Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Pilgrims as Preppers

This Thanksgiving I would like to reflect on the Pilgrim's preparations for setting up a colony in the New World.

The Pilgrims were a specific group of Puritan Separatists who sought to maintain a separate way of life and religion from wider English society. Originally farmers and herdsmen in England, motivated by persecution they had emigrated to the religious freedom of Holland, where they took up trades, the only means of support legally afforded them. They worked hard--they had to, to make a living. The hard work began wearing them down, their children started to acculturate to their Dutch neighbors, and several factors led them to contemplate moving to English colonies in the New World. Eventually fear of the Spanish Inquisition proved stronger than their fear of the dangers of wild America, and they resolved to join the Virginia colony.

The first group of Pilgrims went to England to ship out to America. Financial pressures forced them to sell some of their goods for cash, and to take some "Strangers" into their number (the Pilgrims had bound themselves contractually and were being financed by Merchant Adventurers). After some delays and false starts, and with their original 2 ships reduced to just the Mayflower, a group of Pilgrims finally crossed the Atlantic. They brought with them furniture, books, clothing, food and drink for the crossing, seeds, livestock, and a printing press.

Weather prevented the Pilgrims from reaching Virgina, and they sought landfall where they could take shelter from winter storms. The Mayflower furled her sails in November of 1620, not a great time to be arriving in an unfamiliar bug-out location short on stockpiled goods, surrounded by hostile if not aggressive native Americans. Nevertheless, the Pilgrims determined to set up near their landing point.

The Pilgrims organized themselves in a democratic fashion under the Mayflower Compact, then scouted for a location to settle. Fortunately for them, the previous inhabitants of the area, the Patuxet people, had died off and left behind limited supplies of corn and beans. (Tragically for the Patuxet, English slavers had brought the plague with them in 1617.) The Mayflower passengers lived on the Mayflower a total of eight months until a common building was built, burned down, and rebuilt. Before all that transpired, sickness struck the Mayflower hard. Of the 98 settlers who arrived at Plymouth, 52 lived until summer.

The Pilgrims improved relations with the neighboring native Americans and worked hard in the summer of 1621 to prepare for the next winter, finishing their encampment, gathering food, and raising some initial crops. They demonstrated a willingness to learn from the native Americans how to cultivate corn and how to hunt and fish the local game. They prospered in their preparations and celebrated a harvest festival with the locals before the November arrival of the Fortune with a second batch of colonists (which forced the Mayflower Pilgrims back onto reduced rations in spite of a good harvest).

Here are my observations about the Pilgrims as "preppers:"
  • The Pilgrims' work ethic was a major factor in their survival, first in Holland, and then in America.
  • Although the Pilgrims valued a way of life apart from those around them, they were conscientious in trying to deal fairly with that broader culture, whether they be English, Dutch, seamen, native American, or the "Strangers" (non-Pilgrim members of their company).
  • The Pilgrims were lifelong learners, learning trades in Holland, then learning to forage, hunt, fish, and grow local crops in America. They also gratefully accepted help from native Americans including Squanto.
  • The Pilgrims as a group did not give up, but persevered through some pretty harsh experiences. They certainly had their problems and internal conflicts and must have been close to despair at several points in time, and many of their group dropped out along the way, but they are known today for their Thanksgiving.
  • The Pilgrims were adequately prepared for long-term survival, but not prepared in terms of shorter-term stockpiles of supplies such as food and drink. They certainly would have benefited from the kinds of medicines we have available today.
  • From a survival perspective, it was fortuitous that the Pilgrims landed in an area with no local population to compete for resources.
  • An initial survival rate of barely 50% has gone down in history as a "success."


  1. The "pilgrims" were the WORST preppers: they had no skills, no seeds, no means- they grew up in a society where everything was done for them by others. They were just consumers like 97% of the sheep today.

    LEARN HOW TO provide for yourself!

  2. In opposition to the ignorant comment that they were the "worst preppers"; the pilgrims are great examples for us today. They planned in extraordinary detail what they could; remember they were moving to an largely unknown land (they couldn't even land in their planned bug-out location). their survivial mindset puts most of us to shame.