When the Mayflower Pilgrims left Europe for the New World, they signed a socialist compact that would pool, “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons…” These goods were to be shared in common as the colonists were to, “have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock and goods of the said colony.”
William Bradford would later write that the socialism of the young colony, “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to the benefit and comfort. For the young 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 socialist system even turned the small group of pious peoples into thieves as Bradford reported, “much was stolen both by night and day” to alleviate the prevailing condition of hunger.
It could be said that these ardent anti-Catholics relied on their faith in the providence of God alone to persevere them. As we all know, that didn’t turn out too well. Nearly half of the colonists died the first winter from starvation and disease.
Two things saved Plymouth: a Catholic and the free market.
Reeling from their first winter in the New World, the Pilgrims were desperate for a break. On March 16, 1621, an Indian approached the settlement and amazed the colonists by speaking broken English. He identified himself as Samoset and he said there was another Indian who spoke better English than he: Squanto.
In 1614, Squanto had been captured by an English party led by Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) and taken on a ship to Spain where he was to be sold as a slave. He was rescued by some Dominican friars who instructed him in the Catholic faith. He told them he wanted to return to his people in America. They helped him get to England, where he met John Slaney, who taught him English and arranged for him to get to Newfoundland. Squanto served as an interpreter between the English and the Indians and crossed the Atlantic six times. He was never able to return to his own tribe, because they had been wiped out in a plague.
Squanto later found a home in the Pokanoket tribe, which was part of his broader Wampanoag Nation.
Samoset brought Squanto to Plymouth colony with the leader of his Pokanoket tribe, Massasoit. Massasoit asked for the Europeans’ help fighting a powerful nearby tribe, the Narragansett. He proposed a treaty in which the Pilgrims and Pokanoket would mutually benefit: the Pilgrims would provide military power and the Pokanoket would teach the Pilgrims how to survive.
In a beautiful irony, the Catholic Squanto taught the ardent anti-Catholic Pilgrims three important techniques in food procurement: how to grow corn, how to catch fish, and where to gather nuts and berries, which ultimately saved their lives.
But even with the newfound farming and fishing understanding, the colony did not thrive. The following year, they wondered, “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.”
With a new governor William Bradford at the helm, they scrapped the socialist contract they started with and, “assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number….” The colonists created a free market and let people reap the benefits of their own labor. The results were astonishing and immediate.
Governor William Bradford noted, “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… 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.”
“Instead of famine now God gave them plenty,” Bradford continue, “and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God…. Any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”
While the Plymouth colony was by no means the first in the New World, it has gained the status of the most important early settlement and as become emblematic of the birth of America. With a complete history, it’s clear how a Catholic and libertarian principles helped shape—or indeed save—the fledgling community.
Thanksgiving is a great celebration and many Catholics already understand this as they celebrate it every week. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” in Greek.