As the Mayflower swung at anchor in Plymouth Harbor on November 19th, 1620, it must have been an uneasy refuge for passengers and crew. Behind them lay three months of delay, stormy seas, severe overcrowding, two deaths and now an unintended landing hundreds of miles farther north than their destination in the “Virginia” territory. Facing a New England winter, with no time to build suitable housing and with their start-up provisions already largely consumed, there was little except their faith to buoy them up. Yet, two hopeful events took place aboard the Mayflower between their arrival and the establishment of the Plymouth community which deserve to be celebrated even today.
First there was the writing and mutual signing of an agreement to become a self-governing colony known today as “The Mayflower Compact”, a constitution voted into law by the common consent of the governed. At nearly the same time – probably on November 19th, 1620 – a son, named Peregrine White was born on shipboard to William and Susanna White, thereby becoming the first English settler to be born as a citizen of America. With them, the couple had brought from London a five-year old son named Resolved. Their father, William had only sixty days to live, since by February of that cold winter, the great dying was well underway, and the young father would be one of 17 who would be laid to rest in that one month. Susanna would in fact be the only widow to survive that deadly pioneering period which saw more than half the Colony sleeping in the graves which soon marked the nearby hillside, women and children being the most numerous.
Under-nourished to begin with and now confined to the Mayflower’s cramped and unhealthy quarters while the men labored ashore to lay out building plans for spring, pneumonia and other illnesses took a terrible toll. Without a dock for small-boat travel, the work crews had to wade ashore, and though the men no doubt benefited from manual labor and fresh air, they were never able to really dry out from daily doses of the cold bay waters.
Somehow, I am struck by the image of that first birth, a harbinger of hope perhaps, in the midst of so much death and suffering during those early “moments” of nationhood there on the outermost shore of a “promised land”. Even the name – Peregrine – has a stirring and hopeful ring to it, arising from an ancient Latin word meaning “wanderer”, “traveler from a distant land”. How fitting that this first offspring of a “pilgrim” people searching for a place of freedom and new beginnings should be heir to so meaningful a cognomen, especially when teamed with a five-year-old brother named Resolved!
Among our Pilgrim Parents a researcher cannot help but find inspiration in first names: Moses Fletcher, Remember Allerton, Humility Cooper, Love Brewster and Oceanus Hopkins to name just a few, (although I have no explanation for Wrestling Brewster and Desire Minter!).
The widow Susanna White remarried widower Edward Winslow, with whom she had five more children including a future Governor of Plymouth. Peregrine went on to be an early resident of Marshfield, Representative to the General Court, a Militia officer and respected citizen. Today, 393 years after his birth aboard an anchored vessel, I pause to editorially call attention to a “traveler from a distant land”, and the much-overlooked birthday of America’s first-born Mayflower citizen.
On November 11, 1620, in the confined space of the “Mayflower’s” main cabin, a handful of pioneer travelers drew up what Winston Churchill would call “one of the remarkable documents in history”, the “Mayflower Compact”.