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On the Mayflower: John Alden, Ship's Cooper

John Alden was hired in Southampton, England, to be the cooper aboard the Mayflower. As cooper, he's in charge of the barrels and casks of supplies. Here are his answers to questions asked by students.

  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

How old are you? 
I am in my 22nd year.

What's a cooper?
I make watertight vessels. I make casks and barrels. Where I come from, everything is kept in different-size casks and barrels. Clothes, gunpowder, and different types of liquors.

What was your job in England?
When I was 13, I was apprenticed to a Master Cooper, and I lived with him for seven years. He taught me my trade.

Why have you decided to leave England?
I've decided to leave England because I was paid to be a cooper on the Mayflower. All merchant ships need coopers to look after their merchandise. The money is very good in the merchant service. I make 21 shillings a month.

Do you think you'll miss England?
We've been sailing for over a month and that's the longest I've ever been to sea. I've never traveled far before, and I'm excited to see this new coast. I look forward to the adventure of going to America. I'm sad to leave my friends and family, but excited to cross the ocean.

Why are you going to America?
The Mayflower has been hired to carry passengers to the New World. My father's cousin is the master of the Mayflower and he hired me to be on his crew.

What have you heard about America?
Some of the people on the Mayflower — officers and passengers — have crossed the sea to the Americas before. I have heard tales of fisheries and wild Indians and untouched forest. In this country we have heard that you can walk over the backs of cod fishes, and we hope to be rich by catching them and drying them in the sun, and packing them away in salt for the Spanish fish market.

Are you scared of America?
I've never been to a wild place before. I am scared about meeting the Indians and worried about having enough to eat.

Where will you be staying in America?
I am going to be living on the Mayflower. We have brought provisions and tools to build houses along the coast and to start a village. I have not made up my mind about staying in America.

What will you do in America?
I have been asked to join the settlers and stay in the colony. I have been hired as a ship's crewman.

Are you traveling with your family?
Only my father's cousin, Christopher Jones, who is the Master of the Mayflower. If I stay in the New England colony, I will stay here alone without family. I would rather stay in the Virginia colony than the New England colony.

What does your family think of your staying in America?
Christopher Jones, my father's cousin, thinks there is great promise for me in fishing (to be rich). He's concerned about letting me stay. There is only one other successful colony — the Virginia colony at Jamestown. So we'll be doing new work in an unexplored land.

Are you concerned about making this journey?
We have good officers on the Mayflower, who know sailing and navigation, but the sea is an unpredictable place, and the Lord does often use it as a correction for his people.

I grew up on the seacoast and I know many who have been lost at sea and not come home. Accidents on ships like Mayflower are often fatal.

What was your job in England?
I was a cooper on land. I couldn't earn as much money as I could earn sailing on merchant's ship. On land, I only make a smaller portion of 20 shillings. I've only been free of my master for two years, and the money I would make as a new journeyman on land would be far less than I could earn on this ship.

How has the journey been so far?
When we left England the first time, in very early September, we had the warm weather with us, but September is a stormy time on the North Atlantic. We've seen some weather, some gales, but also some beautiful days.

The reason I say "first time" is because we were in and out of port twice before we finally started the journey. When I came aboard the Mayflower at beginning of summer, a second ship, named Speedwell, was sent to Delfhaven in Holland to take on English families who had been exiled to Holland. Loaded with these families the Speedwell came to Southampton, England. From Southampton, both the Mayflower and the Speedwell set out for the Virginia coast. (The Speedwell was only one third the size of the Mayflower.)

Once at sea, the Speedwell proved to be a leaky ship. The officers decided to return to England to repair her. We ran both ships up into Dartmouth. The Speedwell was repaired, and was set out again from Dartmouth. But she still leaked, and the officers decided to return the Speedwell to England, for the Speedwell to be left behind, and the Mayflower to sail on alone.

When the Speedwell was brought into England the last time, she was run into Plymouth in Devonshire, but not all that was on the Speedwell could be put on the Mayflower. Twenty passengers were left behind.

What's the worst part of the journey so far?
The two false starts leaving England have been the most difficult part of the journey. By these delays we cannot expect to arrive in Virginia before the beginning of winter. This is bad because of the weather. Now we will arrive and build houses in the winter. We couldn't wait for spring in England. We felt we had to proceed. Many of passengers had sold their homes and the tools of their trade before they boarded the Mayflower in Southampton, so they had nothing to return to.

Do all the passengers on the ship have jobs?
No...I'm the only cooper aboard the ship. The passengers on the Mayflower have been trained to do all sorts of work. There are weavers, woolcombers, book printers, and carpenters, but I'm the only cooper.

What is your job as cooper of the Mayflower?
The Mayflower is a large ship, and I'm responsible for safekeeping all merchandise. In weather there can be damage from the goods rolling into each other. If anything is damaged, I will use my woodworking to repair it.

How big is the Mayflower?
The Mayflower is a medium-sized ship. There are some ships that are larger than the Mayflower — ships that are built for war or for the Guinea African or east Indian trade. The Mayflower can hold 180 tons; she's more than 100 feet long, and her main mast is as tall as the ship is long.

Where do you eat and sleep on the ship?
I live in the fo'c'sle. It is the one place in the ship that I have to get out of weather, sleep, and to repair my clothes in. I eat there, too, unless the weather is good, and then the officers let us eat on deck. We eat three times a day. Ship food is like winter food — dried grain, salted flesh (beef, pork, fish), hard cheese, and beer.

What do you think of the Pilgrims on board?
Chiefly, they are people of good quality. Some of the passengers that lived in Holland are of a different conscience and they are very different from me and some of the other passengers in their beliefs. They have left the church that I was raised in. They don't follow the English Church's ways. It's difficult for me to see the reason that God has in sending them with us to the New World.

The work that will be done at this colony will be important work for several reasons. If God allows this colony to establish itself, then the colonists will be rich in land and will bring the gospel of Christ to the Indian people, and these are both worthy pursuits for a man like me.

What's the best part of the journey?
To see all the people, from all different parts of England and from all different sorts of families, come aboard the Mayflower in Southampton.

Who is aboard the Mayflower and how did they know about the journey?
The Pilgrims are a large minority of the passengers we are carrying. The rest of the passengers are families that have come out of England in the willingness to join the settlement.

Word of the journey has spread through the common way of friend telling friend and also through our English Partners. The Partners are a company of English merchants and New World planters who give the company money, equipment or labor to support it for seven years. At the end of seven years, everything the company owns will be divided back to the the partners. Each share being worth money or land.

How has the weather been?
September is stormier than summer, so we're worried about great storms. I've seen good days and "weather" days. Weather days are stormy days.

What do you think your first thoughts will be upon arriving in America?
I look forward to seeing the coastline and to seeing the Indians. I'm worried about meeting the Indians. They are a wild people. They're not Christian, so they don't know how to live like us yet. We intend to teach the Indians. We will be the fathers of this country, and the Indians will be our children. They will learn how to dress like us, farm like us, and they will learn how to worship God. I'm nervous that they may be resistant. In other colonies, Indians have risen up and fought and resisted their masters. It will be a challenge to have the Indians learn peaceably to live like us.

Have you had to repair barrels of water and things?
Yes, although we have little enough water aboard. Water spoils quickly. On long voyages such as this, we carry some for cooking and for the livestock. Most of the casks contain beer for drinking, biscuits, stores of grain, salt beef and fish, dried peas, and such like. There are also barrels holding cloth, iron tools, gunpowder, fishing equipment, and other stores the passengers will need for the new settlement.

Have you had to work at other jobs during the time that you have been sailing?
I've assisted the ship's carpenter upon occasion, and we also get called for all-hands' work, such as it's called. This has included tacking and wearing the ship, putting her through the eye of the wind to catch a new course. I've helped weigh anchor to get underway, and during storms, all hands take in sail and batten down the hatches. When the beam cracked amidships not that long ago, I helped to shore up the broken timber that we might continue the voyage.

How difficult will it be to set up a shop as a cooper once you get to the New World?
In Virginia, I expect there will be a call for my services. The colonists hope to get much profit by the fishing there, and those fish will need to be dried, salted, and packed in barrels before being shipped back. I'm armed with my training and tools, but I'll need good timber, cut and dried, before I can begin my trade of coopering. Seasoning the wood will take several months at least.

What do you use to navigate?
The officers use mathematical tables to find their way across the ocean. Sightings are taken on the midday sun and Pole Star with instruments such as the cross-staff and astrolabe measuring the angle from the horizon. They also record our speed with the chip-log and direction by compass.

Who has been your favorite friend or partner?
All save my father's cousin, Master Jones, were unknown to me before this voyage began. I have found men of good company amongst the crew and passengers, several are young tradesmen like myself.

How do you prevent seasickness on board?
Sailors of experience have little trouble with seasickness. As for the others, the only way to prevent seasickness is to stay aland.

Is there any medicine you can use against seasickness?
There are. Conserve of wormwood is very proper, but some prefer little cakes of sugar and gum-dragon mixed to a paste with powder of cinnamon and ginger mixed therewith.

What do you do for exercise?
My work provides me with enough exercise. The barrels I work with range in size from firkins of but a few gallons to tuns, which hold 252 gallons. Raising these up and moving them about is sufficient for me. The passengers might walk the deck if the weather is fine.

How do you prevent people from getting upset and angry with each other, living in such small places?
It is a problem with so many people crowded together on board. Amongst the passengers the ship's governor, Master Carver, is supposed to keep order. Some of them have proved contentious, and he is kept busy betimes. For the crew, the boatswain is responsible for discipline and keeps the crew busy with work. He also administers beatings and other punishments at the officers' direction.

Why is the job of cooper on board a ship so important?
Most of the supplies that a ship carries are stored in casks and barrels. Coopers like myself are on board to repair the ones that get damaged during rough weather. In storms, such as we have had this voyage, there is much pitching and rolling — the stores can get greatly knocked about and bruised. Being only made of wood, although stout English oak, the staves can crack or hoops can loosen. When this happens, the stores within the cask get damaged, either by water leaking in or the stores themselves leaking out. I am kept aboard to prevent this from happening.

What do you do when you have spare time on board ship?
There is little enough of that. What time I have, I use in mending clothes, reading, and in such innocent games as merels and chess. There are those in the crew that gamble with cards and dice, I'm sorry to say. We also pass the time with songs and telling tales.

Will you be returning to England?
I think not. The colonists have asked me to stay on, being anxious for my services as cooper. I have decided to stay with the colonists in their new settlement, once it is established. I have hopes of making my fortune in this new land.

How has the voyage been?
The weather since we loosed from Plymouth on September 6 has been varied. For the first weeks we enjoyed fair weather, but cross winds and boisterous storms have plagued us for some days, forcing us to furl the sails and lie hull for days together. We have lost but two persons since the voyage began, one a profane seaman, the other a servant of one of the company. One of the passengers has given birth to a son. The master and some of the seamen tell us that we are nearing land. For some days the water has been of a different color, and bits of wood have been espied floating in the waves.

Do you have enough supplies for the voyage?
Hopefully, the voyage isn't over yet. There is always some spoilage, and the bread has been much annoyed by weevils. But if you soak the bread, they float and may be easily removed and cast away.

Who guards the equipment and supplies to make sure that no one takes anything? Where do you keep them?
The four quartermasters and myself are responsible for storage and safekeeping of the ship's supplies. The quartermasters are most careful to pack the stores tightly, securely, balanced and accessible. These stores are then used in order, closest to the hatchways, both fore and aft, first. Then into the midships. There are separate compartments for barrels of bread and ammunition, for both must be kept very dry.

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