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Pilgrims and Technology

It may seem a little odd to think about technology in the 1600's but it really means the use of the most up-to-date equipment and methods to get the job done. The Pilgrims were faced with two enormous challenges, how to get where they were going, and how to survive once they got there.

To the Pilgrims the idea of undertaking the long and difficult journey was probably the part they thought was the most difficult. However, that wasn't the case. Surviving once they got there proved to be by far the hardest task.

How the Mayflower Got There

Nowadays, knowing exactly where you are, on an ocean, is a fairly simple task. Navigators use complex technology, including satellites, to fix their exact position. This wasn't always the case. In the early 1600's navigation was a far more hit and miss affair. It wasn't at all unusual for ships to end up in entirely the wrong place. In order to get to where they were going, navigators needed to know three things; where they were, which direction they were heading in, and how far they had gone. We will look at each of the problems in turn, and see what instruments were available to help them.

Where Were They?

On land, it was a fairly simple job to know where you were, you just needed to know some landmarks, or ask a passing traveler. At sea it was a little more difficult. However, by the 1600's there were several fairly accurate ways of telling at least half of where you were. To have an accurate idea of where you are you need to know latitude and longitude for your position. Early navigators hadn't worked out the longitude part, but the latitude was easy to calculate. The calculations were based on the position of the Pole Star or the Sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, where the Mayflower was, the Pole Star was used.

By measuring the height of the Pole Star above the horizon, the navigator could calculate exactly how far north of the equator, he was. At the North Pole, the Pole Star, or Polaris, is directly overhead, or 90o above the horizon. At the Equator, it is on the Horizon, or at 0o above the horizon. The angle of the Pole Star above the horizon tells you your exact latitude on the earth.

To measure the angle of Polaris above the horizon, navigators had a choice of instruments. Good navigators used more than one to get a more accurate reading. The best-known one is the sextant, but that wasn't invented until the middle of the next century. The sailors on the Mayflower had to rely on more primitive methods. The three tools they may have used were the jackstaff the astrolabe and the quadrant. 

The jackstaff was a long pole with a vertical piece of wood, called a transom, which could be slid along it. The sailor held the staff up, much like a rifle, and then slid the transom along the staff until the top of it marked the star and the bottom of it marked the horizon. By measuring how far along the pole the transom was he could work out the angle of the sun or star. When the sailor was holding up the jackstaff he looked like he was going to shoot an arrow into the sky. This is where the expression "shooting the stars" comes from.

The astrolabe was a similar tool. Instead of being a straight pole, it was a flat, circular instrument, marked in degrees. There were pointing arms on it, something like the hands of a clock, with "sights" on the hands. The navigator would line up the star through the sights on both hands of the instrument. The hands then pointed at the scale and he could read off the degrees.

Another tool was the quadrant. This was a flat piece of metal, with a ninety-degree angle and a curved side opposite the angle. The curved side was marked with a scale of degrees. A piece of thread with a weight hung from the angle. The navigator would look along one straight edge and lining the star or sun up with the line of the edge, he would see where the thread crossed the curved side of the quadrant. It was a very good tool when there was no wind and the sea was calm. When there was any wind, the weight would be blown around, and it was very difficult to get an accurate reading. 

So now the Navigator could tell exactly how far North of the equator he was. 

Which Direction Were They Heading?

A compass was another very important instrument to have. The most simple ones had a needle in the center, with a scale, marked in directions around it. The needle always pointed to the magnetic North Pole. The navigator pointed the compass over the bows (front) of the ship. As the needle pointed north, but the compass didn't, he could read the direction of the ship by seeing where the needle pointed on the scale. 

To get from Plymouth to New England he would have traveled in a northwesterly direction until he came to the correct latitude for New England. Then all he had to do was travel west until he came to land. Not very accurate, but accurate enough to get the Pilgrims where they wanted to go. 

How Far They Had Traveled?

This was the hardest part of navigating. By guessing the speed they were traveling at and marking it off on a chart, using dividers, navigators could make a guess at how far they had traveled. The guesses were totally unscientific, and the best way to know was to see land. When you saw land you had gone the whole way! 

Read this articleto learn more about compasses and how they show direction: 

How The Pilgrims Survived

The Pilgrims had not really planned carefully for how they were going to survive, once they arrived. Although they had brought wheat for planting and tools for building, they hadn't done much research into the climate or the conditions of the soil. They soon discovered that the soil was poor and that the sun was harsh. Their wheat crop failed and they were left with very little to eat. 

The Natives in the area understood the climate and cultivation methods needed, and so they managed to survive quite successfully. They moved several times a year in search of food, and to avoid the more difficult weather conditions. They survived by fishing, hunting for wild animals and collecting wild berries, fruits and nuts. They had also found good methods for growing corn, so that they could store food. The fact that they could store food meant that they could survive, even when the weather was very bad and prevented hunting, fishing or gathering of wild crops. 

At first, the Pilgrims survived by living in an abandoned native village. The natives had abandoned it when they made one of their moves in search of better food and weather. They hadn't managed to build much by way of houses and were living in dirt-covered shelters. After the first winter they were in very poor shape. Many had died, from disease, the weather and lack of good food. Only 50 of the original 110 pilgrims survived.

The Pilgrims technology had failed them; their wheat could not survive in the harsh sun and rocky soil. They needed new technology to help them survive. Just when they must have been about ready to give up, an English-speaking Native turned up. His name was "Tisquantum" (TisSKWAN tum) or "Squanto" (SKWAN toe). His arrival of must have seemed like a gift from heaven. Not only did he now how to survive the harsh conditions, he could teach them in their own language.

He stayed with them for the next few months, bringing them meat and animal skins. They ate the meat and used the skins to make blankets and clothing for the cold weather. Among the things he taught them was how to grow corn successfully. He showed them how to use fish as fertilizer, which helped the corn to grow. He also taught them about the wild fruits and berries. He showed them which were poisonous and which were good to eat. He showed them how to get sap from the maple trees and how to dig for clams, and how to cook them.

Up until his arrival the Pilgrims had been surviving on a very poor diet. They were able to fish, so they had some protein, and they collected a few wild berries and fruits. Their grain (the wheat) had failed, and they had no domestic animals, so they had no dairy products. They were living on a diet of only protein and fruits and vegetables, and very little of those. On some days they had no food at all. By learning how to cultivate the corn, they included grains in their diet. The sap of the Maple tree was a good source of carbohydrates also. The meat made their protein intake more varied. Now that they had a more balanced diet they became stronger and less likely to die from disease.

They also learned how to make better shelters and using the animal skins (mainly beaver) they could make warm clothes and blankets. Now that they had a more balanced diet they became stronger and less likely to die from disease. They also had better shelter, to protect them from the climate. The Pilgrims had turned the corner, and were now able to survive. All thanks to the technology they learned from the natives.

The Pilgrims needed to adapt their methods to suit the new conditions they found. Using technology they already had, they reached their new home. Using new technology they survived there.

For more information on the different Native North American groups and the methods they used to survive, read this article.

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