How Straight-laced were the Pilgrims?

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

How straight-laced were the Pilgrims? They tried to be, but you know how it goes. A shoe gets unbuckled, a bonnet becomes unlaced, and suddenly your hormones go into overdrive. The next thing you know, your horn of plenty hath spilled forth with wicked abundance.

Pretty much everything we "know" about the Pilgrims is untrue. Our modern-day image of the stern, clean-living, God-fearing residents of Plymouth Colony is largely mythical. It's an illusion that took shape in the nineteenth century, as some overzealous American attempted to construct an official, more respectable history of our growing nation. Historians cannot even determine exactly how many of the approximately 100 passengers on the Mayflower were Puritans and how many were just leaving to find better lives away from the gripping poverty that plagued England at the time. It is generally believed there were more of the latter than the former. 

First off, they never referred to themselves or thought of themselves as "the Pilgrims." The term "pilgrim" was reserved for Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Pilgrims referred to themselves as "the Saints" or "the Separatists." They also referred to themselves as "Old Planters" or "Old Comers." Draw your own conclusions from that. The name "the Pilgrims," as we call them today, caught on around the time of the American Revolution. Yes, they were notorious beer drinkers. They weren't even headed for Massachusetts; they aimed for Georgia or a place further south, because of the milder weather. One of the reasons they ended up in Massachusetts in the first place was the lack of beer. According to one of the diaries of a Mayflower passenger, "We could not take time for further search ...our victuals being much spent, especially our beer." 

One of the first structures built when they landed was a common brewery for the colonists. Many of the Pilgrims were brewers, this being done primarily in the home at the time. While we don't have the details about their private lives, we do know that by 1636, the colonists had a published set of rules that listed capital offenses. Among them were sodomy, rape, buggery, and some cases of adultery. So they were certainly concerned with sex, if not necessarily always having it.

However, court records from the colony indicate that sex-related crimes were common transgressions. Fornication, which was defined as sex outside of marriage, was a frequently committed crime, one that often resulted in a fine. Sometimes the evidence of a conviction was solely of the birth of a child in the early months of a marriage.

The only recorded execution for a sex crime occurred in 1642, when 17-year-old Thomas Granger was convicted of buggery. The young man had engaged in unfortunate, intimate relations with some local sheep, and he paid the ultimate price for it. Less severe penalties (relatively speaking), often consisted of whippings. And like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, adulterers were sometimes required to wear the capital letters "AD" on their clothing. No, the Pilgrims weren't exactly saints. But they definitely took their sins seriously!


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I'm surprised that you say the term pilgrim was reserved for Muslims. While these folks may or may not used the term for themselves, the term has been applied to Christians going back to the Canturbury Tales. And John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress was published not too long after the Plymouth Rock landing, in 1678.
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Buggery is an archaic term that was used for both sodomy and bestiality at one time or another, but I believe that the actual definition varied over time and from place to place.
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I think you may be confusing the Pilgrims and the Puritans. They were two very distinct groups. The Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower. The Puritans are the ones associated with stringency and Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.
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