Life As A Pilgrim Child

I learned a lot of very interesting information about the lives of children in the 17th century when I was researching for The Last Pilgrim.

First of all, there were quite a number of children who sailed aboard the Mayflower: 24, in fact, but 26, if you count Peregrine White and Oceanus Hopkins who were born on the ship. These children shared the small space between decks with 78 adults, chickens, possibly pigs, a 33-foot long boat called the shallop, and perhaps one piece of furniture per family.

They ate what the adults ate: salted (dried) beef, salted ling or codfish, oats, peas and some ground wheat, pickled food, dried fruit, cheese until it became too moldy, and hard biscuits (hardtack). They drank water until it became fouled, then they drank beer.

Half of the original 102 passengers, plus half the crew of the Mayflower died during the first winter and early spring. Among these were only six children, even though they were confined to the ship. Boys, perhaps as young as nine, went ashore to help their fathers with building houses.

Food was more often than not rationed for the first two years, even for the children. It was several years before the harvests and food acquired by trade from the Wampanoags and other tribes became adequate to feed everyone.

However, once this happened, the children’s diet was a healthy one:

Beans, squash, pumpkin, sunchokes, cornbread and corn porridge, wild greens (watercress). fowl (duck, swan, goose, turkey), venison, fish, lobsters, clams and eels, nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, beechnuts), and wild berries such as cranberries and currants.

And of course, eggs, since the Pilgrims brought chickens. But no chicken to eat until the number of chickens had increased sufficiently.

Once gardens were established many different kinds of herbs, onions, garlic,  and vegetables like parsley, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and turnips became available.

The younger children continued to drink water. The older children drank a weak beer made from corn.

Things were different from today because the children had to be taught to survive in a harsh and challenging environment. A large part of their day was filled with work. Children as young as five could run errands, fetch wood and water, dig worms for the chickens to eat (before there was corn), herd chickens to keep them safe, and mind the younger children.

Older boys helped their fathers prepare the fields for planting, sow seeds, weed the fields, and harvest the crops. They learned to tend livestock, hunt, fish, and do woodworking – in other words, they were trained to be the head of a household.

Girls trained in household chores, and there were plenty of those: they planted and weeded the garden; helped prepare all the meals; worked in the fields during planting time; helped make soap and candles; learned to spin, dye, and weave wool; learned to harvest flax and weave linen; sewed clothing from the linen and wool; mended and washed clothes, learned to knit mittens, socks, scarves; churned butter; ground corn into meal; and learned to make cheese. Women and girls also slaughtered smaller animals for food and preserved meat and fish. When girls were older, they learned how to make beer. I personally think the girls worked harder.

In my next post, I will tell you about children’s clothing, upbringing, schooling, and playtime (yes, they had some).



33 thoughts on “Life As A Pilgrim Child”

      1. I will definitely be remiss if I don’t check out the book. The spinning wheel is a Hopkins’ from back in the day but it was probably about…1700s? I’ll have to look it up.

      1. So, I looked it up to verify it. The spinning wheel belonged to Sallie Christine Wolfe (b. 2/27/1857) and she married Richard Elliot Hopkins on 12/16/1874. He was a Civil War vet who rode with Mosby’s Raiders.

  1. petespringerauthor

    Fascinating stuff, Noelle. It’s incredible to think about a mother giving birth while sailing across the ocean. I think most children would be thrilled to be able to contribute to the family’s needs in some way. Kids are typically amazing when given some responsibilities.

  2. Love the insight into childhood during early Colonial times, Noelle! Sharing and highly recommend The Last Pilgrim to readers. Look forward to discovering even more about the children.

  3. It’s so hard to imagine the life these children had and how resilient they were. I loved The Last Pilgrim. It taught me so much, as do these amazing posts of yours!

  4. What a tough life. Such interesting facts here, and I want to learn more about that time period. Thanks!

  5. I got my 8-year-old grandson to vacuum the living room rug yesterday, Noelle, and you would have thought I was asking him to build a house and plant the back forty! Those Pilgrim children worked hard. It’s rather stunning compared to modern kids. I knew about children drinking beer, mostly because it was “clean,” but it still strikes me as odd. Fascinating post, my friend. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Diana. They drank what we would call a near-beer – much less alcoholic than the real stuff. The women, who made the beer, would remove a portion for themselves and the children before it was fully fermented.

  6. I’m laughing at Diana’s comment. So true, We, and our kids and our grandkids are so soft. TOO soft. I think it would improve “character” if we all had to live like the Pilgrims for a month. Ouch. I don’t think we could. I learned so much from this!!

    1. The closest thing I came to ‘living like a Pilgrinm’ was taking a summer class at the Harlow House as a tween, when we were taught to make candles, cook in the fireplace, card-spin-dye-weave wool, and a few other chores. And also working at Plymouth-Patuxet. I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be transported back! I agree our kids probably couldn’t manage it, but they might surprise us!

  7. I so love the American pioneer and colonial times as a setting for stories or just as places to explore history, so this little read was as informative as it is delightful!

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