The Pilgrims, Famine, and the End of Feudalism

" ... it well appeared the famine must still ensue ..." [i]
Famine stalked the Pilgrims through the first years. But their conquest of famine helped end old-world feudalism.

I suggest the reader access the Project Gutenberg online edition of Governor William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation[ii]. (For the original source, see endnotes.) I'll paraphrase some passages.

July 1620

The Pilgrims' contract [iii] with their financial backers, the London Merchant Adventurers Company, included conditions of seven years of joint stock and partnership and communal property, followed by a division and release from obligations,

3.  ... all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain still in the common stock until the division.

10. That all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the said colony.

A version of feudalism dominated for the first seven years.

Britain and continental Europe groaned under feudalism's remnants and its communal farming. The Lord of the Manor controlled his peasants -- told them where, when, and what they could do, and how they could do it. (Does that sound like some people we know in 2009?)

From old-world feudalism came the seeds of famine.

September 1621

The autumn harvest and hunt. The First Thanksgiving [iv]. Grand. Glorious. A product of the friendship and peace treaty [v] with the impressive Wampanoag Sachem (chief) Massasoit and his people. A welcome respite from the hardship of that first winter, when half the Mayflower passengers died. And yes, there was turkey. Bradford wrote, "... there was great store of wild turkeys ..." [vi]

Were they now on easy street? Hardly. Communal farming brought discouragement and strife the next year.

A Meager Harvest, 1622
Now the welcome time of harvest approached, in which all had their hungry bellies filled. But it arose to a little, in comparison of a full years supply ... [vii]

They were unfamiliar with cultivating American corn. But the main reason was famine,

... chiefly their weakness for want of food, to tend it as they should have done. [viii]

Remember, they physically worked fields, fished, and cut lumber from dawn to dusk, six days a week. Heavy manual labor brought on a big appetite.

Again, the telling comment:

So as it well appeared the famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented, or supply should fail, to which they durst not trust.  Markets there was none to go to, but only the Indians, and they had no trading commodities. [ix]

"That they might not still thus languish in misery," 1623

Bradford wrote of the colony's distress at continuing famine:

All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. [x]

The governor faced a choice. The colony would fail under seven years of communal farming, and the investors in London would not be repaid. The Pilgrims would become just another failed English colony, all memory of them to vanish.

Or -- find a better way, grow food, survive, pay their contractual debts. Bradford found that better way: He assigned each family a parcel of land to farm on their own.

Transformational, this paradigm shift. While the old world lay shackled by feudal communal farming, the new world broke free from feudalism's constraints.

At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to them selves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys & youth under some family. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then other wise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. [xi]

Each family became free and responsible to grow their own food supply. They flourished. The lazy became industrious. Misery transformed into happiness.

Apparently Bradford and his advisors read the classics. He disputed Plato and other ancients regarding property rights:

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. [xii]

Private property took root. [xiii]

The genie was out of the bottle. From this small beginning would eventually flow the American family farm. In generations to follow, there arose many thousands of American homestead farms, each one tended by a self-supporting family, indeed feeding the world. Word of this American opportunity spread to the old world. Humble people came to America to break free from the "Lord of the Manor."

Today's equivalent of the early family farm is the small business: the plumber, the inventor in the garage, the family-run restaurant, the entrepreneur. Liberty's workshop.

Let me close with warm Thanksgiving greetings to you and yours.  Borrowing again Bradford's handwritten eloquence from his latter years,

Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise. [xiv]
John Hunt is his children's dad. His public service is finding and producing crude oil and natural gas from privately owned lands in the USA.

[i] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1647 (Project Gutenberg Online Catalog), 152.

[ii] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1647. An e-book, transcribed from the original manuscript, with a "Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts" may be accessed and downloaded from Project Gutenberg online books:

[iii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 56-58

[iv] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 127

[v] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 115

[vi] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 127

[vii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 152

[viii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 152

[ix] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 152-153

[x] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 162

[xi] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 162

[xii] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 163

[xiii] A group of scholars at the University of Chicago held high regard for the Pilgrims' decision in influencing property rights. The Founders, especially John Adams, were very aware of the Pilgrims and their history. See The Founders' Constitution Project website, and their majestic five-volume study on our Constitution. Of Plymouth Plantation is the first source document cited under "Property":

[xiv] Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 332.