Lessons from the Pilgrim Pandemic

As we continue to face the challenges of COVID-19, many comparisons are being made to past pandemics and crises. For this week’s blog, I want to bring you back to what I think is one of the most powerful stories of perseverance and unity in American history.

When the Pilgrims were trying to make their voyage from England to the New World, their financial backers dragged out negotiations so long that instead of departing in the spring, they had no choice but to leave so late in the year that they would be arriving and building their settlement during the winter. Despite this challenge, they did not give up on their dream to create a new society based on freedom – economic freedom, religious freedom, and personal freedom.

When they finally landed at Plymouth, there was good news and bad news. The good news was that Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe whose tribe had been decimated by a pandemic, befriended the Pilgrims. He had spent some time in England after escaping slavery and acted as an interpreter and mediator for the Pilgrims and Native American chiefs. He enabled the Pilgrims to be granted rights to the land in exchange for a mutual protection pact with the Native Americans and, as you know, he taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, and where to fish and hunt beaver.

The bad news was that, not long after arriving, the Pilgrim community contracted the plague that had decimated the Pawtuxet tribe. William Bradford (the colonists’ first elected leader, and my grandfather 11 generations back) wrote:

“Having arrived in the New World in the depth of winter and wanting houses and other comforts, our family and friends suffered terribly from diseases which our long journey with terrible conditions did bring. Of 100 persons, scarcely 50 remain. The living are scarce able to bury the dead; the well but 6 or 7 who spare no pains to help the sick.”

Fortunately, the chief of many tribal chiefs, Massasoit, graciously helped them through the winter. The Pilgrims buckled down, built houses, and helped each other. Because the Pilgrims remained united and positive, Plymouth Colony became the first successful family colony and hundreds of thousands of Brits followed suit.

Despite the challenges, despite the plague, the Pilgrims persevered 400 years ago in 1620.  And you know the story: the next year they celebrated the first Thanksgiving. But that’s not all. The resilient and resourceful Pilgrims, under Governor William Bradford, established democracy (Bradford led using town meetings), women’s property rights, trial by jury, and religious freedom.

Things have been tough for us and could get a lot tougher, but I find it inspiring to remember how the Pilgrims survived a deadly pandemic by helping each other and remaining positive.

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