Debt Was Part of Thanksgiving the Day the Pilgrims Arrived

Everybody is familiar with Thanksgiving traditions like eating turkey, watching football and trying to avoid annoying relatives at the dinner table.

But there’s one tradition millions of Americans don’t realize they share with original Pilgrims: Debt, and struggling to pay it off.

The Pilgrims came to the New World about $500,000 in debt. That’s a lot less than the $14.96 trillion Americans owed in the second quarter of 2021, but the Pilgrims didn’t have the advantages today’s debtors have.

For one thing, they couldn’t pick up the phone or go online and get help through a debt management organization, where certified counselors can guide you to a new world of economic freedom.

All the Pilgrims could call on was a “cold, barren, desolate wilderness.”

That’s how William Bradford described what is now Plymouth, Mass. He was the governor of the colony that was established in 1620. When the Mayflower landed that November, Motel 6 had not left a light on for the settlers.

“They had now no friends to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure,” Bradford wrote in his journal, using the accepted style and spelling of the day.

The 44 million Americans currently saddled with student debt may wonder where their next meal is coming from, but the Pilgrims literally had no idea about eating.

How did they get into such a financial and nutritional fix?

Like a lot of modern-day Americans, their dreams were bigger than their pocketbooks. If the Pilgrims had money, they would have come over on a huge ship stocked with enough supplies to get them through the brutal winter of 1620.

But they were mostly farmers from England who were deeply religious. They got tired of being persecuted by King James and the Church of England and initially moved to Holland.

They struggled to adjust to the urban culture, and after about a dozen years, decided to pick up and leave. They’d heard about the New World and were enthused by the possibilities.

It was sort of like seeing a $2 million beach house in a real estate brochure. The problem was the Pilgrims couldn’t even afford a down payment.

Luckily for them and world history, the Plymouth Company was willing to take a chance.

That was a group of about 70 investors that loaned the voyagers about 1,500 British pounds, which today translates into about $500,000. Instead of writing a monthly check, the Pilgrims would pay it off by sending back fur, timber, fish and crops, which the Plymouth Company would sell.

It was a risky proposition for the lenders. The Pilgrims didn’t have to put up any collateral. If they fell behind on payments, it wasn’t as if the Plymouth Company could repossess their colony.

So the Pilgrims were feeling pretty good about things when they set sail from Plymouth, England, in September of 1620. They made landfall 66 days later and quickly found out their new home wasn’t exactly move-in ready.

The land was covered in six inches of snow. The Pilgrims had to survive the winter on the supplies they’d brought with them.

There was a shortage of food, especially fruits and vegetables. The lack of vitamin C led to an outbreak of scurvy.

The Mayflower landed with 102 people. By the end of the first winter, almost half had perished.

Bradford would like you to remember that the next time you get depressed over a Visa bill. One reason he kept a diary was so future generations would “see with what difficulties their fathers wrestled in going through these things in their first beginnings,” he wrote.

Those beginnings are hard to comprehend, but today’s consumers can relate to the queasy feeling Pilgrims had on April 5, 1621. That’s when the Mayflower headed back to England empty.

No fur, no fish, no timber, no crops. It was like missing your first mortgage payment to an unforgiving bank.

Thomas Weston, the head of the Plymouth Company, knew the hardships the Pilgrims endured. He still accused them of having “weakness of judgment and weakness of hands.”

That was easy for him to say in his comfy London office. About 3,000 miles away, Pilgrims were eager to prove they were worth the credit risk.

They made friends with the Pokanet tribe, in particular an Indian named Squanto who spoke English. He taught the colonists how to grow corn, catch fish and where to gather nuts and berries.

The Pilgrims grew enough food to face the next winter. They gathered with Pokanet tribesmen in the fall of 1621 for a celebratory feast that became known as Thanksgiving.

A ship named the Fortune soon arrived with more settlers. The Pilgrims loaded about 500 pounds worth of timber on the ship for its return trip, but French pirates captured it, leaving the investors empty-handed.

The Pilgrims tried again in 1625, but pirates captured the ship and stole its goods. The Plymouth Company decided it would never make money off its investment and sold its shares to the Pilgrims for 1,800 pounds.

Colonists didn’t have the money but agreed to pay 200-pound installments for nine years. It might have been the first debt management program in American history.

Like just about everything else in this tale, it didn’t go quite as planned. The Pilgrims ended up taking 23 years to pay off their debt.

If there had been credit bureaus in the 1600s, the Pilgrims’ collective credit score would have been zero. But their scores for persistence, courage and determination were off the charts.

Four hundred years later, those traits haven’t lost any value. With them, some guidance from a certified advisor might be all you need to get out of debt and enjoy a whole new world.

If the Pilgrims can do it, there’s no reason you can’t.

Tom Jackson focuses on writing about debt solutions for consumers struggling to make ends meet. His background includes time as a columnist for newspapers in Washington D.C., Tampa and Sacramento, Calif., where he reported and commented on everything from city and state budgets to the marketing of local businesses and how the business of professional sports impacts a city. Along the way, he has racked up state and national awards for writing, editing and design. Tom’s blogging on the 2016 election won a pair of top honors from the Florida Press Club. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife of 40 years, college-age son, and Spencer, a yappy Shetland sheepdog.


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