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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 11/26/2008

Were the Pilgrims Weather Wimps?

By Steve Tracton

* Good Travel Weather? Full Forecast | Snow Lover's Crystal Ball *


Unfriendly natives weren't the only obstacle for the weather-challenged Pilgrims. Courtesy Dept. of Defense.

"What a bunch of wimps," I remember thinking of the Pilgrims when I learned in grade school the story of their first winter in present-day Plymouth, Mass., and about the origins of Thanksgiving.

Being from Brockton, Mass., only about 35 miles from Plymouth, there were times when I trudged to school through deep, blowing snow in below-zero temperatures (enjoying every minute of it, of course!). So then to hear what I took to be whining by the Pilgrims about the miserable weather they encountered? Please.

Maybe the Pilgrims weren't so wimpy after all? Keep reading for more on the weather they faced...

In reality, like so many history-changing events through the ages, the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in November 1620 was largely dictated by weather. Their intended destination was what is now New York Harbor. But as they approached from the north, dangerous winds and waves around Cape Cod prompted them to land along the Massachusetts shoreline near the location of Plymouth Rock.

The Pilgrims expected the weather would be much harsher than the relatively mild winters of the homes they left in the Netherlands. William Bradford, a leading settler and later Governor of the Plymouth Colony, described what the Pilgrims faced:

And for now it was Winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search and unknown coast.

According to accounts of Bradford and others, the winter of 1620-1621, except for the first two to three weeks of December, was actually unseasonably mild. Nevertheless, the "foulness" of winter as Bradford described it -- the combined effects of cold, wetness and inadequate housing -- led to the deaths of 50 percent of the original passengers and crew that had arrived at Plymouth.

OK, so the Pilgrims were not wimps -- just unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the unfamiliar environment. In fact, given the harsh weather and unfriendly natives, it seems amazing that any members of the founding colony survived.

That they did and persevered -- to the point that only a few returned to England given the opportunity in the spring of 1621 -- leaves me feeling rather humble as I look back at the expression of thanks they demonstrated that next autumn, about a year after their harrowing arrival, during what is now considered the very first Thanksgiving in America.

Happy Thanksgiving!

By Steve Tracton  | November 26, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton  
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Comments

I realize that it's probably useless, but I would politely remind everyone that the first Thanksgiving was held in the Charles City, Va. area - not New England. There is a ceremony every year on the grounds of what is now Berkeley Plantation marking this.

The first original English settlement in the New World was in Jamestown. They experienced unusually bad weather their first years. In face, it was some of the driest weather seen there in many, many decades.

Posted by: swissmiss150 | November 28, 2008 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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