In remembering the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, from whom we derive the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving each November here in America, we have mostly images derived from our grade school plays, cartoons on television, and similar sorts of legends. Rarely do we consider the reality of those early Pilgrims, how they lived, how they organized and conducted their lives in the new frontier.
It has been proposed that when we first send people to Mars, we should send them as colonists like the Pilgrims, rather than as explorers like the first twelve men to walk on the moon. Our lunar explorations were short trips, designed to get people on the surface of our nearest neighbor and back again. Some scientists have suggested that when it comes to Mars, we should think more like the Pilgrims and less like the Apollo program. The Mars One concept is precisely this, for example, though whether they will ever have the necessary funding to achieve their goal is another question altogether.
When the Pilgrims came to America, they were planning on staying for the rest of their lives. They had no intention of ever returning to their homeland in England. They arrived with their families, their few belongings and supplies they could pack into their sailing ships, and they settled down to start new lives and begin a new civilization.
The Pilgrims in America faced many hardships: disease, deprivation, harsh winters, shortages of food. But they also faced the sorts of problems that any human civilization will face. The founders of the colony were separatists and Anglicans who were fleeing religious persecution and were searching for a place to worship as they saw fit. Keep in mind that they did not intend to establish religious freedom. They wanted freedom to worship as they wished, but they would quickly persecute anyone who dared worship differently than them.
Despite the fact that the Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 upon the shores of what would become Massachusetts were pious, religious people, they were still people. They had to find a way to govern themselves; they had to set up rules and regulations, establish courts and render punishments to those who behaved in ways that the colonists believed caused danger to their society. The court documents of the colony describe a variety of problems, ranging from theft to adultery and rape. Punishments consisted of flogging, the stocks or even hanging. The colony was established in 1620 and was disestablished in 1691. The population when they arrived in 1620 was only 99 people; by the end, when it was absorbed into the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony the population had grown to over 7000.
On January 20, 1632, only twelve years after the founding of the colony, the court records show (spelling and grammar have been left as they appear in the original document):
Robt Barker, serv[ant] of John Thorp, complayned of his m[aster] for want of clothes. The complaint being found to be just, it was ordered that Thorp should either forthw[ith] doth apparrell him, or else make over his time to some other that was able to provide for him.
At the time, the population of the Plymouth Colony was barely 300 people. In the following decades, we find people regularly being tried and convicted of homosexual acts, sex with animals, and adultery. Punishments usually consisted of flogging, while adulterers were additionally required to wear a badge prominently on their clothing for the rest of their lives with the letters AD to indicate that they had been found guilty of adultery. For instance, on December 7, 1641, when the population of the colony was around 2000 people, the court decided:
Forasmuch, as Thomas Bray, of Yarmouth, a single person, and Anne, the wyfe of Francis Linceford, haue committed the act of adultery and vncleanesse, and haue diuers tymes layne in one bed together in the absence of her husband, which hath beene confessed by both parties in the publike Court, the Court doth censure them as followeth: That they be both seuerely whipt immediately at the publik post, [and] that they shall weare (whilst they remayne in the gouernment) two letters, namely, an AD, for Adulterers, daily, vpon the outside of their vppermost garment, in a most emenent place thereof; and if they shalbe found at any tyme in any towne or place within the gouerment without them so worne vpon their vppermost garment as aforesaid, that then the constable of the towne or place shall take them, or wither of them, omitting so to weare the said two letters, and shall forthwith whip them for their negligence, and shall cause them to be immediately put on againe, and so worne by them and either of them; and also that they shalbe both whipt at Yarmouth, publikly, where the offence was committed, in such fitt season as shalbe thought meete by Mr. Edmond Freeman [and] such others as are authorized for the keepeing of the Courts in these partes.
Nathanial Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter is based on reality, after all. The people who came to Plymouth Rock were ordinary men and women, little different than the human beings we come in contact with every day. What makes them remarkable were their circumstances and what resulted from their humble beginnings, and those of the other colonies up and down the eastern coast of North America.