The Winter of 1620-'21

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The decision of the Pilgrims to land on the shores of Massachusetts was dictated by the weather.  At the time the Mayflower was passing the southeastern tip of Cape Cod, the wind and waves prompted the crew to make landfall out of danger rather than proceed to their planned destination at New York Harbor.

The small 180-ton ship passed the central headland of Cape Cod near Nauset soon after daybreak on November 19, 1620, but found itself in the dangerous shoals east of Monomoy Point.  The Pilgrims turned back northward, taking advantage of the south wind and eventually found safety rounding the northern tip of the Cape into the protected waters of the bay.  Clear weather and a favorable wind held on the 20th and 21st, speeding the ship northward.  The Mayflower dropped anchor early in the morning of the 21st in Provincetown Harbor after 65 days at sea. (1)

William Bradford, historian and later governor of Plymouth Plantation, described what faced the Pilgrims at Provincetown:

Nearly all historians describe the winter of 1620-'21 as mild, though the season began with harsh weather early in December just at the time the Pilgrims were exploring the unknown land.  Bradford described the conditions of December 7th and 8th: for the ground was now all covered with snow and hard frozen.  Snow depth was half a foot.  Another exploration party set out the 16th in very cold and hard weather to reach the southern shore of Cape Cod Bay.  The 17th was windy, the weather was very cold and it froze hard as the spray of the sea lighting on their coats, they were as if they had been glazed. (2)  The afternoon of the 18th brought snow and rain.  (These early winter conditions eventually gave way to milder weather when the winds shifted from the northeast to a more southerly flow.)  The expedition then moved to the western shore of the Bay where one of the mariners remembered visiting a large harbor on a previous voyage.  Samuel de Champlain had visited this harbor in 1605 and published a navigation chart of the area in 1612.  The Pilgrims were not the earliest to visit Plymouth harbor with their landing on that stormy night of December 18th-19th, 1620. (1)

More favorable weather followed the storm.  After two days of drying out, exploring the small island, and sounding the harbor, the famous landing took place on December 21st, from a small rowboat and not from the larger ship, on a sandy beach and not on a "rock," by only ten men and not with women and children, and without ceremony as the men were afraid of meeting hostile natives on shore.  After a reconnaissance showed the area to have some advantages over other places recently surveyed, the small boat returned to Provincetown and the entire company came over on the Mayflower on December 26th.  The decision was made to found the colony on the surveyed site at Plymouth, in part by the weather: (1)

The winter of 1620-'21 was "a calm winter, such as was never seen here since," wrote Thomas Dudley of Massachusetts Bay in 1630.  Edward Winslow, one of the original Pilgrims, also wrote about the "remarkable mildness" of that first winter in Good Newes from New England, published in 1624.  There was testimony by others to a mild end of December, a moderate January, a brief cold spell with sleet and some snow in early February, followed by definitely mild conditions and an early spring. (1)

Despite the generally warmer than normal conditions, almost half of the original passengers and crew of the Mayflower succumbed to disease during the first winter on the shores of Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bay.  Many lived on board the Mayflower anchored a mile-and-a-half offshore and went to the land each day, weather permitting, to build adequate shelters.  William Bradford described the winter weather as blustery with much rain. (2)

Most early Pilgrim writers dwelt very briefly on the subject of New England weather, bent on sending favorable reports to please their sponsors in England or on trying to persuade other settlers to make the hard decision to come to America.

There is no detailed information as to the nature of subsequent winters during the first decade of settlement at Plymouth, but we know life was hard on that rough shore where the approach of winter led the Pilgrims to establish their settlement.  It was a marginal existence with the weather more an adversary than a friend.  Each winter was a dreaded season.

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