Kate Waters, children's book author and an expert on the Mayflower and life in Plimoth, has answered a selection of kids' questions.
How did the Pilgrims keep track of time?
There were two ways to keep track of time. One was by looking at the position of the sun or the moon in the sky. The Pilgrims also used hourglasses and tapers. An hourglass measured time as the sand passed through its narrow middle. A taper measured time as it burned down. No one had watches or clocks like we have now.
What kind of medicine did the Pilgrims have?
In the seventeenth century, most medicine was made from plants. Actually, until scientists learned how to make artificial chemicals, everyone used plant chemicals to make medicine. Certain herbs were boiled in tea; others were ground up and mixed with flour to make healing pastes; some were boiled and mixed with molasses to make hard drops like today's Life Savers™.
Are we still finding out new things about the Pilgrims?
Yes. People who study history find out new things all the time about people who lived long ago. There are many ways of discovering new facts. Archaeologists unearth parts of houses, tools, fragments of fabrics, and other evidence, which help us understand what life was like in another time. Letters and diaries tell us what life was like. Some written records are just being discovered now. And historians continue to study paintings and legal documents like wills and deeds to find more clues about how people lived and what they thought about and dreamed for.
What did the Pilgrims trade?
The English settlers traded cloth, tools, weapons, and tobacco for furs. They sent the furs back to England. The furs were sold in England, and the money received was used to offset the cost of their trip.
Was the second winter as hard as the first one?
No. The houses were built. Crops had been harvested and preserved for the winter. More ships had arrived with supplies and settlers. The community was more comfortable. But life in Plimoth colony was never very easy. It took many years before the people were able to move to land of their own. For seven years, they shared everything they grew and worked to pay off their debts to the company that lent them money for the voyage.
Did the Pilgrims have mattresses?
People in the seventeenth century made mattresses by stuffing envelopes of cloth with straw. Their bedding was not as firm as the mattresses we sleep on today.
Where did they get the straw to make roofs for houses?
The land the Pilgrims settled on is next to the ocean. Many kinds of grasses grow there. The settlers cut down the grasses and dried them to make the thatch for their roofs.
Who started Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until the 1860s. President Abraham Lincoln declared that the third Thursday in November be held as a national day of Thanksgiving. Gradually, the Pilgrim and Wampanoag feast came to be called the first Thanksgiving. But, in the 17th century, religious leaders could declare a day of Thanksgiving any time they chose.
Were all the Pilgrims English?
There were two groups of people on the Mayflower. The group we call Pilgrims were people who were leaving Europe to practice their religion as they chose. They were English people, although many of them had lived in Holland for a time before coming to North America. They had moved to Holland thinking they could find religious freedom, but they were not happy there for long. The other group of people on the Mayflower were journeying to North America to make their fortune. They were English people too.
It is important to remember that Plimoth was not the first English settlement in North America and that there were Spanish settlements in Florida, Mexican settlements in Texas and California, and French settlements in Canada. Many European countries were settling North America.
What did the Pilgrims live in when they came to North America?
For many months after the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth harbor, the passengers lived on the ship. Before they could leave the ship, they had to build houses to live in and a fortification to protect the houses. It was winter when they landed, so building was difficult. One of the first houses they built burned down and they had to start again. Finally, in April 1621, there were enough houses for all the people. The last passengers left the ship and the Mayflower set sail to return to England.
Why do we have turkey at Thanksgiving?
At the feast we call the first Thanksgiving, the European settlers and the Indians most likely had wild turkey to eat. Wild turkeys roamed the woods and meadows of eastern North America, and still do. They are very big and somewhat slow so they are easy to catch. Their meat tastes good when it is roasted. The American tradition of having turkey at Thanksgiving comes from that first feast, although many people now have different foods to celebrate Thanksgiving. The turkeys we eat today are usually grown on turkey farms.
Why didn't the king let the Pilgrims have religious freedom?
The Pilgrims left England because they thought the religion practiced there was not strict enough for them. They were concerned that their children were being brought up in a society that had different values than they did. They were not run out of the country. They chose to leave and go to a place where they could live away from the distractions of English society.
Did the Pilgrims bring guns?
Yes, the settlers brought guns and cannons with them to North America. At the time, many different countries were establishing settlements in North America. Sometimes, the Europeans fought over the land. The settlers in Plimoth colony used their guns and cannons to warn foreign ships away and to signal when an English ship was approaching. They also used the guns to hunt for food.
Why did they change the spelling of Plimoth to Plymouth?
The city in England from which the Mayflower sailed is named Plymouth. Early maps of North America named the area where the Pilgrims landed as Plimoth or Plimouth. So, at the time, there were many ways of spelling one place name. When Plimoth Plantation was founded, they chose to use the "Plimoth" spelling for the museum, although the town the museum is in is called Plymouth, Massachusetts.
How did the Pilgrims get their furniture?
The settlers brought some furniture with them on the ship. As the colony began to be settled and more and more ships arrived, people could send an order for furniture back to England. Eventually, there was enough free time for the settlers to begin to make their own furniture.
Were all the Pilgrims Christians? What did their priests look like?
Yes, the settlers who journeyed to North America to practice their religion freely were Christians. They did not have priests, but their religious leaders, called deacons, wore dark clothes. They were very highly respected. Deacons led prayer services, conducted marriages of people, and declared days of thanksgiving and of fasting.
Did most of the Pilgrims survive the first winter?
About half of the passengers and half of the ship's crew died the first winter. Many people got sick from poor nutrition and from the cold.
What is the name of William Bradford's history of the early years in the colony?
Governor Bradford wrote the best firsthand account of the colony. It is called History of Plimoth Plantation. You may be able to find it in your public library. Reading it you will feel like you are there among the early settlers.
What did the Pilgrims eat for Thanksgiving?
There is only one first-person account of what food the settlers and the Native Americans ate at the feast. They ate roasted fowl, such as duck, goose, and wild turkey; cornbread; fish like cod and sea bass; and venison, which the Indians brought. There were most likely vegetables made into stews and desserts, too. All the food was put on the table at once, and those who shared in the meal could eat in any order they wanted. The settlers did not use forks—nobody did at that time. They ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers.
Were any of your relatives Pilgrims?
None of my relatives came to this country from England. My family is relatively new to this country. My grandparents came to America in 1924 from Ireland. But I think that everyone who leaves their homeland to come to the United States is a pilgrim. Most people come here to find a new and better life.
Were the Pilgrims nice?
The Pilgrims were regular people like you and me. I'm sure many were nice and some may have been grumpy. Many of the passengers were deeply religious people, so they tried to be nice during their hard journey.
Are any of the Pilgrims alive?
No, the Pilgrims arrived in North America 378 years ago.
Were there a lot of rules to live by in Plimoth Colony? Before the passengers left the ship Mayflower, they drew up a document which we call the Mayflower Compact. It outlined the rules the settlers would live by. The men on the ship appointed a governor and agreed on how they would make rules. The Mayflower Compact was the first document written in the New World. The compact is the first declaration of independence.
Did the Pilgrims like to swim in the ocean?
The ocean is very cold along the coast of Massachusetts in December. Even in the summer when the water is warm, the settlers did not swim. They believed that immersing one's body in the water was not healthy.