Thursday, December 3, 2020

Answer: Who made it to the first Thanksgiving?

 The Mayflower story is encrusted with legend and the legacy of centuries of story-telling...  

Image by Sabrina Ripke from Pixabay

As noted, 2020 is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing to North America, and the 399th anniversary of the First Thanksgiving associated with the Mayflower Pilgrims.  

They landed in Massachusetts in mid-November and barely made it through the hard first winter, which led to the Thanksgiving feast of 1621. 

I wondered who was left to celebrate after that difficult year.  And that leads to our Challenge today.  How many souls were still around?  

1. The Mayflower left England with 109 102 souls, of which only 2 perished on the way.  By the time of the Thanksgiving feast in November of 1621, how many of the original settlers were still alive?   How do you know? 

Looking up the Mayflower story is fairly straightforward, but getting the details right is a little tricky. The queries are easy [ Mayflower voyage ] or [ Mayflower landing ] to find many different tellings of their tale.  

Wikipedia: "After a grueling 10 weeks at sea, the Mayflower, with 102 passengers and a crew of about 30, reached America, dropping anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on November 21 [O.S. November 11], 1620." (Sorry about the typo in the number of passengers: it was never 109.)  

The journey from Europe to North America was complicated. They initially planned on sailing with another vessel, the Speedwell in July, but they set out to sea, and returned for repairs twice before they Speedwell decided to stay in England, letting the Mayflower proceed on a solo voyage. A few of the Speedwell passengers transferred onto the already crowded Mayflower.  

So the traditional account of the Mayflower journey begins on September 6, 1620, the day they sailed from Plymouth, but it’s worth noting that by that time the Pilgrims had already been living aboard ships for nearly a month and a half.

It was a difficult journey: 100 foot swells, everyone wet and freezing cold for much of the time. 

Remarkably, only one passenger, William Butten, a servant of Deacon Samuel Fuller, died at sea, and one child was born. One of the passengers was swept overboard, but was saved by grabbing a rope that hauled him back on board.  About the same time Oceanus Hopkins was born onboard.  One lost, one gained.  

By the time they reached Massachusetts in November and established Plymouth (the name of their settlement), it was well into the cold part of the year.  With inadequate provisions and not nearly enough shelter, people started to die off.  How many made it through the first year?  

I tried two different queries, both of which gave me a number of resources:  

     [ how many Pilgrims survived first Thanksgiving ] 

     [ Plymouth colonists survive first thanksgiving ] 

Scholastic:  tells us that out of 102 passengers, 51 survived the first winter, only four of the married women (Elizabeth Hopkins, Eleanor Billington, Susanna White Winslow, and Mary Brewster).   These four women, along with the older girls, oversaw food preparation for the three-day harvest feast for the colonists, Massasoit, and his 90 Indian men — the feast that we now call "The First Thanksgiving." (52 English were at that feast as the baby boy Peregrine was born after their arrival.)

By contrast, tells us that 44 passengers survived.  

Meanwhile, a article tells us that 50 passengers survived.  

And says that 53 people people made it to the first Thanksgiving.  (I tend to believe this number... why?  See below.) 

That's a fair range of answers: 51, 44, 50, 53.  If you keep digging, you'll find even more numbers! 

Bottom line: there's a bit of variation in the possible answers that you'll find with an uncritical search.  How do we get to the ground truth?   

I noticed, as I read, that several of the articles pointed to William Bradford's book that's an account of those days, Of Plimoth Plantation (1622).  Since he was on the Mayflower, and a central figure in the story, I think his report is probably the most accurate. This is an easy search on  (Note: A somewhat easier version to read is Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646. It's edited for clarity and fixes a bunch of errata. And you can download the entire PDF!)   

So, I downloaded the PDF and found this... 

Scan of original manuscript by William Bradford 
(Frontispiece in Bradford's History...)  

Reading carefully, one finds that... 

2.  If you know THAT number, what were their  names?!?  

... on Page 407, you find the following item: 

Page 407 of Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation

It's a lot of people. But when you get a few pages farther into the text, you start to read this: 

Page 409 of Bradford

And if you read carefully, you can start with the initial list of Mayflower passengers, and then strike-out the ones who died before the first Thanksgiving, you'll be left with 53 Mayflower people who attended that festival day.  

Of course, the simplest way I found to get to the original list of passengers was to search for it: 

     [ list of Mayflower passengers ] 

leads quickly to a Wikipedia list of the 102 passengers onboard.  (Alas, it does NOT list all of the crew.  The officers are listed, but the common seamen are just in a lump. Just as with the passengers, there's also a lot of disagreement about how many sailors there were.)  This list has an asterisk next to all those that died over the winter.  

Going back to that PilgrimHall article, one of the reasons I found it believable when I first read it was that it actually listed all of the (known) Mayflower survivors at the first Thanksgiving.  To wit, 

4 MARRIED WOMEN: Eleanor Billington, Mary Brewster, Elizabeth Hopkins, Susanna White Winslow.

5 ADOLESCENT GIRLS: Mary Chilton (14), Constance Hopkins (13 or 14), Priscilla Mullins (19), Elizabeth Tilley (14 or 15) and Dorothy, the Carver's unnamed maidservant, perhaps 18 or 19.

9 ADOLESCENT BOYS: Francis & John Billington, John Cooke, John Crackston, Samuel Fuller, Giles Hopkins, William Latham, Joseph Rogers, Henry Samson.

13 YOUNG CHILDREN: Bartholomew, Mary Allerton, Remember Allerton, Love Brewster, Wrestling Brewster, Humility Cooper, Samuel Eaton, Damaris Hopkins, Oceanus Hopkins, Desire Minter, Richard More, Resolved White, Peregrine White.

22 MEN: John Alden, Isaac Allerton, John Billington, William Bradford, William Brewster, Peter Brown, Francis Cooke, Edward Doty, Francis Eaton, [first name unknown] Ely, Samuel Fuller, Richard Gardiner, John Goodman, Stephen Hopkins, John Howland, Edward Lester, George Soule, Myles Standish, William Trevor, Richard Warren, Edward Winslow, Gilbert Winslow.

The good news is that this list aligns with what you can read in Bradford's account.  So I'm pretty sure that there were 53 Mayflower survivors at the first Thanksgiving. 

Very little beats the original account.    

3.  Purely for fun extra credit, I found that THIS famous image is somehow connected with the Mayflower.  Can you discover how? 

Doing a Search-By-Image you'll quickly find that this dramatic image was made by Harold Edgerton, the famous high-speed-photography wizard at MIT.  

Searching for the connection between Edgerton and the Mayflower is as simple as: 

     [ Harold Edgerton Mayflower ] 

and then sifting through the results for a credible source.  I found a geneology site, that tells us: "... Edgerton was born in Fremont, Nebraska on April 6, 1903, the son of Mary Nettie Coe and Frank Eugene Edgerton, a direct descendant of Richard Edgerton, one of the founders of Norwich, Connecticut and a descendent of Governor William Bradford (1590–1657) of the Plymouth Colony and a passenger on the Mayflower." 

Just to double check, I looked up Richard Edgerton, verifying the Norwich, CT connection.  And then I pretty much recapitulated what Regular Reader Arthur Weiss did.  To quote his outstanding comment on this: 

He [Edgerton] was from Bradford's great granddaughter Alice who married Samuel Edgerton, Richard Edgerton's son.

She's listed in Bradford's descendants on page 24 on Our New England ancestors and their descendants, 1620-1900 [microform] : historical, genealogical, biographical 

Governor William Bradford's eldest son from his 2nd wife was a Major William Bradford. His sixth daughter was Hannah who married Joshua Ripley. Their eldest child was Alice - who married Samuel Edgerton who is an ancestor of Harold Edgerton and the son of Richard Edgerton. (Hannah seems interesting in her own right - she acted as the settlement doctor). confirms this with links to original source material e.g.  [ Behind a paywall. ] 

To Arthur's eternal credit, he then went and edited the Wikipedia article to fix the internet.  Kudos to Arthur!  

SearchResearch Lessons 

Several useful lessons here:  

1. There is often lots of reading to extract the info you want.  I ended up reading about 20 documents, noticing the variant numbers, which drove me to dig even deeper into the material.  But there's just no escaping it: Sometimes you have to read extensively.  

2. Don't believe the first number you find.  As we saw, the numbers vary all over the place.  You have to look hard to find an accurate accounting. 

3. Don't necessarily trust the number you see in a search-engine answer box.  Especially when the number has to be derived from a careful analysis.  

Here, for instance, is Google's Answer: 


It's right, as far as it goes, but kind of off target. I asked "how many people," not just men. 

Meanwhile, Bing does a better job: 



4.  For historical information like this, when you see ambiguity, look for original content (such as Bradford's book).  Note that Bradford's book also has errors--first accounts frequently do.  But by doing primary document research, you're well on your way to becoming an excellent SearchResearcher (or a historian)!  

Search on! 


  1. Just to share this Google Search Movie It is impressive. Only thing missing for me is that our Dr. Russell is not in it. Totally worthy the 58 minutes invested to learn and see how Google works helping us to search better