Monday, April 29, 2024

Heroines of the Frontier, Part 1 - The Mayflower Women / Mrs. Mary Brewster


I've recently begun an early read of Shannon McNear's novel Virginia, the 4th in her "Daughters of the Lost Colony" series which releases this fall. Any novel that rings of early American history with wilderness settings always strikes a flame in the deep regions of my imagination, so I am vastly enjoying it. When I find a book that ignites that sweet spark, I'll often set aside whatever else I'm reading.

For me, that's because trying to imagine daily life then, and putting that into the context of a human life lived to its fullest, is a thing that can hardly be touched upon by dry, schoolish textbooks with their mere records of names, dates, battles, and documents. History brought to life, such as what we consume in historical fiction and historical narrative (non-fiction written in a story-like fashion that reconstructs period events) is raw, authentic, and satisfying. It gives us the sense of stepping back in time and walking in a specific pair of shoes belonging to someone who went before us. Reaching into history via historical fiction and narrative non-fiction provides ways to make us truly care about what people accomplished or failed to accomplish in history—often so deeply that we can't put the book down.

This is what brings me to a series of posts I want to share with you about heroines on the North American frontier. And by heroines, I'm not only referring to those women who made names for themselves in the annals of history, but the many women whose main achievement was to endure—to press forward while meeting with the obstacles of a treacherous wilderness and the challenges set before them of carving a life out of the forest. Often the challenge was simply to find food and shelter, to survive and overcome, but they faced it with determination, courage, and hope. I am also referring to all kinds of frontier living in which those heroines found themselves.

Perhaps, as we look at the lives of such enduring women, we'll be inspired to delve further and learn more about some of them or the era in which they lived, or we'll pick up a novel set in the period and sense their history coming to vivid life.

Perhaps we'll care about them as human beings who've led the way.

Mayflower, Cape Cod Canal (Image by John French from Pixabay)

The Mayflower Women

To kick off this series, let's look at the European women who came here on the Mayflower, the pilgrims who set out to find a new place where they could live and worship according to the precepts God had placed upon their hearts. The Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower could be divided into two groups:

*The Separatists who had had enough of England's royal family troubles and wished to sever ties with both Catholics and the Established Church. They moved initially to Holland and formed a congregation at Leiden in which they wished to live in a simpler style of faith community. Many of the Separatists came from affluent families and backgrounds and were men of learning, yet wanted something different for their future. Interesting to note: at least one of the Separatists, Mrs. Elizabeth Winslow (nee, Barker) may have initially emigrated to Holland on her own as a young single woman, having already been deeply engaged in non-conformist activities. She married John Winslow in Leiden in 1618.

*The Strangers, as they were called, were not part of the congregation of Separatists living in Leiden, Holland, but they joined their group that would eventually embark from Holland to the Americas in 1620. The Strangers made up more than half the Mayflower passengers. They included merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers as well as indentured servants, and three young orphans. They were common people, and about one-third of them were children. The Pilgrims realized that people of all stations and backgrounds would be crucial to the Colony's success.

Among the Mayflower passenger list, twenty-eight were women or girls, some listed as servants of separatist families, and some of them children. Six of the women were pregnant at the time they left Plymouth. Some of them birthed children that survived, and others experienced loss. Some of the women themselves didn't survive the voyage, and others died before leaving the ship while it was at anchor in Cape Cod. Yet, others went on to strive for a new life in the new land.

Pondering just this much, can you imagine embarking into the Great Unknown, leaving behind family and friends and, in some instances, your children, then crossing the wild Atlantic on a crowded ship, only to arrive in a foreign wilderness where it would be impossible to disembark for another two months? For many agonizing weeks, the women and children remained in the cramped and filthy quarters on the Mayflower, as the men explored the coast of Cape Cod looking for a suitable place for a settlement.

Can you also imagine how easily sickness and squalor might manifest, or how a young wife might feel about giving birth in such rough and unsanitary conditions without her husband nearby to offer reassurance? This is what these ladies faced and more obstacles besides.

A look at the life of one of the eldest Mayflower women, and one of only four adult women to survive the first year, gives us a glimpse of why all of them can be thought of as heroines of the New World frontier.

Robert Walter Weir - Embarkation of the Pilgrims - 1857 - Brooklyn Museum (Public Domain)

Mrs. Mary Brewster

Mrs. Mary Brewster was loved and respected by all. As a little girl, she grew up in Nottinghamshire, England, hardly imagining that, fifty years later, she would live across the far ocean where her days would be spent spending planting and harvesting corn, gathering berries in thickets, plucking geese and ducks, cleaning fish—all that she cooked over an open fire. Other days would be spent nursing the sick or tending the dying, and in many cases, burying the dead. No longer in a nice home in Europe, she would be sleeping in a bare house and washing her clothes by hand in a small brook near the village. No, to imagine something like that would have seemed fanciful—or possibly frightening.

Mary and her husband William had lived in a comfortable manor house in Scrooby, back in England. They had three children there. Weekly meetings of believers met to hold services in their home, until increasing pressure from the Church of England made it clear to the church leaders that the congregation would no longer be safe if they remained.

Not without its trials and complications, the Brewsters moved to Amsterdam and then with the congregation to Leiden. During their years there, Mary birthed three more children, one of whom died shortly after birth.

In 1616, the Brewsters began secretly printing and publishing a series of pamphlets that spoke against the errors of the Church of England. King James was outraged by the circulation of the booklets. He ordered an international manhunt for the printer. William Brewster took an assumed name for a while, and went into hiding to protect his wife and children.

All of this led to the Brewsters' final decision in 1620 to leave Leiden with those others planning to go, and set sail for the New World. While many elders remained behind, William and Mary, along with their two youngest boys, Love and Wrestling, took their places among the younger couples setting out for life in the wilderness of North America. Thankfully, Mary would eventually see her older children again when they came to the New World at a future time, yet when she left them, she trusted that if she would not see them again this side of the grave, she would meet them again eventually in heaven.

Being the oldest, most experienced lady in the colony, Mary likely gave much guidance to the younger women. She no doubt assisted at births such as that of Elizabeth Hopkins, one of the Strangers on the Mayflower, who gave birth to her son at sea. Elizabeth's infant boy was given the name Oceanus. Mary would also have aided Susannah White, one of the Separatist mothers, after the arrival of the ship at Cape Cod, as she gave birth to a healthy boy named Peregrine.

Mary, by necessity, would have become adept at helping with burials as well, since nearly half of the hundred Pilgrims who came on the Mayflower died the first year.

Even so, she didn't lose heart. After all the suffering and loss, Mary was one of only four adult European women living and present for the first Thanksgiving. Therefore, she also very likely both delegated and headed up the task of preparing the food for the three-day festival of thanking God for His goodness and provision in bringing those alive through the long, brutal, first seasons of survival in the wilderness colony.

A true heroine, Mary had endured the sickness, cold, hunger, and hardships. Her own husband became a living example Proverbs 31:28 which states that "her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her" for Bradford said she was one of those who “did all the homely and necessary offices which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure . . . and all this willingly and cheerfully.”

Mary welcomed many grandchildren into the world, and thousands of descendants called America their home. She passed to glory in 1627 at the age of 60.

Next month we'll look at another type of heroine of the frontier:
Women Who Dared.

Deep in the northern wilderness, a new frontier is born!

1841 ~ Lumberman's daughter, Colette Palmer has always loved timber cruiser Manason Kade, even when she leaves Michigan to settle with her family in the Wisconsin wilderness. There, she grows into a woman and, when her heart is broken, makes her vow to another.

Logging enterprises collide as the territory nears statehood. In the turmoil, Manason and Colette meet again. Now, she will have to choose between her first love and her commitment to her marriage vows, while her dreams, her faith, and an empire in pine hang in the balance.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I look forward to this series you are planning to post!