Languishing in the New World: Depressed Pilgrims

Erin Taylor and Kristin Luce, December 2015

We think of the Pilgrims as resilient adventurers upheld by unwavering religious faith, but they were also human beings in the midst of what was, and continues to be, one of the most difficult emotional challenges a person can face: immigration and exile.
(Philbrick, 76)

Depression, although not named as such, was a recognizable symptom in colonial America, described by terms such as “dropsy,” “lethargy,” and “languishing.” Most, if not all, first-generation Plymouth Colony residents no doubt suffered some feelings of despair and trauma simply by coming to New England. Transatlantic voyages were arduous — physically, mentally, and emotionally — with family members and friends dying on board, and others left behind, likely never to be seen again. As William Bradford recalled of the Mayflower,

Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles…they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather beaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.

In fact, Bradford’s first wife Dorothy fell off the Mayflower (when it was moored in Plymouth Harbor) and drowned, and many speculate that it was not an accident but a suicide, Dorothy’s grief at leaving their three-year-old son behind in Holland unbearable. 

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Re-creating and Questioning How Martha Was Murdered

Erin Taylor, February 2015

This post shares discussions and insights Kristin and I had after visiting Plimoth Plantation’s 1627 town site (November 2014). The good people at Plimoth Plantation have re-created the first settlement in painstaking detail, and it turns out, a Plymouth home — our AMB crime scene — wasn’t exactly as I had imagined it. The homes were smaller and with lower ceilings than I had figured (of course, I’m nearly six feet tall, so I have a skewed perspective). Also, the houses sat closer together than I had mentally plotted.

Map of Pilmoth village

Map of Plimoth village

We spent two days at Plimoth Plantation, viewing the homes and speaking with reenactors. As we shared our thoughts about Martha’s murder based on what we saw there, it must be remembered this is a 1627 re-creation — in other words, twenty years before her death. By the 1640s, colonists had more tools and construction supplies, and homes were built under less dire circumstances. Within two decades of the Mayflower’s arrival, several towns were developing in the wider colony, but we assume the Bishops lived in Plymouth town proper because the Ramsdens and Winslows (Josiah, head) were their neighbors.

Plimoth village home ca. 1627

Plimoth village home ca. 1627

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Make Time for Plimoth Plantation

Erin Taylor, December 2014

Ask Kristin. I am a curmudgeon of tourist. I sneer at the gift shops, recoil at the fellow visitors replete with whining teenagers and their fanny-packed parents. So, as we planned our trip to Plymouth, I dreaded the notion of visiting Plimoth Plantation on a Saturday in November. I’m all for historic preservation, but seriously questioned the quality of historic reenactments. For the record, “Plimoth” is the spelling Governor Bradford used in his history of the colony.

Attitude, camera, and notebook in hand, I headed down to the 1627 “authentic” Plimoth village and was immediately smitten. Kudos to the nonprofit Plimoth Plantation for an engaging and transformative experience. I was especially impressed with the reenactors and their training (a new source of fascination for Kristin and myself). If there is an international standard for reenacting history, I’d wager Plimoth is setting it. Do visit – with your children or students especially – and live some American history.

Various images fr Plimoth Pnatation

Plimoth Plantation Nov 2014

Certainly, the museum needs to fund itself so there is the usual array of retail – ye old tyme thermal mug, authentic colonial fudge (cocoa wouldn’t be seen in New England for at least another century). But these are kept at a tasteful distance from the reenactment sites. And, in full, ashamed disclosure, I skipped the Wampanoag village (Native American) as I was so intent on spending time in a home similar to Alice Martin Bishop’s.

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Abigail’s Cow

Kristin Luce, January 2015

The Plymouth Town Records tell us that in 1653, “Abigaill Clarke” registered “a half moone on the right eare” as her unique branding mark, to identify her cow from other wandering Plymouth bovine (vol. 1, p. 2). 

For some reason, I’m having trouble getting the image of Abigail and her cow out of my mind. It’s a poignant picture I’ve been creating, of the lonely 12-year-old orphan with no one to love — or to love her back — but her cow. (I don’t know if cows show affection, but if Abigail fed it, it was probably glad to see her. My Oklahoma cousin Erin, somewhat of an expert, tells me: “They will nuzzle you if you show up with oats, but they aren’t going to spoon you in bed or validate you.”)


Cattle were plentiful in New England in the 1640s, to the extent that their value had dropped significantly by the time the Great Migration began to peter out in the early years of that decade. But while their value as a trading commodity decreased, they still played an important part in the daily lives of Puritan families — cows for dairy and breeding, gelded males primarily for draft work (Chartier, see below). 

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Rethinking the Knife

Kristin Luce, December 2014

Historians’ perceptions of the Pilgrims and life in Plymouth Colony evolve as discoveries are made — previously unpublished probate inventories shed light on what the colonists wore or owned, freshly unearthed archaeological finds provide insight into the buildings that housed those colonists, or the items they used to conduct the business of daily living.

Our recent trip to Plimoth Plantation allowed us to peek through a re-created window into Alice Martin Bishop’s world, and gave us a sharper focus on the tool that is at the heart of her crime – the knife.


What we previously assumed to be a crude and rare item turns out to have been a common household possession. All men would have had their own knife, and most goodwives would have owned one as well — or possibly shared one if more than one adult female lived in the household.

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The Intimate Lives of Puritan Women

Erin Taylor, August 2014

We are always trying to make puritans of the Puritans.

Plymouth Colony, Eugene Stratton, 191.

Here is your spouse’s bed; creep into it, and in your arms of faith embrace him, bewail your weakness, your unworthiness, your diffidence, etcand you shall see he will turn to you.

Governor Bradford’s undated letter to “a faithful woman in her heaviness and trouble.” 

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