The Tale of the Pilgrims -- Why It Needs to Be Taught

The study of the history and culture of one's own country is a vital element of education. It is important for children to understand how and why they are living the way they are now and that it is a result of what people who lived before them have done. They need to be able to connect the dots -- these prevailing thoughts led to fights, these ideas led to prosperity, this action led to that one, and so on. It is from making these kinds of connections that the child learns how to think logically.

The tale of the Pilgrims who came to America to escape tyranny is a heroic and moving story. Most children have been told the basic story of Thanksgiving. Here are some more facts for your own information or that you may want to discuss with your child this holiday:

  • When the Pilgrims left their homeland, their friends and family shed many tears of anguish because they knew they would never see each other again -- ever.
  • There were two ships that set out for America: the Speedwell and the Mayflower, but they had to return to England several times because the Speedwell sprang a leak and needed repair. After attempting numerous times to fix it, they decided to just set sail on the Mayflower instead and leave the Speedwell behind. That meant that most of the passengers boarded the Mayflower, and it was now even more crowded than before. By the time the Pilgrims set sail for good, they had already used up all their food they had reserved for when they reached America.
  • The trip on the ship was miserable. There were many storms and a lack of food and warmth. Many Pilgrims got sick, and two died. One sailor made fun of those who got sick. He himself fell ill, died, and was thrown overboard. One Pilgrim fell overboard but was rescued. One baby was born on board: Oceanus Hopkins.
  • The Pilgrims and the sailors detested each other on the trip and fought horrendously. The Pilgrims didn't like the rough language and crude ways of the sailors. The sailors thought the Pilgrims were sissies and thought they prayed too much. But by the time they arrived in America, they had developed a mutual respect for each other. The Pilgrims ended up admiring the competence the sailors displayed in getting them across the ocean in what became an obviously dangerous trip. And the sailors ended up admiring the Pilgrims for their courage and tenacity in their quest for freedom in a new and scary world.
  • Once they arrived in America, the Pilgrims traveled up and down the coast looking for a place to settle. It was November, and winter was upon them. They had no time to waste. Yet they argued and argued about where the best place would be for them to stop.
  • Winter settled in, and there wasn't enough time to build Plymouth, so most of the Pilgrims slept on the ship.
  • During the first winter, almost half of the Pilgrims died due to starvation and disease. They sneaked the dead out at night to bury them. They didn't want the Indians to know that so many of them were dying, fearing that if the Indians knew, they would take advantage and attack them.
  • As difficult as the first year was, when the sailors took the Mayflower back to England in the spring, not a single Pilgrim returned with them. Freedom meant that much to them.
  • In the succeeding years, the Pilgrims made a very important discovery that led to their eventual success. While it is true that Squanto aided the Pilgrims in their quest for food, the real reason for their victory over starvation was this:
Perhaps Bradford's greatest achievement was his revision of the colony's economic organization in 1623.  Spurred by hunger, the colonists had worked hard in the fields during their first year, but in succeeding years it became more and more difficult to get them to put their best efforts into this essential task.  Bradford decided that the reason was the stipulation in their contract with the London merchants that everything in the colony, including the crops, was to be held in common for seven years.  This crude communism was crippling individual enterprise.  Boldly, on his own authority, Bradford abandoned the arrangement and announced that henceforth every family would raise its own corn.  Plymouth never went hungry again.
 - One Small Candle, The Pilgrims' First Year in America, by Thomas J. Fleming (New York: W.W. Norton and Company), 1964.

Life wasn't always easy. Our way of life in our country came about because of the suffering people were willing to endure in order to have freedom from tyranny. The lesson children can learn from the Thanksgiving story is beautifully expressed by the first governor of Plymouth. As Governor Bradford wrote in his diary, "As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light kindled here has shown unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation. ... We have noted these things so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship."

Charlotte Cushman is a Montessori educator at Minnesota Renaissance School, Anoka, Minnesota and has been involved in the study of Ayn Rand's philosophy since 1970. 
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