The forgotten heroines of the 'Mayflower'

Even today, the Pilgrim Fathers are considered the founders of the American nation. However, without the women who accompanied them, nothing would have been possible.

Everyone has heard of the Pilgrim Fathers. These hardy, devout believing men who set sail aboard the Mayflower to America created a world where they could practice their faith without fear of persecution.

However, it is the mothers who make this trip an unforgettable epic: these little-known heroines who sailed alongside their men in this formidable adventure which began four hundred years ago, when the boat left the port of Plymouth. There were eighteen of them, ten of them with their children. Incredible as it may sound, considering the tumultuous journey they were about to embark on, three of them were pregnant, and one was still breastfeeding her baby.

Since women in the 17th century inevitably owed their status and identity to men, it is perhaps not surprising that the female characters in this story were largely overlooked. Likewise, the accounts of this historic crossing, written by men, speak only of men, beginning with William Bradford, the future governor of the new colony which was to settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The latter admitted that, because of their "frail nature", the women might not endure the rigors of the journey.

The self-proclaimed pilgrims had planned to sail aboard the Speedwell from the Netherlands, where they had exiled twelve years earlier to escape English persecution, and join the Mayflower in Southampton. Meanwhile, the Mayflower had left Rotherhithe, London, in July 1620, with 65 adventurers on board who had financed the expedition and hoped to enrich themselves from the flourishing beaver trade in New England. The two groups were supposed to cross the Atlantic in a convoy, but the Speedwell, having started to 'take the water like a sieve', must have been abandoned in Plymouth, Devon, and it was at this point- there that many pilgrims boarded the already crowded Mayflower.

Suspicious death

The ship, which until then had been used for the wine trade in the English Channel, now had 102 passengers crammed on top of each other in the stench of the hold, forced to endure the lack of hygiene, the smell and the soiling of dirty body and clothes. Forced into promiscuity, they had to be content with a chick diet based on cured meats, peas and sea biscuits - infested with weevils - with beer as their only drink.

It was only when the Mayflower dropped anchor off Cape Cod on November 11, 1620 - more than a hundred days after leaving Southampton - that the women could finally walk on land and wash their clothes. which they badly needed ”. It should be noted that only one of them died during the trip. But two more died shortly after making landfall, and a few weeks later, Dorothy, Bradford's wife, went overboard and fell into the icy waters of the bay. His body has never been found. Oddly enough, Bradford only records his death in the appendix to his account, with this terse sentence:

    "Mrs. Bradford died shortly after their arrival."

In the three months which follow their disembarkation, the cold, the disease and the hunger take away half of the colonists. Struggling to build their colony from scratch, they are too weakened to resist scurvy. Women pay a higher price than men or children. Only four mothers survive the first winter, not so much because of their "frail nature" as because the men live outside in the fresh air - freezing too, of course - while the women are confined to the Mayflower. four more months. In this cramped space, disease spreads rapidly, and women are at greater risk than they are caring for the sick and dying.

Death mows them down mercilessly. Of the three pregnant women who had originally embarked: Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth in the middle of the Atlantic to a son, Oceanus, to join the three children who left with her; and Mary Allerton, already a mother of three children under the age of seven, gave birth to a stillborn baby, before she herself died a few days later. Sarah Eaton, who was breastfeeding her son, also perished, leaving the infant in the care of her husband. Perhaps the most terrible experience was Susanna White's. Shortly after their arrival, she “gave birth to a son named Peregrine” - the first child born in the New World. Her joy was short-lived, as her husband, William, died in the weeks that followed. But on May 12, eleven weeks later, she married another passenger, Edward Winslow, a leading member of the movement, who himself had only been widowed since March 24.

Ten children each

Widowhoods and remarriages are rife in these times of limited life expectancy - all understood that they had to sacrifice their own feelings for the sake of the colony, which needed children to survive. It was the youngest women who ensured the survival of the colony. In the first murderous winter, six girls are orphaned, and two of them marry passengers. No one today remembers their names, Elizabeth Tilley and Priscilla Mullins, but each had ten children, and their stamina and tenacity allowed the community to thrive. Six presidents of the United States were among their descendants.

In all, it is estimated today that 30 million American citizens are descended from Pilgrim Mothers.

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