My Family’s Slaves: A Thanksgiving Story
Tis the season for whitewashed Thanksgiving stories, so I was regaling my children with that cheery story of friendly Native Americans and turkey and Pilgrims. I figure there’s time enough for investigating the seamy underbelly of historical reality after puberty sets in so for now I’ve been keeping it light.
My daughter asked me if there were any girls on the Mayflower. And down the online rabbit hole we went. We found out that there were actually quite a few girls on the Mayflower, eleven of them, in fact. And unlike the adult women, 75% of whom died before or during that first terrible winter in Plymouth, most of the girls survived. Only two girls perished, sisters named Elinor and Mary More. They had a brother, Jasper, who also died. Only one of the More children, Richard, survived to adulthood.
Luckily at this point, my daughter got bored and wandered away in search of more those-were-supposed-to-be-for-Thanksgiving-dinner black olives to eat, but my interest was piqued. I wondered about this family, the Mores, seemingly unable to keep their children alive when so many others at Plymouth could.
The story I learned was absolutely spine-chilling and, weirder still, I learned that I had a personal stake in the lives of these children who lived and died so long ago.
Don’t hold it against me, but I’m a Mayflower descendant. My great great howevermanygreats grandfather was William Brewster, who was basically the most Pilgrimiest Pilgrim who ever Pilgrimed. William Brewster was the real OP (Original Puritan). He aided and abetted the fledgling religious movement by turning his family home, the incredibly British-sounding Scrooby Manor, into a meeting place for his fellow religious separatists. He also organized the Pilgrims’ escape to Holland since he had diplomatic experience and connections, and was considered the spiritual leader of the group that traveled on the Mayflower. Luckily from my perspective, he left his daughter Patience behind in Holland in safety to later beget those who would later beget me, but he took his sons, the spectacularly-named Love and Wrestling along with him. Brewster’s wife Mary also made the voyage.
But the Brewsters were not alone on their journey. They had two indentured servants with them. Richard (age 6) and Mary More (age 4) were in the possession of the Brewster family. Their siblings Elinor, 8, and Jasper, 7, were also on board, in the employ of Edward Winslow and John Carver, respectively. The More parents did not travel on the Mayflower.
That’s weird, right? A 4 year old indentured servant? On the MAYFLOWER? Alone, with no parents in sight? Something about that didn’t seem right. Even though I’d heard about guttersnipes rounded up off the London streets and pressed into indentured servitude in the Americas, it didn’t seem like something the Pilgrims really would have been super into.
Upon delving deeper I learned that the More children’s mother was named Katherine More, and her father, Jasper, died with no male heirs. Rather than see his estate fall into non-familial hands, he forced Katherine to marry her cousin Samuel More (since Katherine and Samuel were cousins, they both bore the same last name). There was just one problem – Katherine was not only betrothed to someone else, a tenant on her father’s land named Jacob Blakeway, but she apparently loved the guy too and was none too pleased by being strong-armed into marrying another man.
Over the course of the next four years, Katherine had 4 children, and according to a perhaps somewhat understandably outraged Samuel More, they bore the “apparent likeness and resemblance…to Jacob Blakeaway.” Blakeway and Katherine More were accused of adultery, and rather shockingly for the time, they didn’t deny it. They admitted they had committed adultery and that the children were fathered by Blakeway, but said it was because their betrothal pre-existed Katherine’s marriage, and Katherine emphatically insisted that Jacob was her husband in God’s eyes. Jacob and Katherine applied to the nearest diocese for an annulment of her marriage to Samuel so they could marry.
This could have actually worked legally, and much public sympathy was bestowed upon the star-crossed lovers, but unfortunately the witnesses of the betrothal were dead and Samuel More had some powerful friends. He worked for this guy called Lord Zouche, who was Lord President of the Council of Wales, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and Privy Council. And sadly for Katherine, Jacob, and their children, Lord Zouche was a total douche.
Samuel More and Lord Zouche were able to get Mr. More granted custody of these children whom everyone agreed weren’t even his, and they drew up a plan for something they called “disposition of the children.” Acting on the advice of his father and Lord Zouche, Samuel kidnapped the children and placed them with local tenants for safekeeping. Katherine tried to get the children back from these tenants several times, even allegedly ripping the clothes from the tenants’ backs in an effort to get to her little ones, but was never able to make a clean getaway with them. Unfortunately, taking Katherine’s children away from her wasn’t enough punishment to satisfy the cuckolded Samuel More.
Lord Zouche was an investor in the Virginia Company. Since the Mayflower was originally headed to Virginia, it’s believed he was instrumental in seeing the children placed on board the ship instead of allowing them to remain in England where their parents’ legal case could continue to work its way through the court system towards a possibly happy ending. Katherine More and Jacob Blakeway filed at least 12 legal motions during the time their children were kidnapped in 1616 till they were placed on the Mayflower in 1620, and they continued fighting for custody even beyond into 1622 when their case was finally dismissed permanently. Due to his position on the Privy Council, Lord Zouche was able to pull enough strings to override the legal objections of Katherine and Jacob at every turn.
Sending a child to the New World – particularly an unattended child – was at that time considered a death sentence. Since the Virginia Colony needed workers, orphans were rounded up off the streets and sent to work as laborers in the colonies (a practice so widespread it was long assumed by historians this was where the More children had come from). As you can probably imagine, it wasn’t an easy life for a child in the Virginia Colony. Abuse ran rampant. While the entire tragic saga is absolutely awful, the More children were rather lucky to be placed with the Pilgrims instead of many unsavory characters they might have been handed over to instead. The Pilgrims agreed to care for the children for 7 years and then give them 50 acres of land in exchange for their service. It could have worked out ok in the end for the Mores. But, unfortunately, as we all know, the Mayflower left too late, sailed too slowly, missed Virginia entirely, and arrived in Plymouth in November without enough time to make adequate preparations for a New England winter.
Accounts vary, but it appears Jasper never made it off the Mayflower. Elinor never made it out of November, dying shortly after the Pilgrims’ arrival on solid ground.
Mary and Richard remained in the custody of the Brewster family. I assume that Mary Brewster was charged with the More children’s upbringing, and I like to think she took care of them to the best of her ability because that is what I like to think I would do in her place. I like to think that Mary More was a victim of fate and not neglect at the hands of her new Puritan masters. Caring for a 4 year old isn’t easy in the best of circumstances, and the Pilgrims faced very far from the best of circumstances. Children died very often back then, and the younger the child, the more likely they were to die.
But the fact remains that everyone in the Brewster household survived the first year save Mary More. William, Love, and Wrestling Brewster all survived. Richard More survived. Even Mary Brewster herself survived to cook the next year’s Thanksgiving dinner, despite most of the adult female Pilgrims dying within a few months’ time. Most of the girls – even one year old Humility Cooper, who lost both her adoptive parents (her aunt and uncle) that terrible winter – survived. But motherless Mary More did not.
Did the Brewsters see Richard as a potential ally in the future, a strong back to work the farm for the next seven years, and take better care of him than they did his poor little sister? Or was it just luck that Richard lived and Mary died? After all, Mary More, having been removed from her mother’s care as a newborn and remanded to the care of unknown tenants who worked for the man who wanted to murder her and eventually succeeded, was almost certainly malnourished and riddled with parasites and had probably suffered all manner of abuse that would surely have sapped her ability to survive famine and cold weather.
It may very well be that years of chronic deprivation was what did the More children in in the end. Much of their lifetime had been spent in the care of Actual Bad Guys, and by the time they reached the Winslow, Carver, and Brewster families — even if they were caring and solicitous of the More children’s health and welfare — it was probably like putting a bandage on gunshot wound. The Pilgrim children, most of whom survived, had grown up strong and healthy, surrounded by those who loved them, safe in Holland where life was pretty good for the time. Given the terrible circumstances of their short lives, it should probably come as no surprise the More children didn’t survive to adulthood regardless of who their caretakers were at the time of their death. It’s probably super unfair for me to look even just slightly askance at my Puritan forebear Mary Brewster for trying and failing to save Mary More.
A lot of people nowadays like to look back and cast judgement on those who came before us. We look at the Pilgrims and see a bunch of despicable a-holes with misogynistic customs who brought about the beginning of the end of the Native American way of life. And while that’s partially true, I think we miss something important when we indulge that simplistic moral outrage.
We miss the fact that the Pilgrims were living in a world in which people starved to death regularly, where even wealthy nobles were living with pestilence and disease and they didn’t even have painkillers. It was the height of the Little Ice Age and they didn’t have polar fleece or space heaters or Uggs. A small cut or a case of the sniffles could kill them. 50% of all babies born died before their first birthdays, and a third of those that remained died before age 15. People had to work and work hard pretty much every minute of every day that they weren’t sleeping, and the jobs they had to do were rarely pleasant. Our ancestors lived in an unjust, violent world where a guy could force you to marry someone against your will, and then other guys could take your children away and send them off to die halfway around the world and you couldn’t do a thing to stop it.
In stressful situations, let alone horrific ones, I find empathy is generally the first thing to go. (We see it every day on social media, don’t we?) A traffic jam can trigger blinding road rage in an otherwise fine person. A long line at the grocery store can turn a soft spoken Sunday School teacher into a raving lunatic. Imagine how we’d behave in situations far worse than mild inconveniences. We would probably be blowing up, lashing out, looking out for number one. We might be as wicked and violent as Samuel More, or at best, apathetic in the face of wickedness and violence. It is probably pretty hard to care much about other people when you have chilblains and your kids are dying. And yet when we look back through the mists of time from our position of extreme temporal privilege, most of us have no compunction at judging those poor unfortunate souls whose true crime was being born in the wrong year.
Many people, I suspect, believe that in the same place and time they would make better decisions than our ancestors did. They would be more selfless, more kind, more generous. But if you had to make the impossible Sophie’s Choice of allowing another child in your care to die, or even just making it more likely that they died, in order for your own children to live, what would you do? Would you resist the urge to put a little more food in your child’s bowl? If you had one pair of mittens or long underwear and everyone was shivering, who would you give them to? If there was a dangerous job to be done, who would you send do it? Would you always be as diligent about watching another person’s child every minute of the day as you were your own? Would you be monitoring them quite as closely for signs of fever or infection? And even if you did do those things, could you keep it all up while working in the fields 8, 10, 12 hours a day, when you yourself had rickets and tapeworms and syphilis and were starving and hadn’t slept in days because you were up in the night with a sick child or a birthing cow?
I only have 5 children to watch out for, they’re all mine, I love them with every fiber of my being, and even I miss things when I’m spread too thin. And I don’t have chilblains.
Despite the many challenges she faced, Mary Brewster was able to keep Richard More alive, and while it may have been partially from greed or selfishness or just him having a tougher constitution than his siblings, I still salute her across time for that because it could not have been easy. Richard went on to live a long and distinguished life. He got his 50 acres and a share of the Pilgrims’ cattle when he came of age. His descendants still live today.
I bring all this up not to defend the sinners of the past, but because Thanksgiving is a time for being thankful and every one of us alive here in America 2019 should be incredibly thankful. We should be thankful for having the luxury of our morality, for the luxury of sitting before our computer screens sipping pumpkin spice lattes while passing judgement on people in a different time and place who faced a lifetime of challenges, none of which we can possibly comprehend. We should feel thankful for that luxury of being able to like, so totally KNOW we would have been better people had we been plunked down in the terrible circumstances of our ancestors, to so totally KNOW we would always have made the right decision and always put the needs of others before our own.
We should be thankful for the ability to lie to ourselves and we should be extra specially thankful for never being put in a position where we have to face the truth, which is that none of us know what we would do in a terrible situation when we’ve never been in one.
Counting our blessings is a huge part of being thankful, and the biggest blessing most of us have received is to be born when and where we were. Maybe Thanksgiving is a good time to take a moment to ponder how lucky we really are and to have some empathy for those less fortunate than we were.
Even if they were Pilgrims.