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. 

Certainly, as the colony developed, the hospitality improved. But significant food and housing shortages, raids, and epidemics marked Plymouth’s first two decades, and the psychological trauma of this existence must be considered. We surmise that chronic, stress-induced coping mechanisms would have been the Pilgrim norm. The food was different (and often scarce), the winters horrific, the ocean endless, so one could barely envision merry ol’ England. The wildlife was plentiful and yet overwhelming, “The cry of a cougar has been compared to the scream of a woman being murdered” (Philbrick, 83).

Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and mental processing of persons who significantly change where they live is helpful. “Unresolved mourning” is a common immigrant phenomena involving “catastrophic change, exposing the individual who experiences it to disorganization, pain and frustration accompanied by anxiety” (Kogan, 1206). Intriguing to the AMB case: “For many immigrants, this mourning is delayed in the first years…to allow integration onto the new culture; others are stuck in a kind of pathological mourning” (Kogan, 1206-07). In other words, despite the potential an immigrant sees in his or her new country, one can never recoup what was given away for this future: “It is possible for parts of the self to be left behind, lost in transit. The migratory process is thus conceived as a catalyst of potentially profound shifts” (Harlem, 461). The Pilgrims assumed they were on a divinely designed settlement plan, but AMB could have well thought she had been utterly forsaken by God.

Eldridge notes that depression was more commonly cited among women and for prolonged periods (367), and many descendants believe that AMB suffered from postpartum depression — a claim based on zero documentation. Even if she were experiencing something similar to what we would today call postpartum depression, it’s imperative to recognize the profound difference between postpartum depression and the much less common postpartum psychosis (Manchester, 720), which could lead to delusional thinking and then, in rare cases, to violent urges. To be clear, postpartum psychosis is marked by unrelenting and crippling depression, hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thought processes (Manchester, 720). Certainly, a postpartum depression could be exacerbated by overwhelming household and child care responsibilities (Manchester, 721) but they do not cause postpartum psychosis, which is a severe, often chemically based, mental disorder.

Yet, more importantly, this is an example of context. A physician today may have diagnosed AMB with either of these conditions and provided counseling and pharmaceutical options. But this is, of course, not true for women of Alice’s era. Plymouth Colony had no college-trained physicians during Alice’s lifetime, and the chances they would have been consulted in a case of postpartum instability is slim. Psychological services were not even a specialty in England, let alone her colonies. Furthermore, what remedy could they have offered? At best, women like Alice had girlfriends, faith, and spirits (bottled, not ethereal) toward which they might turn. Richard and neighbors may have witnessed Alice acting “dumpish” (to use Rachel Ramsden’s term) on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean they imagined her capable of murdering her offspring. The most we can “diagnose” her with is exhaustion. Alice was on a non-stop cycle of pregnancy, giving birth and nursing…all the while raising other children…all the while running a home in a primitive community. But so were most of the other Plymouth mothers, and they did not murder.

We must be attuned to our historical myopia. We think we understand our ancestors because, after all, they are our own. And yet, like crossing the Atlantic, we lose sight of the distant shore. Claiming Alice as our 10x great grandmother does not permit us to overlay 21st century psychiatry to her motives for murder.

2 thoughts on “Languishing in the New World: Depressed Pilgrims

  1. Can you imagine how any of us would feel? Most of these women came from upstanding families and knew nothing of the hardships they were facing in the new world. They were taken across the ocean away from everyone and all they knew and plopped down in a hostile environment. Unlike today where we have phones, internet, and text, these women were completely isolated from anything familiar and expected to work almost non-stop and birthing children every year. I just can’t imagine that the suicide rate wasn’t higher than it probably was; never mind the postpartum depression that we know had to be horrendous.

    • Good insight Frankie — some of these women had come from families that had better resources but may have faced isolation and religious persecution in England and then Holland. Others were part of “strangers” (commercial interest) families. We don’t know what brought Alice to the colonies. However, our inability to connect her to a family of origin in the colonies (after YEARS of trying) leads us to believe she may have traded a hard English life for a hard life in Plymouth. The suicide comment is interesting and I wonder how much religious faith and community expectations played into that. There’s always been questions, for example, of how Governor Bradford’s wife really died.

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