Geography in the News: The Pilgrims’ Harsh Thanksgiving

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

GEOGRAPHY IN THE NEWS (1118)  Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner Appalachian State University

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. During the next few weeks, American kitchens will be stocked up on turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. In elementary schools, children will be learning about the Pilgrims to whom Thanksgiving holiday traditions are attributed.

Most school pageants celebrating Thanksgiving show the Pilgrims stepping from a small boat, or skiff, onto a large rock known as Plymouth Rock. What was the New England landscape like when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on Dec. 21, 1620?

After more than two months at sea, the Mayflower arrived too far north. The Pilgrims had anticipated landfall much farther south, perhaps around the Chesapeake Bay. Although the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod in November, it was not until Dec.21 that the site of Plymouth was chosen to settle. Dropped on a wintery foreign shore with little food, no shelter and a climate much harsher than England’s meant sure deaths for many.

The English city of Plymouth, from which the small group of Pilgrims had departed on Sept. 6 had a temperate climate compared to that of New England. Seldom did the temperate marine climate of southwestern England produce snow or even subfreezing weather. But the typical New England winter was harsh with subfreezing temperatures, high winds and frequent heavy snows. Half the settlers died during their first winter.

Survivors set about planting crops the following spring. As the story goes, only after Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims to place fish beneath the planted seeds and shared some seed of domesticated American corn, pumpkins and beans, did crops begin to produce.

Poor agricultural results in the beginning came not only from poor soil, but because cleared land of the middle latitude forest was very acidic. Calcium from the bones and flesh of the herring carcass raised the soil pH, or neutralized the soil’s acidity, enhancing the plants’ abilities to utilize soil nutrients.

Such lessons in dealing with the soils of New England were difficult ones. Within three years, however, the subsistence farming and fishing by the small colony had become successful. Within 14 years, the colony had expanded to form a nearby town of Duxbury and eight more towns were started over the next 10 years.

But there is a footnote to the agricultural problems that the Pilgrims endured. The soils of New England were never to be major producers of cash crops. Subsistence agriculture carried on in small plots of land with considerable input of labor was about the best New England farmers could do.

A great continental glacier covered northern North America about 10,500 years before the Pilgrims arrived. The glacier scoured to the bedrock as it scrubbed the landscape moving southward. As the glacier melted, it dropped a thin layer of glacial drift on top of the scoured bedrock. This drift was composed of, not only small soil particles, but also boulders called erratics, plucked from the bedrock as the glacier passed over southern Canada. Varying generally in size from a few inches to several feet across, these erratics presented major problems for the pilgrim’s wooden plows.

Most farmers found that the best use for erratics was to use them to build fences. Today, the numerous stone fences throughout New England are mute testimony to the rugged environment that generations of farmer have tried to overcome.

It wasn’t until 1744 that the rock named Plymouth was recognized as perhaps having historical significance. During that year, the boulder broke in half as horses dragged it to a new resting place.

Of course, the rest of the story is that Plymouth Rock is an erratic—a piece of Canadian granite dropped on Cape Cod Bay’s shore by a glacier several thousand years before. Today it rests in a mausoleum in Plymouth, Mass.—a broken rock glued back together, with 1620 boldly carved on its side. It serves well as a symbol of Pilgrim spirit and determination in the face of severe hardship.

Happy Thanksgiving! And that is Geography in the News.

Source: Revised from GITN 651, “Pilgrims’ Progress,, Nov. 22, 2002.

More related resources from National Geographic Education

Geographic History Article 1620: Mayflower Compact

Map: The Mayflower Route

Map: New England Colonies in 1677

Map: Wampanoag Territory

Activities and maps for spatial thinking in Grades preK-6Map Skills for Elementary Students


4 thoughts on “Geography in the News: The Pilgrims’ Harsh Thanksgiving

  1. And, don’t forget the FIRST Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 when Pedro Menendez planted the Spanish flag on Florida soil and thanked God for a safe delivery in the New World.

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