This post was also posted on Past Horizons: Pilgrim burials from the first winter
The Mayflower Pilgrims left Europe in 1620 in order to escape religious and social persecution. When they founded Plymouth in North America, they saw this as a new beginning, a fresh start. However, they had no idea what would occur during their first winter, and the losses that they would suffer. Of the 104 passengers, 2 died on the trip across the Atlantic, and of those that arrived, 45 died during the first winter. Unlike the burials of their ancestors and relatives in Europe where religion and fashion determined funerary commemoration, necessity and the harsh conditions determined how their burials took place.
The Bradford register noted the exact number of burials per month throughout the winter. In November there was 1 death, in December there were 6, January had 19, February had 17, and in March they lost 13. The individuals lost during this first winter died from a number of causes. Accounts from this first winter talk about a great sickness, where “on average for four months, ending in March, a grave was opened once in three days”. The underlying cause for mortality in most cases was likely malnutrition. While we have the story of Thanksgiving telling us about the feasts that the Pilgrims had at harvest, we know that this was no reflection of their food over the winter. Malnutrition leads to decreased immunity and overall weakness. This would make the individuals susceptible to the great sickness that was spreading through the colony.
The funerals were brief due to the hardship of life and the inability to have an extended mourning period. The bodies were carried up to Cole’s Hill and deposited in graves in the sandy soil. “During the first winter, the settlers buried their dead on the banks of the shore, since called Cole’s Hill, near their own dwellings, taking special care by levelling the earth to conceal from the Indians the number and frequency of deaths. Dr. Holmes mentions a tradition, that the graves at that spot, after the great mortality in the first stage of the settlement, were levelled and sown over by the settlers to conceal the extent of their loss from the natives.” (Thacher 1832: 29). Only wooden markers were used to commemorate the deaths, since there were no stone craftsmen or time to carve stone memorials. Deaths were mentioned during church services, but no proper funerals were given. Prayer for given for the living, not for the dead. There were no complex ceremonies, no elaborate markers or coffins, and no lasting memorials.
In the 19th century, two burials were revealed on the hill. After research was done into what occurred at Cole’s Hill, a stone marker was finally erected in memorial to the Pilgrims. The tablet reads: “On this hill, the Pilgrims who died the first winter were buried. This tablet marks the spot where lies the body of one found Oct. 8th, 1883. The body of another found on the 27th of the following month lies 8 feet northwest of the westerly corner of this stone. Erected 1884.”
We don’t yet know the exact cause of death. No osteological studies have ever been done, and the hill has never been official excavated. Given its importance to American history, it is likely that we will never truly know what great sickness plagued the Pilgrims, or the extent to which malnutrition plagued them. Nor do we know what type of burials they had and whether they had grave goods with them. Given the environment and pressure that was on the Pilgrims, it is likely that survival was key- not commemoration. However, assuming that the burials were devoid of emotion simply because the Pilgrims were unable to provide extended funerals or official memorials would be a hasty conclusion. If we truly want to understand what happened that first winter, it will be important to assess all facets of life, and do comparisons with other early colonial groups.
For more information on the Pilgrims’ first year check out this book: “The Pilgrims’ First Year in New England”
For information about the archaeology of Plymouth and information on the burial hill check out: Plymouth Archaeology