Life in Plimoth: John Alden, Pilgrim
John Alden was a cooper, or barrelmaker, on the Mayflower who decided to stay in New Plymouth.
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
John Alden was a cooper, or barrelmaker, on the Mayflower. He decided to stay in New Plymouth, where he married Priscilla Mullins. In New Plymouth, Alden became a husbandman, or farmer, as well as a cooper.
How old are you?
This being the year 1621, I am 9 and 20 .
Was it hard living on the Mayflower?
We lived on the lower deck, a place normally for cargo on a ship. It is cramped and dark and damp. And the ship is near always pitching forth. You find many people tossing their bellies [being seasick].
Why did you sail to America? What made you want to want to go to America?
I was hired to work as a cooper on a ship called Mayflower; a cooper is someone on land who builds barrels and casks. At sea a cooper mostly fixes or maintains them. I did not voyage to the New World intending to remain there. I had thought I would be returning to England.
For what did the Pilgrims use the barrels that you made?
Almost everything is shipped in barrels — salted fish and salted pork, beer, almost anything you want to keep dry or wet.
How long does it take to make a barrel?
It is difficult to say because I make many barrels at once, not one at a time. First, the wood is seasoned or dried. The wood has to be very dry because when you put liquids in it, the barrel will swell and be tighter so it won't leak. If you use wet wood, the barrel would shrink and leak — especially as it gets older
Is your only job being a cooper, or do you do other things for the community?
Since we arrived, I have made a decision to stay here. My original purpose was to work on the ship as a cooper then return to England. But now I'm settling here. I will join the other men in building houses, clearing land, tending to the animals, planting, and fishing. I also must stand to the militia. All men that live here must be a part of our militia and practice shooting and marching so that we can defend our town should we be attacked.
Did you have the same food that we have?
On the ship we ate mostly peas porridge [pea soup], ship's biscuit [a very hard, thin bread], beer, and salted fish. Now that we have arrived, we have other things such as clams, and mussels. But I know not how good the clams and mussels are. Many that ate them soon began casting and scouring [vomiting and having diarrhea].
How did you get your drinking water? From the ocean? If so, wasn't it salty?
One of the reasons we settled here in New Plimoth was for the springs all about the place. The water is fresh and clear. Though we would prefer beer, we drink mostly water. We lack beer because barleycorn — from which beer is made — grows poorly in this place. It is right surprising that we have been as healthful as we have, even for the lack of beer.
How do you like being a farmer? What types of food do you harvest?
Being a farmer is a completely new sort of work for me, but the sort of farming we're doing here seems more like gardening. It's an odd thing to look at. For instead of plowing a field and sowing seeds, as you would for English corn — like barleycorn and wheat corn — you dig holes in the earth and put fish into it to manure the soil. It looks like you're trying to grow fish!
Then you mound up the dirt above it, and after a fortnight [two weeks] — to allow the fish to rot — you plant your seed corn in. You must often mound the dirt around it. This type of corn grows very heavy, and if you don't mound the dirt, the corn could fall down in the wind.
Some of my neighbors also plant peas, beans, wheat, rye, and barley in their fields.
Do you hunt for food?
In this place there is so much waterfowl that it seems to blacken the sky. Duck and goose, swan, turkey, and eagles — as well as deer — are abundant.
How do you preserve your food over the cold winter months?
Some things can be dried, like herbs. Things like fish and pork, you would salt. Onions you would plait together [braid], and hang them in your house. Pompions [pumpkins] you could pack in straw. Of course some things like venison must be eaten fresh.
What was that first winter in Plimoth like? How bad was it?
A ship the size of the Mayflower cannot get closer than a mile and a half to the shore, so from there we had to get into smaller boats and row them in. Those could only get as close as a bow's shot from the shore. From there we had to get out and wade through the water — water above our knees! When coming out of the water, it was so cold, the water would freeze our clothes to us like armor.
We had not houses yet or any places to dry ourselves or warm ourselves as we built the first houses. Many grew ill with coughs and colds and scurvy. Near half of our company died. About half of the sailors died as well. T'was a terrible time.
How did you build your house? Was it hard?
Though my trade is to work with wood, I am not a house carpenter. There is a mystery to that trade that not every man does know. If I were to frame a house myself, it would be jiggy joggy [crooked].
We do have some carpenters with us and they have framed most of our houses. After the frame is built, there are some fellows who have skill for thatching a roof — by drying rushes, bundling them, and then stitching them onto the roof.
The rest of building a house takes no great skill and can be done by most any man and his family. The walls are made of wattle and daub — which is clay, mud, dung, ash, straw — all mixed together and set upon sticks in the wall. If we had lyme to mix with this we could make a proper plaster that would harden. But we do not, so we set wooden clapboards on the outside of our houses to keep the walls from washing away.
Are you married?
I've just been married the end of this past October. I married Priscilla Mullins. She came to New Plimoth with her mother, father, brother, and a servant, but none of them are now living. They were among the many that died from the general sickness last winter.
What was your wedding like?
Surprising sort of thing, for in this place it is a civil ceremony, not a church ceremony like it is in England. We were married by one of our neighbors, not a minister.
The bride-ale — that is the celebration afterward — was quite merry and toothsome [delicious]. To eat we had, among other things, venison upon the board [on the table]. We have license, or permission, to hunt for deer here, whereas in England that would be poaching. Deer is the king's meat.
What did you do about furniture?
Most of the finer furniture that I have belonged to my wife's father and are things that he had brought with him from England. Cruder things like benches and tables, I have fashioned myself.
Did you and your wife have children?
We have been married for so short a time that we do not yet have children. Perhaps in time God will bless us with a goodly number of children.
How many people live in your house? Just you and your wife?
Just myself and my wife and two boarders. Since many men here are not yet married, have left their wives behind in England or Holland, or have lost them to the sickness of last year, the governor has asked families to take these men into their houses as boarders.
What do you wear every day, and where did you get your clothes?
What I wear is that which I brought with me. I have breeches [pants that end just below the knee], shirts, a cassock [a loose overshirt worn for working], shoen [shoes], woolen hose [socks] with garters to hold them up, and a hat and a coat, depending on the weather of course. I do have finer clothes which I wear on the Sabbath day [Sunday] or on finer occasions like the day I was wed.
How come the Pilgrims took a bath a few times a year?
I wash my hands and face and feet each day, but to immerse yourself in water is not healthful. I bathe when it is needful, but it is not something I do regularly.
What do you use for silverware?
Most families in New Plimoth have not things made from silver. For eating, we use spoons, knives and, of course, our hands. Spoons are made from pewter [a kind of metal], wood, or horn.
What is the most important thing you brought back from England?
I am not certain what is the most important thing. This place is a wilderness, and we wish to bring order and civility to it. To do so — to make this place more like England — we need tools, seed for herbs and English corns, clothes, pots, muskets, armor, spices, sugar. Truly there is nothing here, so all things that we need to live we must bring from England.
What kind of medicine do you use when you get sick?
As young girls, women have learned which herbs are good for certain sicknesses and how they are to be prepared. These are called simples. Some herbs are good against the bites of venomous beasts, others for broken bones and others for fevers.
How did the Indians react when they first saw you?
The first Indians we saw, further out on Cape Cod when we were exploring, ran away from us. The first time we truly encountered each other we traded musket shot for arrow shot. It was while several of us were exploring Cape Cod, searching for a place to settle our town.
We had slept on the shore that night and awoke to breakfast. Suddenly we heard a great and strange cry that we thought to be that of the Indians. Soon arrows were flying amongst us. We returned fire with our muskets. Presently, one of the Indians gave a great shriek and they ran away. None of our company nor any of theirs was hurt, though several of our coats which were hanging nearby were shot through with arrows!
How did you understand what the Native Americans were saying?
There are a couple of fellows that speak some English. Samoset and Squanto are their names. They translate for the others, like their king, Massasoit, who knows not our tongue. Otherwise we communicate just through gestures.
Did you really meet Samoset?
Yes, he was the first Indian that I had met that could speak some English. I believe that he had learned English from fisherman.
Did you really meet Squanto?
Yes, he was the fellow that helped teach us the manner in which the natives plant the Indian corn. He had been in England for a time and can speak better English than Samoset.
Were the Native Americans helpful from the beginning?
Yes, they were helpful in ways such as showing us places in which to fish, and how to plant maize — Indian corn. They are not all of one mind though. Although some have proven to be helpful to us, others have proved to not be so friendly. We are afeared [afraid] that some might attack our town.
The Native Americans taught you how to plant corn. Did you teach them anything?
They have desire for the sorts of tools we use, in particular those made from metal such as hoes, shovels, knives, pots, and kettles. These things make their work easier. Of course in time we hope to teach them to be proper Christians.
Were you trying to teach the Indians to be Christians?
Yes. We would not wish to convert them to be Christians at the end of a sword, but wish to teach by good example, by leading good Christian lives.
Did everyone in your settlement worship in the same way?
Some of us are still true to the Church of England. Others have separated from the Church of England and have formed their own congregation which they call the Church of Saints. However, in this place we all worship in the same manner, that of the Church of Saints.
Do you have books? Do kids go to school?
I have a Bible. There are some other fellows in town that have many books, such as Elder Brewster. I think he has about 100 books, mostly on matters of religion. There is not a school here. If a father desires his child to learn to read, he will teach him himself if he is able. Of course many folk have little use for reading and writing. They think it is of greater importance for a child to learn to farm, hunt, and fish.
What fun things were there to do for kids in Plimoth?
If you mean children — for kids are young goats — they play games of rhyming, cup and ball, foot races, rolling hoops, kick shins, marbles, and games of making pretend.
Could the Indian children play with the Plimoth children?
It's difficult to be friends with someone you don't understand, making playing many of these games difficult.
What do you do for fun?
If by fun, you mean enjoyment or entertainment, I might speak with neighbors or sing a country tune. If there is time, which there is very little for this type of thing, play a game of pitching the bar, nine mans morris, or stool ball.
Stool ball is a game wherein two teams stand on either side of a stool. One team posts [serves like in volleyball] the ball to the second side, which tries to catch it. If the second side catches the ball they post it back to the first side. If the second side drops the ball they must throw the ball at the stool. If they hit the stool, the first side scores 1 point. If they miss the stool, the first side scores 2 points.
What was your first Thanksgiving like?
I'm not certain what you mean by the first Thanksgiving. To many here, a day of Thanksgiving is a day of fasting and prayer to thank God for delivering you from problems or tragedy like drought or famine. We have not had one of those since we arrived here.
This fall, however, we did have a celebration which was more like a harvest feast. There was feasting and sporting for several days! A great many of the Indians came amongst us then — I think there were nearly twice as many Indians as us Englishmen.
What kind of money do you use?
There is little use for coin here in New England. There is nowhere to spend any money. There are no markets or fairs or taverns. If we do want something from a neighbor, we use country pay. We trade amongst each other for that which we need.
Who is your leader in your settlement?
William Bradford is our governor.
Do you ever travel to other villages to trade for goods?
This is the largest settlement in New England, so there's not really anywhere to go to trade with other villages. We have begun to travel to some of the Indian towns in hopes of trading with them.
What is the hardest part about living in the new colony?
This land is entirely different from anything you could possibly imagine. I had heard fisherman speaking of this place being wooded unto the brink of the sea, but you can't imagine such a thing until you cast your eyes to it. There's no order to this place, none of things that you've grown accustomed to in your homeland. No roads, no markets, just trees as far as you can see. We've managed to carve out a small portion of this wilderness to begin to bring civility to this land.
Do you feel good about the future?
My hope for this new world is that I can build a better life for my family, but I think it shall take some time in this place. It will probably be my children or my children's children that will see the fruit of this land.
Do you like the new world better than England?
I think that someday I will, but we have want for many things here. We will strive to make this a more godly place, a more civilized place in which to raise our families.