Here, gathered in our beloved South Dakota, are a few members of our Williamson / Mattson Clan. Charles and Luella are to be blamed (be kind, they didn't know what they were doing). We're generally a happy bunch and somewhat intelligent (notwithstanding our tenuous grasp on reality). I'm also proud to say that most of us still have our teeth.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Lessons Learned from our Mayflower Ancestors

From the Fortress of Solitude
Pleasant Grove.

Dear Clan,
In earlier posts we discussed our 10th Great Grandfather (my generation) Francis Cooke and his son, our Great Uncle John through Great Grandma Vesta's line (Grandma Mattson's Mother). Both were passengers on the Mayflower! Yes, we are the proud descents of one of the 102 passengers of that famous ship. We come from good, down to Earth Pilgrim stock don't we? I'm hoping you appreciate your Pilgrim roots through these many discoveries of our early American ancestors.

I'd like to share an edited talk about our family's Mayflower ancestors given by Dr. Stephen Charles Ainley, President of Union College. It is a talk urging us to adopt the Pilgrim's Principles. It is long but well worth the read to truly appreciate our Great Grandfather Francis and Great Uncle John.



Francis Cooke / Hester Mahieu Mayflower (10th Great Grandparents)
Mary Cooke
Elizabeth Thompson
Ebenezer Swift
Ebenezer Swift Jr.
Juda Swift
Phinas Swift
Almira Swift
Isabel Deanora Helgerson McCrilles
Vesta Althea Dennis
Violet and her Brother Walter
Luella, Linda, John and Marvin Mattson

One cannot help but be astonished and amazed by the account of the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620. One-hundred-two people ultimately made the 65-day voyage across the Atlantic. One-hundred-two people, intent on establishing a new life in a new world, squeezed themselves into what was called the “tween deck.” Philbrick describes the tween deck as a crawlspace located between the upper deck and the hold of the ship. He goes on to describe the space as “dank and airless” and estimates it to have been less than five feet high and about 75 feet long. Claustrophobic space, to be sure, and made worse by the leaking salt water that steadily fell on their heads throughout the voyage. Due to delays resulting from the lengthy search for an appropriate vessel, repairs that needed to be made before leaving, and disagreements with sponsors, the voyage of the Mayflower took place far later in the year than planned. This resulted in a much longer and rougher crossing. From the moment the Mayflower left the shores of England, many passengers experienced seasickness – undoubtedly making the already uncomfortable space nearly insufferable. The travelers to the New World were frequently ridiculed by the crew of the Mayflower. And, long before their journey was completed, they were chilled to the bone and reached the bottom of their water casks, leaving them to drink the “slimy” remains. Indeed, the passengers of the Mayflower began to display the unsettling signs of scurvy. The Mayflower encountered steady headwinds and westerly gales. One such gale was so severe that the crew had to furl the sails and basically surrender the ship to the elements. In mid-ocean, the ship encountered such rough water that a structural timber cracked, nearly forcing them to abandon their journey.
The wild seas, the illness, the ridicule the passengers endured must have been compounded by uncertainty about what was ahead of them. Other than Jamestown, every other attempt to settle on the North American continent had failed. And, the Jamestown experience – well known to the sick, hungry, and cold passengers on the ‘tween deck of the Mayflower – was hardly encouraging. After all, during the first year of the Jamestown settlement, 70 of the 108 settlers had died. They couldn’t have found much hope or consolation in that example. All this led the Mayflower’s Captain, Christopher Jones, to deviate from the original plan to drop his passengers near the mouth of the Hudson River, on shores near today’s New York City. He instead made for the nearer coastline of Cape Cod. One can imagine the relief that those on the Mayflower felt when they neared land. Their first morning off the coast of the North American continent revealed a beautiful day, brilliant autumn colors, and a clear blue sky. They must have been profoundly thankful and, as William Bradford who chronicled the trip said, more than a little joyful. But the Mayflower captain found little time to celebrate, and his priority was clear: to get the passengers to their destination and ashore as quickly as possible. So they sailed south toward the mouth of the Hudson. Initially, things went very well. They were on an easy “reach” — sailor’s language for a gentle and steady wind coming over the side of the ship — and the passengers were crowded on the now sun-filled upper deck of the Mayflower, taking in views of the new world. However, as they moved beyond the “elbow” of Cape Cod, near today’s Chatham, Massachusetts, they encountered a new set of challenges. Sailing amidst roaring breakers, the water depth dropped dramatically as did the wind, leaving the Mayflower vulnerable to the shoals of what is known as Pollock Rip. The Boston Cruising Guide still warns today’s sailors that the Rip can “generate conditions that range from merely disorienting to completely treacherous,” and Philbrick reports that half of all the ships that wrecked along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States are believed to have gone down in this same area. Just when it seemed that the Mayflower might share a similar fate, the wind shifted, coming from the South, and it strengthened. The decision was made to turn the ship north and let the wind drive them to the coast of New England where they ultimately established the settlement in Plymouth. The rest, as they say, is history. Now what lessons does this 17th century saga hold for us in these early days of the 21st century? While I recognize that the passengers on the Mayflower were hardly models of perfection, and I know that their descendents did things that were downright shameful, I believe that they continue to offer us important lessons on living. Theirs is certainly a story of human courage. Years after the ordeal of crossing the Atlantic, William Bradford observed, “all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be overcome with answerable courages.” For Bradford and the other passengers on the Mayflower, they knew that there would be risk in the crossing and in the establishment of a settlement. They all knew – just as those who set off for destinations like Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago, or Canterbury knew – that the pilgrim path was marked with discouragements and danger. Indeed, John Ure, in his book Pilgrimages, notes that for a pilgrim to leave home was to enter a world full of hidden dangers, some real, like robbers and wolves, and some imagined, like demons and dragons. The passengers on the Mayflower understood this and faced it with courage. “They knew,” wrote Bradford, that “they were pilgrims.” The Pilgrim story is not only a story of courage; it is a story of perseverance. As rough as the voyage of the Mayflower was, it is even more amazing when you consider that it came after two false starts. The initial plan had called for two companion ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to cross the Atlantic together. The Speedwell, however, had been rigged for the voyage with extra large masts, which resulted in leaks in the hull that debilitated the vessel. Twice the Mayflower and the Speedwell had set out together only to return to port. On the first occasion, they left Southampton and got as far as the Isle of Wright before having to return to port in Dartmouth. On the second occasion, they got 200 miles west of the southwestern-most tip of England, at Land’s End, before having to return to port in Plymouth, England. It was after that second failed attempt to cross with the Speedwell that the decision was made to load all the passengers on the Mayflower and cross the Atlantic in a single vessel. The Pilgrim story is also a story of discernment. Discernment is, in part, a matter of making decisions. But in the Christian tradition, it also carries the quality of determining God’s will in one’s life. When the Pilgrims decided to press on after two failed starts in overcrowded conditions, knowing full well that it meant that they would encounter more turbulent seas, they did so through a process of discernment. When they decided to wait out the gales in the Atlantic, it was through a process of discernment. And, when they decided to discontinue their voyage south in the face of shifting winds and the treacherous waters of Pollock Rip, they did so through a process of discernment. The Pilgrims discerned, in other words, when to push ahead when common sense said to turn back, when to furl the sails and wait, and when to change directions, letting the wind push them along to their ultimate destination.
The lesson of the Pilgrim journey is that life often demands courage, perseverance, and discernment. The lesson we can all find in the Pilgrim experience is that those challenges – the “headwinds” and “shoals” of life – should be confronted with courage, perseverance, and discernment. The Pilgrim experience also gives us clues about the sources of these qualities. Their courage, their willingness to persevere, and their ability to discern stemmed from deeply held convictions, enduring bonds to one another, and an abiding belief in God’s active presence in their lives. I urge you to never lose your deeply held convictions, to find fellow travelers who you can trust and who will affirm you, and to constantly nourish your faith in God. Do not fear or flee from the challenges ahead of you. The world needs you. Have courage! Persevere! Discern what is right and good! To me, this is what it means to have a “Pilgrim’s mind.” Godspeed fellow pilgrims!

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