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Life in Plimoth: Elinor Billington, Pilgrim

Elinor Billington came to Plimoth with her husband, John, and her sons, John and Francis. She was one of the few adult women who lived through the first winter in Plimoth and survived its terrible sickness. Elinor's family sometimes experienced trouble for not following all the rules and for disobeying the leaders.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Hello, Mistress Billington. What is your role at Plimoth Plantation? How long have you been there?
Here I am a farmer's wife, as I have been for these seven years.

How did you survive the first winter at Plimoth Plantation?
I was in God's hands. Many died that first winter, and much time I spent tending the sick.

What was it like for women on the Mayflower?
For everyone it was difficult, because there was nothing to do. We were used to working for our livings, but on the ship we were just crowded together waiting.

When you came to the New World, what did you bring with you, and why?
Well first, I came with my husband and sons. We brought tools that we would need for building and farming, and muskets for defense and hunting.

Did you find it hard to find food the first year?
We brought food with us enough to last. But we did run out of beer. Building houses in the cold weather was the greatest hardship of the first year.

What kinds of crops does your husband grow and do you help him with the harvest?
Like all the men here he grows mostly Indian corn, and I help with planting, tending, and harvesting.

What was it like in England before you left on the Mayflower?
I lived in London, England, which is the finest city in the world. Very different from this wilderness. In London there are shops and many people and no wolves like there are here.

How old was your husband when you got married?
Twenty-three or thereabouts, and I was a few years younger.

What is your marriage ceremony like?
In England, I was married in the church by a minister, and we had a fine brideale, or feast, afterwards. Here marriages are simply done by the magistrate. When our governor was married, it was a fine celebration, to which the king of the Indians came.

Was it hard to leave your old home to come to America?
Yes. I miss London, but my sons will have a good future here.

Were you scared when you first saw the Indians?
I was more afraid of the stories I'd heard in England. The first Indian that spoke to us here spoke English. What a marvel! Many of them have proved to be good friends to us.

Did the women and children get to sit and eat with the men and the Indians at the Thanksgiving feast? Did any of the Indian women and children come?
Because it wasn't one feast but several days of celebrating, sometimes we did have women and children and Indians all at the same table. Other times, the Governor entertained the most important native men without women or children.

We are having a Thanksgiving feast soon, do you have any suggestions for our dinner?
At this season of the year we have venison — that is deer — and wild fowl, like turkey and duck. These are all good dishes to celebrate the season.

Why are you called Pilgrims?
I know that it comes from the Bible, but we do not usually call ourselves Pilgrims, we call ourselves English.

Were the Pilgrim women treated as equals with the Pilgrim men?
Men and women are equal before God but on this earth, the man is the head of his household. Women and children do as the head of the household bids.

Were any Pilgrim women settlers landholders?
No one is yet in New Plimoth in this year of 1627. The land is owned commonly by all the men in the town together in one company. Within the next year or two, I hope my husband will have freehold of his own land.

What did Pilgrim women do to make money to survive and support their families when their husbands died?
The town and the church would look after me, as would my sons. And I would look to remarry.

What are some of the rules that your family had difficulty following in your community, and in what ways did your family disobey the leaders?
At first, my husband did not want to take his turn at the watch — that is, guarding the town at night. I fear he was quite rude to Captain Standish, but was punished for it and has since repented.

What was the specific reason for you and your family to move to the New World?
That we might have land, and our sons might have land.

What kind of punishment did your husband serve for not wanting to take a turn at watch?
He was tied neck and heels before the whole company.

As a mother, what did you find was the most trying aspect of moving to the New World for your children?
Most uncomfortable. Aboard the ship, because there was little to do, it was difficult to keep them out of trouble. Once we were here, I feared the wild animals and the woods. In truth, my oldest son was lost for a time and was recovered by Indians.

I heard your sons nearly blew up the Mayflower. Is that true?
They did get into a bit of trouble with some squibs — that is gunpowder. But they were discovered before there was a great fire. So no, they did not nearly blow us up.

Have your sons made a lot of friends over here? Do they have any Indian friends?
John, who was lost and in the woods, does know some of the Indians who found him. But more of their bullies — that is, friends — are young Englishmen of our own town.

What kinds of games do children play?
Now that my boys are grown, they sport at pitching the bar. When they were younger they played at stool ball.

Have the children learned any games from the Indian children?
No, but there is one Indian game that is very similar to an English game. Where we catch a ball in a cup, they catch a ring on a pin.

What is stool ball?
Two groups of children each guard their stool from being hit by the leather ball thrown by the other side.

How do the children learn to read and write?
There is no school in Plimoth, but parents teach their own children if they can. Not all children do learn to read, and fewer learn to write, but they do learn to be farmers and hunters and Christians.

Do you only celebrate Thanksgiving or do you also celebrate other holidays like Easter and Christmas?
In our own house, my family keeps Christmas, but it is not kept publicly by the church here. The church here keeps the Sabbath as well as occasionally days of thanksgiving or days of humiliation.

What are days of humiliation?
When God visits a punishment on us, such as a drought that threatens to kill our corn, then we have a day in church where we pray for forgiveness of our sins so that He will lift the punishment.

What happens when the children grow out of their clothes? Do they get new clothes?
Sometimes they get someone else's old clothes. All of our cloth and clothing must come from England. This year we are well supplied with both, praise God!

Do you have pockets sewn into your clothing? What do you keep in that pocket?
Some pockets are sewn in, and some are hung upon a girdle, or a belt. I keep my flint and steel for lighting my fire and a handkerchief, some thread and needles.

What did you use to make soap?
Soap is made from lye, which comes from fireplace ashes and fat. Here I must use pig fat, so any soap I make is very soft and black. Not the best.

Do you celebrate birthdays?
Only Queen Elizabeth's birthday, November 17th, but not ordinary people's. I'm not sure I know precisely when my birthday is.

Do Pilgrims always wear black, white, and brown?
No! Not at all! My best grown is green, my apron is red, and I have a suit that is milk and water-colored, that is, light blue.

How do you celebrate the queen's birthday?
In England, we celebrated with bonfires. We have occasional bonfires here.

How did you survive that first winter, when so many others died?
It was God's wish that I should live, and that my family should.

In your community, are there any doctors to help take care of people? Did they have any medicine?
We do not have a doctor, and even in England where there are many doctors, I have not been to one. They are for wealthy men. I can make simple medicines myself, or I can ask Samuel Fuller for help. He knows about such things. He is our surgeon and our deacon.

How did your people get along with each other? Were there arguments or fights?
Of course. Since men are men, there are sometimes disagreements. Lately, the hottest discourse has been about the dividing of land, houses, and cattle.

How is the weather in spring and summer like?
This country is more subject to drought than England was. And the dog days of summer are still quite hot!

What did you use to clean your house?
I have a broom made of birch twigs, and I draw water from the spring for cleaning.

How did you make candles?
I must buy candles, which means they must come from England. But we can make lamp oil here, which comes from the livers of codfish.

What do you use to cut your hair?
I have never cut my hair. I cut my husband's hair with scissors, and he shaves his chin with a razor.

What's your favorite food to prepare and eat?
Swan. I had never had it before I came here. Only wealthy men might serve it. But here we have license to hunt all the fowl.

Do you use spices to prepare your food? Which ones?
When I can get them, yes, I use spices, like pepper and sugar. Because these are costly, and must come from England, I do not always have them. Then I use mustard, which I grow myself, to sauce my meats.

What are some of the rules a member of your community must follow?
Both the laws of England and the laws of God. So in that way it is not different than living in England.

When a member of your community did not follow the rules, what happened to them?
If he broke the law, he could be brought to court and punished. A few years ago, some men were whipped for stealing corn. In breaking the laws of God, he is admonished in church.

Did anyone get kicked out of Plimoth?
Oh yes! Some few years ago, two men and their families were banished. They tried to overthrow the governance of this plantation. I fear one of them, though he was a minister, did break the laws of God as well.

Do Pilgrim women have fancy ways of wearing their hair?
I wear my hair plaited — that is, braided — and pinned to the back of my head. I usually wear a coif, or a white cap on my head. I am not a fine lady who wears feathers and jewels in her hair.

Did many children play practical jokes like we've read your sons did?
Oh dear. I think some children do and others are perhaps better ordered. Mostly there's too much work to spend much time in play.

What did Pilgrims use for money?
Here in New Plimoth, men will say Indian corn is more valuable than money. They trade it to one another in small quantities. We also trade Indian corn to the Indians north of here, from whom we get furs, which we sell in England.

Do you trade with the Indians? What things did they want from you? What did you want from them?
Those nearby us want English goods like cloth and knives, but we do not have these things to spare. We have discovered that the Indians north of here do not grow corn, and we can trade our corn to them. The furs we get from them — the beaver and otter skins — are used to make the very best hats in England.

What is the church in your community like?
We meet in the bottom of our fort on Sundays. The whole town attends.

Do you have musical instruments? What kind of songs do you sing?
I think a few of the lads have wooden pipes or small tabors — that is, drums. But mostly it is our voices. We sing psalms and hymns and country songs.

Do you sing only in church or outside of church as well?
Both outside and in. Often I sing while I work to pass the time. And I have been pleased to pass this time with you. God keep you.

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