Imagine it’s you and 101 others crammed into 1,632 square feet of living space. For 66 days in the North Atlantic Ocean. No air. No heat. Oh God…no bathrooms.
Welcome to the Mayflower. It's the year 1620.
With Thanksgiving just a few days away, I thought it would be fun to take you down a relatively unusual path regarding the history of the Pilgrims. Step on-up, ladies and gentlemen. This is a interesting journey.
On September 6th, 1620 - and this was their third attempt, by the way - one hundred two passengers and nearly thirty people as crew set sail from Devon, England for the New World. The ship's name - the Mayflower. She was a small commercial ship for her day….maybe 110 feet long and 25 feet wide. Because of the Mayflower’s tapered shape, the dimensions of the passenger’s living area - otherwise known as the cargo hold - were 68’ X 24’. Stop and process that amount of space for a minute. That was only 1600 square feet for 102 passengers. Roughly a 4x4 ft room per passenger. With no windows.
In case you are wondering, a modern-day prison cell is 6’ X 8’.
Before we go on, I want you to think a little more about the passengers themselves. Of the 102, forty-one were religious Separatists....that called themselves Saints. The others - whom the Saints called "the Strangers" - were craftsmen, tradesmen, laborers, indentured servants....and a few orphans....hoping to find their fortunes in the New World. Did these two groups like one another? Well, that's something that isn't usually discussed in the history books...but we will.
It was a sixty-six day trip that crossed about 3,000 miles of ocean. The first month had fairly good weather, but by mid-October, the Mayflower began to encounter storms. In the North Atlantic Ocean, when you're dealing with a storm in autumn, that is a big deal. On some days, the wind was so severe that the Mayflower’s sails had to be taken down and she simply drifted. Finally though, the crew saw land. The New World! Unfortunately, the passengers and crew quickly realized that they were not where they had intended to be. The storms had driven them north to Cape Cod, not south to their destination near the mouth of the Hudson River in New York (at the time, the colony of Virginia included what we call now call the state of NY). The miss was a distance of more than 350 miles.
Now, stop reading this like a student and think about it like a human being. It's mid-November and you're off the coast of Massachusetts. I repeat....November in Massachusetts. And a few things are dawning on you: (1) there is NOTHING in this New World and (2) you missed your target by a several hundred miles. And December is going to be here soon.
Now you're getting it. The situation was no fun at all.
Yet, they bit the bullet and turned the Mayflower around and started to head north to get out of the bay so they could then head toward the Hudson. It was a no-go though. The sea was so rough that it almost sank them.
Again, be a human being and ask yourself what you'd be thinking if you were there. Back then.
"Hey, this place isn't so bad. Actually, it looks pretty nice! Let's make this home!"
And the Plymouth Colony was born.
Ok, let's go back to the Saints and Strangers again. These two groups of people had been together in close quarters for over two months now. Did they like one another? Not on your life. Even though the Saints were the minority on board, they had forced the other passengers and crew to follow their religious practices during the voyage. The Strangers thought the Saints were a sanctimonious lot and often antagonized them for sport.
A positive initial example of group dynamics this was not.
And now, everyone aboard the Mayflower was getting ready to set-up shop in Plymouth...a land that was not under the rule of anyone's law according to the patent given to them by King James I (remember, they were supposed to go to Virginia). As a result, the Strangers started talking about doing their own thing. William Bradford - the man famous in the history books and the long standing future governor of this colony - was worried about mutiny. He strongly believed that if they didn't stay together, they would die separately. That last sentence sounds familiar....
They needed to come together and thus, the first document regarding self-government in the New World was created....the Mayflower Compact. This document was important for several reasons. It said that the signers were part of a 'civil body politic' and that each member would seek to pass 'just and equal laws....for the good of the Colony.' No one was above the other....and each person had a voice...at least in the context of the times.
Every male member of the ship was required to sign it before going ashore.
OK, it's time to level-set the story again: The Mayflower is in sight of land. The threat of mutiny is over. There's generally agreement among the passengers that everyone's going to stick together. Life is good, right?
No way. Remember, it was cold. Bitterly cold. Eighteen passengers go ashore to scout the area. They got lost and "their clothes froze on them like coats of iron." Remember that the temperature in London this time of year is 40 - 55 degrees. In Massachusetts in December, the ground is frozen. Like cement. They were running out of food and they couldn't grow anything. There was no one there to help. NO ONE.
What happened that first winter was horrible. People began to get sick. Scurvy, fever, etc. Oh, and starvation. For the most part, the ill were taken to shore and many of the healthy remained on the Mayflower. In Bradford's journals, there are incredible stories of kindness by the passengers taking care of the sick. When the crew started to fall ill as well, their fellow crew mates abandoned them. But, the Saints tried to help. At some point in early spring of 1621, only seven people were well-enough to take care of the sick. Seven. Lucky number.
Death that winter was everywhere. Sometimes, two or three people would die on the same day. The survivors, worried about a possible Indian attack, buried the dead at night in unmarked graves so that the Indians would not know how desperate the situation was.
At the end of that first winter, 1/2 of the passengers and crew had died. Of the 18 adult women to start the journey, only 4 would be alive to participate in the first Thanksgiving.
And here's the amazing thing: When the captain and the surviving members of the crew were ready to sail back to England in April 1621, they offered to take the surviving passengers back with them. For free.
Not a single person accepted the offer.
GIVING THANKS IN AMERICA
I'm not going to take you any further with the history lesson, but isn't it amazing how things turned out?
The people of Plymouth stayed. They survived. Their progeny prospered. And the United States of America was born!
This Thursday, the 23rd of November, 2017, we celebrate Thanksgiving. We'll spend time with our families. We'll laugh. Maybe cry. Almost certainly, someone will get mad over something, but that slight will eventually be forgiven. Over the big meal, we'll give thanks...some more formally than others...but I think most of us do it nonetheless. We'll remember those who helped us when help was needed.
Our culture is a unique one....and I think the original members of the Plymouth colony tell us a great deal about who we are as a people today. We're part Saint and part Stranger. We're part Billy Graham and part Steve Jobs. We're a religious people, by and large. And even those that aren't religious are greatly influenced by those that are. We're explorers, risk-takers and we are motivated by financial gain. We believe in the power - and the responsibility - of the individual. We also believe in helping each other. It's an odd, strange, weird mixture of values that make us such a unique people.
It's also a mixture that causes us to believe that the doing of something is more important than talking about it. I know you've heard the phrase "Talk is cheap." What you might not know is that it's a phrase that appears to be uniquely American. We believe in actions over words. And at this time of Thanksgiving...and the Christmas season generally...that's important.
Have you ever looked at the data on Americans vs the rest of the world when it comes to actually and meaningfully giving thanks? In helping others? In paying things forward? Let me share a few numbers with you:
If you look-up the word 'charity' in the dictionary.....sorry , I mean google it....you'll be told it's a noun. Most American's view it as a verb though.
I love that.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving!
Entrepreneur, financial guy, husband and father of two great kids.