Susanna White Winslow: Pilgrim First Lady

The Pilgrims were a central part of Thanksgiving when I was a child, and well into my adulthood. The Pilgrims offering thanks for a bountiful harvest that first fall in the New World — in October 1621, not today’s November — were the centerpiece of the holiday.

It’s different now.

When Thanksgiving rolls around each November, the Pilgrims have so faded from our history that their story might have been written in invisible ink.

If you think 1620 is so long ago — who cares when the Bears are kicking off against the Lions — let me tell you about one of them, especially appropriate this year, when women have been so much in the news.

Susanna Jackson White.

She was one of the passengers on the Mayflower when it sailed out of Plymouth Harbor in England on Sept. 16, 1620. It was a small ship, by today’s standards, 90 feet long and 27 feet wide. A tennis court is 78 feet long, 26 feet wide (for singles play). The Pilgrims didn’t have assigned cabins. They crossed in the cargo area … because they were the cargo. And a larger one than intended. The Pilgrims had started out with two ships, but the second, the Speedwell, developed a leak after sailing — not just once, but twice — and they had to return to England. After the second return to port, almost 40 of the Speedwell passengers were added to the original 65 on the Mayflower. The shortage of food, the rigors of a crossing so rough that one storm caused the ship’s pitching to crack a main beam, must surely have been the more difficult for Susanna, who was seven months pregnant.

The bad weather persisted after they reached America, sighting the “hook” of present-day Cape Cod. They tried repeatedly to sail south to their original destination, the Colony of Virginia, but the winter weather and rough seas forced them back to Cape Cod. The delays in sailing, the weather that then kept them from going farther south, meant they would have to set up their settlement in the New World in New England.

While the ship lay at anchor off Cape Cod at what is now Provincetown, Susanna’s husband, William White, on November 21, 1620, with the 40 other men signed the Mayflower Compact — the document that envisioned a government of laws, not men, a government that took its consent from the governed. The document that is considered by many to be the keystone of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

While the ship lay at anchor, Susanna also produced her contribution to history: the first English-born child in New England, a son named Peregine.

It took a month for the Pilgrims to find a site for their settlement, a cleared area that had once been an Indian village on a good harbor. December 20, the Mayflower dropped anchor at Plymouth. Whether or not they actually stepped out on Plymouth Rock when the Mayflower shallop (think lifeboat or really big rowboat) reached the beach is not clear. Historians dismiss it, even the story that has come to be legend for some, that the first to do so was Mary Chilton, 12. But anyone who has travelled with children constantly asking, “Are we there yet?” can easily imagine her eagerness to jump out, rock or not.

To give the families safe shelter aboard ship while they built their houses ashore, the captain of the Mayflower delayed his return voyage to England. But the days were cold. New England winter cold. And after the long voyage on short rations, a “General Sickness” began to take its toll. William White was one of the 51 who died that first winter — February 21, 1621. The loss to Susanna, left alone with a 5-year-old son and new baby, was compounded by the danger inherent in their steadily shrinking number; indeed, to keep the Indians from knowing how few there were, the dead were buried at night, in a common grave that was not marked.

With the arrival of spring and warmer weather, the captain of the Mayflower made preparations to sail. He offered to take with him anyone who wished to return to England. Although 51 of the 102 had died — literally, half — not one went back.

Still, one can only begin to imagine Susanna’s feelings as she stood on the desolate shore, even the Whites’ two servants dead, her small son at her side and six-month-old baby in her arms, watching the ship sail away.

Leafing through an old book some years ago — an old-fashioned book printed on paper so thick it might have been used for Tiffany Christmas cards — I came across an illustration.  The full-page drawing, with a decidedly romantic quality, as I remember it, showed Susanna looking up, to see Edward Winslow, whose wife had died March 24, watching not only the departing ship but Susanna. Whether this has any basis in fact, I know not. I do know Susanna White and Edward Winslow were married May 12th.

Anyone feeling the marriage showed undue haste should remember that the society as well as the settlement was built around the family; hence, in an age when death was a commonplace event, it was not unusual for widows and widowers to remarry quickly. Just take a stroll through an old cemetery.

The wedding of Susanna White and Edward Winslow made Susanna the first English bride in New England.

The spring also marked better times. A treaty of peace was negotiated with the local Indian Chief Massasoit. And Squanto, a Native American who spoke English because he’d lived in England (long story), taught the Pilgrims how to use locally caught fish to fertilize the land and how to plant corn … five kernels. (One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the cutworm, and two to grow.)

That fall, “Our harvest being gotten in,” as Edward Winslow put it, “our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.”  The 90 Indians who came contributed five deer. Susanna, one of four adult women to survive the first year, presumably was there, perhaps basting one of the fowl.

When Edward Winslow, long a leader of the colony, became the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, serving in 1633-1634 — also, 1636-1637, 1644-1645 — Susanna became the First Lady of the colony.

In 1633 it was a much larger colony, land grants having been awarded in late 1627. Although it is not known exactly when they did so, Myles Standish and John Alden — of Henry Wadworth Longfellow fame and countless grade school Thanksgiving pageants —  moved north to Duxbury. The Winslows went on to Green Harbor in what is now the town of Marshfield, where they built a handsome residence, “Careswell,” named for a family seat of Winslow’s in England. Their move north was prompted not only by the granting of land but by the fast-growing Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston, which offered a market for the cattle they could raise.

The growth of the Massachusetts Bay Colony signaled the overshadowing of the Plymouth Colony. By 1643, Plymouth had joined the New England Confederation. Josiah Winslow, the first of Susanna and Edward Winslow’s children who lived to adulthood, followed in his father’s distinguished footsteps. Educated at the new Harvard College, he served as the Plymouth Commissioner to the Confederation.

During one of Edward Winslow’s trips to England on behalf of the colony, he was appointed by Oliver Cromwell to head an expedition against the Spaniards in the West Indies in 1655. He came down with fever on the voyage and died May 8, 1655.

Susanna and Josiah were mentioned in his will. The fact that Edward Winslow made no provision for Susanna in London, where he was living at this time, leads historians to conclude that she had remained at their home in Marshfield, Mass. And was still living.

Josiah Winslow continued to follow in his father’s footsteps.

When in 1673 he became governor of the Plymouth Colony, Susanna became the mother of the first native-born governor of any of the American colonies.

Josiah died December 18, 1680, in Marshfield. Because he made no mention of his mother in his will, which was dated July 2, 1675, it is assumed she was dead.

As there is no record of the year of Susanna’s death, there is no record of where she is buried, although it is thought she rests in the Winslow cemetery in Marshfield.

A year or so ago, though, I chanced upon the possibility that she is actually buried in the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston. Laid out in 1660, originally part of the Boston Common, it is a popular site on The Freedom Trail today, for it is the final resting place of the victims of the Boston Massacre and three signers of the Declaration of Independence — John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Trent Paine — not to mention the parents of Benjamin Franklin. If Susanna is buried there, 150 years later, give or take — May 1818 — the empty grave to one side of her final resting place was occupied by another individual who has a place in our history: Paul Revere.

Although this cannot be substantiated, I pass it along, because there is a grave next to Paul Revere that has no gravestone. And John Endicott, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who died March 15, 1665, and was thought for more than 300 years to have been buried elsewhere, is actually in the Old Granary Burying Ground. His gravestone had been destroyed.

Why not Susanna’s?

Why not Susanna in the historic old cemetery on the Freedom Trail?

And Susanna was just one chapter in the Pilgrim Story.

That deserves a place at the table any day. Particularly, the Thursday each year that is Thanksgiving.

Featured image: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Wikimedia Commons)