We recalled last year that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated at Berkeley Hundred on the James River in Charles City County, Virginia on December 4, 1619. That was three years before what most of us recognize as the first Thanksgiving with pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts who ventured over on the Mayflower.
One of the 102 on the Mayflower was pilgrim William Bradford, who would be Governor of the new Colony for its first few decades. He penned a detailed manuscript covered the pilgrim’s time in the Netherlands, the voyage aboard the Mayflower, and first 30 years in the Plymouth Colony. It was originally entitled Of Plim̃oth Plantation. Later titles include The History of Plymouth Plantation, History of the Plantation at Plymouth and William Bradford’s Journal.
The 270 page manuscript was written in the form of two books between 1630 and 1651, and is considered the first American book on history ever written. There are also numerous references to colonists’ reactions surrounding the events of the day. That diverse perspective may be one reason why it is considered by historians to be among the preeminent works of 17th century American historical literature.
Bradford explained in chapter 6 that he wrote the manuscript so that the descending generations would know and appreciate the hardships of their ancestors. Interestingly, Bradford never attempted to publish the manuscript. He instead gave it to his son William, who later passed it on to his own son Major John Bradford.
What is not widely known is that the first form of government established by the colonists in New England was not a form of capitalism which would help catapult the economy; it was a two-year failed Socialist government.
Following what was popular among the aristocratic class in the early 1600’s, the charter was a seven-year contract signed July 1, 1620 before leaving Plymouth England which called for farmland to be worked communally and for the harvests to be shared. It stipulated that the Pilgrims were to pool for common benefit all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons. It also stated that colonists would obtain their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the colony.
The first few years were going to be hard anyway, but shortages and starvation were exacerbated by policy. Half the colonists died, and incentive was neutralized by continued unrest.
In one of many unflattering references to the contract, Bradford noted.
“The contract was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to the benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice...”
After two years the colonists scrapped the failed contract and as Bradford recorded.
“So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content...”
Early 1600’s life was infinitely more difficult in this new land of opportunity than at any time since.
It’s a shame the first brave souls wasted two good years and dozens of lives floundering in the first failed PC experiment of colonial America.