Lesson in Survival

By Ian Aikens | November 25, 2020

For the quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving that we celebrate tomorrow, it’s worth pondering if this is just another day to miss work or school, or is there something more significant to celebrate. Is there more to the tale of the Pilgrims escaping religious persecution in England, fighting starvation and the elements in the harsh New England winter with the help of local Indians, and celebrating a bountiful harvest in 1621?

It turns out the story is more complicated than the standard version we hear most often. The first clarification needed is the make-up of “the Pilgrims.” Of the 102 souls who sailed on the Mayflower, only 41 were actually Puritan Separatists, 18 were indentured servants bound as slaves for 7 years to their masters, and the other 43 were mostly Anglicans seeking economic opportunity in the New World. Another part of the standard narrative is that the colonists were hard-working, tenacious, and G_d-fearing. While there may have been some settlers who fit this description, according to William Bradford, who served as governor of the colony for 30 years, in his History of Plymouth Plantation, many of the colonists were lazy and refused to work in the fields. Stealing what little food there was became rampant, and the colony was overrun with corruption.

What caused the colonists to behave like this when their very lives depended on it? The arrangement was a joint-stock partnership named John Peirce and Associates between the colonists and a group of London merchants. It received a grant in 1620 from the South Virginia Company for a plantation in the Virginia territory. The terms of the alliance stipulated that each adult settler be granted a share in the joint-stock company, and each investment of 10 pounds receive a share. Herein lay the problem: “All settlers … were to receive their necessities out of the common stock. For seven years there was to be no individual property or trade, but the labor of the colony was to be organized according to the different capacities of the settlers. At the end of the seven years the company was to be dissolved and the whole stock divided.”

It should be noted that two concessions requested by the colonists in the original agreement might have made the arrangement in the New World workable despite its “It Takes A Village” emphasis. One was for the settlers to be granted separate plots of land near their houses, and the other was to allow them 2 days a week to cultivate their own land. The reason for requesting the two concessions was because most of the colonists had been tenant farmers in the open fields of an old manorial hunting park in Nottinghamshire, and though they had worked in the lord’s fields, they also had time to work their own individual plots for their own needs. As it turned out though, the London partners refused to grant the concessions and disaster in the New World ensued.

Per William Bradford’s account, “… that the taking away of property and bringing community would make them happy and flourishing … For this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the younger men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong … had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice … Upon … all being to have alike and all to do alike, they thought … one as good as another, and so … did … work diminish.” In other words, removing the profit motive caused everyone to work less. If it hadn’t been for the Indians who helped show the settlers how to plant crops native to New England, and how to fish, catch eels, and harvest oysters—not to mention another ship that arrived from England in 1621 just in the nick of time—the settlers would have all perished.

The harvests of 1621 and 1622 were also dismal due to low production, so finally in 1623 Governor Bradford established a system of privately-controlled plots of land, which allowed each family or individual to work them and keep the proceeds. In other words, he abandoned the communal arrangement and established real property rights, and the results were spectacular.

From Bradford again: “So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery … This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.” By the harvest of 1623, “the starving time” became the bountiful occasion we now celebrate as Thanksgiving. Furthermore, by 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were now able to sell and export corn.

Was this success a coincidence? A stroke of luck? A divine message from above? I think not. The private property system that Bradford established in Plymouth was in sync with human nature and the natural instinct to take care of one’s needs and one’s family’s needs first before those of strangers. Which is not to say that charity or compassion is not part of human nature, but “starving time” does not advance generosity. Only independence and self-reliance, which come from the freedom to determine one’s goals and priorities, foster true goodwill towards others.

One final thought on the survival lesson of Thanksgiving. As poorly as the communal system in place until 1623 turned out, consider that it was a (mostly) voluntary arrangement, since each adult man and woman chose to sign on with the trip to the New World even though the two concessions regarding private property were rejected. Even voluntarily willing to take a chance on a perilous journey to a strange land—and still many starved to death. Can you imagine the guaranteed fiasco had the system been forced on them? You only need to look at the outcome when forced giving, production, and redistribution are mandated by government. History is filled with examples, but China’s Great Leap Forward is the best illustration of what happens when property rights are trampled on: at least 30 million people starved to death from 1958 to 1962. With so many voices raised these days in favor of forced collectivism, perhaps they should learn the real lesson of Thanksgiving.


Carson, Kevin. (2013, November 27). No, Stossel. The Pilgrims Were Starved by a Corporation, Not by Communism. Retrieved from c4ss.org/content/22792

Ceeley, Craig. (2003, November 27). From ‘Starving Time’ to Cornucopia: The American Thanksgiving. Retrieved from www.theatlasphere.com/columns/031127_ceely_thanksgiving.php

Franc, Michael. (2005, November 22). Pilgrims Beat ‘Communism’ With Free Market. www.heritage.org/markets-and-finance/commentary/pilgrims-beat-communism-free-market

Mayberry, Richard J. (2014, November 27). The Great Thanksgiving Hoax. Retrieved from mises.org/library/great-thanksgiving-hoax-1

Miniter, Frank. (2016, November 23). Did Capitalism Really Save The Pilgrims—And Give Them A Thanksgiving To Remember? Retrieved from www.forbes.com/sites/frankminiter/2016/11/23/did-capitalism-really-save-the-pilgrims-and-give-them-a-thanksgiving-to-remember/#44147f264ffb

Pease, Harold. (2018, November 15). The Mayflower Compact Facilitated Pilgrim Starvation. Retrieved from suindependent.com/mayflower-compact-pilgrim-starvation/

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