Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

3.4 A Woman Who Cooked for Them: Mary Brewster

 It is suggested that there were over 140 people who took part in the “first” Thanksgiving of 1621, the 52 survivors of the Mayflower, as well as the 90 Native Americans who accompanied Wampanoag Chief Massasoit to the legendary meal.

But who cooked at this most symbolic meal of our nation’s history? pilgrim-woman-with-turkey-4

While Edward Winslow (and later, William Bradford) left very brief accounts of what transpired during that mythologized moment in history, they neglected to mention who prepared the meal for such a large gathering of people.  In the absence of real proof, we are left to speculate that the caterers for the event were the women of Plymouth, of whom only 4 adults had survived the bleak winter of 1620-21 (18 who had originally departed on the journey.)  Among this rare group of female survivors was Mary Brewster.

Mary Brewster lives in the history books only as the wife of Elder William Brewster (the first religious leader of the colony and advisor to Governor William Bradford) and the mother of his children.  Like her sister survivors in the Plymouth colony, not much is known about her biography or individual contribution to the fledgling community; sadly, there isn’t even a clear record of her maiden name.  Like so many women in our nation’s—and indeed the world’s—past, her story has been forgotten.

But we can paint a broad portrait about the kind of life she may have lived.  As a woman of her time, she was likely subject to the patriarchal confines we would assume for women of the late 16th and early 17th century.  Women were expected to marry.  Once married, they were beholden to decisions their husbands made (such as where & how to live, etc.)  Especially in the New World, it was considered their bounden duty to bear children—the survival of the community was tantamount.  They could not vote, or speak in church; they were expected at all times to have their heads covered, as a sign of modesty and subservience.

And, of course, there was the woman’s critical role in the early colonial home:

Almost everything a family used or ate was prepared at home under the woman’s direction. She made butter, cheese, soap, and candles. She preserved meat and vegetables, spun and wove cloth and made it into clothing, took care of chickens and dairy cattle, worked the vegetable garden, kept the fire going—women produced a significant share of the necessities of life.

Girls were taught housewifery by their mothers. They learned to grind corn, barley and wheat into flour, then to measure flour in their hands for baking bread. They also learned how to cook outdoors, how to scour, scald, and cook meats, to dry fish, and how to use herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes.

Source: History of American Women

These unique and challenging circumstances of colonization allowed, for a brief moment in time, some singular opportunities for the pilgrim women.  Because the colony depended on their work and contributions to the home, their social status rose.  Unlike most of Europe at the time, laws passed in Plymouth recognized women’s importance in property law.  Women were allowed to enter into contracts (most commonly pre-nuptial agreements)—in fact, premarital agreements about distribution of goods and wealth were common.  In addition, wives were guaranteed at least 1/3 of their husband’s property after his passing; and if they were widowed and entered into a subsequent marriage, they were entitled to keep whatever wealth they had brought from the first.        

But Mary Brewster never had the opportunity to exercise her property rights (which was unfortunate, due to Elder Brewster’s significant land holdings by the time of his death in 1644.)  She died only a handful of years after the Mayflower arrival, in 1627, when she was approximately 59 years of age.  But her legacy to the New World was in her children, of whom five survived to adulthood:  Jonathan, Patience, Fear, Love, and Wrestling.  (Yes—those were their real names.  I can’t believe it either.  “Patience” and “Love,” I suppose, can be explained away; they do, after all, fit in with names we’ve heard before like “Honor,” “Grace,” and “Joy.”  But what are the mental ramifications of naming your children “Fear” and “Wrestling”?  Sounds like a recipe for trouble to me.)  Nevertheless, through these (albeit questionably named) children, it is suggested that Mary has become the ancestor of millions of Americans.

Perhaps one of the most amusing coincidences during this 2008 Thanksgiving season is the suggestion that one of Brewster’s descendants is none other than Sarah Palin, recent Vice Presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska.  (I just can’t seem to escape her, no matter what topic I choose to discuss.)  While I can’t find much evidence to back up this assertion by Wikipedia, perhaps we can discern some anecdotal proof by looking at some similar traits of these frontier women.  Both have lived on the outskirts of civilization.  Both have belonged to somewhat unorthodox religious traditions.  Both have field dressed wild game.  But perhaps the strongest link between the two is their shared delight in bizarre children’s names: so Patience, Fear, Love and Wrestling, meet Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig.

Some things never change.


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