While it is easy to romanticize the Pilgrims’ life as one that mirrors our legends of that first Thanksgiving, it is important to remember that these settlers were strangers in a strange and unsettled land. Hard work, homesickness, and fear were ongoing features of life for the Pilgrims. When the first Pilgrims and those who followed them arrived in the New World, they came to a land that was heavily forested and all but unknown to white Europeans. As with any groups setting out to frontier areas, the Pilgrims faced the immediate necessity of establishing shelter from the elements, from wild animals, and from potentially hostile natives. Land had to be scouted to determine its fitness as a site for settlement; once a tract was chosen, the timber had to be cleared away and the ground leveled to create a suitable building site. Driven both by the impending winter and the scarcity of tools, the earliest Pilgrims built small huts and houses from the trees felled in clearing the area. Later settlers may have enjoyed more time for their task, but the difficulty and danger of raising massive beamed roofs and other components was still formidable.
In conjunction with the building of dwellings, the settlers had to quickly determine means by which they could supply themselves with food. Although some food had been brought over from England, the necessity of becoming self-sufficient was immediately evident. The Pilgrims had to scout out good fishing and hunting areas and to learn over time what crops could be grown in this new and unfamiliar land. In addition, the differences in plant life between the New World and the Old made it necessary for settlers to learn which plants could or could not be safely eaten.
Everyone men, women, and children worked long and hard in the settlement at Plymouth. Many historians have pointed to the value of their Puritan faith for these Pilgrims. Without a sense of divine assistance and the righteousness of their enterprise, the difficult circumstances of life in North America would likely have been unbearable. Religious observances such as days of fasting and prayer, along with regular preaching and church meetings, must have played an essential part in maintaining the Pilgrims’ emotional and mental strength for the harshness of the life that confronted them daily. Still, it seems logical that they also must have experienced homesickness for family members and for the ways of life that had been left behind in England and the Netherlands.