The building of the first homes proceeded at a glacial pace – a pun because of the frequent storms with sleet, rain, or snow. Early on, a map was made of where each house would be built. Each ‘family’ was responsible for the construction of their home.
Think of the women, trapped below decks on the Mayflower. They lived in cold and dank since there could’ve been no fires, and they were confined to caring for an increasing number of sick passengers in this dark and fetid environment. Most of the children stayed aboard as well, except for older boys who could help the men with chopping down trees, dressing the trunks, and helping to drag them to the building site.
By the time spring rolled around, half of the passengers and half the crew had succumbed to disease, most commonly scurvy and pneumonia. The Mayflower could not return to England until 1621 because of the decimation of its crew and the bad weather. Food supplies brought on the Mayflower kept dwindling, although fish, clams, greens, venison, rabbit, and other meat would have been available.
The women, as caregivers, were particularly hard-hit: only five adult women survived to the coming of spring. Thus the working backbone of the potential colony, the women who cared for the sick, prepared food, washed clothes and so much else were few in numbers and all of the older girls would have been conscripted to work with them, side by side.
When the first house was built, the men who had become ill were moved there, and other men cared for them, apparently with kindness and love. But then it burned down and had to be rebuilt. How discouraged the colonists must have been, but they had a deep and abiding faith in their God which
somehow saw them through.
Early on, the plan for the settlement was made. Here is the map of where each family’s house would be, from Bradford. Byu spring, the term ‘family’ was loosely defined. With only five wives left, a family might consist of a group of unattached men, although some were assigned to houses along with the orphaned children.
It was during this time that the colonists made first contact with the Natives of the area, when Samoset, an Abenaki sagamore, came into settlement and greeted them in English, saying “welcome”. Through Samoset, the colonists met Tisquantum (Squanto), the last of the Patuxets on whose land they were building. He served as the translator in the first meeting between the colonists and Massoit (which means sachem), the chief of the Wampanoags. More on this later. That contact meant everything to the survival of the colony because of what Squanto and the Wampanoags taught the settlers many things – how to plant corn, native plants to eat (pumpkins and squash and berries), where to find eels (which the English loved).
So how did the Pilgrims build their homes? Not log cabins, as many think. The Pilgrims had never seen a log cabin. They built what they knew with the few tools they had with them – post and beam houses.
Initially, the men only had axes to cut and shape beams and planks for their houses. Imagine how hard that was to do with just axes. Eventually, they had a saw pit for sawing the planks.
The roofs were thatch made from natural reeds and grasses from the nearby salt marshes and often caught fire. So a bucket of water stood by the door to each house. Seven of the 32 houses existing in the winter of 1624 were burned to the ground with everything in them.
What did the houses look like inside? What did the colonists eat? Coming up….