Natural Disasters Hit New Plymouth

By Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.

"It Pleased The Lord To Visit Them..."

                                               The Pilgrims at Plymouth: The First Sermon Ashore, 1621. Painting by J.L.G. Ferris

In the first two decades of their residence in New Plymouth, the Pilgrims were visited by a number of natural disasters: Sickness, Fire, Drought, Locusts, Hurricane, and Earthquake. The first to hit them was undisputedly the most devastating and perhaps the only one generally known by their descendants today: the Great Sickness that halved the size of the Colony, men women and children, in the first five months following their arrival at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. Each natural disaster was recorded by Governor William Bradford in his history Of Plimoth Plantation thusly:

SICKNESS — Winter 1620-1621 "... half their company died, ..." "But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in two or three months' time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought them. So as there died some times two or three of a day in the foresaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained." (Morison Edition, Chapter XI, p. 77)

June-August 1633 " ... up to 20 persons died, ..." "It pleased the Lord to visit them this year with an infectious fever of which many fell very sick and upward of 20 persons died, men women, besides children, and sundry of them of their ancient friends which had lived in Holland, as Thomas Blossom, Richard Masterson, with sundry others; and in the end, after he had much helped others, Samuel Fuller who was their surgeon and physician and had been a great help and comfort to them. ...The disease also swept away many of the Indians from all the places near adjoining." (Morison Edition, Chapter XXIV, p. 260)

FIRE — January 14, 1621 "...if they had not risen with good speed,..." "Afterwards, the 14th of January, the house which they had made for a general rendezvous by casualty fell afire, and some were fain to retire aboard for shelter;..." (Morison Edition, Chapter XII, p. 85) [This, the common house, was the first and only building at the time, and Mourts' Relation tells the story in more detail, relating how the building was full of beds for the sick who, with their loaded muskets, lay there. Governor John Carver and William Bradford were among them. A spark from the chimney set fire to the thatch roof and "if they had not risen with good speed, been blown up with the powder."]

November 1623 "...if it had been lost, the plantation had been overthrown." "This fire was occasioned by some of the seamen that were roistering in a house where it first began, making a great fire in very cold weather, which broke out of the chimney into the thatch and burned down three or four houses and consumed all the goods and provisions in them. The house in which it began was right against their storehouse, which they had much ado to save, in which were their common store and all their provision, the which, if it had been lost, the plantation had been overthrown." (Morison Edition, Chapter XIV, p. 136)

DROUGHT — May-July 1623 "...and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast,..." "I may not omit how, notwithstand all their great pains and industry, and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them. By a great drought which continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away though it was set with fish, the moisture where of helped it much. Yet at length it began to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were parched like withered hay, part whereof was never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indians' admiration that lived amongst them." (Morison Edition, Chapter XIV, p. 131)

LOCUSTS — May 1633 "...a constant yelling noise as made the woods ring of them..." "And the spring before, especially all the month of May, there was such a quantity of a great sort of flies like for bigness to wasps or bumblebees, which came out of holes in the ground and replenished all the woods, and ate the green things, and made such a constant yelling noise as made all the woods ring of them, and ready to deaf the hearers. They have not by the English been heard or seen before, or since." (Morison Edition, Chapter XXIV, p. 260)

HURRICANE — August 1635 "The signs and marks of it will remain this hundred years in these parts where it was the sorest." "This year, the 14th or 15th of August (being Saturday) was such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indians, ever saw. Being like, for the time it continued, to those hurricanes and typhoons that writers make mention of in the Indies. It began in the morning a little before day, and grew not by degrees but came with violence in the beginning, to the great amazement of many. It blew down sundry houses and uncovered others. Divers vessels were lost at sea and many more in extreme danger. It caused the sea to swell to the southward of this place above 20 foot right up and down, and made many of the Indians to climb into trees for their safety. It took the boarded roof of a house which belonged to this Plantation at Manomet, and floated it to another place, the posts still standing in the ground. And if it had continued long without the shifting of the wind, it is like would have drowned some part of the country. It blew down many hundred thousands of trees, turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle. And the tall young oaks and walnut trees of good bigness were wound like a withe*, very strange and fearful to behold. It began in the southwest and parted toward the south and east, and veered sundry ways, but the greatest force of it here was from the former quarters. It continued not (in the extremity) above five or six hours but the violence began to abate. The signs and marks of it will remain this hundred years in these parts where it was sorest. The moon suffered a great eclipse the second night after it." (Morison Edition, Chapter XXVI, p. 279-280) [*Withe = a willowy, supple twig]

EARTHQUAKE — June 1638 "...a great and fearful earthquake." "This year, about the first or second of June, was a great and fearful earthquake. It was in this place heard before it was felt. It came with a rumbling noise or low murmur, like unto remote thunder. It came from the northward and passed southward; as the noise approached nearer, the earth began to shake and came at length with that violence as caused platters, dishes and suchlike things as stood upon shelves, to clatter and fall down. Yea, persons were afraid of the houses themselves. It so fell out that at the same time divers of the chief of this town were met together at one house, conferring with some of their friends that were upon their removal from the place, as if the Lord would hereby show the signs of His displeasure, in their shaking a-pieces and removals one from the other. However, it was very terrible for the time, and as the men were talking in the house, some women and others were without the doors, and the earth shook with that violence as they could not stand without catching hold of the posts and pales that stood next to them. And about half an hour, or less came another noise and shaking, but neither so loud nor strong as the former, but quickly passed over so it ceased. It was not only on the seacoast, but the Indians felt it within land, and some ships that were upon the coast were shaken by it." (Morison Edition, Chapter XXIX, p. 302-303)

When they first came ashore, who among them could have imagined these natural disasters that they would experience in their first eighteen years? We owe them our awe, respect and thanks for their sacrifices and perseverance. Had they not survived their years in the wilderness we would not be here today.