child had been born en route.)

Among the Pilgrims and crew who died on the Mayflower that winter was Peregrine’s 31-year-old father William White of Devonshire England, who passed about three months after Peregrine was born.  His 27-year old mother Susanna Fuller White of Norfolkshire survived, and quickly re-married with another original settler, Edward Winslow, who took Peregrine and his older brother, Resolved, in as his stepsons and heirs.

The first Mayflower returned to England soon after the Pilgrims disembarked, and was immediately scrapped. It was replaced by a second Mayflower, which was then commissioned to transport more settlers to Plymouth.

Peregrine grew up in a harsh and gritty environment, but religious doctrine held the community together. For the first few years, food was grown and shared by everyone. After a while, a pact was drawn and land was distributed among the settlers, and harvests were then held by individual families.

Thanksgiving feasts were common in the English and native cultures. So the first thanksgiving wasn’t really all that significant in the grand scheme of things. In fact, one of the original settlers wrote in his diary that it was the thanksgiving feast that was held just prior to the third landing of English settlers from a new Mayflower several years later that everyone remembered, since that marked the coming of age of the settlement of Plymouth.

When Peregrine came of age, he volunteered with the Massachusetts Bay Company to fight the Pequot Indians. Among his weapons was a prized Spanish Rapier which Winslow had passed to him. Peregrine later willed this to his own son Peregrine Jr.

After the war, Peregrine was fined for fornicating with his girlfriend Sarah Bell prior to marriage.  (Sarah’s listed father’s name was Bassett, but she was likely raised by a family called Bell.)

From this point, records are very sketchy. Some list Sarah as being five years Peregrine’s senior and dying at the age of 34. There are a number of family lineages which suggest she was born two years after him and lived to age 99, but these documents likely confuse her with one of her daughters.

In any event, Peregrine and Sara were married on December 16, 1646.  They had a grueling but short life together. He toiled as a farmer, and held small civic and military posts.

Sarah bore six children – two who were named Sylvanus, a Jonathan, Mercy, Daniel Peregrine, Sarah, Marcy, and another Daniel. She most likely died in 1651 at the age of 35, her early death no doubt hastened by childbirth.

Peregrine’s last child, Peregrine Jr., was born in 1660. Although records list Sarah as his mother, this was not likely. It’s not clear to me if his mother was even English; he had no given last name, even though all his siblings are listed as Whites.

Peregrine didn’t spend all of his life in Plymouth. At some point, he went to England with Winslow, but he did return later.

He died in a settlement called Marshfield near Plymouth, at the age of 83. He was buried at Plymouth in July 1704.

Peregrine had outlived three of his children, but three more survived well into their seventies. His longest-surviving child, Sara White, lived to the age of 102, passing on August 9, 1755.  At the time of her death, there were 1.5 million Europeans in the 13 original colonies of the United States. (In the same period, the native American population dropped from about 50 million to 8 million, primarily due to exposure to Old World diseases, but also confrontations and massacres.)

Peregrine himself had lived long enough to see the colonies created many thousands of new families arrive. At his death, he was just an ordinary citizen of the New World. Some of his descendants can be found in Massachusetts, while others moved on to Virginia, where they now make up a large percentage of the White lineage. It’s reported that others moved West; at least one of Peregrine’s grandchildren is thought to have ventured and settled as far west as Ohio.

The second Mayflower brought many other settlers to the colonies until 1641, when, loaded with 140 travelers and a full crew, it was mysteriously lost at sea.


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This entry was posted on November 25, 2010 by in Creative.
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